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BASIC INSTINCT 2
ROCK ‘N ROLL NIGHTMARE MY FAVORITE MARTIAN
After debating whether three animated films in one year is more than enough from DreamWorks Animation, the Cinefantastique podcast crew of Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski attack MONSTERS (2010), the low-budget science fiction film getting a platform theatrical release to boost its VOD. Also on the menu: listener reaction to the on-going “LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT vs I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE” debate. And a brief discussion of why you will not have to go elsewhere if you want to hear George Takei calling a former Arkansa school board member a “douchebag.”
Having exorcised the demonic apparitions of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 in this week’s Cinefantastique Podcast, Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowsk turn their attention to the world-shattering debate over whether the original version of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) is more technically competent than Wes Craven’s original version of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972).
Remaking LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT seemed like a dubious proposition at best; the original was so much a part of its cycnical ’70s era (Nixon, Vietnam, Watergate) that transplanting it to contemporary times seemed as if it could rob the story of vital cultural context. Yet somehow the new HOUSE works better than expected, perhaps because we had come full circle to a cultural context roughly equivalent to the early ’70s (Bush, Iraq, Torturegate). Consequently, the remake seemed weirdly appropriate in the waning days of the previous administration – not an anachronisms ripped from its own time and plopped down haphazardly into a new era.
The new version of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT does not seek to replicate the grungy, semi-documentary feel of the original. It follows the basic outlines, but there are several notable variations that prevent the remake from being a clone. Some of the overt sexuality violence has been toned down, but Krug and company’s heinous assault, rape, and murder of innocent victims packs as much impact as ever, creating that rare horror film moment when the gore-hound audience, instead of shouting “Ain’t it Cool!” in approval, is shocked into dumbfounded silence. Whether it’s an improvement over the original, is hard to say, but the new HOUSE on the block stands on its own foundation.
Not everything works as well as it should. Krug’s escape from police custody is an absurd movie-moment: when his brother and his girlfriend ram the police car in which he is being escorted, Krug somehow survives without a scratch, while both officers are lethally wounded.
And in a plot point deleted from the 1972 LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, after being raped and shot, Mari Collingham (Sara Paxton) survives not only long enough to tell her parents what happened; she’s is actually well enough to recover, if her parents can get her to a hospital.* This is supposed to increase the suspense when Mari’s attackers coincidentally show up at the titular “Last House on the Left” looking for shelter in a storm, but it blurs the perfect movie logic of the original, which focused on the gruesome revenge the parents took, the events playing out like a cathartic dream of karmic payback. The resulting cat-and-mouse scenes go on longer than they should, throwing off the rhythms, so the much-awaited revenge has trouble building to a perfect climax. Consequently, the film seems almost forced to add what feels like a tacked-on gore scene in which the villainous murderer-rapist Krug (Garret Dillahunt) gets what he deserves.
Rogue’s single-disc release of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT offers the theatrical cut and an unrated cut. Apparently this is achieved with branching technology, as both versions are on the same side of the disc, and the Menu warns that the unrated version may cause havoc with some older DVD players.
In any case, the widescreen transfer is a beauty. The soundtrack is available in English, Spanish, and French, with subtitles options for Spanish, French, and English for the hearing impaired.
The unrated cut does not differ significantly from the R-rated theatrical version, which was plenty brutal on its own terms, featuring one of the most repugnant rape scenes ever committed to celluloid. There is an additional insert close-up of Mari’s friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) being stabbed in the belly, but the overall impact of the scenes is little changed, and you won’t see anything to match the over-the-top insanity of the 1972 film. (It is interesting that the heterosexual rape scene is acceptable in a mainstream nationwide release, but original flm’s enforced lesbianism had to be left out, along with the scene of Mari’s mother offering a blowjob to her daughter’s rapist and then biting off his penis).
Bonus features are slim, consisting of “Deleted Scenes” and “A Look Inside.”
The deleted scenes would be more accurately described as extended scenes or alternate takes. The deleted footage is mostly minor transitional stuff, but there is one over-long suspense scene showing Krug’s son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) sneaking in to retrieve the gun that plays a role later. There is an amusing gag-reel moment: after Mari’s parents give her the keys to the family car, the stunt drive standing in for Sara Paxton hits a tree on the way out of the driveway. There is also a very impressive shot of John Collingwood’s bloody revenge on Krug; it’s the same action seen in the finished film, but presented here in a single take, wherein the distinction between live-actor and special effect is absolutely invisible.
The “Inside Look” is a promotional film – basically the trailer with added interviews from director Dennis Illiadis and producer Wes Craven, who discusses the rational behind remaking the original (which he wrote and directed). You won’t get much insider information, but you will hear Craven and Illiadis echo the 1972 advertising campaign: “Just keep telling yourself: It’s only a movie.”
*There is also a weird moment in which both parents react to the realization that Mari has been raped – as if being nearly murdered were bad enough, but sexual violation is somehow worse.
I’m quite sure the new re-make of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left will immediately raise questions about whether we really needed to re-visit this violent revenge story. I was certainly never a fan of the original movie, which I found to be nearly unwatchable, mostly due to its amateurish acting and camerawork, rather than for any of the graphic violence it depicted. In fact I was rather leery about checking out the new remake. However, I finally decided to go see it and was frankly pleasantly surprised at how well the Wes Craven produced remake has turned out. It is actually quite a stylish and suspenseful little movie that has far better acting and photography than the original — which as Craven notes, was his first movie and was made for only $100,000 back in 1972. In any case, it already seems to be generating more comments here at CFQ than any film in recent memory.
Does that mean that the remake will once again tap into the zeitgeist? I think it very probably will, because as Steve notes in his brief interview with Wes Craven, conditions somewhat mirror the unsettled times of the first film. Only now they are actually far worse. The current economic crisis continues to throw millions of people out of work and, understandably, this has many people very upset and bitter. They want to know why this is happening and presumably wish to blame someone. The most obvious person to vent their rage against, whether fairly or not, is the man who has been in charge of the government for the last 8 years, George W. Bush. Through either incompetence or corruption, our “elected” leaders in Washington have through their lack of action brought America to its worst financial crisis since the great depression.
Ironically, after the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing depression, horror cinema rose to the very pinnacle of artistic success. So while there may have been a great depression in the country, from 1929 until 1936 horror films enjoyed their golden age. Could such a renaissance be a by-product of our current economic malaise?
Who knows? In any case, this new version of The Last House on the Leftis directed by Dennis Iliadis, a talented young Greek who explains, “This film is based on a very archetypal and primal story, which is a great foundation. I wanted to keep all the shock value and the power of Wes’s film but develop the story in my own way.”
Iliadis also realized that working closely with his actors would be a key, since they would be required to do extremely violent scenes. “You must discover the characters with the actors,” says Iliadis. “We rehearsed for a month-and-a-half on my first film, Hardcore. We got to a place where we could shoot very difficult scenes very quickly, because we had developed the characters in rehearsal. All the extreme scenes came out naturally after that.”
As a result, the remake can easily be seen as a powerful statement about violence and revenge in today’s society, where just a few days ago 10 people where shot dead by a crazed psychopath in Alabama, for no apparent reason. Thus, this new remake might provide a much needed catharsis for the growing number of unemployed. Wes Craven expounded on some of these same themes when I talked to him for Cinefantastique back in 1999. These first three paragraphs are taken from the movies press notes, wheren Craven talks about making the original film with producer Sean Cunningham:
WESCRAVEN: Last House on the Left was very much a product of its era. It was a time when all the rules were out the window, when everybody was trying to break the hold of censorship. We were all very anti-establishment at that time. The Vietnam War was going on, and the most powerful footage we saw was in actual documentary films of the war. In Last House, we set out to show violence the way we thought it really was and to show the dark underbelly of the Hollywood genre film. We consciously took all the B-movie conventions and stood them on their heads.
When Sean and I made The Last House on the Left, our attitude was that we were going to do this tiny little film, and it was only going to be shown in two or three theaters. Nobody was ever going to see it, and nobody was ever going to know we did it. So, we essentially said, “We’re going to show things that people have never seen before on a movie screen. We’ll pull out all the stops and just do whatever the hell we want.
Because the original had been produced on such a minuscule budget, there were many aspects of the story I simply couldn’t afford to explore. Fortunately, the new version has a much bigger budget, so we were able to greatly expand the production’s scope and take more time and care in shooting it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How do you feel about the possible danger of a brutal and violent movie (such as The Last House of the Left) inciting a copycat killer? WES CRAVEN: I could conceive that there might be a copycat killing, where a killer who is already completely nuts, might use a movie as his format or pattern for a murder, but I think that person is going to kill anyway. I think art is more important than worrying about that. If you are going to look at any single instance of something causing a death, then you’d have to eliminate 80% of the things in our society. People have been killed with pencils. We’re killed all the time by cars and airplanes, but we don’t stop using them, because they’re important, and it’s a very small percentage of deaths. The number of people getting killed by a copycat act is infinitesimally small, yet it’s been blown out of all proportion by the media. I think the reason why, is that some people are interested in stopping the message, which is that there is madness in our society, there is violence that’s out of control and unexamined. That’s why certain people hate these horror films. They want us to sweep it under the carpet, and act like everything is Disneyland, and it isn’t. It’s just like they want to control rock lyrics, or rap music. They want to act like there aren’t those passions and rages out there. Well I’m sorry, but they are there. Part of the reason they’re there, is because a lot of people are leading lives that cause a lot of other people pain and rage. The George W. Bush’s of the world like their nice lily-white world, but they live isolated away in country club enclaves.
Horror films are really primal theater. You are dealing with imaginary characters that are representing other elements. When you look at a movie that way, you can get around the very parochial idea, where people say, “‘Oh my God, you’re depicting teenagers getting slaughtered, and you’re a horrible person.” No you’re not, you’re talking about modes of being, whether some people can cope with threats, or some are oblivious to it. A lot of people ask me how I can do films that are glorifying violence. I always turn that around and say, “It’s not glorifying violence. It’s a film about normal people facing violence, and they’re horrified by it, but they learn to triumph over it.” That’s what life is about, especially as a kid. Facing your fears. I always try to look at the positive aspect. I don’t think Freddy Krueger is just a man with knives on his fingers, but it’s talking about an element that either kills innocence or stupidity. In Hindu mythology there’s Shiva, which is the goddess of death and destruction, but they’re not talking about the specific symbol as a reality. It stands for something else.
I think there’s plenty that’s done in the genre that’s at a low level, but it also has the capacity to accept a heavy load of content. It’s like the story of Cain and Abel. It gets down to those very basic and simple elements that say so much about the human beast; both the good and the bad sides. It shows the worse that human beings can do to each other, but it also shows how courageous and strong humans can be in the face of adversity. The genre lends itself to both the horrific and the heroic, in a really great way. I’m just glad that I read the Greek myths and was steeped in The Bible when I was growing up, because it’s all a very similar kind of drama. LAWRENCE FRENCH: Do you recall confronting any specific childhood fear when you were growing up? WES CRAVEN: Well, I remember growing up in very tough and dangerous neighborhoods. I came from a broken family, with a father who was a pretty scary man. I was raised in a very fundamentalist family with all that sort of hellfire and brimstone preaching. I think those kinds of things certainly affected me. I mean telling a little kid he’s going to burn in hell forever, that’s a pretty scary concept. There was a lot of talk of the Devil, spirits and all that kind of thing.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: One of the only ways children have to escape a bad situation is through dreams. So I imagine you had some vivid dreams as a child. WES CRAVEN: Yes, I always had very powerful dreams and as a kid I would be wondering, “What is that world and how do I deal with it?” So I certainly found Surrealism and Dada to be very interesting art movements. I especially liked the way directors like Luis Bunuel would go in and out of a dream state. I think as a filmmaker, it was a niche that was very interesting to me, and somewhat unexploited. LAWRENCE FRENCH: Which reminds me of something Christopher Lee told me: “We all love to dream. We all love to escape.” And weren’t you actually hoping to use Christopher Lee in a movie? WES CRAVEN: Yes, we wanted to use Christopher Lee in Swamp Thing, for the part Louis Jordan played, but he turned us down, because he didn’t want to turn into the monster at the end. He just always wanted to be himself, so that was the deal-breaker. He would have done it otherwise. It would have been fun to work with somebody so identified with genre films in Swamp Thing. LAWRENCE FRENCH: After the first two Scream movies came out, there was a series of random high-school shootings and a renewed attack on Hollywood movies that dealt in extremely graphic violence. Did that make you re-think any aspects of the violence you were depicting when you made Scream 3? WES CRAVEN: Not really. We looked at the script very carefully to begin with and asked ourselves if we thought if anyone was looking like they were making violence look cool, or anything like that. We certainly had a moment of introspection, but we felt the script was pretty clear about who the cool people were and who were the losers. We felt we were well within the boundaries of a good murder-mystery and there is nothing that is going to incite any riots in public places. LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course, the wave of high school killings that took place were mostly done by disturbed kids who use an arsenal of guns. In real life nobody seems to get killed by big hunting knifes, which makes the Scream movies a bit more removed from everyday reality. WES CRAVEN: It’s funny, too, that in the latest incident, when this guy walked into a Baptist church in Texas and killed 6 people with a gun, there wasn’t the slightest hint of him watching horror movies or anything like that. But nobody bothered to mention that. It’s only when somebody brings that up as an excuse, you know if somebody has a house full of horror movies, that then we’re charged with causing all these things. LAWRENCE FRENCH: Since everyone is always looking for the reason why these things happen, isn’t it possible they are simply the result of mentally disturbed people with a pent-up anger and rage inside of them? WES CRAVEN: Yes, there’s always that anger and rage, and its difficult being a human being among many, many others, in a civilization with such discontent. But the fact is that this nation is also incredibly heavily armed. That has a lot to do with it and it is a time period that for certain groups of people suggests certain extreme measures and actions. People might think I’ve been slighted, so I’m going to take my vengeance. That’s something that people can fall into during these times. LAWRENCE FRENCH: Do you think stricter gun control laws would help? WES CRAVEN: That’s a tricky question, because there are a huge amount of responsible gun owners that are being unfairly pressured by all of this. But certainly a gun is a thing that can be used to cause death and I think it should be licensed and people should be given access to guns only after checking-out and passing some sort of test. We do that with cars, which also can be lethal and nobody objects to that. I think what is so bizarre about this country is that guns are so easy to get, and there’s this whole tradition of gangsters and the outlaw being cool. As a result of that, we have the whole gang culture and rap culture where every kid has a gun and they use it completely indiscriminately. They don’t seem to care if they hit anyone else, whether it’s bystanders or children. That’s a very dangerous situation, and it seems to me you’re not going to eliminate guns from this culture, but a really stringent enforcement about crime laws involving guns would make a huge difference. But nobody’s really doing much about enforcing the laws that are on the books. People tend to do things they think they can get away with. By and large people commit all sorts of crimes in our culture and get relatively light sentences. If it was made to be a felony to be caught with an unlicensed gun, and you knew you were going to do jail time, I think a lot of people would think twice about doing that. But guns are out there and people do not give up their guns. Gun owners are proud of their guns and like them. It also in a way stands for their independence. To give them up is to become vulnerable to the government taking over. There’s a lot of people who feel that to own a gun is to be empowered by the government, in a way that’s good, but that doesn’t give you right to use it against somebody who is not trying to harm you. So it seems to me, we should make the stipulation that you can own a gun, but if you use it to commit a crime, you will be put away in the slammer for a long, long time. LAWRENCE FRENCH: Nowadays, after all the horrible shootings that have taken place at schools like Columbine, Jonesboro, Springfield and Virginia Tech, I imagine many students are now much more fearful. WES CRAVEN: Yes, I don’t feel kids have that same sense of invulnerability any more. It’s really scary now, and this killing in Texas happened when people were at a Church at a prayer meeting. How much more of an invasion of a sanctuary can you get than that? And it was apparently totally arbitrary. The guy just happened to get a flyer from the church earlier in the week. LAWRENCE FRENCH: You have a Masters of Philosophy degree from John Hopkins University and early in you career you were a teacher. What subjects did you teach? WES CRAVEN: I taught humanities, which was a survey of western civilization, art and literature. I also taught freshman English, creative writing and a course in modern drama. LAWRENCE FRENCH: A lot of English teachers hope to write a novel, but usually don’t get a publisher. WES CRAVEN: That was really my initial reason for going into teaching, so I would have time to write. From junior high school on I had been writing and after college I very much wanted to be a novelist, and was doing a lot of writing on evenings and weekends. So the fact that I’ve now written a novel, Fountain Society and it’s been published has been a longtime dream of mine.
I never really expected the remake of Wes Craven’s 1972 debut feature LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (itself a retelling of Bergman’s 1960 THE VIRGIN SPRING) to be successful as a remake. I did, however, expect it to be at least mildly successful as a horror film, and to some extent, it is. The cast is rather good, the photography often surprises with its beauty and subtlety, and I imagine it will be quite suspenseful for audiences who haven’t seen the original. I’m guessing that will be about 90% of the people who will be seeing it in theatres.
Craven’s feature was so reviled by critics and audiences alike that he essentially disowned it (he gave away his entire collection of reels including all outtakes and footage to fan and scribe David Szulkin, who later wrote a book , nay, an obsessive monograph, about it), and the film went more or less underground for years. Having an opportunity to see an “uncut” version at the Harvard Film Archive some years ago (where Szulkin was on hand to answer questions), after having last seen it grainy and edited beyond comprehension on VHS, I was reminded of this film’s power and daring content. It certainly must be said that Horror Cinema As We Know It Today would never have existed without LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and the vision Craven manifested in this oft-misunderstood and much-hated film.
Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, who was a producer in 1972, are credited as producers this time around, so one can assume they signed off on the new version. Greek director Dennis Iliadis helms, and the screenplay is co-adapted by Adam Alleca (a former student of mine at Emerson College) and Carl Ellsworth (DISTURBIA). The original plot is relatively intact, although the body count is somewhat smaller this time around. In the remake, Krug (DEADWOOD’s Garret Dillhunt; David Hess played Krug and composed the original songs for the 1972 version) is an escaped convict who meets up with his pals Francis (BREAKING BAD’s Aaron Paul; Fred Lincoln played “Weasel” in 1972) and Sadie (Riki Lindhome; Jeramie Rain, aka Mrs. Richard Dreyfuss, in 1972), and his son Justin (the excellent Spencer Treat Clark; Marc Sheffler was “Junior” in 1972).
In Craven’s version, Krug, Weasel and Sadie are all escaped convicts; the two men are sharing Sadie and decide they need some additional women (Sadie also hints she would like a girl to play with). Krug convinces his junkie son to procure some young female victims by promising him heroin. So Junior finds Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassell) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), strolling the streets in Manhattan before going to see their favorite band, Bloodlust, in concert, and lures them back to Krug’s hideout. The girls are kidnapped and bundled into a car trunk, and brought out to the countryside. Through an add twist of fate, they end up a few yards from Mari’s house, the last one on the left down a tree-lined dead street. Mari is eventually raped and killed right by the swimming pool in her parents’ backyard.
In the remake, the girls (Mari, played by Sara Paxton, and Paige, played by Martha Macisaac) are hanging out at the convenience store where Paige works when her friend Mari comes for her annual summer visit with her parents. They are shyly approached by Justin when he overhears them talking about pot. They follow him to Krug’s hotel room, and Mari is forced to drive them all in her parents’ SUV, which crashes on a wooded road. The girls manage to escape, briefly, but their captors gain the upper hand quickly. As with the first film, there is a brutal but, surprisingly, not very explicit rape scene. Mari is left for dead but escapes by swimming across the lake to her house. In the original, the pool represents the “virgin spring” of Bergman’s film, based on an ancient Nordic legend about a girl who is raped and murdered and later avenged by her parents, and the pure spring that appears at the place of her death. Obviously the lake is intended as a larger expression of this metaphor of renewal. As with the original, the band of killers (with a horrified Justin in tow) ends up knocking on the door of Mari’s parents, John and Emma (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter), and are invited to spend the night in light of the bad weather and their smashed car. But in the remake, Mari has crawled her way home and is left sleeping deeply on the couch when her attackers arrive. When Justin leaves Mari’s necklace on the kitchen counter, Emma realizes their houseguests raped her daughter. Dr. and Mrs. Collingwood embark on a revenge-fuelled rampage of their own.
Responding once to criticism that the film was misogynistic, Craven replied “It’s misanthropic in every way; that’s the point.” Indeed, in 1972, the depraved and sadistic behavior of not only the kidnappers, but of Mari Collingwood’s parents as they avenge her death, was without precedent in American cinema. The remake has more than enough slow, graphic violence and gratuitous gore for the most inured horror fan. What it doesn’t have is the uncomfortable intimacy and intensity of the original. One can’t go back to 1972 and understand what it must have been like to experience this film in all its raw, verite-style impact. But it seems a shame that the remake can’t be bothered to emulate what were the original’s most memorable and affecting scenes. Sadly, this means the actors can’t have as much fun, either. In Craven’s original version, Sadie’s vaunted lesbianism allows for a disturbing scene in which Mari and Phyllis are forced at knifepoint to make love to each other. It is tender, awkward and not titillating in the least. Later, Sadie’s offer to help the girls escape is met with a snarled insult of “Stupid dyke!” by Phyllis, thus sealing their fate. This context and its attendant character complexity is almost completely avoided in the remake. Why? Krug’s rape of Mari, circa 1972, is stunning in its animalistic depravity; portrayed simply with a close-up of their faces. Afterwards everyone, even Krug, seems ashamed. It’s a painful and empathic moment. The remake has the camera at a tasteful distance, adding an oddly bucolic, and thereby nearly idyllic, feel to the scene. Cinematographer Sharone Meir and Production Designer Johnny Breedt do an admirable job, but the subdued beauty here is almost unbearable (perhaps that’s the point). Afterwards, we see Mari’s dirt-smeared legs and Justin’s hooded, bowed head, while Krug, Sadie and Francis behave as if they’re thinking about building a campfire to toast marshmallows. Their indifference is almost harder to take than the drooling savagery of Krug was in 1972.
In what may be the most frequently-referenced scene from the original film, Weasel is seduced by Mrs. Collingwood only to have his penis bitten off during her proffered blow job. The corresponding seduction scene between Emma and Francis starts out promisingly (Aaron Paul’s leering charm recalls Jesse Pinkman, his character from BREAKING BAD, and the latter’s penchant for “MILFS”). But Francis is ultimately dispatched with a kitchen appliance, not teeth. In fact, the vengeance-fuelled violence perpetrated by the Collingwoods is very choreographed and drawn out, making it a major component of the story, instead of the unexpected and grittily satisfying epilogue it seems to provide the original.
Craven chose to shoot his 1972 film with a grainy, newsreel look for better shock value. He also intercut the farcical antics of the local police with the main action, as a sort of campy commentary on the pervasiveness and inevitability of violent crime, even for rich suburbanites. This class consciousness is an issue in the new film, but only as one of numerous false gambits of dialogue that seem to be employed to carry the film along to the next vignette of violence. Sadie, upon learning the Collingwood house is a summer residence, intones in mock wonder, “How many houses do you have?” and is met with Emma’s polite silence. But the point, of course, is not that kids from poor families end up as criminals, or that the have-nots feel justified in lashing out at the haves, but that wealthy doctors and their wives can themselves be pushed to horrific acts of murder if provoked. But this conceit has been explored so many times since Craven first invoked it, that there is no irony or even satisfaction left in it.
LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is perhaps best seen as a reminder of why remakes of classic horror films almost always fail, and badly: the elements that imbue them with fear or shock or novelty the first time around are simply no longer culturally relevant. They become kitschy artifacts, so we have to reinvent them by skewing them to fit the World As It Is Now. We forget what fear is, and begin once again to go camping or hire babysitters or visit cemeteries with impunity. We see so much blood and effluvia that hyper-real gore becomes as banal as soap scum in the bathroom. Horror films must become either arty and minimal, or extreme and self-referential, just to get a rise out of us. And as we continue to build our technologically-savvy fortresses and remove ourselves further and further from what it means to be at the mercy of the cruel natural world, we have to venture out to the theatres to be reminded that danger is as close as the woods and water behind our well-appointed homes.
LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (2009). Directed by Dennis Iliadis. Screenplay by Adam Aleca and Carl Ellsworth, based on the film written and directed by Wes Craven. Cast: Garret Dillahunt, Michael Bowen, Joshua Cox, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Sara paxton, Monica Potter, Tony Goldwyn, Martha MacIsaac, Spencer Treat Clark.
This article has been slightly rewritten since its orignial posting, in order to clarify the author’s intent.
Wes Craven’s landmark 1972 shocker gets a second DVD go-around with a much more comprehensive set of extras, but the recent UK DVD release easily trumps all previous entries. Last House on the Left is as important a step in the growth of the modern horror film as either Night of the Living Dead or Halloween, even though House rarely gets recommended on that level. The zombie flesh eaters of Night are practically genteel in comparison to what Romero wound unleash in later decades (not to mention the merciless levels of violence that would become part and parcel of the European variant), and the elegant steadicam photography of Carpenter’s Halloween would easily justify its place alongside Kubrick’s The Shinning in any discussion of the evolution of modern cinematography. But after almost 40 years, Last House still possesses the raw power to shock and offend – not just through the plethora of cheap, improvised makeup EFX, but by confronting its audience with the kind of absolute horror that most films dealing in murder as entertainment conveniently overlook.
Craven’s film uses the barest outline of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring in telling the story of teenagers Mari (Sandra Cassel) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), who stop off in a sketchy neighborhood in NYC’s lower east side to buy pot before going to a concert. Their would-be dealer, Junior (Marc Sheffler) leads them upstairs to conclude the deal, where they are set upon by escaped convicts Sadie (Jeramie Rain), Weasel (soon-to-be legendary adult film director Fred J Lincoln), and worst of all, the malevolently evil Krug (actor and musician David Hess, guaranteeing himself exploitation cinema work in perpetuity). The next morning, the gang throws the girls into the trunk of their car and race up to the country to have some more “fun” with their captives, but coincidently choose an area nearly in the backyard of the Collingwood’s home – Mari’s parents.
It’s easy to dismiss Last House as the worst sort of pandering grindhouse fare; several of the filmmakers were involved in the adult film world both before and after its production (an early draft of the script was rife with outrageous pornographic content), and the majority of the acting on display is desperately amateurish. The local police (including a young Martin Kove) are straight out of a Bethel Buckalew picture, and the scene where they pull over an elderly black woman driving a depression-era truck filled with chickens (actually Cunningham’s parent’s housekeeper, Ada Washington) is perhaps the most epically out-of-place moment in the history of American horror cinema. The intent of the ham-fisted comedy relief is clear, though the tonal shifts are enough to give a first time viewer whiplash.
Fortunately, nothing can blunt the power of the infamous sequence when Mari and Phyllis are ravaged in the woods. Until that point, the cheap production values and semi-pro performances have served to distance most viewers. But something happens from the moment Krug and Company (actually one of the myriad alternate titles used for the film early on) drag the girls to what will likely be the last place on earth that they will ever see. It begins with the performances of Cassel and Grantham (Cassel spent the early ’70s appearing in several NYC-lensed adult films with titles like Love-In ’72 and Teenage Hitch-hikers, while Grantham’s film CV consists of only Last House), both of whom appear realistically and distressingly frightened for their lives. From the first, relatively benign atrocity of forcing Phyllis to urinate on herself, to the almost unwatchable (and heavily edited) sequence in which the girls are made to be “intimate” with each other, nothing is presented to titillate – it’s a rape of the girls’ body and spirit.
The realistic vibe put out by the actress is picked up in turn by Hess, Lincoln, and Rain, each of whom demonstrates with terrifying verisimilitude the utter absence of humanity or compassion. The sequence concludes with a moment as remarkable as we’ve ever seen in a genre film, in which we actually see the killers reach their collective limit, and their sadomasochist glee is turned off as if by flipping a switch. Is it remorse that we see on their faces, and are we willing to grant them the very thing that we’ve just watched them brutally take away from their victims?
The sequence – as with the rest of the film – is shot in a very grainy, verite style that is both a product of the budget and the stated aesthetic of the filmmakers to achieve the documentary look of TV news reports coming each night from Vietnam. Critics who complained about the level of violence were missing the point; the violence in Last House was itself the central theme, not merely an exploitable byproduct. Craven saw a culture being slowly desensitized by the horrors around it – a world where the Manson ‘family’ perverted the hippie idealism of the ’60s and used it as trappings for their murderous antisocial rage, and where Craven’s own generation were being systematically slaughtered halfway around the world in a war nobody wanted. The audience is forced to coldly observe the atrocities of the film’s crew of killers until the mayhem passes beyond the comfort zone of even the most hardened genre aficionados and asks “Is this what you came to see?”
The show falters somewhat during the second half, once the gang arrives at the Collingwood home after their car breaks down. Here the film becomes more of a traditional revenge picture and ceases to challenge its audience (though one quick dream sequence is undeniably effective).
Few horror pictures have had as checkered a history on home video as Last House; two different edits appeared on VHS, courtesy of the beloved Vestron Video, the second of which was billed as ‘complete and uncut’, running roughly 83min. MGM/UA’s first go around with the title on DVD was back in 2002, and offered the most complete version yet, along with commentary by Craven and Cunningham, featurettes on the production and Hess’ music, and several minutes of outtakes, some of which feature extra moments of intestine-pulling that was best left on the cutting room floor.
Last year, the UK was finally able to see the film without cuts in a nation-wide release (it had previously held a place of honor at the top of the BBFC’s “video nasties” list) via a massive 3 disc set from Metrodome, featuring an additional commentary track with baddies Hess, Lincoln, and Sheffler, a brand new 40-min production documentary produced by Blue Underground (“Celluloid Crime of the Century”), which provides an extensive look into the making of the film; the interesting “Krug Conquers England,” which covers the first uncut theatrical showings in the UK; an excerpt from the short film “Tales that’ll Tear Your Heart Out ,”which reunited Craven and Hess; all of this in addition to the same set of outtakes and general ballyhoo from the previous release.
However, the main selling points that might drive interested parties to double-dip are housed on the second disc, which includes a marginally different cut of the film under the title “Krug & Company” (which contains some footage found in no other version and has at least one astounding plot difference regarding the fate of Mari), and some the infamous soft core sexual footage shot during the forced copulation of Mari and Phyllis. Like much of the film’s more extreme footage, it had fallen victim over the years to the vagaries of local “decency laws”, with theater managers excising out any would-be offending material (and saving it for their own personal collection, of course) and few prints making it back to the distributor’s office intact.
Not even Craven and Cunningham appear sure of what exactly would constitute a final cut; while much of the ‘intestine’ footage was clearly never intended to be used, who knows how much of the forced lesbianism ever actually made it into any complete version? (We’ve heard from various parties that this footage has always been around, but until recently no one had bothered getting the actresses to sign off on the necessary release forms).
MGM/UA’s newest offering is geared to take advantage of Rouge Pictures’ upcoming remake, and cherry picks several features off the Metrodome set, while leaving off the Krug & Company alternate cut and the “Krug Conquers England” featurette to fit onto a single disc (the 3rd disc on the Metrodome set was devoted to a documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film). Unfortunately, the new MGM release continues the tradition of no-thought, Photoshop paste ups for the cover art; Last House has some of the most memorable promotional artwork ever made for a horror film (much of which is retained on the Metrodome set), and MGM’s disc makes it look like a DTV Wrong Turn sequel.
We would like to acknowledge our dog-eared copy of David A. Szulkin’s invaluable book, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, the best available resource for anyone interested in the film. Portions of this review were previously published on my blog, The Blood-Spattered Scribe.
It is not altogether clear that the world needs another version of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, but the trailer for this remake (including a haunting cover version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine”) is enough to intrigue even cynics like me. Since everything else under the sun is being remade, why not this one? The original film – produced by Sean Cunningham (FRIDAY THE 13TH) and written and directed by West Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) – was conceived in the social upheaval of the Vietnam War as a deliberate response to sanitized depictions of violence on movie screens: the result battered unsuspecting audiences with all the impact of blunt-force trauma; it was brutal and bordered on the despicable, but it ultimately justified its existence by being so damned effective.
How the remake can live up to that in today’s social context is anyone’s guess. Will it be a mechanical run-through of the same old story, or will it find some way to reflect upon Iraq, Afghanistan, and the GWOT in a way that mirrors the original?
Universal intends this Rogue Pictures production for a 2009 release, but no date has been set. UPDATE: Bloody Disgusting reports that the date is March 13.
From the press kit:
Masters of horror Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham revisit their landmark film that launched Craven’s directing career and influenced decades of horror films to follow: The Last House on the Left. Bringing one of the most notorious thrillers of all time to a new generation, they produce the story that explores how far two ordinary people will go to exact revenge on the sociopaths who harmed their child.
The night she arrives at the remote Collingwood lakehouse, Mari (Sara Paxton) and her friend are kidnapped by a prison escapee and his crew. Terrified and left for dead, Mari’s only hope is to make it back to parents John and Emma (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter). Unfortunately, her attackers unknowingly seek shelter at the one place she could be safe. And when her family learns the horrifying story, they will make three strangers curse the day they came to The Last House on the Left.
Cast: Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dillahunt, Martha MacIssac, Riki Lindhome
Directed by: Dennis Iliadis
Screenplay by: Carl Ellsworth
Based on the Film by: Wes Craven
Produced by: Wes Craven, Marianne Maddalena, Sean Cunningham