March 19, 2009

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The Last House on the Left (R)
A somewhat standard exploitative slasher movie turns into an extravagantly violent revenge movie in The Last House on the Left.

The wealthy but rather fragile-seeming Collingwoods head into the country for a summertime vacation. There’s teenage Mari (Sara Paxton), a competitive swimmer, mother Emma (Monica Potter) and doctor dad John (Tony Goldwyn). There is also, we soon learn, the ghost (a metaphorical ghost; this isn’t that kind of horror movie) of an older brother, an early dark cloud as the movie starts out with a not-fooling-anyone kind of sunny menace. The Collingwoods, who all arrive in one car, settle into their vacation home by the lake but quickly Mari wants to take the car to go see a friend. Reluctantly her mother lets her, and off Mari heads to hook up with Paige (Martha MacIsaac), who works at a convenience store. There, the girls meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a quiet boy who offers to sell them some pot. Quicker than you can say “this is how girls end up dead,” Paige and Mari are back at his hotel room, smoking and hanging out. Is Justin really a nice boy? These girls never really get a chance to find out, because soon Justin’s father Krug (Garret Dillahunt), Krug’s brother Giles (Joshua Cox) and Krug’s skanky girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) return and decide, because the girls have seen their faces, they can’t just wander back to the town in a marijuana haze. As we saw in an earlier scene, Krug was freed from police custody when Giles, Sadie and Justin staged a car accident and now the group is on the run.

Per every horrible thing your mother ever told you would happen to you if you talked to strangers, the girls are soon dragged into the woods and varyingly stabbed, beaten up and otherwise assaulted (including SPOILER ALERT — though most of the trailers at least allude to it — a truly nightmarish rape scene). After the escalating violence is over, both girls are left for dead in the woods and the gang, which had stolen Mari’s car but had crashed it when she tried to escape, sets off walking.
Guess whose house they stumble upon?

If the terrorizing of Mari and Paige is the first part and the revenged promised in all the trailers is the third part of the movie, the relatively well done middle part is the menacing scene where Krug and company show up at Emma and John’s house looking for a ride into town. They don’t know that these are the parents of one of the two girls; Emma and John don’t know these sketchy-looking people trying to get a signal on the cordless phone during the thunderstorm are the group who’ve brutalized their daughter. They don’t even know that anything has happened to her. What will break first? Krug’s gang’s murderous behavior? The Spidey sense clearly telling Emma and John that something’s not right, even if they don’t yet know what?

For a cheap horror movie, The Last House on the Left works this tension pretty well. While not exactly a good movie — and certainly not an enjoyable one — it does contain actual horror, actual scary things. Creepy pale ghosts of dead children, hulking monsters in hockey masks — it’s hard to really be afraid of these things. But The Last House on the Left taps into two pretty core fears: (1) that the creepy-seeming strangers you meet really are out to get you and (2) that your child will make one or two stupid decisions and wind up in a horrible situation likely to lead to her death. The quiet Paxton and the shaky-seeming Potter give us believable responses to this non-supernatural, cruelly realistic kind of horror. And Goldwyn is actually rather entertaining as his primordial rage breaks out of his shlubby middle-aged shell.

He’s entertaining but the movie is not entertaining. That is, it’s not enjoyable to watch. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of personal taste — I’ve liked gory movies (and this one has plenty of gore, particularly in its final scenes). I’ve seen others describe it as grim and I think that central quality of grimness, of a cold kind of evil, makes it both better than most horror movies out there and removes the fun-haunted-house ride quality. So points for improvement; just don’t make me watch it again. C

Rated R for sadistic brutal violence including a rape and disturbing images, language, nudity and some drug use. Directed by Dennis Iliadis and written by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth (loosely based on a script by Wes Craven), The Last House on the Left is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Rogue Pictures.