Last House on the Left

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03/13/2009 9:00 AM |

Review by Benjamin Strong

At 109 minutes, this remake of The Last House on the Left not only exceeds the runtime of Wes Craven’s exploitation original, it’s a full twenty minutes longer than The Virgin Spring (1960), the Ingmar Bergman wrath parable that inspired both films. Perhaps director Dennis Iliadis believes that he simply has more to say about our earthly spiritual predicament than did either Craven or Bergman. Even so, he’s breaking the cardinal First Law of Horror Movies. Duh, less is more.

It’s worth remembering that Craven’s 1972 update was just as
disturbing, but never as profound, as Bergman’s Lutheran cry to the
heavens. Craven was aiming for an icky, anarchic tone he couldn’t
control, and his House teeters wildly between camp and mere kitsch. But
in transplanting the setting from medieval Sweden to Ice Storm-period
Connecticut, Craven was able to comment on the middle-class panic
surrounding peace, free love, and the sudden wide availability of
marijuana. The title itself hints at a certain fascinating Nixonian
strand in that film.

By contrast, Iliadis has no appetite for subtext. His 3.0 iteration
takes place, by default, in a generic corner of the contiguous 48
states, and although I guessed it was Canada, it turns out that
location shooting was done on the cheap in South Africa (with Craven
lending his imprimatur as a producer). Stripped of theological
argument, social observation and anything else approaching actual
meaning, what’s left is a hackneyed revenge yarn, with some backstory
added about a dead sibling and an Olympic dream, and the sum total
meant to appeal to the hard-choices audience of Fox’s 24 as well as whoever flocks to the ongoing Saw franchise.

A young virgin (Sara Paxton) is raped by some very bad men who then seek shelter from a storm, unwittingly, with her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter). Goldwyn, the aging scion of a Hollywood studio fortune who has lately been moonlighting as a TV director, doesn’t seem to care much about collecting his paycheck. (I yearned for a hint of the oily Wall Street villain he played in 1990’s otherwise unbearable Ghost.) For her part, the bland and blonde Potter shows again why no one can even remember that she was once promoted as the poor man’s Julia Roberts.

This is the only one of the three renditions of The Virgin Spring [spoiler alert] in which our fair maiden survives. Lacking Bergman’s gravitas but also Craven’s sense of humor, Iliadis absolves Goldwyn’s paterfamilias of any implicit moral judgment, with the result that the movie has no discernible point. Why render material this gruesome so bloodless?