Review: Last House on the Left's Saw-level gore isn't for everyone

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

If you couldn't get enough of the Saw series' booby traps or The Hills Have Eyes' hillbilly horrors, then The Last House on the Left is probably a must-see movie for you.

An exercise in brutality that recalls the highs (or perhaps lows) of the fleeting era of "torture porn," director Dennis Iliadis's remake of the 1972 Wes Craven creepshow of the same name is equal to the task of truly disturbing its audience, but it fails to provide much in the way of entertainment value thanks to scenes of violence that turn its otherwise escapist gore into a harrowing and often hard-to-watch reality.

The film stars Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood, The Sarah Connor Chronicles) as Krug, an escaped convict who rapes and assaults a young girl named Mari (Sara Paxton) and her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) after his girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and brother Francis (Aaron Paul) break him out of police custody. Believing their victims are dead, the criminal trio descend upon the house of John (Tony Goldwyn) and Emma Collingwood (Monica Potter) for a place to stay for the night, unwittingly finding themselves at the mercy—and vengeance—of the parents of the same girl they mercilessly attacked only hours earlier.

Unlike the yucky, superficial satisfaction provided by slasher movies like the recent Friday the 13th remake, The Last House on the Left is deliberately trying to be disturbing and provocative in its depiction of human horrors. While this includes bodies being stabbed, massive close-ups of bullet wounds, and other sorts of general dismemberment, the most egregious offense the characters (and by extension the filmmakers) commit is chronicling a real-time, graphic sexual assault.

While the scene ably demonstrates the inhumanity and cruelty of Krug and his cronies, it's unfortunately too authentic a moment, and it grounds the film in a reality that contradicts and undermines the supposed joy or catharsis or entertainment value that audiences are supposed to derive from watching them get punished later. In other words, when you've already shown us a girl getting raped, how are we supposed to later watch a guy, even a really bad one, get his hand shredded in a disposal and not just find it disgusting and painful?

Considering the contradictions that Iliadis and screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth manufacture in the criminals' personalities, it wouldn't seem incorrect to assume that they weren't aiming for any kind of social commentary, but for a character study. The only problem is that the filmmakers forgot to include any actual characters, save for Dillahunt's Krug, whom the actor invests with mystery and complexity that the rest of the movie neither matches nor deserves. Otherwise, there's a consistent, contradictory impulse to either sexualize, brutalize or humanize the rest of the characters, both good and bad, and sometimes at the same time, but mostly to ambiguous or just plain irrelevant effect.

If there is a moral or message that the movie ultimately conveys, it appears to be "the family that slays together stays together." While the girl's rape is unquestionably reprehensible, are we supposed to feel that it justifies her parents' "protection" of their daughter? Or are we supposed to enjoy that retribution? The fact that the movie doesn't answer that question isn't ambiguity, it's indecision, and it's why The Last House on the Left is going to appeal only to a select few, even among horror fans.

Some people might say it really makes them think, and some might say they think it sucks, and both views seem equally valid. There are worse reactions to have to this film than introspection or outright distaste. But if somebody you know says they think they really liked it, ask them why, if you dare, but be careful what they think next.