Monday, April 6, 2009

Where I Draw The Line: The Last House On The Left

Ok, so this installment of my examination of the boundary that I refuse to cross has more to do with tone than taste. Today I have a revered genre film that kicked off the nastiness of horror films in the 1970s and its remake. I take issue with the films on different levels and still find something to like about both of them, but not much. The first film is saved only by the fact that taken out of context, it could be a really disturbing, gritty film. The second is saved by the charisma of its leading man, which is really something you don’t see outside of a Vincent Price film in the horror genre. Let’s see where I draw the line today.

Last House on the Left
by Wes Craven
The story for Last House should sound familiar to anyone who’s seen Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, cause it’s the same thing. A girl goes into the big wide world, is murdered and then her murderers wander into her parent’s home where revenge is taken. In Virgin Spring (which I’ll save the embarrassment of being reviewed on Honors Zombie) the acts of violation, murder, and revenge are treated with a sort of religious tone; Bergman does not let the audience or his characters breathe. Wes Craven does and here’s how. Last House concerns Mari Collingwood and her trip to the big city. Her parents would rather not let her go to see the band Bloodlust with her jaded city friend Phyllis, but they concede when Mari charms them with that snappish ultra hip-daughter charm of hers. Before she leaves there’s a lot of very uncomfortable talk about breasts. I don’t ever want to hear a daughter talking to her mom and dad about breasts, especially when dad is as old and wooden as Gaylord St. John. To prove just how un-hip the man is he gives Mari a peace sign necklace to wear to the Bloodlust concert. Moments later Mari is out the door and sure enough Phyllis makes good on her citygirl uncouthness and goes to score some pot with Mari in tow. They decide to score off of a twitchy derelict named Junior and unluckily for them, his dad Krug shows up midway through their getting high with his friend Weasel and girlfriend Sadie. Krug Stillo has just broken out of prison with Weasel and Sadie’s help which means Phyllis and Mari have chosen the worst place to score weed from in all the world. Krug and his pals overpower the two girls, tie them up and stuff them in the trunk of their car.

Predating but falling desperately short of Tobe Hooper’s ultimate bad day movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a truly unfortunate 24 hours awaits both tormentors and tormented. Krug and the gang take Mari and Phyllis out into the woods to humiliate and sexually assault them. Through an amazingly stupid and cruel coincidence they just happen to bring them to a spot not 100 yards from Mari’s house. Krug, Sadie and Weasel make they force Mari to wet herself for their amusement, they make Mari and Phyllis touch each other, Mari is raped, Phyllis is stabbed to death, Krug carves his name into Mari’s chest, and then Mari is shot twice waist deep in a lake and either drowns or dies from the gunshot wound. Mari’s parents have by this time called the police, but the two cops on the case make Chief Wiggum look like Joe Friday. They ignore the fact that the killer’s car is on the Collingwood property while they’re inside talking to the parents, their car runs out of gas so they run most of the way and try to get a ride with an insidious, toothless mammy stereotype driving a chicken truck, and...let’s put it this way: they leave for the Collingwood house to tell them they have a lead before either girl has been raped and they arrive at the climax of the film which I take to be at least 12 hours later.
So while the police race to the scene of the crime, Krug and his friends go to the Collingwood house posing as traveling salesmen; they actually just want food and shelter for the night. After dinner Junior goes into withdrawal and starts wigging out; Mrs. Collingwood goes to help him and sees Mari's peace sign necklace around his veiny throat. She then hears the dialogue between father and son that follows through the thinnest walls in movie history (“shut up, or you’ll be in the lake too” says Krug for no real reason) and then finds bloodstained clothes in their suitcase. Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood retrieve their daughter and plan the most elaborate, ridiculous revenge ever filmed on a meager budget. Then the cops show up.

The cops are kind of a good metaphor for the film as a whole. They try to be effective, really try hard, but are stopped at every turn by the fact they have no idea how to do their job effectively. They wear the uniform, sure and carry guns and all, but ask them to fill their squad car with gas or actually DO SOMETHING and you’ll get a lot of cartoonish guffawing and “aw shucks” excuse making. Last House is filled with contradicting aesthetic choices that maybe at the planning stages made sense to Wes Craven, who claims to have been influenced by both documentarians and the coverage of the Vietnam War on TV. He wanted to be brutal and self-aware but he was comically off his mark. First of all the murder scenes are framed with scenes scored by this absurd Country Joe & The Fish-esque roadtrip music sung by David Hess, Krug Stillo himself. Between furious kazoo solos, Hess croons like Paul Butterfield: “Weasel and Junior, Sadie and Krug, out for the day with the Collingwood brood.” And each stab wound is articulated by weird percussive synth notes that make it seem like a Batman villain has just been hit in the groin by the caped crusader. And then the murders are intercut with scenes of the sheriff and his deputy fucking up in every conceivable way. You’d find more honest villainy in a Commando Cody short. Not that the villains aren’t villainous; Krug and his friends are some slimy subhuman critters. David Hess looks like someone who took one too many drugs in college and then started professionally creeping people out on 42nd street; the kind of guy who hangs out at parties that no one invited and everyone wants to leave. He has the perfect energy for the part, even if his sleaziness sort of keeps him grounded, stopping him from being really evil and just being maddeningly gross. Fred Lincoln who plays Weasel gets a pass cause he’s a porn director and looks like one, but I don’t buy him as a criminal killer. Jaramie Rain as Sadie, with her fake beehive wig and her violent moodswings and her 60s-sci-fi-extra acting is really something to behold. Marc Sheffler as Junior spends the whole movie impersonating a ferret on qualudes. A fun bunch. Pit them against Gaylord St. John and Cynthia Carr in the climax and all of a sudden the term overacting just doesn’t really seem to mean anything. So when Mom bites off Weasel’s dick and Dad hacks up Krug with a chainsaw, the film becomes completely irrelevant. I don’t care how badly you’ve been hurt, no one bites off a human penis by choice when there are knives and a gun handy. That’s just misogynistic and needlessly sick. Seriously, how could anyone enjoy that scene? It’s out of character and needless even in a film like this and it’s ridiculous to believe that a mother who’s just lost her child would get herself in that state. Come On!

That the police show up at all is a miracle cause this film has no moral and these two are so fucking dense that I was waiting for one of them to forget his belt and have his pants fall off. It was supposed to have a moral, but Craven declaws himself by switching up the violence, which he handles poorly, with the actions of the sheriff and his deputy. And that nobody but David Hess as Krug and Marc Sheffler as Junior are the least bit believable doesn’t help, cause it makes them seem unnaturally heroic for standing out amongst their terrible surroundings. I get that the juxtoposition was supposed to be like Vietnam footage punctuated by commercials and puff pieces, but when you just replicate something terrible and offer no intelligent critique or solution, you’re film is just as hard to sit through as the thing you’re lampooning. Why on earth would you want to do that? Film doesn’t always have to be enjoyable, but for a 90 minute parade of the sadistic presented like an Amos ‘n Andy sketch to end with the voice of reason arriving in the form of two dipshit police officers with no more power or help to offer, doesn’t that seem like a recipe for depression and anger? That’s how I felt. Angry that the film was so poorly acted and that a real powerful film could have been edited out of this mess, it looks great after all, and wasn’t. That, incidentally is all I like about Last House, it’s grimy look. That’s why people look upon this so fondly is because it looks like a snuff film and it started the new wave of nihilistic, violence-for-violence’s-sake films. No Last House, no market for Texas Chainsaw, Snuff, Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust, The Hitcher or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. No Italian rip-offs, very probably no Video Nasties scare. Or so it goes. I'm not entirely convinced.
And yet, for all its goofy inadequacy, people love Last House and will take any opportunity to talk it up like it was something as infamous as Men Behind The Sun or Brian Yuzna's Society or Cannibal Holocaust. It isn’t and has nothing like the power of those films, but the legend gives it a kind of monster-in-the-closet power it loses the second you watch it. So what happens when you take a legend at face value? When you simply identify all of its parts and then try to reproduce them, as in an essay or say…a remake? Well things get darker before they get brighter that’s for sure.

Last House on the Left
by Dennis Iliades

The plot of the 2009 remake of Last House is interchangeable with that of the original with a few important exceptions. We open on Krug being transported to prison, and his face is totally enshrouded in darkness until the moment that our Weasel and Sadie updates (Weasel is now Francis, Sadie is still Sadie) arrive in a truck to smash into the transport car. We’re told Junior is nearby (now called Justin) and then Francis and Krug finish the two unpleasant cops in the aftermath of the crash. The Collingwood family is a little more grounded in reality (and much better acted) this time around. Dad, John, is a doctor and mom, Emma, a teacher and both are having a hard time putting work behind them as the plan to go on vacation with their daughter Mari. When they arrive at the Last House on the Left we’re told its also the last house on the road for six miles. Mari begins to feel cooped up in the old cabin when she and her parents have simultaneous unspoken reflections on the death of the Collingwood’s son, Mari’s brother. He died a year ago and they’ve only just gotten over it from the looks of things. Mari escapes the pain by swimming competitively. If you’re familiar with the specifics of the first film, you’ll notice a conscious effort to legitimize the incidental stuff from the first film starting to emerge. Anyway, Mari takes the car mom doesn’t want her to, yadda yadda yadda, sees her slutty friend, yadda yadda yada. They go back to twitchy shoplifter Justin’s motel room to get high, which Mari disapproves of and only does so at the insistance of said slutty friend. Soon it’s been like four hours and Mom calls wondering where the hell Mari’s been this whole time; feeling guilty and presumably not wanting to come home high she just has enough time to tell her mom she’ll be sleeping at Paige’s house, no matter how much mom disapproves (for some reason) of her daughter’s slutty friend. Mom’s instincts are the result of her son’s death, but because that point is driven home enough, her paranoia seems superficial and ungrounded, which it shouldn’t have to to succeed.

Anyway, when Justin’s dad, uncle, and aunt-to-be show up, things take quite the turn. Paige tries to escape out the bathroom window when Krug, in full light for the first time, tells them they won’t be leaving (or living to see tomorrow). The trip into the woods makes a little more sense this time around, as Mari and Paige are in the backseat this time and when they run into a fork in the road, Mari gives them directions that actually lead to the woods near their house; her escape attempt just causes enough hysteria for the car to crash. Cue shouting, screaming, running, being caught, stabbing, Krug telling Justin to be a man, Justin not being one, and Krug forcing Mari to look at Paige while she bleeds to death as he rapes her. Mari makes a purposeful break for the lake, but gets a bullet just below her neck before she swims out of view. Krug and company arrive at the Collingwood house with a story about a car crash. They set them up, somewhat hesitantly; Dr. Collingwood even sets and stitches Francis’ broken nose before Emma shows them their room in the guest house. Before that Justin sees Mari’s picture on the wall and has Junior’s withdrawal without the aid of a drug addiction. Krug’s threats don’t reach the ears of Mr. or Mrs. Collingwood this time, it is only Justin’s guilty placement of Mari’s necklace on the kitchen counter that does the trick. When Mari pulls herself out of the lake and onto the porch and Dad is able to put her in a stable condition (he does so with one of the sickest on-camera surgeries I’ve ever seen; it involves a needle chest decompression done with a switchblade) they agree they have to get her to a hospital and with no car, the location of the boat keys becomes their top priority. When Francis comes down for a glass of beer in the middle of the night, Mom and Dad have little choice but to act and there’s nothing as furious as an animal protecting its young.
When a film is remade by the hungry, hungry Hollywood Hippo it does a couple of things. Firstly it legitimizes the subject matter of the original: it says, we believe in this, let’s put money behind these ideas. Secondly it takes the film, loose ends and all, plays it back and makes it shiny, pretty, and largely irrelevant. The Fog, for example, became an empty, CG-laden rehash of the finer points of the original film’s plot with none of its spirit or coherence. They made it young and gross and powerless. The remake of Hills Have Eyes was less about family and more about gore and politics and was less effective as commentary, more so as horror. Last House on the Left was a castrated romp through a field of heedless, needless violence; it’s reason for being was to shock, which it couldn’t do because it was too busy being a post-modern commentary on TV violence. So take out its original intent, which was to be a nasty piece of damning violence, and make it about a girl getting raped and her parents taking revenge, it becomes a harder film to watch by definition because the rape is both a means and an end unto itself instead of just being one act of interchangeable violence and debasement. The rape and revenge are two pieces of the same pie; they are separate in the new version. The revenge is meant to be cathartic and is framed as such. It is not a comment on anything, it’s just a thriller, which is what the original failed to be.

So as a thriller, yeah, I guess it works. I felt the catharis that was lacking from the first film when Krug and his cronies get their comeuppance. When one of them (I won’t say who) gets a hammer to the back of the head, I was shaken and it felt justified. But what kind of movie makes a hammer to the head seem justified? The sort that’s about legitimizing violence, desensitizing all of us and selling hypersexualized brutality as something inevitable, in real life and in culture. Why was it necessary for Riki Lindhome’s Sadie to be topless when the Collingwoods fight with her? Why is the ending with the microwave necessary? Sure, the film looks nice and despite my knowing the outcome it was suspenseful, but it’s lack of a moral compass is more than a little troubling. Especially when it attempts to account for all of Craven’s missteps with a careful screenplay. What they’re saying is “we’re gonna get the rape movie right this time!” They aren’t supposed to be right; they aren’t supposed to be something we pay to see, but we do. That’s why the addition of Mari as a swimmer, her survival after the rape, a dead brother, John’s career as a doctor who knows equally how to hurt and heal, and Justin as a fully sympathetic character feels kind of gross. What director Dennis Iliades and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Adam Alleca did was try to make it easier for us to stomach the revenge after the rape. They made the revenge geometrically perfect, if that makes sense; Iliades stacked all the elements in favor of a brutal, gory revenge in which no feet of abject horror would be too much. So in a sense, he did what Craven didn’t do, made the horror in the first act justify that of the second, but Last House in any form cannot justify its existence because it's based around rape. Though I was ok with Mari surviving. Oh, and what was with that Let Sleeping Corpses Lie ending? That was crazy.
So why didn’t I give this an F? One reason: Garret Dillahunt. When I discovered he’d be playing Krug Stillo that was about the only thing that kept me checking for a release date. From the minute he enters the motel room with his patchy, triangular beard, wild eyes, and massive physical presence, you can’t help but be transfixed. I know that if someone as effortlessly charismatic as Dillahunt hadn’t been in the lead role, I’d have found Last House impossible to take. Dillahunt, who you may know as the slightly slow deputy from No Country For Old Men, is endlessly watchable and he brings a poise to the role of Krug that makes him extra terrifying. All of his lines are mesmerizing (especially the one that goes something like “you guys did a number on my brother, he is really fucking dead.”) and every second he’s on screen, I found myself drawn to his craziness. He perfects the edginess that Giovanni Lombardi Radice, Ray Lovelock, George Eastman, Al Cliver, and Antonio Mayans all tried to convey from 1973 onward but couldn’t (and that Matthew McConnaughey, Viggo Mortensen, and Ralph Fiennes still can’t quite master). He’s off-putting when he needs to be but he also succeeds at being normal; he’s like a rabid dog playing possum, ready to snap when you get too close. In the scenes in the house before Mari shows up on the porch, he’s just as frightening because you’ve seen him at the height of his madness so his warm friendliness is equally as nervewracking. Although revenge belongs to the Collingwoods, the film is Dillahunts and I’d have been willing to watch a remake of Killer’s Moon to see him in the lead role. I’m looking forward to seeing him in The Road; it should get the bad taste of exploitation cinema out of my mouth.

No comments: