Movie remakes are always a risky proposition, especially when the film is considered a classic. I won’t get into the whole argument about whether the original film is truly a classic except to say that many horror fans consider it as such, regardless of others who merely view it as so much garbage. No matter your feelings about the original film, there is a very vocal group who do view the 1978 version as more than mere exploitation.
There are also some very vocal groups who hate the idea of remaking classic films based on the principal that one cannot improve on something that was very good the first time around. Their argument is basically, "Why reinvent the wheel?" While I see this point of view and respect it, I don’t mind at all when remakes come out. If nothing else, it allows for lively discussion and/or debate amongst film fans. Everyone has their own opinion about their favorite (and least favorite) remakes, and I think everyone’s opinion–if one can make a coherent argument–is legitimate.
Let me also state for the record that I’m a big fan of the original version. In fact, I like it better than I do the original Last House on the Left, another film that is similar in theme and content. Again, my statements are not intended to get anyone worked up into a lather, but I think that ISOYG is simply more solid than LHOTL. One reason is because I think the acting in LHOTL is, aside from a few important scenes, merely mediocre while the acting in ISOYG is generally more solid. I also dislike the inept inclusion of "comedic" material in LHOTL (all the bumbling sheriff scenes) which only disrupt the film. These scenes are totally out of place and if removed would only make the film better.
I was excited when it was announced that LHOTL would be remade, but I was generally disappointed with the effort; so when I heard that ISOYG was being remade, I tempered my excitement a bit with the knowledge that the film quite probably would not be very good. I have to say that I was pleased with the new version of what I deem to be a classic film.
I thought the new version stayed true to the original story while adding a few unique spins that seemed to make the film "feel" new. We still have the beautiful young girl, Jennifer Hills, working on a writing project living in a lonely cabin in the woods. We still have a gang of misfit and violent young men who take it upon themselves to rape and abuse Jennifer, along the way pushing their mentally handicapped friend to "lose his virginity". And, of course, we still have Jennifer coming back and wreaking her revenge on the men in several (extremely) violent ways. So the basic story has not been changed. However, there are some additional plot elements that strengthened the story. For instance, the addition of the sheriff who also becomes implicit in the crime helps explain why Jennifer can’t go to the police. Frankly, that was always a bit of a sore point for many fans of the original film. How can these young men just leave this girl in the woods and assume she is dead. Would not most people be a little worried when the body disappeared? The fact that the sheriff realizes that Jennifer’s body must be found and hidden to cover up the crime is much more realistic. The fact that the sheriff is also a family man with a little girl (how can he rape someone so coldly then go home and hold his own daughter in his lap??) and a pregnant wife adds an additional layer of characterization.
While the use of footage filmed by characters within a film has been much overused in the past decade, I thought the addition of this footage was also an important spin on the basic plot. It allowed the audience to be implicated as participants of the rape just as the characters were; even if we as audience members didn’t participate, we watched and did not (could not) step in to stop the violence. This plays on our feelings of guilt, but and increases our anxiety, especially when the tape goes missing and then inconveniently resurfaces months later, much to the chagrin of the sheriff. The presence of the tape provides some reasoning for the continued tracking of Jennifer by the men. I also liked that Jennifer wasn’t portrayed as totally innocent and virginal (she drinks alcohol and smokes pot). She was much more of a realistic character and not such a caricature.
The acting was generally excellent. I thought Sarah Butler as Jennifer gave a brave and powerful performance and was believable both as a terrorized victim as well as a grimly determined avenger. Other powerhouse performances included Jeff Branson as Johnny, the gritty and mean-spirited leader of the thugs as well as Andrew Howard as Sheriff Storch, who gave an intensely perverse performance. Chad Lindberg also gives an incredible performance as the mentally handicapped Matthew who is tortured on a daily basis by the group of thugs. Matthew is hounded and abused, both physically and verbally, and forced into an heinous act that he neither wants to participate in nor that he truly understands. One can only imagine how grueling the shoot must have been due to the depressing and violent material that was being shot day after day.
But the real reason people want to see this movie is for the violence. Thankfully, it was decided that the film would be released unrated instead of the R-rating the filmmakers were contractually liable to deliver. On the commentary, director Steven R. Monroe talks about how the people at Anchor Bay decided that the power of the film would be diminished if cut and made the decision to release it unrated. I have also heard rumors–though nothing official–that when submitted to the MPAA in (slim) hopes of receiving the coveted R-rating that the notorious board delivered an NC-17 rating but also recommended the film not be cut so as not to diminish the impact of the film. One would hope that story is true, but given the arbitrary and capricious ways of the MPAA and their usual unfair treatment of independent filmmakers, I find that hard to believe.
Anyhow, the violence is decidedly rough. The last act descends into torture-porn territory, but at this point the audience at least feels like Jennifer is justified. Whereas films like Hostel, Saw, and the like provide scenes of death and torture so characters can get their jollies off–and the audience, too–Jennifer’s kills are meticulously planned out for revenge in ways that match the ways that each man tortured Jennifer. They are not meant to be fun and they are not. The violence is grueling and ugly, just as the scenes of rape are grueling and ugly. The men feel pain just as Jennifer did. And just as some of the kills in the original film were both bloody and inventivee (I’m thinking of the bathtub scene in particular here), especially for the time, the killings in this updated version are just as creative and some of the bloodiest and most effective deaths I’ve seen in a while. Not much makes me squirm, but a couple of the scenes in this film made me a bit uncomfortable. Along with one of the men’s faces getting burned off in a lye bath we also get a version of the castration scene from the original film. Since that is probably the iconic scene in the first film, the remake almost certainly has to do the same. The problem is how to stay true to the original but provide some kind of new take. This is handled effectively and tastefully (if such a word can be used in a film like this). It is definitely a gross-out scene but could have been worse. The two most painful kills have to be the fishhook in the eyelids and sodomy-by-shotgun. Both scenes were uncomfortable to watch, and that is probably a major understatement.
Unlike most remakes, I was not disappointed with this one at all. I felt like it was not just a worthy successor to an excellent original, but provided some fresh material without destroying the basic story. The film is definitely not for everyone. There is plenty of nudity, some protracted scenes of abuse and rape, and some of the most graphic and explicit violence I’ve seen in an American movie in a long time. Watch at your own risk, but if you liked the original, then I think you will like this remake as well.