I hate the term "torture porn". As an avid (but not hardcore) horror fan and all-around movie lover, the phrase denigrates my interest in the latest Saw flick without requiring its detractors to see it. For me, a slasher like that is a gory magic trick, a twisted prank experience designed to make the audience squirm and gasp. I go to see them and laugh when the audience goes "oh, gross!", because I know ten guys in a warehouse worked tirelessly to score that exact reaction. Wes Craven's 1972 flick The Last House on the Left is not like that. Similar to the original Texas Chain Saw Masscare, Craven's movie (produced by Sean Cunningham) looks like something someone dug out of a dirty basement. It's brutal, unrelenting, and unpleasant to watch. The 2009 version is a true remake, a decidedly different take on the same story, but is that enough?
While there are a few cosmetic changes, the plot remains basically the same. Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) is on vacation with her family at their summer home in the woods when she and her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) find themselves kidnapped and brutalized at the hands of an escaped convict named Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and his crew (Aaron Paul, Riki Lindholme, Spencer Treat Clark). After raping Mari, killing Paige and disposing of both of them, the outlaws end up unwittingly staying at the first house they see: the very house where Mari's parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) are awaiting her return, and once they discover what's happened to their daughter, the only solution is to take matters into their own hands.
Dennis Iliadis's Last House is visually stunning. The crystal clear, picture-perfect photography by DP Sharone Meir is idyllic and serene. Time seems to move in slow motion. Even when things go wrong for Mari and Paige, the movie lulls the audience along as if it were a surrealistic lucid dream. It's the polar opposite of the garish, grainy, 16mm style of Wes Craven's movie, but that's the point. While a lot of fans have criticized and complained, I saw it as a distinct attempt to bring something new to the table; a planned element in the remake process. Even if it betrays how modern and Hollywood the remake is, it actively looks like something. A straightforward look would be boring, and recreating the original's appearance would be even worse.
Other changes are not so good. (Mild spoiler alert for the 1972 version.) As shown in the trailer, Mari floats back to her parents house and crawls onto the deck, but both girls die in Craven's original. In that movie it gave Mari's parents a taste for brutal eye-for-an-eye vengeance, but the 2009 film's use of a recently-deceased son to fill in the gaps is a weak substitute. Theoretically, it's meant to up the ante: Emma and John aren't just saving Mari, they're protecting their remaining child, the last vestige of their family, but I wonder why they don't just leave; while there's some plot nonsense about missing boat keys and the next house being six miles away, neither the thugs nor the Collingwoods have a vehicle, so if they sneak out with Mari, the thugs probably won't notice in time to catch up and the Collingwoods can go anywhere.
Speaking of the thugs, the original Krug and company were a force of nature, a deeply dangerous and unpredictable group of villains who amped up their film because they acted on pure instinct instead of choice. 2009's crew is just a group of exaggerated characteristics. Garret Dillahunt has skewed family values, Aaron Paul (better used on "Breaking Bad") is lecherous and a bit crazy, Spencer Treat Clark acts extra-mopey. The worst of it, though, goes to Riki Lindhome, playing another in a long line of female villains defined with a single flavor: bitter, vindictive jealousy. All of her scenes with Mari are her trashing Mari's supposedly posh lifestyle, picking on her makeup and clothing, and saying "bitch" at every given opportunity. She even looks petulant and hurt for the briefest moment after Dillahunt has had his way with Mari. It's an annoying misstep of characterization I'd rather forget.
As Emma and John realize the truth and begin to enact their revenge, the blood starts to flow, and the audience clapped and cheered. Does the film condone or celebrate violence? Is rape being used as entertainment? I don't know. It's brutal and gory, but The Last House on the Left 2009 doesn't go far enough in either direction for me to say. The original wasn't afraid to be unlikable; like a grotesque experiment, it finds the pressure points of anyone watching and pushes until the very end. While I appreciated the remake's distinct look and tone, it avoids pushing buttons altogether; it's a dash of bloodlust served with popcorn that can be forgotten on the way home. Despite my reservations about the term and its many misapplications, I understand why "torture porn" makes people angry: shouldn't on-screen brutality serve a purpose or a point? I'll never forget seeing Craven's movie because it inspired a reaction, forcing me to second-guess what I was seeing on the screen. The remake isn't terrible, isn't "torture porn", and isn't much else either: to avoid depth, keep repeating, "it's only a movie", "it's only a movie".
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