13 March 2009 | ametaphysicalshark
A genuinely effective thriller
The biggest problem with horror movies today, specifically major Hollywood productions, is that even more than romantic comedies and the like, it is treated by studios and directors as an entry level position. These aren't, after all, the big dramas or 'prestige' movies. The result is an endless barrage of derivative, uninteresting tripe, many of them remakes produced by the like of Michael Bay and directed by those attempting to get started in the industry. Why this is even more of a problem is because horror films and comedy films depend on one essential thing: timing. Those which fall in the category of 'suspense thrillers', those which don't really seek to scare as much as your average slasher, films like "The Last House on the Left", depend on atmosphere. They depend on the building of suspense and tension and dread, even when the outcome is insanely predictable. These films require a director who has talent with timing, with creating atmosphere, with building suspense, and most of the time, especially recently (sure, there have always been awful horror films, but there was a time when studios financed some respectable films at least), the directors who take on such projects seem either incapable or uninterested in doing all they can to make the film work.
"The Last House on the Left" is a 're-imagining' of Wes Craven's accidental classic from 1972. That film displays Craven's potential, but while certain sequences are compelling it is cheap, clumsy, has a bizarrely chirpy bluegrass score, some awful acting (and some good acting), and the movie's biggest flaw: a Benny Hill-like slapstick subplot. Still, the movie worked. It worked precisely because Craven managed to create that atmosphere. That feel. The biggest fear I had going into this 're-imagining' is that the director Dennis Iliadis would turn out to be another Marcus Nispel, coming off his one previous film from 2004, "Hardcore", a film about prostitutes I had never heard about.
I needn't have worried. The film is far from perfect, but Iliadis' direction is one of the film's strongest points. Along with the excellent photography the film creates a dark, foreboding, grimy atmosphere of horror, and wisely cuts out the original film's slapstick, and also fixes the score: replacing it with gorgeous, haunting compositions which occasionally give way to guitars, but thankfully not too often. Iliadis uses hand-held camera as well as anyone, not over-doing it at all, but filming everything with a stark sort of clarity, and he finds a surprisingly effective rhythm for the film which keeps it from ever being mundane. The director is one to watch out for in the horror and thriller genres. Perhaps his most impressive achievement in the film is the incredibly tasteful and brutally disturbing rape scene. The film, like the original, avoids the pornographic nature of many rape-revenge thrillers, such as "I Spit on Your Grave" or for a more recent example the 'unofficial' remake of "The Last House on the Left" from 2005: "Chaos", which was so gleefully vicious it became sickening, not effectively disturbing.
Michael Phillips said it best: "The way director Iliadis shapes the key misery-inducing sequence, there's no hype or slickness or attempt to make the rape palatable or visually "dynamic." For that you have to go see Watchmen." The performances help. The only weak one is Riki Lindhome as Sadie, the murderous Krug's girlfriend. She takes her top off more than once for the movie's unneeded but inevitable nudity, but does little else. Garret Dillahunt is great as Krug and the rest of the cast good too, especially Monica Potter as Emma, the raped Mary's mother.
I won't spoil the changes to the story for you but it does a lot to separate itself from the original. It's not a straight remake and the changes work. The film's ultimate triumph is its intimacy. Iliadis succeeds in putting you in Mary's place and in her parents' place. Not one who succumbs much to vengeful thinking, I was convinced by the film that I'd have done the same things were I in the place of Mary's father, John, played by Tony Goldwyn.
The film's major flaw is the very last scene, a nonsensical moment belonging more in a Stuart Gordon film than this one. Up to that point, in spite of some mediocre sequences, the film is a triumph of atmosphere and style, and is genuinely well-written. If you're looking for fun or an intellectually stimulating film look elsewhere. For a shockingly, shockingly good rape-revenge thriller look no further. This movie works. It doesn't only stand head and shoulders above every other recent horror remake (and certainly the ones out so far in 2009), but it is in a whole other league when compared to most of the genre films Hollywood forces down our throats.