The Last House on the Left is a studio remake of the seminal seventies indie torture-rape-and-revenge flick directed by Wes Craven when he had no inkling he’d ever be mainstream — or that the stuff of gutbucket-sleaze triple-bills would one day top the box-office charts and play alongside Disney movies in the multiplex. Craven said his film was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, and it actually was — only with two female victims instead of one, the rape and murder of frolicking innocents lovingly prolonged, a sweet-and-icky instead of stoic revenge, and no religioso finale. One can make the artistic case for Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, but there’s no art to get in the way of one’s response to Last House, and no camp value (as in H.G. Lewis’s Grade-Z gore porn) to lighten the emotional load. It is what it is — although we’ll never stop debating just what “it” is.
I didn’t want to see the remake (all my friends begged off), but ever since my phrase “torture porn” acquired a life of its own (for better and worse), I’ve had a professional duty to follow the subgenre’s course. And I’m glad I did. The new Last House, directed by Dennis Iliadis, is fascinating — and extremely entertaining if you don’t mind being morally corrupted at every juncture. It’s a far less disturbing experience — not because the scenes in which the two young girls get beaten, raped, stabbed, shot, etc. aren’t explicit and grueling, but because everything around those scenes has been altered to make us less uncomfortable. The killers are not motivelessly malignant — they’re criminals on the lam, sociopathic but essentially rational, more intent on self-preservation than sadistic kicks. One of the victims is a “bad girl” (by horror-movie standards): She talks the angel-faced ingénue (Sara Paxton) with the long thighs and tidy butt (the camera lingers on that pale, virginal bod) into accompanying a stranger to a motel and smoking dope. And there is a huge change in the plot that turns the hopeless, nihilistic carnage in the second half of Craven’s original into something suffused with good old-fashioned family values.
Given that Dad (Tony Goldwyn) is a skillful surgeon and Mom (Monica Potter) is prepared to use her feminine wiles to divert her family’s predators, we can finally relax and enjoy the torture — because it’s the bad guys getting beaten and skewered and dismembered. (They take a lot of killing.) It’s yummy stuff. You could say the injuries the good guys inflict are in self-defense — until the giddy final act, which would make even TV’s Dexter say “damn.” As in the (dubious) Dexter, we have no doubt that justice has been served, this time with whipped-cream and a cherry on top. I still loathe Michael Haneke’s postmodern home-invasion saga Funny Games, which targets movies like this and the viewers who get off on them. But that doesn’t mean his targets aren’t good ones.
For the coming sequel to the book The Enlightened Bracketologist, I ranked the most rousing bad-guy comeuppances. What surprised me was being reminded that many of the screen’s classic villains — among them Robert Mitchum in both Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear (the good one), Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (one of the key vigilante-revenge movies), and Robert Ryan in Bad Day at Black Rock — don’t die at the end. The hero turns them over to the justice system. The bad guys die in Westerns but only because it’s kill-or-be-killed, and even then the justice is pretty swift. (I caught The Tall T again last night and Randolph Scott lets Richard Boone, the chief bad guy — he murdered a little kid! — ride away. If Boone didn’t turn around and try to shoot Scott, he’d be riding over the end credits.) We wouldn’t stand for that now. Death Wish changed everything. You can even say that the first part of the new Last House is just foreplay; it’s all about getting us hot to watch our heroic stand-ins torture and kill.