The Horror Honeys: Honey Switch Month ~ Hippie Horror Becomes 21st-Century Torture

Honey Switch Month ~ Hippie Horror Becomes 21st-Century Torture

A Honey Switch Month Review with Revenge Honey Katie

The Last House on the Left (2009)

Trends in Hollywood filmmaking occur all the time, and in the 2000s there was a truly peculiar, oddly specific pattern emerging: a spate of rape-revenge remakes of 1970s exploitation movies. Last week I dove headfirst into the trend with the remake trilogy of 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave, but one film in particular arguably ushered in this movement: Dennis Iliadis’ slick 2009 remake of Wes Craven’s controversial first feature, The Last House on the Left (1972). The updates that Iliadis and his writers employed to bring this disturbing story into the 21st century result in a film that’s strangely both grimmer and more hopeful than its predecessor. The difficulty lies in whether this duality helps the remake achieve a sense of moral balance, or if the two elements ultimately cancel each other out – leaving the viewer to wonder if what they just experienced was worth the agonizing effort.

Craven’s original film accomplishes the rare feat of being just as difficult to watch today as it was for audiences over four decades ago. The early 1970s signaled a death knell for 1960s-era hippie culture and the “peace and love” philosophy they peached to the masses, and 1972’s The Last House on the Left is a reaction to that shift: Craven’s young ingĂ©nue Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) travels to New York City to innocently buy some “grass” and see a rock show, when she’s kidnapped, raped, and shot to death. The criminals that perpetrate her murder are a Manson-esque clan of sordid thrill-seekers, with no greater objective than to follow where their hedonist appetites lead them. Coincidentally, it leads them right to Mari’s house, where her parents eventually discover their daughter’s fate and exact their revenge on the gang. While Craven had noticeable talent from the very beginning of his career, the film suffers from a scant budget, unskilled actors, and various cultural references that date it very narrowly to the period from which it came. Still, The Last House on the Left is no less impactful for the very clear message it conveys about Craven’s attitude concerning his own generation, and the ways in which it piloted a gritty new direction for micro-budget American horror.

Still hard to watch.
Iliadis’ 2009 remake envisions the modern-day Collingwood family retreating to their cozy lake house on holiday: dad John (Tony Goldwyn) is a well-to-do-doctor; mom Emma (Monica Potter) is a suburban dream; and Mari (Sara Paxton) is a star athlete at her high school. Their picture-perfect WASP-y existence is turned upside down when Mari and her girlfriend fall victim to a murderous prison escapee and his degenerate family, including teenaged son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) and brother Francis (played by Aaron Paul – yeah, bitch!). Mari and her friend are brutalized in ways that are still difficult to watch, even for slightly sanitized studio horror, but there’s one notable difference between this and the original – modern-day Mari survives her attack. Stumbling onto the porch of her family home after the criminals have settled in as emergency overnight guests during a storm, Mari is treated by her physician father before he and sweet, doe-eyed Emma carve out some revenge-fueled carnage on their unwelcome visitors. As John puts it, “we gotta be ready for anything. We have to be ready to DO anything.” If “anything” includes using a microwave as a murder weapon, these parents have out-revenged the parents from the 1972 original, who merely had a humble chainsaw at their disposal.

These are faces you would totally trust not to murder you, right?
Keeping Mari alive in the remake at first seems like a cop-out that many modern-day horror movies force upon audiences (especially American ones) who look unfavorably upon movies with bleak endings. Horror remakes in particular are susceptible to tacking on a compulsory happy ending whenever possible, even if it doesn’t make much narrative sense for the story and the characters’ motivations – see the 1993 remake of Spoorloos (The Vanishing) for the most egregious example. In this instance, however, it works because The Last House on the Left becomes a home invasion thriller for much of the third act – turning the Collingwood’s retribution plot for their daughter into a cat-and-mouse defense against people they now know to be violent criminals. Even without having endured Mari’s harrowing assault, the criminals are introduced in the film while committing an unrelated cold-blooded murder, which is enough to make the audience understand John and Emma’s combative tactics in a situation where they are vulnerable without electricity, weapons, or transportation. This major change is well-adapted to a film that starts to center on self-preservation of the entire family, and not purely vengeful acts of violence.

Though Dad seems to enjoy vengeful acts of violence.
That is, until the very last scene of The Last House on the Left, where everything I liked about this remake is precariously threatened by a single, gratuitous act. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that this ‘happy’ ending decided that it needed one more explosive, gruesome cherry on top of a perfectly respectable remake-cake (and if you know the moment I’m referring to, the cooking metaphor is appropriate). From the casting to the changes in the story and the photographic direction of this feature, nearly everything about this remake improved upon the original and was watchable in its own right – until it decided to veer into torture porn-esque territory, all but invalidating everything that made it believable and interesting. Does this moment alone change my estimation of the feature as a whole? Maybe not, but they should’ve left well enough alone before they decided to throw in an unnecessarily over-the-top act of revenge to appease the viewers who lost interest in the human element of the story.

Hell hath no fury like scored parents with a fire poker.
In the post-Saw (and Abu Ghraib) era, audiences are used to more hardcore depictions of violence that have a torture element to them, which may be why these remakes found a new niche with modern filmgoers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every single revenge remake has to amplify the torture aspect of the way its characters go about exacting their payback. Examining what an average person might do in extreme circumstances that threaten the lives of themselves or a loved one is a compelling subject when done correctly; but fetishizing the way they make their captors suffer threatens the suspension of disbelief. Then again, I suppose none of us really know what we’re capable of until we find ourselves in that situation… a situation that I hope none of you ever have to face.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Three-and-a-half head-busting microwaves out of five.

Where do YOU stand on #RevengeRemakes?