"That was the most offensive display of sexualized violence I have ever seen," one wilting fellow in need of a camphor hankie was overheard saying in the elevator.
Such blanching is the reaction The Last House on the Left is trolling for, but I doubt it will be typical. Permissibility has marched on since Wes Craven's Last House of 1972 and its infamous rape scene, which was tut-tutted by biddies who snuck peeks at a contraband Sanctuary in their purple youth, and debated by rheumy barristers in the United Kingdom's "video nasty" stings. Bureaucrats today have their hands full netting RapeLay, a hilariously ill-animated first-person Japanese sex-crime video game, at the border. Tyra is taking on Sasha Grey. Exploitation is now a niche DVD commodity, quaintly nostalgic, like stamp-collecting. Last House, in which no transgression goes unpunished, seems practically a morality tale.
If anyone's incensed, it's the pseuds who automatically prefer the original to the remake, which saves the inconvenience of having to squeeze out a thought. The "original" Last House was, famously, a child of plagiarism itself, copying the narrative framework from Ingmar Bergman's 1960 Virgin Spring. If its release didn't invent what aficionados call the rape-revenge genre, it did inaugurate its Golden Age. The door was opened to Thriller: A Cruel Picture in '74, which seemingly took place on a cold, low-gravity planet settled by Scandinavian designers, and the 1975 Italian knockoff Night Train Murders, released in the United States as Second House on the Left (both more interesting than Last House in almost every respect).
A teen (Sara Paxton) on a family vacation at the lake house ditches Mom and Pop for a night out with a galpal. They fall in with a band of fugitive brigands, who, after pillaging their girl hostages, gussy up like a real family to gain shelter for the night in the nearest house — belonging to a certain couple whose daughter hasn't come home yet. Hilarity ensues.
Director Dennis Iliadis is a Greek import on his first English-language film (shot around Cape Town, South Africa, playing Vacationland, USA). His habit of using Howitzer-force Dolby for shock impact is cheap, but one graceful set piece shows promise — Paxton, fleeing her attackers, sinking into the water in one lithe camera movement, the tempo of her plunging breaststroke cross-cut with bullets streaking past her underwater as she pounds toward a bend, cover and safety.
Where Craven's film compounded sniggery sadism and class-clowning — the comic relief is actually harder to get through than the rape — this new House tries to sustain a grave, heavy sense of threat. It fails, through its villainy; this trio of baddies resembles a dive-bar-slumming, suburban psychobilly band, no meth-breath hazards. They're most at home posing as polite day-trippers in a well-appointed kitchen. Moll Martha MacIsaac's manicure stays intact through untold brutalities. Garret Dillahunt, as top-man Krug, only exudes real physical threat in the film's climactic brawl, where, prowling shirtless à la Cape Fear, he displays the keglike torso of a UFC journeyman and suplexes Dad Tony Goldwyn through a showroom's worth of breakaway furniture.
In the leisure of exposition, the camera appreciates Paxton's A-cups and faunlike gams in shorty shorts. Then comes the violation, numb and grimy, an "Is this what you wanted to see?" bait-and-switch sneer. Aptly named Craven started his career of gassy obfuscations excusing this away, neutralizing visceral acid with base bunkum, scattering references to "Vietnam" or "Nixon" as needed. All of this befits an AWOL academic whose dream project was Music of the Heart and who has made a retirement plan out of cheapening his imprimatur with straight-to-DVD dreck and relicensing his back catalog. (Raise your hand if you're excited for the Shocker remake....Nobody?)
This Last House will, most likely, attract no especial outrage and have no subsequent obligation to justify its gunky, atavistic subject matter, untouched by the light of higher reason. It may qualify as progress that primordial slog only needs to be "about" the ambiguous squirm that comes from sitting out an excruciatingly staged despoilment, the queasy pleasure reflex that kicks in when watching retribution in action.