Our long national lousy-horror-remake nightmare has finally—or at least temporarily—ended, thanks to Dennis Iliadis’s The Last House on the Left, a do-over of Wes Craven’s seminal debut, itself modeled after Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, that bests its predecessor in most respects. Gone is the original’s early campiness, here replaced by eye-of-the-storm calm that portends tragedy, as well as its later over-the-top grindhouse gore, now swapped for taut suspense punctuated by visceral brutality. Still, while the tone is somewhat reconfigured, the story—infused with both class-tension undercurrents and surprising poignancy—remains fundamentally the same. The rape-revenge tale of two girls’ torture at the hands of psychopaths, and the comeuppance they receive upon subsequently taking shelter at the home of one of their victims, Iliadis’s film barrels forward on a mood of mounting dread that’s invigorated by the director’s unblinking portrait of nastiness and his sustained focus on—and exploitation of—the girl’s parents’ shock and awesome fury once they learn the true identity of their unexpected guests.
As in Craven’s shocker, pot is a gateway drug to hell, as the teens’ quest to procure some weed leads to local girl Paige (Martha MacIsaac) being viciously killed and her friend, out-of-towner Mari (Sara Paxton), being I Spit on Your Grave-style despoiled and left to die of a gunshot wound in a lake. She doesn’t, though it’s Mari’s necklace pendant that proves the evidence which clues her parents in to their situation, which is so dire—alone with murderers in a woodland cabin that has no phone service or nearby neighbors—that the only reasonable course of action is bloodshed. Reason, however, isn’t all that drives them, and the film’s ferocious, no-nonsense second half makes sure to root itself not just in distinctly unpleasant carnage, but also in its adult protagonists’ piercing mixture of devastated grief and unchecked rage, both of which are expertly expressed in an affecting scene in which John (Tony Goldwyn) discovers that Mari has been sexually violated and, the camera compassionately fixated on his and Emma’s (Monica Potter) faces, the couple muster the fortitude to “do whatever it takes.” This means choosing to be hunters rather than the hunted and slaughtering their fiendish visitors, whose leader Krug—as father of his own personal Manson family, including unwilling biological son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark)—stands as the abusive and sadistic paternal counterpoint to nurturing physician John.
Iliadis’s camerawork is sleek and dexterous throughout, from a creeping-forward opening shot through the nighttime woods that suggests a forthcoming Little Red Riding Hood-ish journey toward horror, to the unrelentingly drawn-out depiction of John hunting Krug in the house, this latter sequence further benefiting from the director’s refusal—in a welcome twist on typical scary-movie conventions—to have the aggrieved father behave in ways reckless and/or illogical. A tacked-on ending provides an ultimate money shot for splatter junkies but proves to be the film’s sole misstep, motivated as it is less by the tale’s urgent parental anxieties and protective impulses than by a misguided belief that genre enthusiasts won’t fully embrace a work unless it features one overly elaborate death. Yet for the most part, true terror is derived not from cleverly concocted only-in-the-movies executions but from Illiadis’s unhurried staging—such as during Krug and his brother Francis’s (Aaron Paul) sexualized murder of Paige, which the director lingers on to elicit maximum revulsion—and from the relatable emotional and psychological circumstances generated by his premise, out of which this precise, calculating Last House on the Left wrings substantial tension.