At first glance, 1972's grimy, low-budget cult classic "The Last House on the Left"Wes Craven's directing debutdoesn't exactly lend itself to a Hollywood remake. That isn't to suggest that there is no room for improvement (there definitely is), but that the story is not in the slasher genre and has nothing supernatural about it. Rooted firmly in the reality-based crime-drama/revenge mold, a sequel is pretty much out of the question and viewers seeking jump scares and cheap thrills will find few of either. The original, itself a remake of Ingmar Bergman's haunting 1960 film "The Virgin Spring," is still violent and uncomfortable to watch, but by today's standards it is somewhat tame. In tackling a 2009 update, director Dennis Iladis and screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth (2007's "Disturbia
") respect the earlier picture while putting their own spin on it and correcting some of its amateurish flourishes (no upbeat banjo music and bumbling cops this time, thank God). All of the harrowing rawness, however, is still intact, perhaps even heightened here due to a firmer grasp of mise en scene
, character development, and moral complexity.
A year after the death of their teenage son, school teacher Emma (Monica Potter) and doctor husband John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn) travel with 17-year-old daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) to their desolate lakeside summer home to spend time together. When Mari asks to take the car into town to hang out with old friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), they reluctantly allow her to. After Mari and Paige meet the cute, shaggy-haired Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) and are lured back to his motel room with the promise of some pot, their carefree evening suddenly takes a turn for the worst with the appearance of Justin's wanted convict father Krug (Garret Dillahunt), his snarling girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and brother Francis (Aaron Paul). With Krug's and Sadie's faces plastered all over the news, they are unwilling to set Mari and Paige free. Taken deep into the area woods, the two girls fight for their lives against their kidnappers and are ultimately left for dead. Stranded in the middle of a rainstorm without a car, Krug and company seek the nearest shelter and are welcomed into the home of Emma and John. They initially have no idea who their guests are, but soon find themselves resorting to their primal parental instincts after a raped, near-death Mari manages to crawl herself home.
"The Last House on the Left" is no "The Virgin Spring," but it beats the pants off of its direct thirty-seven-year-old predecessor. The one exception is the casting of Garret Dillahunt (2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
"), who falls beneath the shadow of David Hess' indomitably sociopathic Krug and isn't nearly imposing or sleazy enough to make the same impression. This criticism notwithstanding, the new film is far and away superior to what was expected when the project was announced. Director Dennis Iladis, whose only past feature was 2004's gritty "Hardcore," is ideally suited to this material and never sensationalizes or makes a mockery of the subject matter. Instead, he keeps things deadly serious, clawing into the unimaginable darkness of the human condition and returning to the light with an ensemble of characters who all exist in shades of gray. If Mari and Paige make decisions that place them in a life-or-death situation, and Justin is bullied by the circumstances surrounding him, and Emma and John understandably rationalize the vengeance they seek for almost losing their last living child, then Krug, Sadie and Francis represent the internal squalor of the world. They are bad people capable of doing evil things, but they are also cowardly in the way that they destroy life and then experience passing pangs of regret about their deeds.
The film takes the time it requires to let its story unfold, avoiding fast cutting and, save for an unnecessary scene involving a motel maid rapping on a car window, typical false-alarm scare tactics. The deliberate pacing pays off greatly, drawing the viewer in until he or she is thoroughly riveted and genuinely frightened for the lives of Mari and Paige. Their attempts of escape and ultimate victimization are depicted in an elongated set-piece that cuts to the brutal bone, not shying away from the sexual abuse and physical violence involved even as director Dennis Iladis very much stays focused on the emotional trials and tribulations of the protagonists.
Likewise, the movie's second half concentrates on Emma and John, and the actions they almost happen upon before outright committing to getting back at their daughter's attackers. The choice to spare Mari is in stark contrast to the original film, but it also gives the proceedings added layers, since she desperately needs to get to a hospital and comes with the history of having a brother who only recently met a tragic end. Emma's and John's fight for justice, apt to make large crowds cheer when the villains get their just desserts (a garbage disposal is perfectly orchestrated into the goings-on), is what it is without placing heavy judgment on them. The deaths that ensue could easily be chalked up to self-defense, save for the film's denouementa last-scene explosion of gore that steps over the line and places Emma and John in the arguable wrong. They may have trouble explaining this final bit to the police, no matter what atrocities Krug did to Mari.
The actors, bringing their A-games as they fully commit to their roles, are predominately without fault. The aforementioned Garret Dillahunt is the weakest link, and that is more due to miscasting than performance. As Mari Collingwood, Sara Paxton leaves the adorable mermaid she played in 2006's "Aquamarine
" far, far behind while still retaining that character's swimming talents. She is superb, emulating the strength, anguish, humiliation, and fear of a person trapped in an unthinkably grim situation. The part of Paige calls for the same dramatic demands, and Martha MacIsaac (2007's "Superbad
") not only fulfills them, but might be even better with less screen time. MacIsaac's turnaround from happy-go-lucky girl to facing death coldly in the face is utterly chilling, but what is most memorable about her turn is the dignity that Paige retains right to the end. As grieving-parents-turned-vigilantes John and Emma, Tony Goldwyn (2002's "Abandon
") and Monica Potter (2004's "Saw
") are especially terrific in the quiet moments where they decide upon retaliatory measures, the looks on their faces explaining everything that their characters are going through. The rest of the central cast, from Spencer Treat Clark's (2003's "Mystic River
") indelibly grief-stricken Justin, to Aaron Paul's (2006's "Mission: Impossible III
") slick, slimy Francis, to Riki Lindhome's (2008's "Changeling
") vain, vicious Sadie, are top-notch.
As revenge thrillers go, "The Last House on the Left" grabs for the jugular, cinematographer Sharone Meir (2004's "Mean Creek
") offsetting idyllic locations with dread and danger. A hand-written sign reading "Lake Ends in the Road" is just the sort of backwards message to suggest an imbalance in safety, subtly foreshadowing what is to come. Enthralling, mature and full of measured tension, the film only stumbles in those cursory couple moments where it reveals itself as a commercialized studio product. Thankfully, director Dennis Iladis is as harsh and ugly as he wants, and needs, to be to accurately tell the story, while still retaining a tinge of hope. Like a previous remake of Wes Craven's early filmography, 2006's "The Hills Have Eyes
"and with all due respect to the master"The Last House on the Left" is that rarest of breeds: better and stronger than the movie it is based upon.