Wes Craven’s landmark first film—produced by Friday the 13th helmsman, Sean S. Cunningham, long before Jason Vorhees—is one of those infamous films we’ve all heard of. Yet, it rarely (if ever) breaks the top twenty-five of disturbing films or best horror movies. That’s surprising, because The Last House on the Left is as inventive as it is brutal. It’s as meaningful as it is thrilling. The movie is an intense ride that evokes equal measures dread, disgust, and sorrow.
Craven opens with idyllic scenery and a joyful, if corny, soundtrack. The Collingwood family has a nice life, pleasantly bickering about Mari’s plan to go into the city for a concert with a friend her parents don’t quite approve of. But we can see that this is a solid family, playful if a little reserved. This brief glimpse of bliss is the last happiness anyone in this film will have, and this opening is instrumental in pulling off the horror of the rest of the movie.
As juxtaposition to the Collingwoods, we have a group of criminals—a family, of sorts, that includes a father who’s hooked his son on heroin to control him—that represents all the evils in the brave new world of the Seventies. Today’s audience can’t help but see the inspiration for Rob Zombie’s Firefly family. At the twenty-seven minute mark, we even have the riding-in-a-convertible scene to which Zombie paid homage with his The Devil’s Rejects. In that movie, the scene marked the end for the Fireflys. Craven’s gang, however, has only just begun their journey.
The subsequent torture of Mari and Phyllis is gut-wrenching. Not because of gore. Craven takes a unique, brave approach and makes this a trial of humiliation. The violence is there, and certainly underscores this action, but it’s the mental and physical degradation—like forcing Phyllis to wet herself, and making the girls have sex together—that hits a primal repulsion that blood and guts alone just can’t achieve.
The latter half of the film changes focus dramatically. The damage done, the vile outsiders take refuge in the Collingwood house. Craven manages to make this a practice in fate. And he uses the audience’s outrage to implicate us. For every instance when we begged the gang not to hurt Mari and Phyllis, we now cheer Mari’s parents to unleash their violent justice. We become as bloodthirsty as Frank. It’s a brilliant turn of events that transforms this film from a typical exploitation flick into a morality play in which not even the viewer is innocent.
In 2009, The Last House on the House received the Hollywood remake treatment. Right off the bat, that opening of a flashing rail crossing brought to mind the grill flashers on the 1972 squad car. I thought to myself, this is going to be a clever re-working. But the reboot quickly fell apart.
Gone is Mari’s innocence, replaced by a modern, overachieving daughter. The mother is self-absorbed. Tony Goldwyn’s father character comes across as aloof. Wes Craven used every movie-making element to further his point of view with his 1972 film. That corny soundtrack of his counterpointed the psychological and physical violence. All the kitsch of the original’s opening few minutes is ignored. What remains is a vacuum of character and intent.
The little differences leave gaping holes in plot delivery. Originally, Jr. baits Mari and Phyllis inside. He needs his fix, so he comes through with the girls his clan wanted. That makes him complicit, just as guilty as all the rest, despite his later remorse. In the remake, the young man seems to have no ulterior motive. And the problem is not just that the original’s moral ambiguity was more interesting. There is a real error in that if he didn’t intend to turn the girl over to his murdering pals, why did he take them to the hotel? Why is he so surprised when they return?
Also, one of the linchpin moments in the original was that moment when Mari sees she’s right at the end of her driveway. Home, parents, safety, sanity lie just a few feet away. The audience groans in league with her desperation. In the remake, Mari guides them all toward her house as a ploy. So the themes have changed by making Mari a fighter rather than an ideal of innocence.
Then comes the biggest difference of all. I won’t give it away, but a major shift in storyline occurs that negates the entire film. The very point of the original was the change in the Collingwoods. It offered a question on morality: what separates us from the criminals? While the remake tries to do this, the changes in screenplay don’t offer the same motivations. In Wes Craven’s nightmare world, innocence is a mutable quality. The remake misses the point. It is merely a series events leading up to the big climax. It’s a stunt, rather than an object lesson in lost values and compromised ethics.
The Last House on the Left 2009 does not have the teeth of the original. It looks and feels like every other violent thriller out there. It may be anachronistic to praise Craven’s film as a time capsule, capturing the vibe of the early seventies. But I’d wager that even the first audiences of The Last House on the Left knew that they watched something extraordinary. In their attempt at updating the movie and bringing it to new audiences, the film makers of the remake produced yet another cookie cutter teen movie. Stick with the original, my dark friends. It is a much better experience.