Spencer Treat Clark
Like sequels, remakes have a bad press. Regarded as lazy, unimaginative, and destructive to the spirit and memory of the original, this special brand of revisionist cinema finds few friends among critics – and you can be sure that the odd cherished exception, like The Beat That My Heart Skipped or The Departed, will not be a horror film, oversaturated as that genre currently is with Seventies (and latterly Eighties) revisitations, not to mention J-, K- and T-horror rehashes.
Along with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) which have both subsequently been remade and ‘sequelised’ – Wes Craven’s debut shocker The Last House on the Left (1972) is credited with heralding a new kind of low-budget, independent horror that brought terror out of the gothic castle and into the contemporary American home.
Yet here’s a dark little secret: unlike the timeless classics of Romero and Hooper, Craven’s Last House, itself a rough-and-ready reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), has become, with the passing years, something of an embarrassment. Its terrible production values, inept score and ill-judged comic interludes make it watchable today only as an incompetent curiosity and so Dennis Iliadis’ remake, much like Alexandre Aja’s 2006 reworking of that other Craven cult hit of the Seventies The Hills Have Eyes (1977), in fact improves considerably upon an overrated original.
The skeleton of Craven’s rape-revenge plot remains, as once again we see a family of outlaw fugitives commit a horrific crime, and a second family of middle-class liberals (in the title, ‘on the left’ is a pun) wreak their equally horrific vengeance. This time round, however, there is a real atmosphere to the film’s look and sound, the performances are convincing, the character dynamics are less sketchy, the mood-killing ‘comedy cop’ routines are gone altogether, and the preposterous plot coincidences that led Krug and company right to the family home of their latest victim have been replaced with more plausible motivations rooted in geography and character. Even the locket that forms a crucial token of recognition in the story makes better sense here, both in its origins and in its uniqueness.
Most interesting of all, here the Collingwoods are (or seem to be) driven to violence not by revenge but by a pure survival reflex, forced by stormy circumstance to fight for their very lives. Only the coda takes us right back to the more openly sadistic paradigm of Craven’s original, and leaves us, open-mouthed, to contemplate how far our civilisation has really progressed since the savagery of the Seventies (or indeed of Bergman’s Medieval era). It is an astonishing ‘what the fuck?’ moment, totally wrong-footing viewers with its reliance not on boo tactics or visceral excess, but on genuine moral horror that in its way out-Hanekes Haneke (without feeling like a lecture), by confronting us in the end with what we expected (and possibly also desired) all along from this kind of movie.
You see, revenge is, after all, a dish best served microwave-hot…