The low-budget grunginess that helped make Wes Craven’s 1972 original “Last House on the Left” an unsettling memento of its era is wiped clean in Dennis Iliadis’ remake — one unnecessary on every level save the paramount commercial one. Tweaked in ways that seem less like updates than concessions to current genre conventions — complete with more graphic gore and sexual violence — this tale of very bad things happening to very nice people should clean up at the B.O. But if the original could be accused of having a real point (even a subtext), the uninspired redo has none whatsoever.
Much-imitated even in its famous adline (“To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie … ‘”), Craven’s film sparked unusual controversy (as well as long-term popularity) for a drive-in movie. It was decried as sleazy and sick by many mainstream critics, a truly disturbing reflection of the times by others. Latter cred was no doubt enhanced by its admitted inspirational source: Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” which also centers on rape, murder and their fate-decreed avenging.
Manson murders, Altamont, rock-star deaths, an unbending Nixon White House and an unending Vietnam War, among other factors, had by 1972 made the moment eerily right for a crudely effective story of two weekend “hippie chicks” who have the ill fortune to meet up with some of the drug culture’s scummiest bottom-dwellers. Even the pic’s many clumsy elements added to a banality-of-evil air rife with disillusion and distrust.
This version blows that on several levels, separating the bad from the good right off as principal villain Krug (Garret Dillahunt) is rescued by confederates, leaving two cops dead. Meanwhile, the original’s credibly ordinary family is replaced by a typically modern movie-fantasy clan: The Collingwoods consist of surgeon dad John (Tony Goldwyn), youthfully glam mum Emma (Monica Potter) and champion-swimmer daughter Mari (Sara Paxton), all vacationing in their country summer home, complete with detached guesthouse and dock.
When Mari opts to go out with friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), the latter insists they score the premium-grade pot offered by shaggy fellow teen Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a stranger. This goes well enough until the trio’s motel-room antics are interrupted by the return of Krug (who is Justin’s father), Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and “Uncle” Francis (Aaron Paul), who decide the girls pose a security risk. Taken to a rural road in the Collingwoods’ appropriated SUV, the hostages attempt escape. But such efforts only worsen the young women’s ever more dire straits.
Script by Carl Ellsworth (“Disturbia,” “Red Eye”) and Adam Alleca makes several significant changes to Craven’s original. More than half the film now focuses on the parents’ revenge, whereas before it was more of a macabre coda. “Junior” is no longer a moronic adult junkie, but innocent pearl-in-a-dungheap Justin. And the finale softens “House’s” blows with a soothing dose of reaffirmed family values.
Though it replaces the 1972 edition’s rough-edged relentlessness with something more predictable, routinely packaged and occasionally turgid, the remake will still strike many as strong meat by current mainstream horror standards. Nevertheless, hyperbolic camerawork and body-blow Dolby thuds can’t equal the queasy, plain impact of original’s most upsetting moments. (Nor is Dillahunt — handsome, buff and eventually shirtless — any match for David Hess’ Krug in palpable psychopathy.)
In his first English-language feature, Greek helmer Iliadis (“Hardcore”) does a job that’s workmanlike, if seldom more. The fate of Uncle Francis is a grotesque high point, but the final faceoff degenerates into protracted action-climax excess. Perfs are adequate.
South Africa substitutes for Northern California in the majority of the technically polished pic’s scenes.