Oh, will these horror remakes never stop coming? (I've grudgingly paid my hard-earned money for all three so far this year, so there's your answer.) My Bloody Valentine 3D kicked off 2009 with novel panache, but so far the year of consecutive Friday the 13ths has been particularly kind to the wallet of old-school horror moneyman Sean S. Cunningham, first with the obvious Friday the 13th—by all appearances remade only because they couldn't even think of new ideas worthy of a Friday the 13th sequel—and now with a slick re-imagining of Wes Craven's Cunningham-produced 1972 debut, The Last House on the Left.
It was only a matter of time, after all. With the success of Alexandre Aja's savage take on Craven's The Hills Have Eyes and the proliferation of the genre now referred to by detractors and the faithful alike as "torture porn," horror audiences are well-primed for another visit to the The Last House on the Left. After years of copycatting, the story will surely ring a bell: A teenage girl is abducted by animalistic criminals, brutally raped and then left for dead, after which her stranded captors unknowingly take refuge in her parents' home. The audience's reward for watching the girl's horrific torture? Watching her parents horrifically torture the bad guys in return.
As any adjacent film snob has likely told you twice by now, the story has surprisingly lofty origins in Ingmar Bergman's 1960 medieval drama The Virgin Spring, itself based on a 13th-century Swedish ballad. Bergman's film, as you might expect, is a work of intense heaviness, paying special attention not only to the conflict of "civilized" Christian principles with the realities of a godless world but more specifically to the emotional and psychological anguish of the parents. The rape and murder of the young Karin remains shocking to this day, but more affecting is the second of the two acts, as the father dispatches the fiends in a fit of cold, quiet passion which the viewer is asked only to observe.
The idea to translate The Virgin Spring into the ever-intensifying world of '70s exploitation horror is as brilliant as it is obvious, and Craven played it up to notorious effect with the much-censored original Last House. But inspiration is one thing, and execution another: Last House on the Left's across-the-board ineptitude could be easily described as laughable if it didn't toy so fecklessly with sexual assault and humiliation. The first half preys viscerally on our worst societal fears, while the second insists that we react only with our guts, and embrace the concept that violence should beget violence. (To this day Craven sticks to his "social and moral commentary" guns, but if you can think of a more antisocial, amoral film, I'll thank you to keep it the hell away from me.)
But what of the remake? Few have ever accused Hollywood's horror-flick grave-robbing fad of anything approaching taste or decorum, so it stood to reason that a new take on Last House would probably plumb the same misanthropic depths with a slick enough sheen to trick college kids into a strong opening weekend.
The result, though, is a small wonder of adaptation, and an unreasonably vast improvement on the original. Greek director Dennis Iliadis and his screenwriters have taken Craven's sloppy two-act structure and fleshed it out into one of the sharpest, meanest suspense thrillers in recent memory, full of style, careful plotting, and game performances. Underused character actor Garret Dillahunt is particularly chilling as psychopathic ringleader Krug. Most importantly, there is the thought that Iliadis has put into his storytelling—the rape scene remains harrowing (should a rape scene play out any other way?) but also exists organically within the story rather than as its exploitative crux. The film's assuredly graphic violence gets a similarly surprising pass. Where the original sickens us with violence in its first half and tries to turn around and entertain us with it in the second half, the remake's sure pace and tone allow that dichotomy to slip into our subconscious where it belongs.
All that said, The Last House on the Left is not a film to be recommended to a general audience. Give it credit for knowing it is no Virgin Spring, that it can't hope to communicate such essential ideas about the human experience and the moral nature of our world. But don't forget to question why the story should be otherwise told.