The violence is immediate, unflinching and relentless in The Last House on the Left, a movie of shocking sadism and cruelty.
Most shocking of all is the performance of Sara Paxton. The onetime teen star (Aquamarine) is objectified by the camera long before the horrific, graphic rape that is the triggering event in this remake of the 1972 movie that made Wes Craven famous. But Paxton's humanity shines through. And as her character, Mari, suffers the insufferable, our heart breaks for her.
The new film is torture porn at its most torturous. Well-crafted and faithful to Craven's manipulative vengeance plot, it makes violence violent again. The grisly, soulless horror of today often seems designed for sniggering, soul-deadened teens and their arrested-development elders, people who cackle at each callous killing that the ingenious effects and makeup people can deliver. There's little sniggering in Last House. This is horror as every parent's worst nightmare: a daughter peer-pressured into one bad decision, and its awful consequences.
Mari is the over-achieving daughter of a doctor (Tony Goldwyn) and a housewife (Monica Potter), a family still in mourning over a dead son. A weekend at the country house will help.
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Except that Mari wants to go to town, hang with her old pal Paige, a clerk at the local convenience store. A cute, brooding boy (Spencer Treat Clark) shows up and offers to sell some weed. Paige takes the bait.
Dread hangs over this because of the first moments of the movie. A murderer (Garret Dillahunt) is sprung on the way to prison, and the cops escorting him are slaughtered in a scene almost unrivaled in its savagery. We know three psychopaths are on the loose, and we know the escapee has a son.
Anyone remembering the original Last House will recall the twist, the crimes and the place where the criminals ironically end up.
One of the reasons the horror in this is so personal is the use of unnerving close-ups. The camera lingers over a terrified or cruel expression, or more luridly, over Mari dressing and undressing. Director Dennis Iliadis provokes both admiration and revulsion.
What's to admire? It's been updated to match the instant intimacy of the MySpace generation. And if you're going to show violence, you have to show its consequences. Characters are shell-shocked, bodies endure stunning injuries and abuse. This is a horror movie that illustrates the difference between cringing and feeling.
But Iliadis and Co. (Craven and his son Jonathan took producing credits) are working within a weary formula and pandering to a demographic. You can admire the artistry. But deep down, you know they were just pushing the envelope for an audience that demands that this House be that much uglier than the last one.
Except for Paxton. It's as if she reminded them and us that victims are more than just numbers in a B-movie body count.