Wes Craven was just a hopeless hippy, looking for a way to break into the major movie markets of the late '60s/early '70s - and clearly, being a displaced teacher wasn't going to cut it. Taking some advice from fellow social drop-out Sean S. Cunningham, the duo decided to fashion a film strictly for the local 42nd Street raincoat crowd. In a burst of (borrowed) creativity, Craven came up with something known as Krug and Company. After a couple of additional title changes - Night of Vengeance, Sex Crime of the Century - the now infamous The Last House on the Left was unleashed on an ill-prepared public. Nearly 37 years later, it's a skuzzball classic, uncompromising and brutal. Now, nearly four decades later, Craven has been reinventing his canon for a new generation of fright fans. With a successful update of The Hills Have Eyes (let's not talk about the sequel) and a reinvention of A Nightmare on Elm Street in the works, his calculated efforts have paid off. This is especially true of the redux of the film that started it all. While not as stomach-churning as the original, the new The Last House on the Left leaves just as large an impression.
It's been a while since the Collingwoods - athlete daughter Mari, doctor dad John and school teacher Emma - have been up to the lake house. Ever since the death of oldest boy Ben, the family has been suffering in silence. This vacation, however, could mean the start of a whole new chapter in their life. Things get turned around rather quickly, however, when Mari accidentally meets up with escaped con Krug and his wicked gal pal Sadie. Along with brother Francis and son Justin, this notorious criminal is looking to get out of Dodge as soon as possible. Sadly, Mari and her friend Paige cross their paths, and something quite horrific happens. Later on, during a torrential rainstorm, Krug and the others find themselves stranded. They seek shelter at a house near the lake - a very same residence owned by John and Emma Collingwood. Believing themselves safe, our villains bed down for the night. When it is discovered who these interlopers really are, however, our parents decide that, on behalf of their victimized child, it's time to get a little payback.
The Last House on the Left is one horror film update that definitely plays better on the small screen. Removed from all those cinematic expectations that come with a theatrical release and already understood as being different (if also slightly inferior) to the depraved Craven original, one is now allowed to simply sit back and enjoy what director Dennis Illiadis is trying to create. While the first film played perfectly to a grindhouse geared audience, exploitation elements famously front and center and everything turned up to "11", this new version is all about morality - or better yet, how quickly we are willing to forget same to seek out a little bloody revenge. In essence, The Last House on the Left is all set-up and pay-off. Nothing happens organically or by chance. Characters make decisions and then watch as fate f*cks with them. Before they know it, consequences come calling, and everything goes dark, depraved, and very, very deadly. Sure, no one deserves to be raped, or stabbed, or have their hand shoved in a garbage disposal, but when you make the dumb-ass (or desperado) decisions we see here, violence is perhaps the only viable result.
Still, Iliadis has his own ideas about what makes for surefire cinematic tension, and sometimes, The Last House on the Left forgets it's being watched. In languishes and lounges, taking its own sweet time in racketing up the repugnance. Krug and the gang are set up as insane, psychotic, unhinged, and highly lethal, but outside of a vendetta against the cops, it sure takes a lot to get their killer instincts going. Once they've tapped into their inner criminality, however, it's almost impossible for them to stop. One of the bigger quandaries in the characterization is the notion that refugees from the law, eager to get out of the area where they've been made and are under investigation, would instead sit around the house of a doctor and his wife and make chitchat, all the while simmering with a need to continue their cruel and calculated spree. Of course, if they simply kept their cravings in check, we wouldn't have a movie. They'd have their coffee, catch a few winks, and be on their way once morning breaks. Still, it's interesting how gratuitous it all is. Krug et. al. have to be as heinous as possible in order to justify the Collingwoods going all Voorhees on them. In turn, Mom and Dad's murderous intentions amp up our baddies' bravado. It's a visceral viscous cycle.
And we love every minute of it. There is nothing better than the kind of over-the-top vigilantism that marks a movie like The Last House on the Left. Unlike the original film, where we felt a small sense of sympathy for our misguided murderers, these people earn their purposed payback. We never once sense that there is anything redeemable in Krug, Sadie, or Francis. They commit their acts with happy go lucky glee, avoiding reflection on anything rational or real. Sure, they can come across as a Southern bumpkin Manson Family, complete with bad facial hair and wild ideas about sex and society, but their true passion is destruction - and they do a lot of it here. Perhaps that's why Craven's original idea - swiped oddly enough from Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring - works so well. Putting parents in the place of cold blooded killers may question the very nature of humanity, but it does deliver the kind of Neanderthal nastiness that the situation deserves. With all the other excellent elements in place - good acting turns from Garret Dillahunt, Riki Lindhome, Monica Potter, Tony Goldwyn, and Sara Paxton and a solid script from Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth - Iliadis manage to make the concept his own. This may not be your ancestor's Last House, and that's perfectly okay. It's yours - and it's equally effective.
There are actually two versions of the film available on this DVD. The first is the standard theatrical cut, rated "R", and running approximately 110 mins. The second is an official "Unrated" cut running a full four minutes longer. So what are the differences, you ask? (SPOILER ALERT) Well, for one thing, the centerpiece rape of Sara Paxton's Mari goes on for much longer than in the original. It's unsettlingly prolonged and quite graphic, including some sickening sounds of forced sexual congress that will leave you literally nauseous. In addition, the death of Francis at the hands of the Collingwoods is protracted, with much more kitchen appliance finger munching and knife-fu. There are also added moments of conversation between Krug and his captives, as well as a couple of additional beat before our parents go gonzo on their uninvited guests. The blood is also amplified - a gunshot to Mari's back goes from a glimpse to a geyser as does a close-up of some damage to Sadie's bullet-pierced eye. In all, the additions make the movie a much more horrific and sickening experience - right in line with Craven's original.
As for the technical aspects of the release, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks good, if just a little soft. This is especially true of the outdoor sequences with rain pelting our heroine and her fight for life. On the big screen, this material looked terrifically tactile - you could actually feel the storm striking the surface of the lake. Even on a high end home theater set-up, the DVD lacks such details (one imagines the Blu-ray doing a better job of capturing this concept). Elsewhere, Illiadis' artistic approach comes across with vibrance and evocativeness. We sense the desolation of the Collingwood home and cringe as Krug and his pals come sauntering into their world. While it does rely a little too much on the desaturated dimension of post-modern horror, this is still a good looking film.
Just as relentless as the vision, the aural elements here really sell the disgusting, depraved nature of the situation. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix does a great job of setting up ambient dread, while amplifying elements - the aforementioned rape - that really make things disconcerted. During the finale, when creaking floorboards and sonic misdirection are key, the tech specs keep up brilliantly. And John Murphy's sensational score accents everything with slow burn sinister excellence.
Sadly, aside from two different versions of the film, there are very few bonus features offered. The "Inside Look" featurette is really nothing more than a three minute EPK about the movie itself. Very little insight, lots of advance advertising notice. The deleted scenes are a combination of outtakes (we see a stunt driving crash the Collingwood SUV) and alternative takes (Krug's microwaved melon from yet another angle). Nothing here is mandatory to the main movie itself. It would have been nice to hear Craven, perhaps along with Iliadis, comment on creating this classic title for a new generation. Sadly, that will have to wait for some future deluxe digital treatment (if one ever surfaces).
It's time for a confession - this critic was not enamored of this film when he saw it in theaters a few months ago. It seemed overlong and dull, getting nowhere fast and in little rush to ramp up said slowness. Somehow, the home theater experience changed his perspective. Granted, the added material does bring the movie much closer to its '70s sleazoid sibling, but even the original cut, when viewed again, "played" better. Perhaps with one's expectations in check, and a solid sense of where the new take was going, it was easier to "enjoy" the experience. In any case, a marginal dismissal from March 2009 has magically turned into a Highly Recommended rating. As with The Descent before, the rarity of such a reversal needs to be acknowledged. Nearly four decades ago, a famous tag line warned us to repeat "It's only a movie, it's only a movie, it's only a movie...". Now, while we recognize such artifice, it's safe to say that The Last House on the Left still packs quite a punch.
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