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The Last House on the Left (2009)



Starring: Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dillahunt, Martha MacIsaac, Riki Lindhome
Director: Dennis Iliadis
Screenwriter: Carl Ellsworth

Because “The Beautiful Life: TBL” had its premiere last week, I wanted to see what the lead actress, Sara Paxton – a name that I’ve seldom heard, but never seen on an actual credit ,  was capable of, so I watched “The Last House on the Left”, a remake of the Wes Craven 1972 movie with the same name.  And as I usually avoid gory flicks (I admit I am very sensitive: I only saw the first “Saw” and the first “Hostel” through my fingers and only because I was curious, a curiosity for which I’ve paid dearly), I was surprised to see that what was presented as a low budget horror movie was actually a very brutal thriller.

The movie starts with a random escape from police custody. The perpetrators are taking their time and start torturing the policemen, which shows that they either don’t care about their odds of freedom or they are just sadistic psychopaths. Spoiler: it’s the latter. On their path to freedom they come across two teenagers who they kidnap, torture and kill and rape, respectively. It’s unjust, cruel and vicious and it is presented in all its glory. And you want to see all of them suffer. Their luck changes when they are forced to seek shelter from a storm at a vacation house by the lake. The owners of the house happen to be the parents of the girl they raped and left for death. When the parents realize who they were helping, a no mercy survival and revenge war with no prisoners ensue. It is a very educational one too: ten ways of killing/torturing someone using only our household appliances are presented (I will never look at a microwave oven the same way again).

Although almost a freshman in the movie industry, Dennis Iliadis does a pretty good job, even if the camera movement is sometimes clunky and (intentionally?) oscillating between sudden and lingering. If there was ever a movie that required no script, this was it: what they say is not important, but what they do and how they do it say everything. I do not remember one line (and the villain has a scene where he tells the father how he raped his daughter, a scene from which I only remember faces and expressions), but I recall visual scenes, woods, lakes, pictures on a fridge, rain and BLOOD. The choice to not   have everything happen in one night is a smart one, as it leaves room for one of the most effective scenes in the movie: the one where the teenagers are stabbed/raped/shot in the woods, a scene that is made even more horrifying by the fact that it all happens in broad daylight, close to a construction site, and the knowledge that they were so close to salvation makes it unbearable. That is the scene that prepares the viewer for what follows, and it seems hard to believe that the murderers could ever be rightfully punished. Well, prepare to be surprised.

Sara Paxton, the reason for my venture in the bloody depths of new age thrillers, is very good at conveying innocence and vulnerability, and that is her character’s main task: to make us hate the fugitives with the fire of a thousand suns for what they did to her. The parents, Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn, are also good, their fear and rage is visible and understandable. The four criminals are convincing and menacing, they are each the embodiment of at least one different mental disorder: paranoia, schizophrenia, perversion and depression. Together they are a dangerous, destructive and self-destructive mix. The question being asked by the creators of the original and for which the creators of the copy are not to be given credit for is: what is the line between victim and criminal, justice and revenge, cruel and necessary? What would you have done? I, for one, would’ve fainted.

The movie brings nothing new to the growing industry of borderline snuff flicks, and it may seem long and tedious at times, especially for the ones that are attracted by its advertised violence. It may also fall into the avoidable category of films that are too violent for the sensible people (like me) and are not violent enough for the genre fans (like Skellington). It has some serious plot holes that stretch plausibility that I won’t discuss here. Over all, a decent attempt of reviving a seventies nihilist classic.


The Happening (2008)



Starring : Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo
Writer and Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Rating : R for violent and disturbing image

M. Night Shyamalan had a pretty sweet reputation built for himself. „The Sixth Sense”, „Unbreakable”, „Signs” introduced him to the world as an imaginative director whose stories immersed, challenged and surprised. „The Village” came as a confirmation that he indeed was a one-trick-pony, whose original stories are told in pretty much the same manner. Needless to say, by the time „Lady in the Water” bored the life out of me, I was sure that he either needs to reinvent himself or find a new job (or at least drop the annoying cameos). „The Happening”, while far from being a reinvention, seemed to be at least a fun horror ride. Or at least that’s what I initially thought after seeing the trailers.

The first thing that was changed, fueling disappointmen or relief (based on the Shyamalan Hate-O-Meter every person has) is the absence of the trademarked surprise ending. In fact, the most crucial piece of information is revealed 20-30 minutes in. Shyamalan seems to move focus in other directions. The plot device is that of a biological attack on the US, a sort of airborn toxin that makes people literarly kill themselves (in imaginative ways I might add). The biological agent deactivates the brain’s self-preservation functions shut down. The infected victim cannot move at first, becomes incoherent and confused, and then simply off themselves any way they can : jumping off buildings, impaling, shooting, stabbing themselves etc. The attacks seem to originate from the park areas of the major cities of the East Coast. The story focuses on Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who flees the city with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) his brother Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter. Their adventure across the East Coast is the focus of the film. I will reveal no more because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for everyone.

Shyamalan’s films have always been thrillers/horrors, but kind of clean in terms of violence and though their main goal was to scare, they were more than just horror films. Here, Shyamalan shifts more focus on violence. The suicides are pretty graphic and have a gross-out effect never before seen in his films. For example in a Zoo, a man jumps in the lions’ cage and calmly waits until the wild animals rips his arms off. It’s quite explicit, although even Shyamalan knows better than to shamelessly show off gore, so the point of view is that of a shaky phone camera complete with not- very-precise zooms. Another man lies down in front of his cart-size lawn-mower and you can see flesh spat out from the back of the machine, but it’s all witnessed from a considerable distance so it feels at once surreal and not very immediate. It certainly deserves the R rating, making for a bold change in style for Shymalan, but not a satisfying one.

Shyamalan’s stories are mostly a mix of sensationalism, philosphy and psychology mixed in various doses. Here, he kind of cuts down the complicated stuff, leaving more room for suspense and scares and much less for the actual story and character developement. There still is a subliminal message but it’s heavily diluted and too eco-friendly for my taste. The open space as opposed to the confined environments of his past films, leave room for outdoor exploration but not much inner exploration. It’s just people running from an invisible enemy which makes for good suspense but in this case lousy storytelling. The rythm is still slow. Shyamalan takes his sweet time but doesn’t offer much to make up for that. There is no big climax, no mind-numbing revelation. It’s actually kind of dissapointing once it comes to its conclusion. I miss the surprise ending.

The acting is definetly it’s weakest link. Mark Wahlberg is wrong for the part in so many ways it hurts. He’s supposed to be a biology teacher, but hearing him talk science is as convincing as Ashton Kutcher talking street. Zooey Deschanel does her alien-among-humans-blank-stare thing and it’s so dull and annoying that she should have been written off from the script before filming even began. John Leguizamo is the film’s biggest asset, but since he’s a supporting character, he finishes his part in the first half of the running time. He should have traded places with Marky Mark.

The cinematography is excellent doing the film more justice than it should, by generating subtle tension. It does not abuse style however, keeping it to a minimum, for the sake of realism. The mood they’re going for is to immerse the viewer in this apocalyptic scenario, unlike his previous films where it was like reading a story rather than living it. There are no hand-held shots however, thank God for that. I can’t stand shaky cameras. It’s becoming a trend now, with „Cloverfield” and the Bourne franchise, but it’s very irritating and headache inducing. I like clean, steady shots, so I can actually understand what’s going on. So, extra points for „The Happening” for holding steady.

In conclusion, it’s better than „Lady in the Water”, although considering how bad that one was, it might not be saying much. It’s still not worth getting excited about, but it’s a start. It certainly has some camp value. Maybe Shyamalan will get another chance to prove his worth. I feel he deserves it, but perhaps he is too content with writing stories that would easily do better as episodes of The Twilight Zone. I’m still waiting for a comeback Mr. Shyamalan !