Sunday, September 20, 2009

Just Keep Telling Yourself: It's Only a Remake! It's Only a Remake!

First, a disclaimer: any true horror fan needs to support original and fresh concepts made with heart and energy. Pay for Orphan. Sneak into Sorority Row.
On the other hand...
Anybody whose chief complaint about 2009‘s Last House On the Left is that it’s a sub par remake of a classic film must first acknowledge that Wes Craven’s primal 1972 film was in fact its own remake of Igmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring

And next...
That being said, the problem with today’s remakes tends to be the question of purpose. Why take something like The Omen--a fairly mediocre, if occasionally chilling relic--and re-film nearly every scene (my theory is actually that this one was the first, and probably only film to be made simply to land on the best release date, 6/6/06)? On the other hand, why call something like the Prom Night remake Prom Night if it has nothing to do with the original? When it comes to remakes in the 21st century, we’ve had our ups (Dawn of the Dead, My Bloody Valentine 3D) and downs (The Hitcher, Friday the 13th Part XII) and despite my own tiredness of hearing the word, it’s nearly impossible to review Last House on the Left ’09 without acknowledging its source.
Wes Craven’s film was revolutionary and shocking, but that does not necessarily equal ‘good.’ The film is deeply hurt by a few amateur performances and, at the director’s own admission, a comedic subplot featuring bumbling cops that was simply the wrong choice. At the same time, it has a vicious energy about it and true ruthlessness that has survived over 30 years for a reason. 

Quick Plot: The Collingwoods, a pleasant, upper middle class couple quietly getting over the death of their oldest son, head to their summer lake house with their teen daughter, a pretty Olympian swimmer-in-the-making named Mari, who quickly ditches her lame folks to hang out with the ditzy convenience store clerk, Paige. The girls meet a shy young man who offers them some grade A pot in his seedy motel room. They realize the wrongness of recreational drugs and bake oatmeal cookies instead, then distribute a batch to the poor neighborhood children and celebrate with ice cold apple cider and a good natured round of Parchese.

Or not. See, much like the original, the motel room in question happens to be under the name of Krug, a ragtag family of psychopathic killers on the run. The characters are identical to Craven’s, with Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt playing the raging patriarch, Riki Lindhome as his needy girlfriend Aaron Paul as the lecherous uncle, and, in the one twist, a much more innocent Spencer Treat Clark as the morally minded teenager. The girls are kidnapped. One is brutally raped. The other stabbed. As an aggressive storm begins to strike, the Krugs seek shelter in the nearest home which...drumroll sounding...happens to belong to none other than the worrisome Collingwoods.

In many ways, LHOtL ’09 does what a good remake is supposed to do: honor the source material while integrating something new. The changes here (SPOILER ALERT) help to make the second half a decidedly different film from Craven’s bleak original. As her parents tuck the Krugs into the guest house, the battered and bleeding Mari makes her way home. Like the past two films the parents quickly realize what has happened and who caused it but now, there is a certain immediacy in killing the Krugs. Father John (the always solid, and possibly fountain of youth drinking Tony Goldwyn) and mother Emma (a very good Monica Potter, an actress I’ve never really given any weight to before) fight more to protect their daughter than for vengeance and here, many devotees of the past two films may be annoyed. 

The Virgin Spring is a film about brutal instincts beating the rules of modern faith. Craven’s Last House focuses on revenge at its most primal. In some ways, this latest version has more emotion and far less complexity. The Collingwoods have to take down the Krugs, not for blind rage, but because otherwise, how can they boat Mari to safety? As viewers, we’re certainly invested; we like Mari, who seems smart and sweet enough to deserve survival. At the same time, the moral implications so rich in the first two films can’t really come to play here...until the final scene, which will leave everyone who watches this movie with sweet dreams of hot pockets.

Argh, the final shot. This is one of those instances where I curse modern movie trailers. Like most horror filmgoers, I’d seen the extended preview several times in the theater. Between the haunting cover of Sweet Child of Mine and the shot of Dillahunt’s head jammed inside the microwave, it certainly piqued my interest enough to want to see Last House, but it also revealed one of the most shocking moments in this version. The biggest problem was that, while I was completely involved in this film, the image of Krug’s nuking was in the back of my (thankfully non-nuked) head the entire time. When it finally came, it almost felt like a concession to viewers craving something truly outrageous. As much as I enjoy the ridiculous image of a man’s head exploding in a household appliance, I honestly can’t tell you whether I approved of the jarring mood switch here because I never really had the chance to see it fresh.
High Points
Most of the specific changes made from the ’72 film make the actions and characters much more believable; the clearer location, the lingering ghost of the late Collingwood son, Mari’s swimming prowess, and a few more that never really make you think--as with many horror films--that what is happening is overly silly
The biggest flaw with Craven’s original is the low quality of acting. While non of the cast is making Oscar bids, Goldwyn and Potter sell their characters, Sara Paxton’s Mari is smart and likable, and the entire Krug clan is trashily fearsome

Low Points
Time and time again, we hear the same beef with modern horror films: they’re too ‘glossy’ and clean. Last House is beautifully shot--which is more than fine--but there is some sort of sheen cast over the entire film that makes it feel a tad too neat for the brutal subject matter

Lessons Learned
Broken microwaves possess powers most of us have only dreamed of. As someone who works for an appliance company, I’m suddenly wondering if this is a new direction in marketing
The Village People aren’t the only beneficiaries of the YMCA

Always let your dishes soak
If a murderous madman wants to pee, keep the man happy and let him pee
Spinoff Pitch
Mortal Microwave: The Microwave That Blows People’s Heads Up (to be written by Patton Oswalt and directed by George Barry) 
This is definitely worthy of a view, if only so you can draw your own judgment on whether it was necessary or respectful a film. Like its predecessors, Last House is not an easy film to sit through and contains some pretty icky moments of rape. The DVD includes a quickie “behind the scenes” (which is essentially a glorified trailer) and a few wisely deleted delete scenes, so it’s not quite a buy. Give it a chance and let me know your thoughts. As I said earlier, it lacks the moral ambiguity and hazy depth of past takes, but you know what? For 90 minutes, it gives you a suspenseful and well-filmed ride. It’s not my personal apex of what a remake should be, but it’s enjoyable enough for what it is and entertains on a certain, if tamer, level.


  1. I enjoyed this one, it is a definite improvement over the original material, but in a different way. I am not sure if that makes sense or not. But there you go.

  2. I agree with your low point of the film, regarding the clean look. Even the dirt on Mari's character seems to be carefully placed. Good review! You know my thoughts on this one already. But a quick recap... I hate the microwave scene.

  3. Heavenz: It really does kill me that I can't decide how I feel about the microwave. It was just SO advertised that I never had that chance to find it a) out of the tone and stupid or b) totally awesomely gratuitous. Grr marketing!

    Wings: I do get ya. It takes the concept and makes everything a little more serious and believable, even if I do think it loses something in its cleanness.

  4. Nice review. I went to the theater to watch this one. When I got home I decided to read what others were saying, and was surprised at the number of people saying how bad it was. As far as remakes go, I thought this was one of the better films out there. I'm happy to see I'm not the only person that thinks that.

  5. I think hardcore horror fans were just so eager to hate it after the rash of remakes. I understand that sentiment, but to me, Craven's Last House was so far from being a perfect film that a remake (of a remake) wasn't offensive in the least.

    I really do think horror audiences are the toughest to please. I get in trouble sometimes for defending the Saw films, not because they're great, but because they're no worse--and in many cases, quite better--than the subpar sequels to F13 and Halloween in the late 80s to 90s. We get this bloated sense of what's a classic and find it impossible to give anything that's not amazing a fair shot.