Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on March 10, 2009, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
Of all the 1970s shockers to be remade as part of the recent wave of genre blasts derived from the past, ’72’s The Last House on the Left seemed one of the least likely to be updated successfully. Without the singular, ruthless savagery of the original, which couldn’t be truly duplicated in a film intended for a 2000s mass audience, how could a new version recapture what made its source so notorious—and thus worth revisiting—in the first place?
Pretty well, as it turns out. Under the guidance of original writer/director Wes Craven (who previously successfully shepherded the noteworthy redux of his The Hills Have Eyes) and producer Sean S. Cunningham, this year’s Last House on the Left is as stark, grim and brutal as modern mainstream horror gets. To be sure, some of its predecessor’s roughest edges have been sanded down, but they’ve been far from completely blunted, and the creative team (led by director Dennis Iliadis and scripters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth) keep the emotional intensity amped up even as the explicit gore has been toned down from the ’72 levels. Wisely, they’ve refrained from competing with the Saw/Hostel pack in the bloodshed stakes, even though there are moments of violence, and the treatment of it, certain to make audiences squirm. Even die-hard fans of the first Last House may find themselves not minding that—as has been made abundantly clear in all of the promos—the daughter lives in this one.
Said daughter is Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton), who’s spending a weekend with parents John (Tony Goldwyn) and Emma (Monica Potter) at their vacation home, which is remote enough that it’s the only house on the left. It’s located by a lake, which means that it’s rather convenient to this story that Mari is introduced as an expert swimmer, as it is that Dad’s a doctor (though to be fair, he was in the original too). In any case, the Collingwoods are still recovering from the death of Mari’s brother, and Mari, needing to escape the family confines for a while, goes to town to hang out with her spunkier local friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). When a shy young guy named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) comes into Paige’s store and offers the girls the chance to score some good weed, they’re set on a collision course with Justin’s murderous father Krug (Garret Dillahunt), who’s on the run with vicious cohorts Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and Francis (Aaron Paul), who have sprung him from the authorities.
From here, things continue to proceed much as they did in the prior movie, as the gang abducts the girls and wind up brutalizing them in a patch of forest which (not so coincidentally this time) is not far from the Collingwood house. Iliadis, a Greek director making his U.S. studio debut, pulls no punches in his depiction of the abuse Mari and Paige suffer, and a rape scene is unflinching enough that it has had people walking out of early screenings. Yet as traumatic as moments like this and others in the first half are, Iliadis always keeps a sympathetic focus on the heroines’ point of view, neither reveling in the villains’ psychotic power nor indulging in the victims’ gratuitous nudity (Sadie actually shows more skin over the course of the film than they do). Iliadis also captures some of the potent aftermath of the degradation in Craven’s movie, where even the bad guys seem briefly stunned by what they’ve committed.
Then their thoughts turn to self-preservation and the need for a place to hole up, and that place, of course, turns out to be the Collingwoods’. Once the initially trusting John and Emma put up Krug and co. in their guest house, the barely alive Mari crawls onto their doorstep, and the sparing of her life ends up working for this Last House’s plot. Not only does her parents’ first-hand witnessing of her agony add an extra goose to their drive toward revenge, it provides extra tension; when this or that member of the gang sneak back to the main house, will they discover Mari there and realize the jig is up? And will John and Emma become so obsessed with meting out vengeance that they’ll ignore the needs of their daughter, who desperately requires medical attention?
No fair telling, but it’s no surprise that this formerly “civilized” and rational suburban couple wind up giving as bad as their daughter got. Thirty-seven years after Craven’s original broke genre ground by taking horror out of the realm of castles and monsters and literally placing it in the house next door, it’s no longer news on the cinematic landscape that ordinary people can be driven to acts of inhuman violence when pushed too far. Last House ’09’s filmmaking and acting (particularly by Goldwyn and Dillahunt, a better-looking and more restrained Krug than David Hess but no less menacing) are strong enough, however, that the specific confrontations and acts of flesh-and-bone-rending retribution are punched across with blunt-force immediacy.
Despite having a slightly lower mortality rate than the ’72 film, this retelling makes some of the same points about the capacity of the human animal to revert to its primal nature—even if a latecoming scene intended to ram the point home has been spoiled by being given away, almost in its entirety, in the trailer. Where this year’s reduxes of Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine challenged or exceeded their inspirations’ splatter levels but couldn’t recapture their scare value, the new Last House on the Left proves you can tone down the blood and guts and still get under the skin.