By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Wes Craven turned movie horror on its severed ear in 1972, unleashing The Last House on the Left to an audience unaccustomed to such blunt depravity on screen. It felt like a snuff film, undistracted by conventional movie technique while depicting rape, murder and gruesome retribution.
The tent pole of new-order terror — propped between Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — Craven's movie threw open the blood floodgates, making viewers squirm at sadism one minute and cheer it the next. We felt immoral watching but couldn't turn away.
Over the ensuing decades, sadism on screen became strictly entertainment. The Saw series immediately comes to mind, with its elaborate deathtraps and elemental moral to the story. Modern horror is an endurance test for sickos: How much gore can you stand, and how loudly will you laugh at it?
The remake of The Last House on the Left completes the revision of the unholy trinity, but it's more than a cash-in maneuver. Director Dennis Iliadis compresses the history of post-Romero horror into one movie, from jaw-dropping dread to gory gags. It's no coincidence that the final act falls apart; the same happened to the entire genre.
Iliadis and his screenwriters begin by dutifully respecting Craven's material, with minor changes. Two bored teenage girls, Mari (Sara Paxton) and Paige (Martha MacIssac), attempt to buy marijuana — no rock concert road trip this time — and meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), who has a connection and something on his mind. Justin's father Krug (Garrit Dillahunt) was recently freed from arrest by three psycho accomplices, leaving two cops murdered.
The girls flirt with Justin, play makeover games, then hell breaks loose in a seedy motel room and a forest where a getaway car crashes, kicking off a half-hour of terror ending with Paige dead and Mari brutally raped and gunshot. Several viewers hustled to the exits during that genuinely disturbing sequence. Craven would be proud.
The gang hikes to a nearby home, coincidentally owned by Mari's parents (Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter), who deduce their daughter's fate. Stranded by a rainstorm, without a vehicle or power, the parents gruesomely avenge Mari, eliciting some of the loudest cheers I've heard lately in a theater.
The audience wasn't simply applauding the gore but the morality behind it. Krug and his gang deserve to die nasty. Iliadis tones down Craven's viscera, but adds a nifty subtext of domestic survival: Castrating a brute becomes shoving his hand into a garbage disposal, and a microwave oven replaces a chain saw. Nearly every act of revenge is performed with a common household item, by parents doing what comes primally after their daughter is hurt.
I don't like Iliadis' ending, leaving an extra survivor in order to play to the teenage audience, dropping wisecracks and tacking on an illogically graphic final death. After such numbingly meaningful shocks, those moves seem gratuitous and disingenuous. But that's what movie horror usually is these days.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.