War of the Remake: Last House(s) on the Left

Well now, this one’s a doozy to discuss!

Last House on the Left tells the story of a group of bandits (Krug, Weasel, Sadie, as well as Junior, Krug’s son) who abduct, rape and murder two girls (Mari and Phyllis), then seek shelter at a house that just so happens to belong to the parents of one of the girls they killed. The parents find out about their crime, and exact their bloody revenge.

It’s an update of an old Swedish ballad, which was in turn made into a film called The Virgin Spring by Ingmar Bergman in 1960. The ballad and Bergman film both focus on an aspect that the subsequent films ignore – that the parents actions are as equally sinful as the bandits’, and in the end, the father vows to build a church where his daughter’s body was found to atone for his sins. In either version of Last House atonement is never a real concern – the shift from religious significance has become a question of “what would you do to those who hurt your loved ones?”

The 1972 version was Wes Craven’s first feature film, and it stirred up quite the controversy – it almost single-handedly created the Video Nasty list of the 1980s, and was considered one of the most extreme, shocking films to have ever been made (and at the time, that was probably true). This is mirrored in the now infamous marketing for the film, which suggested, “to avoid fainting, keep repeating: it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…”

The original was one of the first films I discussed in my initial Infamovie run back in 2010, and I stand by my assessment of the film there – it’s every bit as lurid, shocking, violent and depraved as its reputation suggests, but at the same time has some serious intent behind it.

In the (brilliant) documentary The American Nightmare, Craven discusses the influence of the Vietnam War on creating the film. Specifically, he mentions how the shootings at Kent State (where US soldiers fired on students protesting the war) made him suddenly realise that, for the first time in his recollection, America were suddenly the bad guy, that there was “nothing to be trusted in the establishment, but everything to trust in yourself.” And so, it became redundant to make a film about right and wrong, and more poignant for the time to make a film about wrong and wronger.

Thus, Craven remade The Virgin Spring into his grim and despairing film, where all the good in the Collingwood family is stamped out by the actions of other Americans, and by themselves. There is a catharsis for the Collingwood parents when they exact their revenge, but there is no hope – their daughter has been raped and killed, and they’ll most likely go to jail too.

So it seems this would be a perfect film to get redone in the wake of the excessively sadistic horror movies that have perked up over the past decade. Ebert suggests that the horror genre “once tried to scare the audience, but now invites the audience to share the fear and pain of the characters.” While I’d agree with him, I’d say that the original intended to do that long before the remake. I’d also not necessarily say that this is necessarily a bad thing. Horror films used to be about Vincent Price sneaking up on nubile blondes, then we moved into the era of Psycho and later Halloween that try to “scare the audience”. Of course, we’ve now moved into the “sharing the fear and pain” style, and while that means we’ve had some utter crap in the wake of the shift, we’ve also had some brilliant pieces, like Inside or Martyrs.

But regardless of that, I think it’s wrong to expect Last House to be just-another-horror-film. It’s most certainly not the type of film where something jumps out at you, the girls in the audience scream, the guys in the audience pretend they didn’t and then everyone has a laugh. It’s meant to be a portrayal of brutality, of actual horror and not only jump scares. So for the current style of horror films that provide sadism over fun-scares (to varying degrees of success), the remake of Last House actually seems like a perfect fit, bringing a fish-out-of-water film in the 70s into a climate that is much more accepting of the style of film.

And, for what it’s worth, it’s a better film than the original.

Firstly, and it’s an annoying thing to try and compare in these discussions of remakes, it’s better acted. It’s annoying because it seems unfair on the originals to compare such a different style of acting. Films of the 70s tended to be largely hokey affairs, especially on the low-budget end of the spectrum, and the acting matched the overall tone. Now, in the original Last House, there are some good performances, but it’s absolutely drenched in the style of the time. Not so much an issue in the remake.

Also, and again, this is probably an unfair comparison; the remake has the budget to pull of some of the effects much more convincingly. Now, to be fair, one thing the original does exceedingly well is convincing blood – it actually looks like proper blood – but there are scenes of violence that just don’t quite meet the reality as well as the remake. This isn’t to say the original is bad and full of lame effects, but consider the following two scenes.

In the original, Estelle (mother of Mari, the victim) murders Sadie (one of the murderers) while Sadie is in a pool. They’ve had a bit of a struggle before it, and Estelle delivers the coup de grace by slashing Sadie’s throat, after running at her, arms held wide – it actually looks a little silly on it’s own, but in the context of the style of the film, it’s not too dissonant.

In the remake, there’s a scene where Emma (mother) attacks one of the murderers, simply by smashing a wine bottle over his head. It’s not stylised and accidentally-hokey like the original, it’s to-the-point and convincing.

But the difference here – with the lack of budget of the original, you have to make do with what you can – in this case, an obvious stance to showcase the knife in Estelle’s hand, an obvious show of running at Sadie and then an obvious result, as Sadie falls back into the pool clutching her throat.

The remake has the budget to spare on things like fake-glass wine bottles, and so can do something as simple as smashing it over a head with little to no effort expended on the filming of it, and it comes off as much more convincing.

Also, let’s talk about Sadie as a character.

In the original, Sadie is Krug’s woman, and every bit as sadistic as her name would not-so-subtly suggest. She’s every bit as willing in the torture of Mari and Phyllis as Krug and Weasel are, and we’re not invited to sympathise with her at all because she’s just as monstrous as the other two. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (women have the right to be as completely evil as men in films, after all) I do prefer the characterisation of Sadie in the remake, which is surprisingly subtle.

The remake actually opens with a scene that only gets mentioned in the original, in which Sadie and Francis (renamed from Weasel) bust Krug out of a police transport. It’s quite effectively shocking (it’s a jump scare that works because they use it as part of an overall scene, not just a moment on its own). Sadie instantly asks Krug if she “did good” which he doesn’t answer, and we see that she absolutely craves his approval in a dependent way.

Later on, when the three of them are menacing Mari and Paige (renamed from Phyllis) Sadie is an oddly bewitching presence – she’s definitely distinct from Krug and Francis who are almost identical in terms of character, save for Krug being the boss. She plays her words both calm and terrifying, and it makes her infinitely more interesting to watch. Later still, when Krug has raped Mari, there’s this…interesting…moment where she just holds his gaze for a moment, and it invites many interpretations – personally I feel it’s a moment of betrayal for her, as Krug’s flagrantly not caring about her reaction to his “being with” another girl, regardless of how far away from the truth that is. It’s a moment that suggests they’ve gone too far, even by their amoral standards.

This is capitalised on in a final moment, when they shoot Mari as she is swimming to get away. The three criminals look at where her body lies in the lake, and turn away as it starts to rain. Sadie lingers for a moment longer, and as the rain hits her face, her mascara runs – but we don’t know whether or not she’s crying or if it’s just the rain. It’s an admittedly obvious metaphor, but I like it (a similar version with a snowflake occurs in The Rules of Attraction)

And so what of the implications – is it somehow demeaning to make Sadie into a complex character, if her complexity revolves around a) a dependence on a psychopath, and b) the active remorse she may or may not feel, coupled with no action on her part to do anything differently? It might be, but I don’t think it plays too much into her character, certainly not to a point of distraction. Either way, she’s infinitely more interesting to watch than Sadie of the original.

Sadie aside, the characters as a whole get a massive upgrade from the original, where they served more as functions.

The original gives us Mari, a “free-spirit” who’s established as a nice girl, but I actually find to be pretty insipid; Phyllis, who functions as the slightly ballsier of the pair and I actually think is the best character from the original; Krug, Weasel and Sadie who offer little more than “bad guy” status, although Krug is shown to be incredibly cruel; Junior who is an unwilling participant in the crime, but does so because it means Krug feeds his heroin addiction; and John and Estelle, who beyond “loving parents who get their revenge” don’t get much characterisation at all.

Now, bland as the characters may be to describe, the original is still a well-performed (albeit of the style of the time) film, and the characters aren’t uninteresting to watch. They’re believable enough, and your interest is held in the film (if it’s the kind of film you’re interested in seeing) but you can’t really imagine their lives outside of the events that are depicted on screen.

The remake on the other hand does a lot more.

The Collingwoods are given a small amount of backstory, in that their son/brother died recently, and that they’re travelling to their holiday home to try and move on.

This simple change also means 1) The Collingwoods don’t live in the titular house, and so it seems more reasonable that they are so isolated and cut off, whereas the original doesn’t really mention it; 2) that the criminals would seek refuge there, as it’s the only place around for miles, 3) that the criminals would be in that town anyway – they’re on the run from the law, so they’d seek somewhere that’s not too populous, whereas the original shows Mari and Phyllis going into New York City, only to be driven back out to the woods, where the Collingwoods live, which is phenomenally coincidental.

It also means that Mari gets a bit more character to her – she’s reluctantly going on this trip, so she understandably wants to get away from the house (which is why she goes to see Paige) and is more willing to hang around with their new friend Justin (renamed from Junior) than just head home – the Collingwoods’ house is full of painful memories for her, because of her brother.

Paige is also interestingly different – while she’s actually a slightly weaker character than Phyllis, she’s also more believable, because – much as I like Phyllis as a character – she doesn’t really behave like a 17-year-old girl, but more like a 30-year-old’s approximation of what a 17-year-old girl is like. In the remake, she’s much more believably teenaged – not an idiot, like so many movies these days go for, but just not very sensible, and not really thinking about the larger things. Actually, both girls are believable teenagers without being caricatures, and I like that they’re bold and confident, but that the film doesn’t play like they deserve to be punished for that – which many horror films do.

The remake does do her a disservice though, in that once she’s dead killed, she’s forgotten, and it’s all done rather unceremoniously. In the original, possibly served by her being a more interesting character than Mari, her death is genuinely tragic, whereas the remake just kind of kills her and gets onto the Mari-centric story.

Justin is another interesting one. According to the casting call, he’s meant to be 15, but I wouldn’t have realised that without reading it. In the original, Junior lures the girls up to his apartment, purely to let Krug and the others have their demented fun with them. He doesn’t want the girls to suffer, but he needs his fix, so he does it anyway. Justin, on the other hand, is shown to be a lonely kid, who’s very shy as a result of Krug’s fathering technique, which we can understand to be less than parent-of-the-year material. He invites the girls back to the motel room they’ve holed up in, assuming that Krug, Francis and Sadie won’t be back for a while. He enjoys their company, and so it’s not an active ensnaring of the girls. The cruel irony of this is pointed out when the others do return; Krug specifically mentions the girls would have been fine had Justin not brought them back, but now that they’ve been found out it’s too much of a liability to let them live. When Francis and Krug are torturing the girls in the woods, Krug also abuses Justin by belittling him, calling out his supposed lack of masculinity, and – most significantly – forcing him to watch. Overall, it’s a much more complex system of abuse from father to son than just holding him prisoner with his heroin addiction.

John and Emma are also better served in the remake, as they have more to work with than a simple, “We are loving parents. Now we want revenge,” motivation. I like that they’re shown to have differing parental styles (John is more relaxed, Emma is more concerned) and I like that when Mari gets home after her vicious assault, they are both horrified and upset, not just instant rage monsters which seems to happen in the original. I also found it quite interesting that the film includes moments like John discovering that Mari has been raped (as a doctor, he’s pragmatically searching her body for further wounds) and how he’s affected even more so on top of his near-death daughter on his coffee table, or that Emma finds the pendant Mari was wearing in the kitchen that Justin left to tip her off as to what his father had done, and that she has a mini-breakdown realising that they’ve just sheltered the same people who did this to their daughter. They’re small moments, but they’re real, and they’re another clue that the film is smarter than a lot of other horror films of recent times.

This intelligence is also seen in the very wise decision to completely excise the bumbling cops of the original. When I first saw the original, I had no idea why they included such tonally opposite scenes with two cops fumbling and bumbling their way through such a disturbing movie. I later read a theory that suggests they were the purest form of comic relief, and that they were there to break up the brutality of the movie. If that’s the case, it makes some sort of sense, but these days it’s a massive case of mood whiplash and oddly makes the film a little more disturbing. They’re not present in the remake, which means the film has a consistent tone, and this makes it easier to take the film seriously.

It’s also very well shot, and the cinematography is quite striking in some cases, particularly as Mari is running away from the criminals – there’s a very controlled and stylish use of slow motion, which coupled with a surprisingly lush score makes the scene very effective.

I also like that the film handles the Mobile Phone Quandary cleverly and contextually – when Mari and Paige are first being intimidated in the motel room, Paige runs into the bathroom and locks herself in. The first thing she does is to whip out her phone and try to call the police, but is hampered by 1) being terrified, 2) trying to escape through a window that she can’t get out of, and 3) the fact that the film has established there’s dodgy reception in the area. Note – dodgy reception, as many rural areas suffer, not the age-old “we’re in a dead zone” that so many movies use to their convenience. So kudos for that. Then, once Francis breaks into the bathroom, he smashes her phone, and immediately takes Mari’s – it makes sense and is believable.

There is one major misfire in the remake, and that’s how the film ends – specifically an added scene where John puts the still-alive Krug’s head in a microwave, which eventually explodes. The head, that is – not the microwave. It seems tacky and out-of-tone with the rest of the movie, which is surprisingly straight-faced about its violence. I only mention it because it’s the last shot of the movie, and it means your final impression of it is something that’s a bit ridiculous, and damaging to it’s credibility.

So – final verdict time:

The original is still a good film. It’s clearly a product of its time and budget, which may mean it’s unfairly outdone by its wealthier remake, but the simple fact is that in this particular instance, more money = more quality. The original is, however, still a grisly and disturbing movie, and it has that raw and vibrant energy that so many movies of the 70s have, which is missing in the remake.

The remake on the other hand, is a better acted, better made film that follows the footsteps of Dawn of the Dead in remaking a film, sticking to the original without merely re-treading, and adding in enough new material that it’s got its own identity without being an entirely different beast.

I think the remake is a better film, but I think the original is a good film too. Both are worth seeing, neither is easy viewing, but neither version is a tawdry, perverted film like the remake of I Spit on Your Grave turned out to be.

One final note – the remake does something that the original fails to do, in making sure that the house they show is actually on the LEFT of the road!


One thought on “War of the Remake: Last House(s) on the Left

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