Towards the beginning of The Last House On The Left, I had an unexpected moment of clarity. I was just coming off of The Lost Shakespeare Play, an excellent script by Dave Stinton which, among many other things, brings up some great questions about the artistic value of forgeries. It got my mind running on the intellectual property/derivative art subject again (which isn't hard, it's a favorite of mine), and as I'm watching Last House, the entire slew of recent horror/foreign/classic film remakes in the last decade or two took on an entirely different light. I came to realize that were it not for this 2009 update of Craven's subversive milestone, most of the people sitting around me would never be aware in the slightest of the film. There are a number of intelligent, culturally-aware friends that I had been talking to that had never heard of the original (a swift kick of a reminder that a keynote for someone specialized often doesn't mean squat to anyone outside the circle). Sure, the 2009 version isn't going to get many to rush home to check out the original, but the point remains that it's better for these ideas to reach an audience through a second coming that to not reach that audience at all. Isn't it?
And then, as quickly as this post is about to switch topics, the movie turned everything on its head. I came in wanting, though perhaps not expecting, to see an update of what is a very important film in the history of transgressive cinema. The original is one of those films that makes you feel awful to be a human being, all aboil with conflict hinging on the idea of revenge and the moral minefield surrounding it. And as the '09 version settled into place, I was actually quite surprised. Yes, there are seemingly inconsequential updates (setting it in the woods, for instance), but as the beginning of the true horror section of the film approached, the severe tone took the controls. The success of the transgression relies on getting the audience to abhor the actions of a character they are rooting for against a character they hate. And the stronger that rooting and that hate, the more powerful the aftereffect. As such, the film refuses to blink during the infamous rape/murder scene. It's graphic, but simply so -- a relatively throwaway character dies of three unadorned knife wounds, yet all three seem unbearably cruel, largely because they are so unadorned and casual. The rape scene is, of course, more horrific the more unfrilled it is. This one exists in a frightening void among all the fury that preceded it -- enough so to prompt one lady in the audience to walk out, her friend going to get her after the scene was through. In a quick but thorough 15-20 minutes, director Dennis Iliadis has uncovered the purity of hatred in his audience towards this band of murderers. Knowing what was coming, I was hooked.
And then... pause to allow the anger to subside... and then, in the second round of horror, the part in which all of the emotional investment is capitalized upon for a greater reflection, Iliadis and especially screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (more on that in a second) take the work that they have done and, with the easiest of omissions, take the film in a completely different and morally bankrupt direction. Where the original showed us sympathetic characters mercilessly exacting revenge on their trespassors in a bracingly graphic manner, the remake shows us sympathetic characters mercilessly exacting revenge on their trespassors. Period. And in that slight change lies a world of difference. Oh sure, it starts off true enough to form. As the first murderer is drowning in a sink and then shown (and heard) for an extended period of time trying to remove his hand from a garbage disposal, only to be instantly dropped with a clawhammer to the head, I physically curled up in nausea -- not from the gore, but the lack of humanity in the characters I had placed on the side of the 'good guys'. And as people around me were actually cheering out loud during the scene, I allotted them one good kill because they didn't know what was coming -- the shift from cheering to shuddering isn't made in one clawhammer. I'm aware of this.
I was going to comment on how, in researching further on the remake, I discovered this interview with screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (who was hired without having even seen the original) which leads me to place him as the primary culprit in this, but I'm a little sick just reliving this all, so I'll let you go ahead and read it and decide for yourself instead.
I was going to write about Watchmen as well, but it all seems a little B team after the lengthy rant above. Quick points: haven't read the graphic novel -- it's on the reading list, but the reading list is near a thousand books long, so who knows when; that said, I think the film stood very well on its own as an insider view of conservative nihilism and both the traps and triumphs within; yes, I'm aware that is mostly an isolation of Rorschach's story, but that's the one that grabbed me the most (and with which I was relating on a certain level after my Last House experience); also appreciated the film's creation of an immersive world, even if it wasn't one I was familiar with -- I could tell I would have been a lot deeper in the environment had I read the graphic novel, but at the same time that fact never distracted me; I, soundtrack design snob that I am, was actually totally down with the music selection which I though lent a weird sense of off-kilter period to this closely related world; I retract that statement for Ride of the Valkyries, which I thought was too direct of a reference to actual reality to succeed in this alternate reality; Jackie Earle Haley is a BAMF; I don't care how well-behaved your infant is (and it was admittedly well-behaved), if it is going to make infant type noises at any time, it should not be at the same fucking R-rated film as myself.
And as I was doing some longer term scheduling, I noticed that The Table, the next entry in Chicago Shakes' World's Stage program has disappeared without a trace. Anybody got a scoop on this? I was really, really looking forward to it!