Friday, 19 February 2010

The Last House On The Left + Surrogates (2009)

Friday, 19 February 2010
A remake of Wes Craven's seminal 1972 shocker, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT lacks the original's grindhouse stickiness, but is otherwise a pretty decent modern encore that doesn't attenuate its premise with too much contemporary glossiness. A close-knit affluent family head off to their lakeside summer home -- doctor dad John (Tony Goldwyn), mom Emma (Monica Potter) and sexy teenage swimmer Mari (Sara Paxton) -- only for Mari to get into trouble when she decides to spend the day with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), before they hookup with a solemn teen called Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) at his hotel room to smoke joints, just as the boy's reprobate criminal family return: moustachiod father Krug (Garret Dillahunt, always great value), his twisted girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and creepy uncle Francis (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul)...

It's perhaps unfair to say much more, as there isn't really much to the storyline you can't spoil in a few paragraphs. Suffice to say, Mari and Paige find themselves kidnsapped for sick kicks, and put through a nightmarish ordeal in the woods, before a rainstorm forces Krug and his family to take refuge in Mari's family home, unaware of that sick coincidence. And when John and Emma realize exactly who they're sheltering from the elements, the night becomes a bloody clash between two very different classes of family, exposing a level of bloodlust and vengeance in the middle-classes that's sure to startle.

For a good two thirds of its runtime, The Last House On The Left is a pretty effective horror because the scenario's easy to respond to and elicit tension from. It's perhaps a little too straightforward than the morally knottier original in how it approaches and forces us respond to its violence, however. In '72, there was a pain and guilt to the nihilism meted out on the bad guys by Craven, but in '09 everything's more justified in the hands of Dennis Iliadis and you stand side by side with John and Emma as they plunge a young man's hand into garbage disposal unit to mangle it good while they forcibly drown him in a sink. It crosses your mind that the authorities may still arrive to press charges at the "undue extremes" of how they protect/avenge their daughter's rape, but for the most part it just becomes a gruesome extended sequence of increasingly inert violence. The trailer's "paralyzed head-in-a-microwave" scene even arrives as a kind of black comedy postscript that leaves you feeling more concerned about the sanity of the good guys than relieved the bad guys got their comeuppance. Director: Dennis Iliadis / Cast: Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt, Spencer Treat Clark, Sara Paxton, Martha MacIsaac / Running Time: 110 mins.

Adapted from a 2005 comic-book series, SURROGATES is a slickly-produced piece of crud that squanders its excellent conceit by refusing to do anything unpredictable. It reminded me a great deal of Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Sixth Day in terms of tone, too; a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi adventure (starring another '80s icon in Bruce Willis) that has a trailer's length of chin-stroking appeal, stretched over a brief yet flacid 89 minutes...

In the near-future, humanity live vicariously through android bodies referred to as "surrogates" (young, beautiful, athletic versions of their biological counterparts), while they as human "operators" sit inside darkened rooms hooked up to the tech (mostly looking aged, haggard, unshaven, flabby and in poor health.) There are obvious problems with the concept (wouldn't this lack of exercise and daylight halve a human's lifespan?), but in the world of Surrogates this technological revolution has been nothing but a boon: murders are unheard of, wars don't result in human casualties now, and communicable diseases have been wiped out. Of course, there are some people (known as "Dreads") who believe that surrogate existence is a sinful lie, and have created small pockets of human-only territories across the world, led by a hirsute mystic known as The Prophet (Ving Rhames).

A series of surrogate "murders" using an advanced handheld weapon, where the human operators were simultaneously killed in their chairs, finds FBI Agents Greer (Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) assigned to solve society's first homicide in years. The plot thickens when it becomes clear one of the victims was the son of billionaire surrogate mastermind Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell, again cast as a modern-day Gepetto following I, Robot), and it's not long before Greer's forced to continue his investigation in the outside world using his "meatbag" body...

All of Surrogates' best ideas are attributable to the inked source (itself just the latest twist on an old idea), but while the concept is interesting enough to just about keep your attention, there's just nothing here to get invested in once the novelty quickly wears off after 20-minutes. It has a rote pedigree, too, as it's effectively a Terminator 3 reunion for director Jonathan Mostow and hacks Mike Ferris and Jonathan Brancato, all back to tackle the human/robot schism in a manner that doesn't have much to add. There's some entertainment value in seeing the freakily smooth-skinned, bewigged android version of Willis (done using that uncanny CGI facelift from X-Men III -- which at least has an excuse to look peculiar here), and how the former-Die Hard hero acknowledges his advancing years by allowing his crinkled fiftysomething physique to be presented as a soulful truth we shouldn't lament. Director: Jonathan Mostow / Cast: Bruce Willis, Rosamund Pike, Radha Mitchell, James Cromwell & Ving Rhames / Running Time: 89 mins. / Budget: $80m