the last house on the left

The Last House On The Left
Dennis Lliadis
Cast: Garret Dillahunt, Michael Bowen, Joshua Cox, Riki Lindhome, Arron Paul, Sara Paxton, Monica Potter

Joanne Ross

March 19, 2009


I can’t imagine that ambivalence is a common response to horror movies because people usually have such strong reactions to them, ones that tend to land in the extreme ranges of the emotional spectrum. However, I must admit to feeling ambivalent about The Last House on the Left, Dennis Iliadis’s 2009 remake of Wes Craven’s 1972 classic of the same name.

I’ll leave comparisons between the two versions to other reviewers interested in examining each film’s merits and shortcomings. Comparisons aren’t at the heart of my concerns. On the one hand, I want to praise Iliadis for his gutsy and level-headed direction of a film with such unpalatable subject matter. I especially want to praise his cast, headed by Tony Goldwyn, Sara Paxton, and Monica Potter, for whom this surely had to be a mentally and emotionally-charged experience. But on the other hand, I can’t help wondering why this movie got made. And I admit I’m sad to say that.

The question for me isn’t whether the level of violence depicted in the film is justified – though stomach-churning, it is justified. The story is simple: ex-convicts violate two teenage girls, killing one and leaving the other for dead. Surviving girl’s parents take revenge on the bad guys with alarming ingenuity. Practically speaking, the use of violence makes sense under the circumstances. The question isn’t about the lack of the fear factor, either. This is one of the most genuinely terrifying movies I have seen recently. No, the real question is should this movie ever have been made in the first place given that violence is the only thing being offered to the audience? Do we really need another film like this, however exceptionally made? And make no mistake it is an exceptional piece of work.

All genres are subject to trends. Across the board, film violence has escalated. In horror, this fact is reflected in the predominant trends such as the New Wave which has yet to lose steam; torture porn; and something else akin to torture porn as it shares the same aims, but operates without the Grand Guignol-esqe staginess and medieval torture chamber props. Like torture porn this trend’s subject matter deals with the deliberate infliction of pain by one person on another and the eventual revenge of the victim on his tormentor.  The aim isn’t to scare audiences in the traditional, benign sense. Rather the goal seems to be to elicit a response in the audience that approximates – on a much smaller scale – the suffering endured by the characters in the film. We all know that the best films succeed at least in part because people empathize with the characters. However, this horror trend, like torture porn, takes things way too far in the self-identification department.

An aspect I find fascinating is how justice and morality operate in the audience’s mind as they watch The Last House on the Left, and other films of this type whose stories always seem to take place in the woods away from “civilization” with its sobering checks and balances and acceptable codes of conduct. I’m speaking of course about my own personal reactions and from my observations of the audience and past observations. Killing is killing, torture is torture.  We are naturally outraged and sickened as we watch mindless criminals prey on innocent teenagers without provocation and for no other reason than sheer cruelty. Interestingly – and thankfully – the director filmed these scenes with care and established a tone that was non-exploitative. While horribly painful to watch, those scenes were made bearable only due to the sense that the director was clearly on the side of the two victims.

However, the audience’s outrage (and I’m including myself on this one) about the violence, and the director’s attitude, shifts dramatically when it’s the parents turn to dish it out. Here Iliadis’s camera lingers to capture every exquisite detail as mom and dad pick off the convicts one by one, cheered on by the audience who relish every bloody moment. The desire for revenge would seem then to sanction the worst violence. Deep in the woods, miles away from any neighbors, the criminals and the parents act outside of the civilizing influence of society—they are beyond the jurisdiction of the law, both spiritual and legal. Apparently in films such as these, and in our responses to them, the principle appears to be, there is no law in the jungle – what happens there stays there.*-JR


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