Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Last House of the Left (2009)

Well, I had a free rental from Redbox Monday night, so I decided to check out 2009's Last House on the Left. I was curious about this one, as Craven's original film was just not that good. The pacing was uneven, some of the acting was awful and the buffoonish cops were jarring. Without the incredible onscreen brutality, and the controversy it generated, this film would be sold in one of those 50 film Mill Creek collections.

To my surprise, this film manages to improve upon the original, thanks to a tighter script and a strong cast. But before we celebrate the end of the bad remake curse, I have to warn you that the movie does stumble quite a bit and comes is rather bland. Part of it is the simple "been there, seen that" factor, as the basic story remains the same. But a few small changes introduced in the script come off as unnecessary and awkward.

Now, it's hard not to discuss where remake stumbles and succeeds without delving into spoiler territory. However, the trailers pretty much ruined the movie for me (more on that later) by giving away several key elements, so I don't feel too bad mentioning them here. But, be warned, here come the SPOILERS!

The film starts as Krug is being transported to prison by two plainclothes policemen, until he's rescue by his gang. Before fleeing the scene, Krug chokes one of the cops to death while holding a picture of the man's children in front of his bulging eyes. It's a pretty nasty scene, but absolutely unnecessary. By showing how brutal Krug and his gang can act, the scene spoils the impact of their actions later in the movie.

Anyway, the movie switches to the Collingwoods (John, Emma and daughter Mari), as they head to their isolated vacation home. The family is still reeling from the death of the Collingwood's son, who recently died in an accident. Mari borrows the family car and heads into town to meet up with her friend Paige. The two meet a teenage boy, Justin, who invites them back to his hotel room for a bit of a party, as Justin has some pot. Everything is fine, until Justin's dad, Krug, shows up.

The gang is in need of a new vehicle and Mari's SUV fits the bill. Krug decides to teach Justin a lesson in responsibility (as he shouldn't have brought guests to the hotel) by kidnapping the two girls. While driving down the forest roads, Mari tries to escape as the vehicle passes her house. The SUV wrecks and the gang takes their anger out on the girls. Paige is stabbed in the stomach and left to bleed to death, while Mari is raped by Krug.

I have to interject for a moment. I watched the unrated version and I believe this scene was trimmed to appease the MPAA. As presented in the unrated version, this is the most uncomfortable, graphic and brutal moment of the movie. While the original slowly escalates with several individual acts of degradation, the remake drives the gang's cruelty home in one knockout moment.

Mari staggers away from the gang and makes it to the lake. As a member of her school swim team, she's pretty fast and almost makes her escape. But she can't out swim a bullet and is left to die after Krug shoots her.

Stranded in a sudden storm and in need of medical attention, the gang stumble upon the Collingwood house. John is an ER doctor, so he stitches up Francis, who's taking quite an interest in Emma. Emma, however, is more interested in Justin, strictly in a maternal sense. Justin sees Mari's photo on the fridge and, full of remorse, leaves Mari's necklace in the kitchen around his coco mug. While my description sounds rushed, the movie builds slowly here, allowing the gang to come off as normal, while the Collingwoods start to sense something wrong with their guests.

As the house is now isolated from the rest of the world (phone and power lines are down, no car and shoddy cell reception), John and Emma let the gang stay in their guest house. After setting the gang up for the night, they discover Mari, near death, on the porch. They bring her into the house, where John struggles to save her without access to proper medical tools.

This is the strongest part of the movie, in my opinion, and justifies keeping Mari alive. John is forced to cauterize the gunshot wound and re-inflate a lung with household items. Then, while looking for other wounds, he discovers evidence that Mari was raped. It's a powerful moment, as you see John's emotional state run the gambit from dedicated surgeon to distressed parent to flat out rage after Emma informs him that Justin left Mari's necklace in the kitchen.

The Collingwoods decide to take their boat and get Mari to the hospital, leaving the gang for the police to arrest later. Now, we all know that's not going to happen, as Francis is looking for a drink and some loving, and the keys to the boat have been misplaced.

So, of course, mayhem ensues.

As I mentioned, the remake is full of moments that work well. The violence is brutal and very realistic (up until the climax, where yet another character dies, only to come back up again). And the script wisely avoids any attempt to defuse the building tension with comic relief.

But the film stumbles badly with Justin. It's not the fault of the actor, by any means. It's just that the character's presence is unwarranted. As both an aid or a surrogate son to the Collingwoods, Justin turns out to be as jarring as the idiot cops in the original.

And, as I mentioned above, most of the surprises are spoiled by the trailer. If you saw it, you know Mari survives and you know Krug's fate. Yes, the trailer gave away the end of the movie! I have no idea why studios feel the need to show you everything in the trailer, but I wish they would stop. As with Paranormal Activity and Quarantine, showing most of the highlights will ruin a film's impact.

For the most part, this remake isn't bad. But while the film is stronger than the original in some regards, the addition of Justin shows that Hollywood just can't leave well enough alone. Worth a cheap rental, but nothing more.