The original release of The Last House on the Left is very much a product of its time. The entire concept of the film is rooted around the loss of the innocence of the 1960s, and the social and political undercurrent woven in by Wes Craven is mired in uneven acting, fumbling stabs at comic relief, and a director still trying to figure out what he's doing, really. There's no overlooking the impact its unflinchingly graphic nature has left on the landscape since its release nearly forty years ago, but even though I'd say I respect the movie, it really hasn't held up particularly well over the years. This is a film that lends itself better to a remake than most, and in the wake of the colossal successes of the Saw juggernaut and Hostel, it's kind of surprising a redux hasn't been hammered out until now.
As Mari (Sara Paxton) turns a posh SUV down a dusty, unpaved road, her father (Tony Goldwyn) tells her to keep an eye out for the last house on the left. It's kind of an inside joke, really: this old family house is the only thing around for miles, on the edge of an idyllic lake and blanketed by a sprawling forest. This has been the family's sanctuary from the outside world for years now, and it's their first outing since the death of Mari's older brother. Mari's a good kid -- bright-eyed, a solid student, and an accomplished swimmer to boot -- but that doesn't mean she's all that keen on Family Time either. Her mother (Monica Potter) caves in and grudgingly agrees to let Mari take the car out to meet up with her old friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). The two of them haven't really worked out much of a plan for the evening or anything, but after chatting up a kid trying to score some cigarettes in a backwater convenience store, Mari's reluctantly dragged over to a motel room where Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) says he has some killer weed. It's supposed to be a surgical strike: y'know, waltz in, grab a baggie, and hop back in the SUV to do...well, something else. They linger a little too long, though, and after Justin's folks come back early, Mari and Paige have a whole hell of a lot more to worry about than the scent of a smoldering joint in the air.
This seedy motel room is where Krug (the consistently impressive Garret Dillahunt) has been holed up: a horrifically cruel butcher sprung from a prison transfer by his moll Sadie (Riki Lindhome), his unhinged brother Frank (Aaron Paul), and Justin, his disconnected weakling of a son. It's just another a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, sure, but Krug and company are on the run; they can't risk letting the girls dart over to the police all teary-eyed and bring any more heat on them than they already have. They drag Mari and Paige along with them, but these two girls know that this isn't going to end well, and they fight back with everything they have. It's not nearly enough, though, and the more they struggle, the more vicious the attacks by Krug and his flunkies become. Rape and murder quickly follow. With their stolen SUV trashed and a torrential downpair keeping them from trudging towards anything close to civilization, Krug and his gang make their way to the only shelter for miles, but little do they know it's the summer home of the girl they'd just shot in cold blood. The Collingwoods quickly realize what's happened to their daughter and that the butchers they're harboring are to blame, and with little else to lose, they sink to the killers' level and seek their own revenge...
The Last House on the Left veers away from virtually all of the usual missteps of horror remakes. While too many of these movies lean on spastic, hypercaffeinated visual barrages, The Last House on the Left instead prefers longer cuts and more deliberate compositions. The raw immediacy of the original film is lost, yes, but there's something about the quietly idyllic photography that makes the brutality in the remake that that much more disturbing. Director Dennis Iliadis (Hardcore) brings to the film a true sense of artistry, and rather than mindlessly heap on nu-metal and PG-13 skittishness like most of the horror remake set, it's the restraint of The Last House on the Left that makes it so effective. This remake is less sadistic on the surface -- no forced lesbianism, urination, carved initials, spilled intestines, or whirring chainsaws -- but because it's anchored by a more sympathetic and more talented cast, the end effect is that its brutality is far more difficult to watch...the sense that these are people being tortured rather than fodder in a grungy exploitation flick. In fact, the grotesquely visceral imagery of the original film was in some ways distancing; it was cruel to the point of seeming surreal. The torment in the remake is unflinching but less graphic, and because it does seem so much more realistic, it's considerably more disturbing. The rape in this remake in particular is as savage and unnerving as anything I've been ever subjected to on film. It also dispenses with much of any stab at humor; there aren't any inept, bumbling cops to meander around here. Krug and his gang are no longer the over-the-top cariactures from the original, and the way they toy with their prey and keep their sadism simmering just below the surface is much more unsettling. The dull parents of the 1972 film dragged that movie down quite a bit, and they're also more effectively written and played by a considerably more engaging set of actors this time around.
Anyone who's caught the theatrical trailer or any of the TV spots already knows one of the most sweeping changes from the original film: Mari survives the initial attack. That's sure to frustrate purists, but it actually ratchets up the intensity of the second half of the movie. In the original, Mari's parents were consumed by their thirst for revenge and little else; here, their daughter barely clinging to life means that they have the additional concern of keeping her out of the sight of the killers. The remake also more deftly clues in Mari's parents that they'd been harboring the butchers who ravaged their daughter, a plot point that never seemed all that convincing in the original.
The core of the original The Last House on the Left remains intact, though. It's a cautionary tale, really: if any of the kids in the movie had heeded their parents' warnings, the girls never would've found themselves in harm's way, and Krug and his gang would've slunk away into the shadows. A common thread in Wes Craven's first couple of films was watching the civilized sink to the depths of their inhuman tormenters, and this not only carries over to the remake but is used to much better effect. An unspoken but noticeable twist in the remake is that although Krug and company torment these two girls relentlessly, they don't attack except when provoked. It leaves open the question of what would've happened if Mari and Paige had submissively gone along with the gang's plan. There's really no question that they would've been degraded and humiliated -- Sadie sapphically pawing at Mari's chest makes that clear enough -- but rape...? Murder...? This too adds an additional layer of intensity. Aside from that one brief glimmer of regret, the original movie featured a set of feral animals. Here, the outcome is less inevitable, and it's more disturbing to watch someone who clearly is capable of rational thought unleash the murderous beast lurking inside rather than to have always been that way.
The Last House on the Left's only truly embarrassment is a sadistic tag at the end. Though it's setup with a throwaway joke early on, this additional bit of splatter is cartoonishly out of step with the rest of the movie, and it feels stapled on to pander for one final scream from a theater teeming with gorehounds. In virtually every other respect, though, The Last House on the Left is remarkably powerful. This isn't mindless exploitation but a revenge film whose disturbing, unsettling nature is heightened by its intelligence and artistry. Unnerving, well-acted, sharply written, and strikingly directed, The Last House on the Left isn't just one of the most exceptional horror remakes from the past ten years, but it ranks among the best the genre's had to offer in recent memory, period. Recommended.
This Blu-ray disc includes both the theatrical version of The Last House on the Left as well as a new unrated cut that clocks in around four minutes longer. The most dramatic extension is a rape scene that somehow is even more grueling to watch. It's not that the additional footage is all that much more graphic, but the length of the savage attack coupled with the camera lingering on the face of the shattered, ravaged Mari is truly unnerving. Other differences that particularly stand out are a shattered neck in the opening salvo as well as some stabbings in the theatrical cut that have been extended here to outright carving.
Wes Craven's original take on The Last House on the Left nearly four decades ago was so rough-hewn that I'm sure someone, somewhere back in the early '70s mistook it for a snuff film. The stylized photography of this remake is much more accomplished, and though it doesn't exactly push an overpriced home theater rig to the breaking point, this disc still very much takes advantage of what Blu-ray has to offer.
The saturation of its palette fades as The Last House on the Left becomes more and more bleak. The brilliant, vivid blues of an Olympic-size swimming pool are a hazy memory by the time the girls are ravaged in the woods, and just as all hope has drained away, so too have most traces of color. The loss of those hues is subtle but remarkably effective. As expected for a day-and-date release in high-def, detail and clarity are generally robust. The 1.85:1 image does degrade under low light, though: contrast flattens out, black levels devolve into a lifeless purplish-gray, and fine detail is softened. Although the weight of its grain is much tighter than the original film, this remake of The Last House on the Left does boast a gritty texture that's at least somewhat reminiscent of the movie that inspired it, and this Blu-ray disc doesn't suffer from any trace of excessive noise reduction or stutters in its VC-1 encode.
The 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on The Last House on the Left is surprisingly underwhelming. Effects I'd expect to be piercing and intense -- the violent car crash that opens it, for one -- just don't pack all that much of a wallop. Even punches and kicks aren't reinforced by the usual sorts of meaty thuds. The distinctness and clarity I'm used to hearing on Blu-ray just isn't here at all, and although I don't have the DVD in hand to do a direct comparison, I doubt I'd be able to pick up on much of a difference between those two discs. Surround use is primarily atmospheric -- chirping birds and torrential rain -- but there is some directionality with gutteral screams and the splatter in its final few seconds. If there's much more than that, it's subtle enough to not draw attention to itself, and the lower frequencies tend to be fairly light as well. The Last House on the Left isn't a disappointment, exactly, but even for a movie with a low-key sound design, it just doesn't sound like what I've come to expect out of Blu-ray.
Lossy DTS 5.1 dubs are offered in Spanish and French, and the list of subtitles includes streams in English (SDH), Spanish, and French. For anyone keeping track, The Last House on the Left is enhanced for D-Box-enabled rigs.
There's hardly anything at all, really.
The Last House on the Left is a BD Live enabled disc, but a downloadable preview aside, there's nothing at all related to the movie lurking around online. A digital copy is included on the second disc in the set.
The Final Word
More artfully crafted than the original and even more unnerving, The Last House on the Left is among a select few of the horror remakes from the past decade to stand out as truly effective. As a Blu-ray disc, though, it doesn't make nearly as much of an impact, especially considering the near-total lack of extras. Genre fans seeking out something disturbing and intense without releving in viscera like the Hostel and Saw set ought to consider giving The Last House on the Left a look. Because Universal really hasn't assembled all that compelling a package here, those with more of a casual interest may prefer to opt for a rental or wait for the $40 MSRP to ease back instead. Recommended.
Possible Compatibility Issue
At least on my PlayStation 3, the last two minutes of chapter 19 on the unrated cut were essentially unplayable, randomly skipping forward thirty seconds or so at a time. The disc played without a hitch on my BD-ROM, however. I couldn't spot any visible damage on the disc, but it had come loose during shipping, so that may be to blame. Without another disc or an alternate set-top player to test this one on, though, I can't say for certain if it's an authoring misstep or just something wrong with my copy. Might be worth keeping an eye out on blogs and message boards to see if this happens to anyone else...