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.