Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Last House On The Left

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.

But that is where any moral responsibility on either our or the protagonist's part ends. After that scene the film becomes a typical good guys struggling to and eventually, but not by much, beating typical bad guys. Every technique used to provide the horror of the first half is forgotten when our protagonists become the murders, replaced by quickly edited hand to hand combat, the 'victims' getting in as many if not more shots than the 'killers', saves the day style interference -- multiple times -- from our protagonist's ineffectuality, and perhaps worst of all, that said ineffectuality. What should be a reversal of fortune becomes another yet another underdog surviving against the odds story. And as the four sympathetic characters in the story escape (two of which die in the original, one by suicide) into the morning light and the audience around me has continued to cheer the carnage on through the entire back half of the film, we are met with a coda maybe three or four minutes long. A coda that, in the context of the film and especially the original, might be the most despicable and inhumane couple of minutes ever put to film, there only to give us a more 'satisfying' (read: gruesome and waaaay premeditated) death for the main villain and a cheap laugh at the expense of his loss of life. You can call out any number of 'torture porn', nazisploitation, women in prison, animal cruelty, fake snuff or what have you type of film and I will argue until I'm blue in the face that, in all consideration of what the '72 Last House On The Left is, this is a more disgusting and frighteningly inhuman piece of celluloid. All I was able to take from it in terms of some sort of larger scale is the message that if someone rapes and shoots (shoots, not kills) your daughter, you have free reign to murder and/or torture at least three people in recompense -- moral and legal responsibility be damned. And as I'm being fed this message, I'm surrounded by cheers and laughter. I was almost sick to my stomach.

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.


This weekend I've got Lifeline's Mariette In Ecstasy on Friday, Steppenwolf's The Tempest on Saturday and Strange Tree Group's The Dastardly Ficus And Other Comedic Tales Of Woe And Misery on Sunday.

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!



Nathan R said...

Sorry to hear about your harrowing experience at the cinema. Have you seen the Bergam film that influenced Craven? I can't recall the title right now, but it's on my short list of things to see.

Anyway, here's something that should cheer you up:


This trailer fills me with such joy, I can't even explain it.

Paul Rekk said...

Oh yeah, The Virgin Spring! I always forget about that connection. I haven't seen it in years, but Bergman doesn't tend to stick with me, so I can't say I remember much of it.