Monday, October 19, 2009

The Last House On The Left (1972, 2009), The Virgin Spring (1960)

The Last House On The Left

Released August 30, 1972
Directed by Wes Craven
Written by Wes Craven, Ulla Isaakson
Lobster Enterprises

Cast: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Mark Sheffler

The Last House On The Left

Released March 13, 2009
Directed by Dennis Liadis
Written by Adam Alleca, Carl Ellsworth, Wes Craven

Cast: Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garrett Dillahunt, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome,

Released November 14, 1960
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Written by Ulla Isaaksson
Released by Svensk Filmindustri

Cast: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Petterson, Axel Duberg

It tickles me pink that the two 'Last House On The Left' movies are ultimately based on a medieval ballad 'Tores Dotter I Vange", a lyric that explains the appearance of a well that sprung just outside of Malmskogen, Sweden, right at the site where two maidens lost their heads. The legend of the Church of Karna that was built upon the site and the wellspring that had sprung nearby is a gothic creation myth that gives rise to a truly juicy rumor: Supposedly this well is haunted by apparitions of the girls to this day which is reason enough to consider a hike through this 'Sweden' place, land of socialized healthcare.

I'm convinced that this kind of mythological stew makes for some primal cinematic horror and if I should ever take a stab at horror I'll be taking a second look at folk tales and legends for divine inspiration. The makers of 'Blair Witch Project' were hellishly clever for conjuring their own folk tale, the backstory that gave such levity to what essentially was Hansel & Gretel retooled for the indie crowd. I was moved by BWP -- not scared necessarily, but moved.

The BWP creators (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez) understood one fundamental principle of horror and that is The Humiliation Factor. To see fellow humans taken over, dominated, degraded and finally obliterated is the kernal of what scares us --- or should, if we're not sadists. Wes Craven's original version of 'The Last House On The Left' was undertaken as a 'hardcore' film which is essentially a genre that depicts gore for gore's sake. How Mr. Craven found his inspiration for his hardcore effort in Ingmar Bergman's vision of the old Swedish fable is choice fodder for a Charlie Rose interview, but it is clear that Craven takes a meta approach to chillers. His body of work includes the 'Nightmare On Elm Street' series (dreams in waking life) and the 'Scream' series which actually directly addresses horror-film conventions. At some point during production Craven opted for a softer approach and so the intestine-pulling scene is merely a fleeting glimpse rather than a tender loving close-up. His tone-shift works to save 'Last House' from utter, grindhouse exploitation. As a result, the influence of Bergman's masterwork 'The Virgin Spring' can actually be detected.
Mari (Sandra Peabody) is your typical early 70's teen queen who wears high-waisted elephant pants and who showcases her bra-less liberated titties primarily for the purpose of upsetting her fusty, Nixon-loving parents. I'd almost forgotten that young folk actually casually flashed the 'v' for peace sign back in the early 70's and I felt sad that The Finger is all that's left of that relic of a gesture. Mari is annoying. She's not the fully blossomed woman she believes herself to be, she's more of a self-absorbed pre-adolescent princess - she mirrors 'Virgin Spring''s obnoxious Karin exactly. She's on her way to the city to catch a Blood Lust concert, ostensibly a Black Sabbath reference, with her bestie Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham). Now Phyllis is the shit. Every high school class is blessed with a girl like this: wiser than her years, sassy with an irresistable weed-tempered grin and posessed of the wherewithall to plan ahead and stash a bottle of Boone's in the car, especially for the occasion. She's 'Virgin Spring''s pagan sister only much more fun, a lot less pregnant and creepy. We recognize Phyllis immediately because she's so specific and so thus she has our empathy. Lucy Grantham's acting career evaporated after 'Last House''s end credits which is a shame because she was a brave actress and a warm screen presence.

So Mari and Phyllis go joyriding in Phyllis' car and rock out to some godawful Original Soundtrack music composed and sung by David Hess who also plays Krug, the rapist. "Last House On The Left" is cursed with one of the worst soundtracks ever committed to film. Absolute shit that runs the gamut from burlesque slapstick to Christian Rock-esque treacle. Wikipedia notes the Original Soundtrack sold poorly. Really? Hard to believe. They ride through deep forestation where Mari, buzzed on Boone's, feels all girly and set free astride a rock under tree-dappled sunshine. 'Virgin Spring''s maidens are on their way to deliver candles to the church but pagan sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) gets the willies and doesn't trot off into the forest alongside foolhardy daddy's-little-princess Karin (Birgitta Petterson). It's interesting that Craven's plot twist doesn't turn with the forest as his final station of evil but instead lets the girls make it to the city where the allure of loitering pot-peddlers prove far too tempting. Bergman's peddlers are goatherds but both films' villains are introduced with a Jew's harp twanging away on the soundtrack. The passive element of villainy is represented by young boys in both works, a heroin addict in 'Last House' and a wide-eyed urchin/goatherd in 'Virgin Spring'. Neither acts to prevent the escalation of events to inevitable rape and both bear the burden of witness.

Mari and Phyllis stupidly conduct their business in the pot-peddler/young boy's apartment and what ensues is a poorly filmed scene wherein the young boy's father and his nefarious pals trap the girls for no apparent reason other than that they're bored and vaguely horny. It's clear that the gang and their random acts of malevolence are intended to echo The Manson Family shenanigans but a sense of escalation or misplaced rage is missing and everyone involved just seems fatigued and restless. Mari stands bug-eyed and paralyzed but unrestrained as Phyllis' rape occurs off-camera. Bergman's Inegri paid witness to Karin's rape and chose not to act also so Craven gets a pass here for adhering to the source material. 'Virgin Spring''s defilement is mostly prelude, but the act itself is shockingly direct, quickly dispatched. Craven's assault is grotesque but largely off-camera but the aftermath is disgustingly drooly. 2009 'Last House''s rape scene is long, grueling and replete with porn-y dialogue and grunts of satisfaction. The effect is that the most recent, more procedural scene drains the blood from the drama and dehumanizes the victim which is, it is true, rape verite'. But on film it only works to distance the viewer if not anesthetize us completely. The effect is pornographic. It's also unsettling that 2009's 'Last House'' is photographed in such elegant, ravishing full color. Too much information.

All that leads up to the rape and stabbing of the girls in Craven's 'Last House' is humiliation and debasement. Phyllis, our defacto heroine, is made to piss herself and then disrobe and make love to her best friend all for the amusement of Krug's gang. Her escape is well-played, arduous and abbreviated by the schizophrenic (and gay) frightwig Sadie (Jeramie Rain). Phyllis just plain breaks our hearts. And then she's stabbed repeatedly with her pants down around her knees. It's a languid, sorry fade that ends with Sadie bathing in Phyllis' viscera. The impact is explosive mostly due to the relative quietude and the moment of regret following the execution style shooting of Mari in a swamp. Again, a very savvy reference to 'Virgin Spring' virgin spring.



2009's 'Last House's glory is the superbly plotted parental revenge. In all 3 versions, the killers unknowingly seek refuge at the dead girl's house, are taken in, fed, treated warmly. The reveal remains the same: a incriminating bloody garment in with their belongings alerts the parents to their guilty guests. The spiritual ramifications are accentuated in Bergman's versions of course as von Sydow flogs himself before killing his lodgers (explicitly). Craven's version includes a castrating blow-job (mom's a trouper), and the most recent version is a delicious cat and mouse which makes the most of the house and its many rooms. Director Dennis Lliadis' mistake is that in his version, although their only child was visciously raped and shot, she's still alive and strong enough to crawl from her bloody, swampy virgin spring to her own front porch. Instead of calling the police or taking her injured daughter to the hospital, mom and dad snap and transform into homicidal maniacs hellbent on revenge -- hang the law or the wellbeing of their daughter. The revenge is so labyrinthian and clever that we're willing to suspend believe...until the microwave appears and then we're played for fools. Um, you have to actually close the microwave door to zap a guy's head, dad. Jeez.

The Last House On The Left (1972): ***
Performance: Where did you go, Phyllis Stone? A nation turns it's lonely eyes to you, Lucy Grantham.

The Last House On The Left (2009): **1/2
Performance: Monica Potter has some fine sustained intensity as Moms.

The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukallan): ****
Performance: Max von Sydow is gigantic and has moral levity up the wazoo.
Oscars?: Nominated for B & W Costume Design, won for Foreign Film

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