A Reach Exceeding its Grasp
Amusingly, this film was showing in the last theater on the right. The last theater on the left featured a showing of Watchmen starting at about the same time. I was terribly tempted to make an honest mistake, but had this review ended up being about Garret Dillahunt’s fantastic blue penis, I doubt that it would have held up to scrutiny.
Let’s be honest: you know what happens in this film. The original is over 30 years old, and even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve read about it online. Even if you haven’t, any commercial for the film spells out the essential plot details from start to finish. If you have still managed to erect a cocoon of spoiler-free living, why are you seeing this film? Did you see the title at the box office, and just say “golly, I love houses, and I’m left handed, it’s sure to be a winner!”? In that case, just go rent Titanic, your wonderful naivety needs the happy ending.
The question then becomes the same one that plagues cover songs: if Bob motherfucking Dylan made a song famous, what are you going to do differently to make it your own? This is the trap that killed the remake of Psycho, shot-for-shot leeching the soul out of the original. Homage is just mutual masturbation unless you shoot for something greater. Last House on the Left succeeds at reaching but falls short in the execution of its grasp.
It wasn’t a bad film, but it wasn’t a great film. It seemed to be very uncertain of what it actually wanted to be, swinging between moments of casual brutality and over the top horror movie gore. The film works during the former, not so much during the latter. The original film is legendary. Brutal. Over the top. Complex. Surreal. But it was not necessarily all that great of a film independent of the context of its cultural shock. This remake gets points for genuinely attempting to make something different and significant.
The movie starts out strongly, with casual and shocking violence. A naked joy in the killing. It’s not creative horror movie murder, it’s just raw brutality. And that’s what makes it work.
Garret Dillahunt does an excellent job with what he is given, pulling off a credible monster as he did in “Deadwood” (twice!), “ER,” and Terminator. He gets the best lines, the only real humor in the film, and is rapidly setting himself up as a darker version of Alan Rickman for this generation. His cohorts acquit themselves well. Riki Lindhome (Sadie) is vicious and seems to be channeling a particularly psychotic Drusilla throughout (I don’t have a personal quota for “Buffy” references, but the physical appearance and mannerisms are eerily similar). Aaron Paul (Francis) is creepy in a weasel-like way, managing both a craving for violence and a hilariously delusional self confidence. Spencer Treat Clark (Justin) has moved on from being that kind of funny looking kid in Gladiator, Unbreakable and Mystic River to being in many ways the central character of this film. He is the only character who develops in a real arc, but we see so little of him outside of the immediate story that we cannot get a real handle on him.
The films cuts away to normal life, normal people. A man, his wife, his daughter. The characters are lightly fleshed out. Dad (John) is a doctor, the daughter (Mari) a swimmer, the mother (Emma) is overprotective. These little characterizations are relevant to the plot’s developments. Tony Goldwyn, Sara Paxton and Monica Potter all do serviceable jobs with these characters, but they don’t seem to have all that much to work with at times. The film is all tension punctuated by violence, so the requisite protagonists don’t evolve so much as respond. To be fair though, these characters are not horror movie idiots. They don’t necessarily make the optimum choices, but they are fundamentally sensible.
A curious undercurrent of sexuality runs throughout the film. The camera lingers on Mari’s body as she changes clothes, strips down to swim, all skinny long legs and elbows. It’s innocent, even when she and a friend smoke out with Justin in his hotel room, trying to finagle his clothes and hair into cuteness. The innocence stops when Sadie pushes into the room and promptly peels her shirt off without preamble to root around for other clothes. Fondling and groping once kidnapped, not even sexual so much as possessive. Stripping a captive down to use her clothes as rope. Pressuring Justin to pick one girl to rape, his father’s hands roughly guiding. Sex as a tool of dominance. Krug rapes Mari because she doesn’t fear him. Emma seduces Francis to stall for time. It’s still sex as a tool.
Where the film really fails is in the second half, which is so disappointing because that’s where the heart of the film should be. It swings the pendulum both ways: the hunters and then the hunters as the hunted, normal people transformed into something horrible out of necessity. The problem is that this is where the lousy horror movie exhibitionism comes in, as if the director did not even realize that the first half was so effective because of its casualness. It deteriorates into a snuff film at the point John and Emma realize the truth of their guests and their inability to escape. The cultivated tension of the first half deflates. You know that the criminals are going to die, and the question really just becomes about how creatively they will go.
And the more creative, the less effective it gets. Garbage disposal, drowning in the sink, wine bottle to the head, claw hammer, fireplace poker, butcher’s knife, fire extinguisher, pistol, head-on-a-stick in a microwave? These are suburban middle-aged parents killing out of necessity, not Freddie and Jason. The real problem isn’t even that it gets kind of silly; it’s that the attention to reality slips as well. The characters kick the living shit out of each other, blunt force trauma after blunt force trauma. This middle aged doctor takes blows to the body and head better than Rocky, none the worse for wear. It’s the bad action movie cliché: sticks and stones may break my bones, but only penetrating injuries can cause death or disability.
John is a surgeon, as is made abundantly clear at the film’s beginning in which he comfortably deals with blood and gore in the emergency room. That sets him up for a fascinating story arc that never materializes. Hands of a healer becoming the hands of a killer? Nope. Medical expertise and a comfort with blood combining with violent necessity to produce a devastating effectiveness? Of course not, a paring knife to the carotid would be far less natural to an experienced surgeon than whaling on everyone in sight with a poker from the fireplace.
It’s frustrating because one can see throughout the film moments of where it could have been so much better. There are two families here, one of love and one of violence, but families with loyalty nonetheless. There is the potential for a beautiful intertwining of two stories: a boy rejecting the monstrosity of his father, a father becoming a monster on behalf of his daughter. It seems at quiet moments to realize its potential as a meditation on violence, but jettisons that too often for the cheesy violence of bad horror. It does not seem to realize that its most horrific moments are not filled with blood, but with Garret Dillahunt’s smile.
The film is really two films in one, split in about equal running time. There is the first story of horror and death, and the second story of revenge and life. There needs to be a third story - the story of what comes after.
So is it a good film? Is it worth seeing? It has good moments. It doesn’t go freaky deaky hippie dippie like the original did at points. It’s not a bad film, it’s just a frustrating one. If you’ve got a hankering for some new horror, I’d say it’s worth seeing. I’d rather watch a film in which the director reached for something great and came up short than endure one of the nominally more entertaining but ultimately pointless popcorn flicks.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.