Those making a hard-R horror film are presented with a fork in the road early in their project's development.
The first path is to make a disturbing, dramatic film that makes people think about the question of evil seriously. It includes strong characters in a believable setting who undergo unspeakable atrocities. An effective way to get into this territory is to include a rape scene.
The second path is to go wildly, unbelievably over the top with the violence. Such films possess no lofty ambitions. They're just about shocking their audiences with brutality and entertaining them with the cleverness of the kills. The proper audience response to most of these films is to laugh at the absurdity on screen.
A horror film needs to commit to one road or the other in order to succeed. It can't start out as a solemn priest giving a challenging sermon and then midway through transform into Bozo the Clown squeezing his nose.
But thats what the remake of "Last House on the Left" does and ultimately why it fails.
The story concerns two very different families who cross paths on a trip to the lake. The Collingwoods are an affluent family recovering from the recent tragic death of their son. Father John (Tony Goldwyn,) Mother Emma (Monica Potter) and teenage daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) have retreated to their secluded lake house.
Eager to see Paige (Martha MacIsaac of Superbad,) one of her friends in town, Mari takes the family car. John and Emma, still overly-protective since their son's death, are initially worried for their 17-year-old daughter before they dismiss any concerns and settle in to what they expect will be a quiet evening alone.
The second family is headed by escaped convict Krug (Garret Dillahunt,) who is on the lam with his brother Francis (Aaron Paul,) girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and teenage son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark.) Justin runs into Paige and Mari and invites them back to the hotel where he's staying with his criminal family members. He plans to sell them some marijuana before the adults get back.
Unfortunately the trio lose themselves in smoking weed and Krug, Francis, and Sadie come back sooner than Justin anticipated. Why is it that characters in horror movies always have to make a moral mistake before being getting tortured and killed? That's certainly a horror movie cliche that needs to die.
What follows is horrific. Paige and Mari are taken out to the lake, beaten, and raped. When Krug and his family flee the scene -- they crashed their stolen car in the process -- they find shelter at the nearest house, which just happens to be John and Emma's. And of course its only a matter of time before a barely-breathing Mari crawls up to the house and John and Emma put the pieces together. Let the retribution begin.
The film commits itself down the first path as a serious horror-drama contemplating the enigma of human evil when it decides that it's essential for Krug to rape Mari and for the audience to see it in graphic detail. I'm not condemning this choice. I knew going in that it was coming and for the first two-thirds of the film I was hooked. Mari, John, Emma, Krug, and Justin were all adequately sketched and acted characters, thus allowing the film to function as, at the very least, a B-level drama.
And for most of the film that's the letter grade I was planning. Perhaps I'd write something like, "The remake of Wes Craven's classic is an engaging, disturbing horror-drama that challenges us to consider evil." Then came the last third where suddenly the movie decides to go down the second path, trying to shock and entertain with creative, borderline absurd acts of vengeance.
The spell was broken when one of the bad guy's (spoiler self-censored) ended up in the (spoiler self-censored.) The sermon was over, it was time for Chuckles to come out and wow us with magic tricks. I'm sorry but the same movie cannot feature both a scene of a woman being raped and a scene of a guy getting his (spoiler self-censored) stuffed in a (spoiler self-censored) only to (spoiler self-censored) all over the place and still qualify as a decent film. You can have one or the other but not both.
Very rarely do I put on my feminist hat when writing my reviews but the situation here seems to justify it. If you're going to show a brutal rape in a film and make it a key part of the plot, then fine. "Irreversible" and "Boys Dont Cry" are amazing films that do and say important things. But you cant take the audience to the depressing place of rape and then do nothing with it. Worse, you can't then just turn it into fuel for a joke. Thus we have rape trivialized -- completely unacceptable.
The film had two possible roads to success. It could have eliminated the rape scene and just had Krug and his gang nearly beat Mari to death. Then all the wacky, "Home Alone" antics of the ending would have been more appropriate since the film would not have plunged us into the hell of sexual violence.
Or, it could have kept the rape scene and just maintained a more serious, believable tone for its third act. Let the retribution proceed, just don't make it so silly that the audience stops believing in what's happening.
Since the film did neither, it gives potential audience members a third option: just skip "The Last House on the Left" and find something better to watch instead.