'The Last House On The Left': Vintage Violence, By Kurt Loder

Repulsive and dull, together at last.

At an early point in [movie id="307962"]"The Last House On The Left,"[/movie] as one or another of a pair of young women was being head-slammed, spit on, kicked in the stomach, ripped with a knife or raped face-down in the dirt while chortling goons hovered around, I started muttering to myself, "It's only a remake, only a remake...."

In fact, this new version of Wes Craven's loathsome 1972 terror landmark is considerably less vile than the original, but also considerably weaker in the "why?" department. Sadistic cinema has come a long way since Craven's debut feature took calculating aim at the grindhouse fringe; now, with the [movie id="266419"]"Saw"[/movie] and [movie id="274528"]"Hostel"[/movie] pictures having moved into the multiplexes, the torture-porn bar has been raised dauntingly high. By reining in the depredations somewhat, the Greek director Dennis Iliades, making his first English-language film, has reduced "Last House" to a by-the-numbers revenge tale that seems too halting to get the blood-feast audience really salivating, and too tedious for non-connoisseurs to be expected to endure.

The plot is unencumbered by surprises. A sunny little family — mom (Monica Potter), dad (Tony Goldwyn), and teenage daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) — is vacationing at a lake house in the woods. Mari borrows the family van to drive into a nearby town to meet up with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). There, the two girls encounter a glum youth named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark). Justin has some pot, and the three of them repair to the motel room he shares with his momentarily absent kinfolk to smoke it. When the rest of the clan returns, we get to meet Justin's escaped-convict father, Krug (introspective Garret Dillahunt, solidly miscast); his psychopath uncle, Francis (Aaron Paul); and a malevolent slut named Sadie (icy Riki Lindhome, of "Changeling").

The earlier-noted bad things soon transpire; then a storm comes up, and before long Krug and his crew find themselves stumbling through the rain-whipped forest in search of shelter. They arrive at the lake house, where Mari's unwitting parents unwisely invite them in. Iliadis effectively ratchets up the tension here, but soon mom and dad discover what these creeps have done to their daughter and the inevitable orgy of vengeance gets underway, with everything from fireplace pokers to limb-mangling garbage disposals brought into play. It all goes on too long, and culminates in a transcendently stupid scene that seems to have been plucked at random from a pile of outtakes and tacked on at the end for no other reason than to provide a farewell burst of gore.

The original "Last House on the Left" is sometimes held up as a fearless reflection of the real-life horrors of its era — the Vietnam War, the Manson Family and so forth. Whatever its merits, it was a defiantly cruddy-looking picture. This remake (which Craven coproduced) has better color and one memorable image: an overhead shot peering down through the teeming rain at a body afloat in the lake, with blood blossoming out in the water around it. The rest of the film is an often murky and occasionally out-of-focus visual wallow. Normally this might be an annoyance. Here, though, you just wonder how much you could really be missing.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Miss March," also new in theaters this week.

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