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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 3 new releases and the legacy of...

Screen Grabs: 3 new releases and the legacy of everyday horror

The 50th anniversary of 'Last House on the Left' highlights its influence on a trio of just-dropped wannabes.

This Tue/30 marks 50 years since the release of one of the least prestigious, yet also most influential and popular, films of 1972. Last House on the Left was an attempt to edge closer to the mainstream by two indie makers who’d done well the prior year with a softcore quasi-documentary capitalizing on the “new permissiveness.” This followup was also originally conceived as sexploitation, until it was decided to tilt it more towards horror.

Produced for less than $100,000, House wound up not edging into the year’s top 25 box-office hits (not far behind the latest from John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Hitchcock, and Shaft), but also being arguably the most profitable in terms of cost-to-gross ratio. (Excepting “porno chic” breakthrough Deep Throat, that is.) It kept playing drive-ins and grindhouses for years, its title as well as ad line (“To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…’”) copied by numerous subsequent films. Most critics who originally reviewed it were dismissive or appalled; but the shock value they found distasteful was catnip to audiences. The film’s huge success did indeed provide a leg-up for its makers: Director Wes Craven went on to found the Hills Have EyesNightmare on Elm Street, and Scream franchises, while producer Sean S. Cunningham did the same with Friday the 13th.

Last House isn’t now and never was exactly a “good” movie, with crude, sometimes baffling tonal shifts (notably the use of lame soundtracked “country rock” at inappropriate moments), dull patches, and uneven craftsmanship. but it remains disturbing. It struck a nerve at a moment when the Summer of Love already seemed ancient history, when the Manson murders, the never-ending Vietnam War and other factors had curdled idealism into escapism and reactionary paranoia. Its simple plot has two teenage wannabe “hippie chicks” aiming to score recreational drugs before a rock concert, but instead falling into the clutches of some terrifyingly amoral criminal reprobates—the counterculture’s scummy underside. The young women do not survive, but in an ironic twist (borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, no less), the perps end up seeking assistance from one victim’s parents, who figure out what happened and dole out terrible vengeance.

The violence (including sexual violence) was blatant and ugly in a way few movies had previously dared, the very banality of characters played by mostly inexperienced actors adding to a sense of gamey realism. Some viewers were upset because it upset them—unconsciously admitting that they wanted screen brutality to be a titillating, cleaned-up fantasy. But nothing about Last House was clean.

Predictably, when an official remake came along in 2009, it applied Comet and floorwax: Now the very ordinary family were upper-middle-class superachievers at their Architectural Digest-worthy “summer house,” and the daughter didn’t die because how could mommy and daddy let that happen?!? Even the bad guys were scrubbed up, with all-too-credibly scummy and psychotic David Hess’ character now played by handsome Garret Dillahunt, shirt doffed during the rape scene in order to show off his buffed bod. The new version worked OK on its own formulaic terms, but the queasy real-world danger that was indelible in the original had been sanitized away by Hollywood. For better or worse, the 1972 film remains one of those films you can never be really sure you’re “glad” you saw—because it makes plausible, unpleasant events quite unpleasant indeed, rather than letting you off the hook with the distancing mechanics of a stock “thriller.”

It’s readily available in all home viewing formats, some releases slightly different from each other—this movie was so controversial, and so frequently cut, that there really is no definitive edit, and a few oft-excised sequences are now thought lost forever.

Plenty of new films, including those reviewed below, continue that business of shocking and frightening, though one doubts any will leave quite so lasting a cultural impact:

Surrogate

One reason Last House unnerved people was because its horrors, while awful, seemed so commonplace. Not supernatural, or even grotesquely odd (like Anthony Perkins’ head case in Psycho), but as mundane as the probably-drug-addled, just-possibly-dangerous weirdos down the street. Retreating into the fantastical by comparison is this Australian feature about Natalie (Kestie Morassi, who was in the harrowing original Wolf Creek), a nurse and single mother. She witnesses an apparently crazy woman’s suicide, then seems to inherit her affliction—which manifests itself in what doctors interpret as a stillbirth, though Natalie hasn’t had sex with anyone in over a year. Afterward, she and daughter Rosie (Taysha Farrugia) begin experiencing disturbances in their home (and in their minds), till there is little question that a malevolent force has invaded.

While this is, yes, a ghost story, David Willing’s first feature (which he co-wrote with Beth King) has an air of serious-minded realism that adds to its eeriness. It’s ultimately more of a supernatural drama than a scare machine, and effective as such. It’s been compared to fellow Aussie mother-and-child creature feature The Babadook. That’s apt enough, though I found that 2014 sleeper hit a bit overrated, and was more impressed by this chillingly low-key tale. Surrogate gets released Fri/2 for TVOD on Amazon, with other streaming outlets following Sept. 16.

Who Invited Them

A different kind of home invasion takes place in writer-director Duncan Birmingham’s film, in which we meet Adam (Ryan Hansen) and Margo (Melissa Tang) hosting a housewarming party in the Hollywood Hills—a big leap up the lifestyle food chain that he’s boastfully proud of, while she’s rather uncomfortable with it. He hasn’t bothered telling her that the reason they could afford this showplace home is because it has a somewhat gruesome history.

That history, natch, becomes highly relevant once they find all the guests have left save one couple each thought the other had invited. Tom (Timothy Granaderos) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld) are a glam duo who say they’re next-door neighbors. They also seem to be high rollers, breaking out the cocaine and other suggestions for “life in the fast lane” behavior to hosts who are easily impressed, and skittish about seeming too square. They barely notice at first how their new BFFs prod them into arguments, then keep pushing other buttons until their intentions seem quite sinister.

Part Funny Games, part millennial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this is a successfully discomfiting black comedy-cum-thriller, even if it doesn’t ultimately quite work up enough of a compensatory froth to get away with its ambiguous ending. As far as “worst fears realized by nouveau bourgeoise being punished for their good fortune” scenarios go, it’s a good one that has the timing misfortune to arrive just two weeks before a traumatizingly great one (the Danish Speak No Evil, coming 9/15). Who Invited Them begins streaming on genre platform Shudder Thu/1.

Low Life

In terms of being insidiously attuned to the zeitgeist, Tyler Michael James’ debut feature definitely wins the Last House on the Left prize amongst this lot of newcomers. We first encounter YouTube personality Benny (Wes Dunlap) when he is doing what he does for kicks, or clicks, or both: Filming alleged pedophile predators he’s entrapped by posing as an underage girl online. The trouble is, he seems to enjoy this game (and his resulting minor celebrity) a little too much, treating each sting as his own personal Jackass episode. Another problem is that his sketchy methods are viewed with disapproval by Las Vegas area police, as they often result in “evidence” that’s inadmissible in court and might well result in perps going free.

But don’t tell that to Benny, who’s very, very high on himself. He plans this same evening to bag a supposed teacher-predator (Lucas Neff) he was tipped to by a teenage superfan (Lucy Urbano as Nicole). But that scheme gets complicated, as he’s forgotten his best bros (Jake Dvorsky, Hunter Milano) are already coming over for poker night, and pushy Nicole wants very much to be part of the online “bust.” Everything that could go awry will, to catastrophic ends.

Benny’s show is called Creep Dunk, but pretty much everyone here ends up seeming pretty creepy, or stupid, or worse. Low Life (another generally-applicable term) takes an hour setting up its all-hell-breaks-loose moment, after which the twists just keep coming; but you will not be bored during that long setup. This is a movie you might term psychological horror—if only because the psychologies on ample display are, yup, pretty horrifying. It constitutes a pretty strong (as well as nastily funny) commentary on our era’s rampant public narcissism, as well as the omnipresent spectacle of bullying justified by a stance of moral condemnation. XYZ Films released Low Life to On Demand platforms last week.

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