The horror genre is nothing if not cyclical. Horror films are frequently picked apart and reassembled again in new packaging for new audiences. Sometimes this results in modern classics. Other times it results in a blasphemous product that defaces the legacy of the original. Remake Fever is a series that compares and contrasts an original horror film and its remake to investigate how the new film is reimagined, as well as what works and what doesn’t.
This time we’re comparing Wes Craven‘s 1972 The Last House on the Left with Dennis Iliadis‘s 2009 remake, which is celebrating its 10 year anniversary March 13. Spoilers for both films follow!
In 1972, fledgling director Wes Craven unleashed his first feature film on the world. The Last House on the Left was written and directed by Craven after cutting his teeth in the porn industry. The film is a quintessential (s)exploitation horror, focusing on two girls – Mari (Sandra Peabody) and “bad girl” Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) who are imprisoned, raped and ultimately killed by criminals in the woods of New York. The trio, Krug (musician David Hess), Weasel (Fred J. Lincoln) and Sadie (Jeramie Rain), along with Krug’s son Junior (Marc Sheffler), seek refuge from a storm at a nearby home…which happens to belong Mari’s family, who exact bloody revenge on their daughter’s killers. Memorable deaths include Weasal’s blowjob castration and Krug’s death by chainsaw.
Released the same year as My Bloody Valentine near the tail end of the 00s remake cycle, The Last House on the Left 2009 traffics in the same hard R territory. While the original source material juxtaposed ironic music with ultraviolence to offer both levity and commentary, the remake abandons humour completely in order to tell a pervasively grim, blue-tinged rape/revenge tale. Also gone? The moralistic lessons about the dangers of taking drugs from strangers and the 70s preoccupation with what is required for good people to become killers (see also: Straw Dogs, Deliverance, etc).
The cast is comprised almost entirely of character actors or performers who later became more famous. Starring Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt, former Ghost baddie and future TV president Tony Goldwyn, future Parenthood star Monica Potter, Unbreakable’s Spencer Treat Clark, genre starlet Sara Paxton and an on-the-cusp-of-Breaking Bad-celebrity Aaron Paul, The Last House on the Left was panned by critics. It ultimately managed an OK, but unspectacular $31 M theatrical gross on a budget of $15 M.
So on its ten year anniversary, how does the remake hold up?
A Word on Rape
At the end of the day, both iterations of this film land firmly in the rape/revenge subgenre of horror. One of the obvious byproducts of this mode of storytelling, which is notably almost always written and directed by men, is the near-exclusive brutal suffering of women as an impetus for violence. In the original film, Craven attempts to undercut the savagery by using an ironic score and what amounts to (arguably) the most idiotic Keystone-like cops in cinematic history.
In the remake, however, there is no humour or levity. The rape scene is graphic and seemingly interminable (particularly if you watch the Unrated cut, which is even longer). It serves a “purpose” (more below), but is undeniably horrific, challenging to watch and triggering. In 2019 (and with recent news of a direct to video sequel to 1978’s notorious I Spit On Your Grave), the use of rape as a narrative trope can’t help but feel antiquated and, frequently, misogynistic. For folks who are inclined to seek out an alternative, female-oriented perspective, I recommend checking out Revenge and MFA.
One of the most significant changes that screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth make is the decision to keep Mari alive. In Craven’s original, Phyllis suffers the most as she is apprehended in a cemetery, raped and stabbed. Mari then says a prayer, walks serenely into the water and Krug shoots her.
The remake fleshes Mari out and Sara Paxton’s performance imbues the character with a great deal more depth than the original. In the new film, Mari’s friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) is quickly dispatched, then Mari is brutally raped before she is shot by Krug (Dillahunt) when she attempts to swim to safety (she is a competitive swimmer). Although she is mortally injured, Mari manages to make it to the porch of her family cottage. The rest of the film eschews the moralistic questions about whether John and Emma will debase themselves and become killers, opting for a survivalist kill-or-be-killed approach instead. The remake therefore becomes about parents who will do anything required to ensure their daughter’s survival, which lends the film more humanity and makes it easier for audiences to invest in the drama. Mari’s survival establishes the rationale for her parents’ actions without diminishing her trauma or existing solely to be raped and murdered (like in the original).
Intriguingly, this change is one of the most consistent points of criticism lobbed at the film by its detractors. Many of the major reviewers use Mari’s survival as an argument that the remake is “defanged” and less pointed in its social commentary than Craven’s original. Ironically many of the same individuals also question the relevancy of remaking the film in the first place, so… (Apparently the film never stood a chance with some people).
The other element that works exceedingly well is the violence. Last House 2009 is an absolutely brutal film. The grisly tone is established right at the start of the film when Sadie (Rikki Lindhome) casually shoots a cop’s head off while rescuing Krug from protective custody. Every injury in this movie hurts; every stabbing, every gunshot, every shower bar or fire extinguisher to the face, you feel it.
This is never more apparent than in the film’s single greatest setpiece: Francis (Paul)’s kitchen death. After the interloper spots Mari dying on the living room table, Emma and John go to town on him. Emma smashes a bottle over his head and stabs him, then she and John nearly drown Francis in the kitchen sink before crippling his hand in the garborator (the sound effects are so, so good). Finally, John ends the battle by impaling Francis in the back of the head with the jagged end of a hammer. Not only is the protracted fight sequence incredibly visceral and awesome, it importantly reinforces that both Emma and John are equal participants in the carnage (it’s honestly quite a sight seeing Monica Potter get her hands dirty).
What Doesn’t Work
Not unlike My Bloody Valentine, there is some gratuitous nudity in The Last House on the Left remake. In both versions of the film, Sadie is positioned as an unhinged psychotic (she’s much scarier in the original because Rain makes the character so unpredictable); in the 2009 version this translates into casual nudity in her introductory scene. The remake dispenses with the original’s hysterical warning about the girls bringing the events upon themselves because they sought out weed. In the new version, Paige and Mari originally hang out with Justin because Paige wants to party, but then they’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when Krug, Francis and Sadie show up.
While obvious technical elements such as a change in music denote that the girls are in danger, Sadie’s change of clothing (without hesitation) as soon as she enters the motel room, now filled with two strangers, is a visual shorthand to connote that she is unflappable, sexual and has no interest in conventional societal norms. This is reinforced when she slips off Mari’s hoodie so that she can wear it herself. Sadie’s casual nudity in this scene is about establishing her character.
The same can’t be said of she second partial nude scene later in the film. Following Francis’ murder, John shoots Sadie in the chest while she is sleeping. Despite the wound, Sadie jumps up topless and escapes into the bathroom where she struggles with John and Justin, before Emma coolly and calmly shoots her in the eye. Not only is the death disappointingly short and abrupt, but Sadie’s partial nudity is distracting. This is a case of an R-rated film once again unnecessarily inserting nudity in simply because the option exists. While there are undoubtedly women who sleep topless, for the purposes of the film there is no need for nudity in this scene. Sadie could have just as easily slept in a tank top and it would have been no different.
The most significant problems with Last House 2009 both ultimately belong to Krug. Dillahunt is solid in the role and although his Krug is less ominous that Kess is in the original, Krug remains a worthy adversary. Although his fight with John (and later Justin and Emma) is the longest of the three sequences, it leans too heavily into over-the-top action spectacle and lacks the same kind of heart-stopping energy that makes Francis’ death so memorable. Last House 2009 is more than two hours long and at this point, the film drags a touch and the hits have less impact.
By far the worst sin committed in the remake, however, is the utterly ridiculous coda. When all of the villains have been dispatched and the survivors, including Mari and Justin, have been safely stowed away on a powerboat headed into the sunrise, the film cuts back to reveal that John paralyzed Krug using his medical expertise before exploding his head in the microwave. Not only do the logistics of the microwave not work, the scene feel tonally “off”. It is merely dumb and comedic gore, but not even of the “fuck yeah” fist-bump variety. It’s a groaner.
This scene reeks of, at worst, studio interference or, at best, an ill-advised attempt to end the film with a bang. Whichever it is, it doesn’t work and it undercuts so much of what works in the other 99% of the film.
At the end of the day, The Last House on the Left 2009 was an unfairly maligned remake that opts to update Craven’s outdated social politics (and, to be honest, underwhelming writing) in favour of a gritty, visceral experience. The rape sequence is undeniably difficult to watch, but the “revenge” portion of the film, particularly Francis’ kitchen battle (arguably one of the best fight scenes of the 00s), elevates the film into modern near-classic. The Last House on the Left is the rare remake that is not only highly watchable, it arguably improves on the original. It’s that good.
Wanna hear more about The Last House on the Left? Check out the Horror Queers Patreon to hear Trace Thurman and I discuss both films in greater detail (as well as access other exclusive episodes on Escape Room, Glass, and Happy Death Day 2U).