Stephen King once wrote something to the effect that people read and watch horror as a dress rehearsal for death. This makes sense, even if horror characters often suffer gruesome deaths at the hands of zombies, vampires and amorphous CGI blobs.
While some horror movies give death a cartoon-like polish, “The Last House on the Left” strips human experience down to the rule of power. Its normally civilized characters are thrown to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where survival is the only moral imperative.
The movie — a remake of Wes Craven’s 1972 classic — centers around two families with seemingly very different value systems. The Collingwoods — mom (Monica Potter, “Saw”), dad (Tony Goldwyn, “The Last Samurai”) and daughter Mari (Sara Paxton, “Superhero Movie”) — are suburban types who can afford to summer at a lake house.
Their antithesis is a group of criminals led by Krug (Garret Dillahunt, TV’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”), who is sprung from state custody by Sadie (Riki Lindhome, “Changeling”) and his brother, Francis (Aaron Paul, TV’s “Breaking Bad”). Along for the ride is Krug’s teenage son, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark, “Mystic River”).
On the first day of summer vacation, Mari takes the car to see her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac, “Superbad”). The pair meets Justin, who offers to give them some pot. The two dumbasses go back to Justin’s motel room and get high until Krug, Sadie and Francis show up. Displeased at finding two possible rats in his room, Krug wants to take Mari and Paige on a little jaunt to God-knows-where. On the way, Krug and company do some very unpleasant things to Mari and Paige, leave them for dead, trek through the woods and, as chance would have it, find Mari’s house.
Over the course of the evening, the Collingwoods find out about Mari. What follows is a series of grisly revenge murders that borders on the pornographic in the attention paid to physical detail. Every slice, puncture, splash and scream is rendered in high-definition color and sound.
The point in all of this is that violence begets violence, and the impulse to revenge corrupts even the gentlest soul. By the end of things, the Collingwoods will commit atrocities far outside the boundaries of Krug, and they will often use symbols of household domesticity — you’ll never feel the same about microwave ovens, for example — to make their point.
“The Last House on the Left” is beautifully shot and well-acted, despite the C-list cast. What makes this movie unpleasant has nothing to do with execution (pun intended) and everything to do with content. What ruins it is the very last scene, which obliterates the movie’s earlier suggestion that people will do whatever it takes to survive. In the end, “Last House” tries to convince us that once given a taste, people will go out of their way to torture and destroy their enemies, even after it’s no longer necessary. Even more than blood and guts, it’s this final slap in the face that’s truly sickening. —Mike Robertson