I suppose it’s not a very profound observation to say that 1972's Last House on the Left isn’t nearly as good as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. But Wes Craven’s remake of the Ingmar Bergman film isn’t merely inferior, it’s astonishingly bad. Instead of moral questions about assault and revenge, I was asking things like, “Why isn’t the subject in frame?” “Why aren’t we seeing this character’s reaction?” “Is that really the most emotion this person can muster?” And now, nearly half a century later, the film doesn’t even have the dubious asset of shock value with every second or third episode of your random HBO series to-day easily outdoing the film in rape and murder. Though, come to think of it, even The Virgin Spring was more shocking. Things do tend to have more impact when they’re in frame.
Sandra Peabody plays the young, virginal Mari who becomes a victim of a gang of escaped criminals. According to her Wikipedia entry, Peabody was traumatised by actor David Heiss who played the leader of the gang. He was a method actor who stayed in character and he tormented Peabody offset. This kind of thing worked well with Shelley Duvall in The Shining but it goes to show that even when an actress is actually feeling traumatised it doesn’t always actually translate to good film.
Maybe the reason she’s so often out of frame is that she had constant difficulty with the material. She’s established as being a normal teen, rebelling against her parents just a little. Bergman’s version of the character was vain in a very innocent way as most children who get all the attention would be. That she has faults makes her fate all the more terrible because of her evident humanity. Mari, on the other hand, feels more like an off the shelf “type”.
Her parents are even worse, though. When they discover her body, her father (Richard Towers), who’s a doctor, says, “She’s dead,” with all the passion of a train conductor announcing a routine stop. And we’re supposed to believe this guy’s driven to bloody revenge.
I think Craven misunderstood why Max von Sydow’s character takes so much time before killing the murderers in Virgin Spring, whipping himself with birch leaves and taking a seat on his accustomed throne in the hall. These ceremonial gestures, designed to invoke religious and cultural meaning on a world that had suddenly become senseless are replaced in Craven’s film by Mari’s father setting up cheap booby traps and her mother (Eleanor Shaw) seducing one of the guys.
Earlier in the film, Craven had cut to the parents making a cake and setting up decorations for their daughter’s birthday accompanied by corny music, apparently the intention being to satirise the ideal American family. Frequent cuts to bumbling local sheriffs are equally obnoxious, shallow satire.
Craven seems to have been more interested in the gang, a splashy, larger than life group—a muscle-bound guy (Hess), an older man (Fred Lincoln), a sexy girl named Sadie (Jeramie Rain), and a young man named Junior (Marc Sheffler), who seems to be a version of the little boy in Virgin Spring but in his whiny cowardice does nothing to introduce the moral tangle of the kid in Bergman’s film. The fact that all three guys apparently have sex with Sadie also removes part of the motive for rape in the original film and never replaces it with anything especially interesting, just a kind of random sadism.
Last House on the Left is available on Amazon Prime with commercials but you’re better off watching The Virgin Spring on The Criterion Channel.
Twitter Sonnet #1352
A single skate implies a pair of feet.
The rolling legs deliver eyes and ears.
Adventure waits beyond the cushioned seat.
A silver watch recounts forgotten years.
Reducing flour eased the kitchen down.
The earth encompassed arms and legs below.
Across the year, the soil makes the town.
A sky of roots a tangled dream bestowed.
Delivered paper comes the brainy work.
Historic pies present percentage whole.
Assorted toppings make the gooey perk.
A bread too hard and dry for any bowl.
A newer day dissolved before the old.
A drumming heat recurs beneath the cold.