As a culture, we tend to recycle our stories, and no, not always out of laziness or a need for one big opening weekend (though that plays an increasing part). No, the old and the familiar play out time and time again because their conflicts and themes resonate across generations, and because the scenario at hand might lend itself to more apt commentary as time passes and people change. In terms of genre, rarely does this seem more common than with tragedies, and in turn, horror films in particular have a habit of bringing the boogeymen back to haunt us. That's the reason zombies won't stay dead. That's the reason body snatchers insist on invading. And that might be the reason why a fourth incarnation of The Last House on the Left is now willing -- and able -- to force itself upon our collective conscience.
Why else would we return yet again to the tale of a young girl (Sara Paxton) raped and left for dead by some Very Bad Men? Surely, the appeal extends beyond the mere desire to see her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) exact retribution upon the criminals who inadvertently seek shelter in their home, to the greater moral quandary of whether or not one would lower themselves to the level of violence they've suffered at the hands of others. It's a dilemma first suggested by the olden Swedish ballad "Töre's Daughter in Vänge," then Ingmar Bergman's 1960 pensive (read: black and white and subtitled) drama The Virgin Spring, then Wes Craven's 1972 gritty and grimy and proudly unpleasant incarnation, and then David DeFalco's 2005 take, Chaos (which, despite shunning its initial label as an admitted remake, still stands too similarly to ignore).
And now, with Craven producing and relative newcomer Dennis Iliadis directing, The Last House on the Left returns to the screen in surprisingly graceful form. That isn't to say that its content is any easier to bear -- the inciting incident is as tough to watch as any rape recently depicted on film, and the ensuing retaliation at the hands of the parents earns its share of flinches. While the thugs in their sights, led by Krug (Garret Dillahunt), are all convincing menaces, our stakes lie with the family, for which Paxton, Goldwyn, and Potter deserve the most credit. Any girl can scream, but not every actress can suffer, and Paxton plays the role of the victim with a heartbreaking fragility that elicits a sympathy often taken for granted in the genre. It's as unexpectedly powerful a turn in a thriller since Naomi Watts in Funny Games last year, and it suggests more range from her than Aquamarine might've led us to believe. Potter and Goldwyn, meanwhile, are tasked with running the gamut from unwitting hospitality to unrelenting hostility, and they too turn roles of easy sympathy into something more substantial.
Writers Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth don't alter the cause and effect of the film and its predecessors, save for two fates, with one changing the stance of attack from vengeance to survival and the other woefully indulging in a last-minute money shot that the rest of the film seems to be consistently above (not to mention spitting in the face of logic, again, as the proceedings rarely do). Their efforts to stack the deck in favor of the family -- they now have a dearly departed son in their past -- work to obvious, but not shameless, ends, and everything else plays out with consistent feasibility. Between director Iliadis and director of photography Sharone Meir, this South Africa shoot comes off convicingly as Anytown, USA, and the stunt people deserve their own special kudos for taking countless tumbles and tackles with equal persuasion.
Of course, convincing rape and persuasive revenge are not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and Last House '09 isn't about to change the minds of the wary. But for those who willingly subject themselves to the harsher experiences that storytelling has to offer, this version is a capably, confidently, and chillingly effective opportunity to place ourselves in the worst possible shoes for a length of time. With exception given to the final scene and that alone, The Last House on the Left pretty much proves perfectly unpleasant.