There's a certain irony in the recent re-make of Wes Craven's 1972 shock-horror cult classic The Last House on the Left coming to DVD the same week as Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds; at first glance, it's hard to imagine what Tarantino's World War II saga and Craven's grisly tale of a family fighting back against the drifters who raped their daughter have in common, but the two films actually each explore the difference between justice and revenge, between justified outrage and irrational rage.
Based, intriguingly enough, on a 14th century medieval period piece by Ingmar Bergman from 1960, The Virgin Spring, the original The Last House on the Left was the first film by director Wes Craven, who went on to infamy and fame with horror classics that went from the cult fringes (Last House, The Hills Have Eyes) to, over the years, the widest possible part of the mainstream (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream). Craven's a power-player and producer now — and, frankly, deservedly so; you could argue that no one's done more to define the look and feel of modern horror on-screen than Craven. His decision to begin producing re-makes of his old films can be seen as mercenary or more generously as a second chance to get them right, but they've resulted in weird, scary, stylish movies like the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes and this re-visitation to The Last House on the Left.
The plot isn't being re-capped here at great length because it's painfully simple. A family on vacation (Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter and Sara Paxton), Dad and mom and daughter, are relaxing at a cottage-country summer home. Hanging out with a friend (Martha MacIsaac), Paxton runs into a trio of dangerous drifters — Garret Dillahunt, Aaron Paul and Riki Lindhome. The girls are assaulted. Paxton is raped and left for dead. MacIsaac is killed. And the trio of thugs, stranded in the rain, makes their way to the nearest home for shelter … where Potter and Goldwyn wonder where their daughter might be.
The killers realize that they're in the home of their victim, and then — without revealing too much — the parents realize that these are the people who've hurt their daughter. And decide to take action, risking their lives against dangerous killers. And, yes, you want them to. Because after what we've seen them do to Paxton and MacIsaac, we know that nothing less than blood will do. And this is why The Last House on the Left sticks with you — not just because of how director Dennis Iliadis crafts grisly violence and refuses to look away when more casually brutal films would, but because of how fiercely, how viscerally you want Goldwyn and Potter to kill Dillahunt, Lindhome and Paul.
The performances are good, or rather good enough for a horror film; Goldwyn and Potter are believable in quiet moments and in swift, scared action, while Dillahunt is especially creepy as the ringleader of an uneasy trio of sociopaths. (Dillahunt has been good in everything from Deadwood to No Country for Old Men; he's a star waiting to happen, in my opinion, and his work here is just more proof.) Iliadis makes Last House creepy, yes – but he also makes it beautiful, with early shots of the house and the lake and the forest shimmering with beauty; before the arrival of the serpents, we're shown Eden, so we can feel how much is lost when evil ravages paradise.
There's something going on in The Last House on the Left that makes it undeniable, almost not despite but rather because of how horrible it is; you're caught up in every horrible happening so completely that the film takes on a moral gravity most featherweight fright flicks never approach.
The DVD includes the rated and the unrated versions of the film, and, frankly, the unrated is profoundly disturbing; I know that the audience for The Last House on the Left is fairly self-selected (Ladies, if your guy brings this home for movie night, in the words of Liz Lemon, that's a deal-breaker… ), but even hardened horror fans will find the unrated cut's sights and, yes, sounds hard to take. But something in The Last House on the Left can't be dismissed or denied, grim and horrible as it is; it's set on the razor-sharp line between justice and revenge, between outrage and rage, and it forces us to wonder about just how blurred and brutal that line becomes when it's being drawn in blood.