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If there’s one thing movies have taught us it’s that fat funny guys can get hot skinny chicks.  If there’s one thing more relevant to the new film The Last House on the Left, it’s that remote vacation destinations, while beautiful, are quite often death traps just waiting to kill you and your family.  So it is that the happily married Collingwood’s head to their remote summer house on a lake in the woods ostensibly for vacation, but also to bond with their teen daughter and deal with the loss of their son the year before.  John (Tony Goldwyn) and Emma (Monica Potter) are hoping for family time, but they reluctantly allow Mari (Sara Paxton) to spend the first night in town with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac).  Unfortunately for the Collingwoods, another “family” has also arrived in town, led by an escaped convict named Krug (Garrett Dillahunt), and consisting of his brother Francis (Aaron Paul), his girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and his teenage son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark).  A lapse in judgment on Justin’s part finds the two girls taken captive by the malicious and murderous gang with tragic consequences for them both.  After much abuse, Paige is killed and Mari is raped and left for dead.  A fierce storm hits and the killers are forced to take refuge in the titular domicile which just happens to be Mari’s house, and as the night rolls on, the couple discovers what happened to their daughter and who’s responsible.  Violent retribution ensues…

This may come as a shock to some people (especially EW readers*), but The Last House on the Left remake is actually a pretty kick-ass movie.  I know, I know, it’s a remake!  How can it be anything but a pile of shit trying to ocularly rape my childhood?  I’ll tell you how (but first I’d wonder why any child was allowed to watch the original film in the first place)… Start with a screenplay by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth that uses the original’s structure as a jumping-off point only, that replaces the cartoon characters, poor dialogue and details, and horribly unfunny attempts at humor with strong, realistic characters capable of real emotions and places them into incredibly dire and tense situations.  Add confident directing from Dennis Iliadis (in his Hollywood debut) who manages to find some pure moments of tenderness among scenes of absolute terror and suspense.  Throw in a few fantastically twisted set-pieces complete with wicked and wet gore effects.  And most importantly, find actors who can make these characters come to life.

The film’s most unexpected strength, and the one most necessary for it’s success, is the quality of acting on display. Dillahunt and Goldwyn both give intense and powerful performances as dueling fathers from opposite sides of the moral spectrum, and Clark (little Lucius from Gladiator) fills Justin’s eyes with fear, regret, and hopelessness.  Dillahunt actually brings some levity to the film with a few erfectly timed observations and comments, an incredible feat after the things he’s done up to that point.  The remaining performances are solid including Potter’s transformation from a low-rent Julia Roberts to a fierce yet vulnerable mother capable of anything, and Paxton as the resourceful girl who refuses to give up or play the role of victim.  Only two of the actors fare somewhat poorly.  Lindhome wavers between offering successful glimpses into Sadie’s insecurities and poor, overblown attempts at acting aggressive or crazy, and MacIsaac’s Paige is just annoying.

The Last House On The Left for 2009 is far from the sleazy offensiveness of the 1972 original, but while it tones down most of that film’s foul degradation it still manages to be a queasy experience at times.  (As it should be.)  The girls are treated rough, as are pretty much all of the film’s characters, but it’s more practical violence and less pure sadism than the original displayed.  Make no mistake, the rape scene is a tough one to watch due mostly to Paxton’s physical appearance and her futile efforts to fight back.  As painful as it is though, the trio of antagonists are simply varying degrees of “bad guys” without it.  By the end of the scene they’ve become vile and deserving targets for all of the parents’ rage and anger, and by extension, for the simmering fury inside the viewers.  The parents are our stand-ins… helpless and unable to prevent something terrible happening to someone we love, and then given the chance to strike back.  What would you do?  How far would you go?  And who’s going to clean the microwave when it’s all over?

The movie does have some faults aside from the two acting missteps mentioned earlier.  Iliadis spends a few too many shots panning slowly across Paxton’s tiny body while she dresses or undresses.  It’s an attempt to add sex appeal, but it fails due to her youthful and almost boy-like frame.  More importantly, trying to portray Mari so sexually shortly before she’s raped is an unnecessary and illogical correlation.  The film also has plans for Justin that are as obvious as they are poorly conceived, and while this particular area is left open in the end the implication seems a bit far-fetched after what has transpired.

All of that aside, there’s no denying that this movie is incredibly entertaining and one hell of a crowd-pleaser.  It’s this year’s Slumdog Millionaire… only with fewer Indians and trivia questions.  You may think I’m kidding, but if you see this movie with a packed house expect to hear cheers and applause from the captivated audience.  Some may argue that the film plays to our basest instincts, but why does that have to be a negative thing?  Justice and revenge are legitimate desires, and films are designed to fulfill those needs.  One of the main purposes behind movies is the promise of escape.  The real world doesn’t always offer deserved retribution, swift or otherwise, but movies can.  And in the case of The Last House on the Left, it does so brilliantly and brutally.

*Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman has apparently chosen to give the film an F without having even seen it.  Do I know this for a fact?  No, but the evidence is in his brief review itself.  He claims the sociopaths are “out for kicks” when actually they’re on the run from the law.  He says they “corner a teenage girl in the woods” when actually they grab her at a motel and drive her to the woods.  He then states a “miscast” Goldwyn “makes revenge for his daughter’s violation look more gratuitously brutal than the crime.”  Perhaps he was sleeping during Mari’s beating, rape, and the eventual gunshot that leaves her dying and floating in the lake.  Maybe he just missed he point that the viewers are tasked with deciding if the revenge outweighed the original crime.  Or maybe he just wrote the film off without even giving it a chance.

The Last House On the Left opens nationwide today.  Check out the trailer below.

The Upside: Darker and more brutal than to be expected from a studio film, sweeter and funnier (not a laugh riot, but a couple funny lines) than any rape/revenge movie should be, populated by solid characters brought to life by some fantastic performances, some deliriously squirm-inducing violence and gore, and the best balls-to-the-wall piece of cathartic cinema in years.

The Downside: Two performances that bordered on annoying, a final scene that goes more than a little bit over the top (but goddamn it’s fun), some unnecessarily confusing editing, an unsuccessful attempt to “sex up” Paxton with skimpy outfits and lingering shots of her getting dressed when the girl can’t help but look fifteen years old, and rape scenes are never fun.

Grade: B


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