AUGUST 7, 2008
I love when strange coincidences change the way my day plays out. I had originally intended to see a double feature of David DeFalco’s Chaos and Nick Palumbo’s Murder Set Pieces tonight at the New Bev. While I consider MSP to be among one of the worst movies ever committed to celluloid, I have never seen Chaos. That film was originally a true remake of Last House On The Left, but then David Hess dropped out so the filmmakers pretended it WASN’T a remake, even though by all accounts it’s essentially the exact same movie. Kind of hilarious. But, as luck would have it, I got a pass to a test screening of a REAL remake of Last House On The Left on the same night, and opted for that instead.
(NOTE - I have since seen the final version and it is identical to the version I saw here, save for having the final score. Review remains intact.)
The invite gave no real information about the cast or crew. It claims that Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham were involved, but that’s about it for crew. And the only cast member listed was Sara Paxton, from Aquamarine. This triggered an alarm in my movie-fied brain – if the only cast member worth mentioning is a tween idol, then this movie will probably be pretty weak. Maybe not PG-13, but certainly not as vile and hard to watch as the original. And she would probably live.
(Note - SPOILERS FOLLOW in the next paragraph, but the entire review is based on the idea that you have seen/know the idea of the original, so if you've never seen it, just skip the review entirely.)
Well, she does. But it actually works. In the original, the daughter originally DID survive, but they decided to kill her off during production (I forget why – as if the movie was too light and they needed another kill?), so it’s not a total “Hollywood” decision. I liken it more to the two endings of The Descent – it’s simply the execution of a different idea the original filmmakers had. However, and this is what I found surprising: Paxton is the only one who is raped. Her friend (the cute Melanie Lynskey-ish chick from Superbad) gets off pretty easy, merely stabbed and that’s it. But that is how the movie as a whole is in comparison to the original: the truly sadistic and awful stuff has all been pretty much removed, and in a way it makes the rape seem more brutal (and thus the parents’ actions seem more justified). In the original, EVERYTHING was just so depraved, the rape barely stuck out as anything worse than the other things they endured. Not the case here, and so while some may cry foul that the movie is too toned down, I think it’s a good decision. Later on I was talking to other folks, including horror filmmakers, and they all said the same thing about the 1972 version: it’s not that it’s a bad movie, but it’s a movie you never want to watch a second time. There is little entertainment value (in the traditional sense) to be found in that film, and the ‘light’ moments (chicken truck!) just don’t work in context.
One problem I DID have with this version is the final minute of the film. The gang has been killed and the family, reunited, leaves the house in their boat. All well and good. But then they suddenly cut to a flashback, with the father torturing Krug, the gang leader. Not only is it completely unnecessary, it’s just a really stupid scene to boot. The dad paralyzes Krug, and then sticks his head in a microwave, turning it on. The result (an exploding head) is pretty “awesome”, but it just feels so tacked on and gratuitous, as if the studio felt the audience needed to cheer at the very end of the film. Plus, and I wrote this on the comment card: YOU CAN’T RUN A MICROWAVE WITH THE DOOR OPEN! Earlier in the film, they set up the microwave being broken, but what kind of microwave “breaks” by allowing it to run even if the door isn’t shut? And how would he have noticed this anyway? It’s like the scene exists just to pay off the goddamn broken microwave bit, as if anyone cared. Completely unnecessary, and I hope like hell it’s gone by the time the movie is released.
Another, less minor issue is that the Krug and Sadie characters are pretty different than their 1972 counterparts, and thus should have been given different names. Like I’ve said numerous other times, the best thing a remake can do is not give the audience any reason to keep thinking about the original, and thus giving the killers the same name (in a movie that is, structurally speaking, an exact copy of the original) wasn’t the best decision, since they aren’t the same at all. Garret Dillahunt’s Krug is a much more calm and collected killer, a sort of icy criminal mastermind type, not a loose cannon like David Hess’ version. And Sadie is pretty mousy here for the most part; she takes her top off and bitches about rich folks, but that’s about it. The other 2 gang members have different names, so other than simple “iconic” reasons, I don’t see why they couldn’t just go all out and give everyone a new name.
Otherwise, it’s pretty goddamn solid. Tony Goldwyn is in top form as the dad, and it’s nice to see him again (he’s mainly been directing lately). And Monica Potter (the mom) is always welcome on a big movie screen. The toned down nature means we are not allowed to see her go down on a dude, which is a shame, but on the plus side, we are also spared the painful outcome of that scenario. They also feel like a real couple, and it’s great to see a modern horror movie that depicts a rather normal marriage. 9 times out of 10 the couple is on the brink of divorce, or the mother is in fact a stepmother, or whatever. Not here, they are just a normal family. And the film actually does a better job than the original in displaying the family bonds; when the “Weasel” type character is dispatched, director Dennis Iliadis goes out of his way to show the parents working as a team to kill him. It’s a nice little touch.
Iliadis seems to be trying to show off a bit too often though. Early on there is a shot of Paxton running around a boathouse, and for some goddamn reason he zooms all the way into the side of the building, and then tracks along the wall. The result is simply a pointless, shaky, and blurry shot. There are also far too many cutaways to the house’s exterior, as if we haven’t yet got the idea that this is a “perfect and normal” home. And he likes to cut back and forth in time, something that’s also a bit confusing. At the beginning, when they establish Paxton’s character is a champion swimmer, he keeps cutting between her swimming and her standing still, holding her breath underwater. Since we can’t really see their faces clearly in either “moment”, I actually though it was two different girls. And the stupid ending I mentioned; I actually can’t tell if it was a flashback or if the dad just went back to the house later on. He also keeps cutting to different angles of the same person (usually Krug), something that is supposed to make us feel on edge, but it’s mainly just annoying and calling attention to the fact that it’s only a movie (ß heh), not to mention breaking the tension.
But like I said, on the whole it works. They don’t really change much from the original, but most of the changes are for the better. It’s not necessarily a better film; while the original may not be fun to watch (this veers more toward “crowd-pleasing”, albeit in hard R rated form), the raw feel and up front attitude is a bit missed at times in the remake. The acting is certainly better (Dillahunt is great, in fact), and since we are conditioned to believe a studio film will pull its punches, it’s actually pretty suspenseful and unnerving at times. “He’ll just slap her or something” you think, and then WHAM! The girl’s head is slammed into a sink. And even though you don’t really fear for the parents’ lives at any point, they still manage to generate an ass-ton of suspense. There’s a bit where “Weasel” comes to the house and talks to Potter, who is trying to keep him from seeing a photo of their daughter lest he figure out what she already knows, and it’s a terrific, nail-biting sequence. And even though we know damn well that they’re doomed, the scene where the gang first encounters the two girls is another nerve-wracker. It’s also surprising how much abuse everyone suffers – I think every single character in the film takes a pretty sharp blow to the head at some point or another. And again – since we are spared the real depraved over-the-top stuff of the original (there are no intestines in this film, for starters), it actually makes the violent moments more effective, because they are used more sparingly.
If you’ve never seen the original, I would almost suggest seeing the remake first. Some folks walked out during the obvious moments, which means it’s still a tough film for some, but compared to the original it’s borderline “fun”. And since the two films are so similar, seeing one will “spoil” the surprises and development of the other. So go with the one that is an overall more enjoyable film viewing experience, and if you really dig it, go back and see if you can stomach Craven’s original.
Either way, score another one for Rogue, who also produced The Strangers. Now that Lionsgate has turned soft (and utterly reprehensible), they are probably our best hope for consistently solid studio-based horror.
What say you?