Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 13, 2009)
Hollywood remakes so many horror movies that I assume we’ll eventually find remakes of the remakes. They’re still working on initial remakes now, though, and 2009 brought an update for 1972’s The Last House on the Left.
Dr. John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn), wife Emma (Monica Potter), and 17-year-old daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) visit their remote lake house. While Mari sees her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), they encounter a seedy young man named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark). Paige wants to buy some pot, and Justin promises her can hook them up with what she wants.
Bad move, as it turns out Justin is the son of Krug (Garret Dillahunt), a violent criminal whose brother Francis (Aaron Paul) and bisexual girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) recently freed him from incarceration. While Justin, Paige and Mari get high in a motel room, the other three return and ratchet up the tension level. In need of funds and transportation, Krug and his cronies steal the girls’ money and Mari’s SUV.
Unfortunately for the girls, the baddies don’t stop there. They feel they can’t let the witnesses go free, so they kidnap them. As they hightail it out of town, Mari tries to escape, and the SUV crashes. This leads to various forms of torture as Krug and company torture the girls. Eventually things come back to Mari’s parents as well. I won’t add any more to my synopsis because it would be tough for me to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that much violence and immorality ensues.
When I look at a remake, normally I like to discuss whether or not it tops its predecessor. In the case of Last House, this question became moot, as there was almost no way it couldn’t be a better movie than the 1972 original. I know the flick has a good fanbase, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out its appeal. Due to its graphic nature, it broke some barriers, but it was such an amateurish film with so many flaws that it flops. From camerawork to score to acting, almost everything that could be crummy is crummy in the 1972 Last House. I can forgive its primitive production values – indeed, they may add to the flick’s potential feeling of realism – but I can’t get past its cheesiness.
At the very least, the 2009 remake provides a much better made movie. It boasts real actors and doesn’t look like something filmed by a bunch of chimps. Framing that makes sense? Logical editing? A score that doesn’t feel like it’d be more appropriate for a tampon commercial? All of these factors alone would mean that the 2009 Last House improves on its predecessor.
But none of them mean it’s really any good. For the most part, the 2009 version sticks pretty close to the original’s template, especially during its first half. It veers away a little more strongly in the final hour, so expect some twists there.
Which I regard as a good thing, as a more literal adaptation would’ve been awfully boring for folks who saw the original film. Granted, the 2009 edition doesn’t change events so much that much of it comes as a surprise, but I do appreciate the attempt to rework the tale in a few ways.
Not that all the alterations work. Most do, but the minor backstory about Mari’s dead older brother goes nowhere. Perhaps it’s meant to add emotion to the flick, but it simply doesn’t bring anything useful to the table. It’s thrown out there and left without much support.
One significant change relates to the movie’s tone. The 1972 Last House offered a strange mix of brutal imagery and sub-moronic comedy. The remake totally loses the scenes with the cops, and since they were the main source of attempted laughs, the comic relief goes out the window. I definitely like that decision, as the jokes/slapstick felt horribly out of place in the original film. The remake establishes a much more consistent tone and allows the viewer to remain entrenched in its world more easily.
The 2009 film also portrays its characters in a more realistic manner. Despite the poor acting, the Collingwoods and Mari’s friend – named “Phyllis” in the original – came across as real people, but Krug and his associates were all silly caricatures. It became tough to take the movie’s events seriously because the baddies were so ridiculous and over the top.
In the remake, Krug and company seem significantly more realistic. Their actions display better motivation, for one; in the original, they tortured Mari and Phyllis solely for sadistic kicks, but here their behavior seems more logical. Plus, the characters simply come across as better drawn and not so cartoony. Some of that stems from the superior actors, but a lot of it comes from the script, as the writers obviously decided to allow Krug and the others to present real – albeit psychotic – people.
Originally named “Junior”, Justin gets the biggest makeover. He seems like an intellectually stunted weirdo in the 1972 version, whereas he’s more of a troubled kid here. The casting helps again, partially because Clark actually looks like he could be Dillahunt’s kid; in the prior flick, Krug and Junior looked like they were about the same age! The treatment of Justin also makes him more of a sympathetic character; Junior was just too creepy to earn much affection from the audience.
The 2009 version focuses on sex less than the original but it proves bloodier. I suppose that’s a sign of the times and shows the MPAA’s bias; the film does contain a rape scene, but sex still doesn’t play as much of a role as in the prior flick, and the violence is a bit more graphic.
While I firmly believe that the 2009 Last House is a much better film than its 1972 predecessor, that doesn’t mean I think it’s an especially good movie. Some of this stems from my great disenchantment with the original; in my book, it wouldn’t be tough to improve on it, so a mediocre Last House would still be a step up in quality.
However, I think most of my lukewarm reaction to the remake results simply from its mediocrity. Perhaps the film would’ve worked better for me if I’d never seen the original; while the 2009 edition does alter some story points, the two are still pretty close, so no huge surprises result. I essentially knew where the story would go, and that may have dampened the tale’s impact.
Or it could just be an average film. To be sure, it does what it wants to do for the most part, and it keeps us with it. Nonetheless, the 2009 Last House never quite catches fire, as it suffers from a surprising lack of emotional impact. It provides a competent take on its story but not better than that.