Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Brutallity and rape in The Last House on the Left

24 hours after watching the remake of The Last House on the Left I was still trying to figure out how I felt about it. I'd skipped this one in theatres, but since thrillers and horror movies make up a lot of what I read for work, I try to stay on top of the big movies in that genre. A few years ago, I saw Wes Craven's original version of the film and was left with similarly mixed feelings. The movie was powerful on a gut level in many ways and the raw aesthetic only added to that. On the other hand, there were moments that seemed sadistic merely for its own sake and some oddly placed comic relief.

For those who don't know, the premise is that two teenage girls are brutally attacked after going to a motel room to hang out with a teenage boy. The boy's father, uncle and the father's girlfriend are none too happy about this when they return, as they are all wanted for the murder of two cops while helping the father, Krug, escape from the back of a police car. The girl's put up a fight, but one is killed after attempting to escape and her friend, Mari, is very brutally raped by Krug. She manages to make a run for it and tries to swin out via a nearby lake, only to be shot by Krug and left for dead in the water.

But when Krug and his crew find themselves without transportation, guess where they inadvertently take refuge? Mari's parent's home, with none of the parties initially aware of the connection. When the parents do find out, it's after they've put the foursome in the guesthouse and a storm has knocked out their phones. On top of that, they have no car, as Mari took the only one at the house. They're stuck on their own, with the fear that Krug's gang will figure out who they are.

It could be called a morality play, and a study in how far someone would go to take revenge on people who brutalized someone they loved. I'm fond of these sorts of premises - where an ordinary person is thrown into an extreme situation and how they deal with it becomes a true test of character. Hitchcock was one of the great masters of this, with films like North by Northwest.

It's a great question: if someone who raped and beat up your daughter was in your guest cottage and calling the police wasn't an option - what would you do? Do you hide and gamble that they don't figure out who you are? Do you consider that they might kill you even without knowing who you are? Do you take action out of self-defense? Or do you seize the opportunity for brutal revenge - eye for an eye?

How many times have the survivors of brutal crimes (or their families) said, "Just give me five minutes alone with the SOB responsible." Well, these characters have all night - what do you think they do?

But it wasn't those hard questions that troubled me - it was the fact that after so many years of horror films being an exercise in exploitative violence, Last House essentially hinges on a brutal, disturbing rape. It's not graphic in the sense that any nudity is shown, but the camera angles certainly are suggestive and Sara Paxton gives a more than convincing performance during the brutal scene.

The filmmakers understandably had a bit of a no-win situation here. If they didn't show the rape, or sanitized it, it might undercut just how vicious Krug and his men are supposed to be. It might compromise how much the audience identifies with the parents in the final act. After we bear witness to what Krug does to Mari, we want him dead. D-E-A-D. There's no denying there's a legitimate case to be made for provoking that reaction.

But the other side of it is that it's really hard to sit through the rape scene and regard it as entertainment. I can easily see some viewers - especially parents - transferring some of their disgust for Krug onto the filmmakers themselves. And that's such a gut level reaction that there's no debating the point with people who have it.

So this is the risk a writer takes should they put a graphic rape scene in their script. Sexual violence is bound to be more controversial than straight-up murder or assault. You want proof? Most of us wouldn't bat an eye at James Bond executing a female assassin in cold blood. They might even cheer. Can you imagine that reaction if instead of shooting her, he raped her?

And right about now, I'm guessing several of you are ticked at me for putting that image in your head.

Some of the worst scenes I have ever read were rape scenes; brutal, nasty acts of sexual violence that were ostensibly in the script to tell us what horrible people the villains were. Most of the time, they read like the writer's were getting their rocks off, creating some sort of demented fantasy. One particular scene was so bad that I have refused to read subsequent drafts of that screenplay when offered and the writer in question is the only writer who I refuse to read on principle. And I am NOT a squeamish person.

Ultimately, the rest of The Last House on the Left was so well-produced and the performances were so solid that I decided to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. It seems that they handled a difficult scene as best they could given the requirements of the plot. I read an interview with director Dennis Iliadis where he said he didn't want to cast an overtly sexy young starlet as Mari because he didn't want the rape scene to be enjoyable for the audience at all. I think that was a wise choice. Had he cast Megan Fox in the role, and shot it so she was more exposed, I can see all the hype for the movie boiling down to "See Megan Fox naked!"

Oh, darn. I just put the words "Megan Fox Naked" in a row. I can only imagine that'll really mislead a lot of Google searches. I just feel terrible that people looking for Megan Fox naked will be misdirected here because I happened to type Megan Fox naked. I hope they don't feel ripped off when they don't find Megan Fox naked here, because there is no naked Megan Fox here.

Anyway, as I said, the cast is uniformly excellent. Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter do solid work as the parents, Riki Lindhome is quite creepy as Krug's girlfriend, while Aaron Paul is suitably scuzzy as Krug's brother. But the real reason to see The Last House on the Left is for Garret Dillahunt's performance as Krug, one of the nastiest villains put on screen in some time. You might not know his name, but you'll likely recognize Dillahunt as Russian gangster Roman on Life, the Cromartie/John Henry terminator on The Sarah Conner Chronicles, or as Tommy Lee Jones' deputy in No Country For Old Men. Dillahunt has an incredible range, and he puts it to use here - he's menacing without resorting to the sorts of shouting and over-the-top hysterics that most horror villains thrive on. He's able to turn on the charm when dealing with the parents, even as he laces his words in ways to remind his crew who's in charge. The wrong actor in this role would have destroyed this movie, no question.

However, I would be remiss if I didn't point out how wrong the final scene of the movie felt. Goldwyn has Krug at his mercy after knocking him out and he needs to rush his family to the hospital via boat. Obviously leaving Krug there to wake up and escape isn't an option - he's not going to give the guy who raped his little girl and attacked his family a pass. So he paralyzes Krug from the neck down and places his head in a microwave. After waiting for Krug to wake up and appreciate his fate, the father activates the appliance and exits, leaving Krug screaming as his head explodes.

Much like how I criticized Rachel Nichols' character in P2 killing her captor in cold blood, I had some problems with this last scene. It's a little too calculated for my tastes. It doesn't feel like something the father would do. I believe he'd beat Krug to death with his bare hands. I believe he'd slash his throat. I believe he'd shoot him several times and leave him to bleed to death. I don't doubt he wants to kill Krug and that he wants to make it painful.

But you're telling me that with time being of the essence, he's going to take the time to paralyze Krug, then sit around and wait for him to wake up, just so he can cackle at him and leave him in a semi-creative death trap? I don't quite buy it, and the exploitative image of Krug's head exploding is exactly the wrong note to end this movie on. That final scene forms our impressions as we exit the theatre or turn off our DVD. It's gore for gore's sake, and the problem is that it provokes one to revisit the rape scene in that context. For me, the exploitative violence here cheapens the other violence by association.

Does anyone out there have any thoughts on this topic? I'd love to know if others had the same issue as I did, or if they were less forgiving of the rape scene. Please, comment away.


  1. I always thought that House on the Left (the original) was really a rejection of liberalism, particularly the hippie, pie-in-the-sky liberalism of the 1960's.

    In the original, the parents let Mari go to a rock concert (where liberal hedonism reigns supreme) and even give her a peace symbol necklace before she leaves (heavy symbolism indeed). The girls stumble upon the gang because they are looking to score some pot (hmmm, sensing a pattern here).

    After the gang rapes Mari, and her parents discover that their "guests" were responsible, this is the ultimate bitch slap to liberalism. Now that your daughter is raped and her friend killed, where are your soft on crime, liberal sensibilities now? Kind of like the presidential debate question Gov. Dukakis got in 1988 when asked what he would do if someone raped and murdered his daughter.

    This is why I never really dig revenge flicks. I never saw the 2009 remake of "House" but Liam Neeson's latest hit "Taken" is very similar. The ex-wife is way too liberal in letting her daughter go to Paris alone (noooo! not Paris! The city is filled with socialists!!!)

    Of course, the hardened ex-CIA agent father warns the mother (he knows the ways of the "real" world), and of course the daughter gets kidnapped and sold into a sex slave ring. The culprits? Muslims of course!!! (I especially love the final bad guy that Liam offs. He even brandishes a curved arab knife to complete the stereotype.) That group standing in for the escape convicts/rapists.

    In the end, these revenge movies are meant to discount liberalism, but often turn up overtly cartoonish. They are best left in the realm of police thrillers and action flicks. (I'm looking at you Lt. "Dirty" Harry Callahan and Lt. Marion Cobretti.) At least you get a healthy dose of satire with your revenge fantasies.

  2. I was watching one of the old Bond movies (with Connery) and was surprised to see a scene that WOULD be considered rape in today's culture. Back then it was just 'no means yes'.

    I wish I could remember which one.

  3. I definitely agree with you on the rape scene and the closing scene. But I feel the overall movie shined enough to carry the whole thing, so I was quite forgiving about the rest. In regards to the rape scene I think they shot it as best as they could. Emotional, but not too visual. I think I personally have been too desensitized to a lot of these dramatizations. Plenty of movies (international ones usually) will have very extreme, very graphic themes of sexual violence. For example the rape scene in Irreversibe (Monica Belluci French movie) was way more graphic, extended and hard to watch.

    As for the closing scene, it definitely took away from the previous emotion and tone the movie set. And I was pretty cheesy. So I thought two things, that maybe it was a Wes Craven calling card kind of deal, something overly gory. Or possibly maybe they could have had in mind that ending with something less realistic to snap people out of darkness and grittiness the movie brought.

    All in all, I thought it was an excellent movie. I read a great article on one of the writers and he gave the breakdown on how he rewrote the story for newer generations (may have been Scene magazine, or the wga site). And plus I'm a little bias since I'm friends with one of the producers. hehe.

  4. But a microwave doesn't work unless the door is closed.

    WTF kind of microwave does this guy own?

  5. I think it's established earlier that the microwave isn't working properly, but I agree, Emily, that's still a lame excuse.

  6. I heard in the Afghani version they cut out everything BUT the rape scene and changed the title from "Last House on the Left" to "Last Time She Disobeys Him"...j/k, hey so where are the Megan Fox nudes?

  7. Bitter: Just wanted to let you know that I've been enjoying your blog since I discovered it a couple of weeks ago (via ScriptShadow).

    I moved the LHOTL remake to the top of my Netflix queue, based on this discussion and watched it last night. The director did an excellent job building tension and I did not find the rape scene prurient. However, as Rabi explained in earlier comments, the original LHOTL had a "theme" (whether or not you agree with its p.o.v.). The original-original story- "The Virgin Spring"- had the same theme, except it was about the hypocrisy of the hyper-religious. Here, the parents are neither established as prudes or hippies, so the fact that they acted as any "normal" person would in the face of life threatening violence, is not that big of a deal. It's just an interesting thrill ride, which could have made the use of "rape" in the movie questionable. We were lucky that the film had a responsible director.

    I wonder if you, Bitter, have ever encountered a script where you seriously questioned the mental capacity of the writer? Have you ever read a script and thought, "this could be the next Eric Red" ( I recently had an experience like that reading a script about (I'm not sure what the rules are on here, so I won't say the name) a hospital for the criminally insane where the power goes out and the inmates brutalize the staff in the most grotesque ways possible. I checked the address on the cover page and was relieved to see that the writer didn't live anywhere near me . . .

  8. Mr. Main Event - Oh yes, there have been several scripts where I seriously questioned the mental capacity of the writer. One in particular sticks in my mind and it was one of the most vile, reprehensible pieces of writing I had ever been subjected to. There are plenty of times I'm reading a disturbing scene and think "This guy has issues," but this is one of the few times I legitimately felt like I was gettng a glimpse into the psyche of a truly sick individual.

    And when we readers get something that loathesome, do you think we Google the writer and the script? You bet your ass we do!

    Imagine my shock when this script - which makes the collective works of Eli Roth look like Care Bears: The Movie and was full of so much misoginy that it made female circumcision look like a bikini wax by comparison - was a Nichols Quarterfinalist!

    This why when someone counters a bad review of mine by saying their script was a finalist in a contest, I don't give a shit. There's a reason that few Nichols-winning scripts have actually been produced.

    Now maybe the year in question happened to be a pretty weak year for Nichols submissions... but still, this was such utter sleeze that the script deserved to be burned after the first read and the ashes returned to the writer as a warning not to put pen to paper ever again.

    Am I being too harsh?

  9. I read your article and to a point agree that the microwaved head was a tad over the top. (although mildly comedic) I get and agree to what you were saying. I read somewhere that the director of the last house on the left wanted the viewer to feel as violated as Mari and that is why the scene seemed to take FOREVER. (some things cannot be unwatched)

    My question is not about the movie per se but a general writing question... in your opinion how far is too far when a writer describes a rape scene?

    In my story the main character is explaining her past and a rape that happened to her when she was a teenager. Are there actual laws against writing about minors(shes 14 in the backstory)? I am not doing it for shock value, or for entertainment (because it is far from entertaining) but to explain things the main character does in present day.

    I am a big fan of Poppy Z Brite and want to push the "taboo" envelope but I do not want to lose my audience or break any laws.. I want them to feel as violated mentally as my character did physically. if that makes sense. What is your opinion on this?