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Revisiting Wes Craven's Last House on the Left

If Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left was, as Roger Ebert put it, “a tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie that's about four times as good as you'd expect,” Dennis Iliadis’ no-frills remake is roughly the same – slicker, perhaps, but no less brutally effective. There are those who will find it repugnant, and others who will be stunned silent by its raw graphic violence. Nobody ever said going to the movies has to be fun.

While the low-budget original, which has become something of a cult favorite among hardened horror fans, has an air of disquieting authenticity thanks to its grainy, home movie-style footage and its shockingly intimate portrayals of depravity, this latest version is a far handsomer production. Is it more sanitized? Yes and no.

Craven, a first-time filmmaker when he unleashed Last House on unsuspecting audiences in 1972, earned overnight notoriety for the savagery he depicted in unflinching detail. Here, Iliadis (2004’s Hardcore) seems more restrained, but he allows his camera to linger on a series of images – knives plunging into a girl’s stomach, blood spurting from gaping gashes – that are equally disturbing, and far from stylized.

Those who remember the original or the film that inspired it, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, should be familiar enough with the story, which has been tweaked ever so slightly by screenwriters Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye) and Adam Alleca. A gang of on-the-lam killers kidnaps and tortures two teenage girls, killing one and leaving the other for dead after a vicious rape. Through an extraordinary circumstance – even the gang’s Manson-esque leader (Garret Dillahunt) seems dumbfounded by their misfortune – they wind up taking refuge for the night in the home of one of the girls’ parents.

From there, Last House on the Left escalates into a breathlessly paced revenge fantasy, as the parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) discover the fugitives’ secret and hunt them down in appropriately messy fashion. There is a certain cathartic thrill in witnessing the gang’s bloody comeuppance, and Iliadis’ long takes and sparing use of dialogue lend themselves to an unbearably tense atmosphere that he’s able to sustain throughout. But as effective as his technique may be, this isn’t entertainment for everyone.

There is an audience for movies like Last House on the Left, as this past weekend’s box-office receipts will attest, but few will take much pleasure from it. It presents sadism in the context of a narrative that is straightforward and believable, and for those who crave a little terror in their lives, it offers a truly unsettling experience while raising questions mundane and otherwise. (Can a malfunctioning microwave operate with the door open?) For the faint of heart, though, it may be an experience wisely avoided.