Friday, August 21, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Blow Out (1981)

"Well, the box-office failure of "Blow Out" was, I think, a tragedy for De Palma and for John Travolta -- it's just about the best work each of them has ever done. But it probably served as a warning to some of the people who might have wanted to do something politically sophisticated. It's as if people get penalized for sophistication."

- Pauline Kael, on
Blow Out (1981)

If -- as Brian De Palma has famously stated -- "the camera lies 24 times a second," then how often, we must wonder, do politicians lie?

And if our national leaders lie about important things -- like life and death -- then, in some fashion, is American liberty itself...a lie? If the history we all know and learn in school is merely "comfortable" fiction, then what do all our glorious symbols (like Old Glory and the Liberty Bell) and slogans (like Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death") really signify?

In blistering, paranoid fashion, Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981) delves deeply into this frightening conundrum. Indeed, this cerebral, Reagan-age thriller starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen focuses on a political conspiracy that stabs at the very heart of the Great American Experiment, and at the heart of American democracy itself. It depicts a country in which holding on to power is paramount, truth is irrelevant, and justice is just another loaded word.

De Palma's caustic, blunt film makes clever use of real life, historical national conspiracies and cover-ups, including the JFK assassination, the Chappaquiddick incident, and Watergate in order to spin a tale of America the Corrupt, America the Fallen, and most certainly not America the Great, post-Camelot. Intriguingly, Blow Out makes this case by focusing on the technological medium of film itself -- particularly a fictional surrogate for the Zapruder film -- as Entrenched Power's vehicle for selling "The Big Lie."

Though a dramatic failure at the box office, Blow Out remains, perhaps, Brian De Palma's most successful film in terms of critical approbation. Roger Ebert noted in his 1981 review that "this movie is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence," and that "
De Palma is more successful than ever before at populating his plot with three-dimensional characters." The late Kael, of course, lauded the film as "a great movie" in her famous New Yorker review entitled "Portrait of the Artist As A Young Gadgeteer."

With De Palma -- an incomparably skilled filmmaker who operates in several modes and genres successfully (mainstream, thriller, crime, war...) -- it's difficult to pick favorites or select one "best film" from among so many triumphs. Yet Blow Out represents something of a consensus favorite: an unimpeachable thriller rich in homage to film tradition (in this case to the canon of Michelangelo Antonioni). It's also gorgeously self-reflexive, focusing on the manipulative power of movies by taking us -- literally -- through the building blocks of film production.

And finally, Blow Out also boasts a heavily ironic use of powerful images, particularly iconic symbols of Americana. Thus the visuals brilliantly reflect and augment the film's paranoid content. Also, the ending here is particularly unforgettable: haunting, bitter and nihilistic.

The Biggest Thing Since The Zapruder Film

Blow Out is the tale of a sound expert named Jack Terri (John Travolta). Following a tragic incident in his past working for law enforcement (on the Kean Commission), Jack has retreated to crafting sound-effects for sleazy, low-rent slasher films, like his current project "Co-ed Frenzy."

Unluckily for Jack, even that job isn't going so well. He just can't find the "Perfect Scream" to accompany a shower scene murder in the horror movie. His temperamental director wants other original sounds too, because he's grown tired of library effects and "canned" material.

To appease the filmmaker, an intrepid Jack heads out by night to a remote country road and records with his microphone several new sounds: an owl hooting; a frog's call, even the night wind rustling leaves in the trees.

But then, suddenly, Jack records something sinister: the sound of a terrible car "accident." Appearing as if out of nowhere, a car races off the unlit road, into a deep creek. In seconds, it sinks beneath the placid sruface. Jack rescues one passenger, a floozy named Sally (Nancy Allen), but the driver inside the car drowns.

That dead driver turns out to be Governor McRyan, an up-and-coming politician who was about to announce his candidacy for President of the United States. All the national polls suggested that if McRyan ran for high office, he would easily unseat the current, unpopular President. If this were but a simple accident, McRyan's fate surely would be considered tragic.

But there's more to this incident than meets the eye (or ear). While listening to his sound recordings, Jack hears a very distinct gun shot precede a tire blow-out...meaning that this "accident" was actually a political assassination. Unfortunately for Jack, the authorities are not even mildly interested in this "truth." The police cover-up Sally's presence in the car that night, and fail to check the car's blown-out tire for signs of a bullet strike. Even as Jack begins to build a story of what actually occurred that terrible night by using a film of the accident photographed by the sleazy Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), officials begin to erase the real story from history. Better to settle for a comfortable lie, than expose a dangerous truth.

And worse, the villainous assassin, Burke (John Lithgow) is still nearby, cleaning up loose ends in homicidal fashion. As the Liberty Day Jubilee approaches in the Philadelphia, Jack enlists Sally to help him seek out the truth behind the conspiracy, unaware that Burke is also stalking her...killing lookalike women so that her eventual murder will be ruled part of a serial killer's psychotic pattern, not a "hit" in a far-ranging political conspiracy.

I Don't Watch The News. It's Too Depressing

Like all great art, Blow Out reflects the time period in which it was crafted. Writing for Slant Magazine in 2006, critic Paul Schrodt provides some of that historical context in his review:

"America had fallen into a deep funk by 1981—the year of Blow Out's release and Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration. Still hung over from the Vietnam War and dealing with inflation on the brink of recession, the public's election of Reagan, on a platform of optimism, suggested a desire to move on and leave the past behind.

De Palma, as anti-establishment as ever, suggests this in itself is another lie. When Jack Terry (John Travolta) inadvertently records the assassination of a presidential candidate, everyone politely asks him to leave his conspiracy to himself. But he can't let it go....Everyone else would like to believe it was just "a freak accident," so the nation can quickly heal again. (Maybe De Palma was prescient: Five years later Reagan would secretly and illegally sell arms to Iran in order to free U.S. troops, only to then deny he ever knew about the deal, retaining his bright image.)"

In other words, what candidate Reagan was "selling" the electorate in 1980s was a "new morning in America" (post Carter-malaise) when, in fact, nothing really changed at all. As I wrote in my review of Body Double, Ronald Reagan was the all-time champion of image-making, an affable Hollywood actor skilled at saying one thing and doing another thing all together. In his inauguration, Reagan stated boldly that "Government is the problem," but during his two terms, Reagan actually grew the government dramatically. Reagan's sunny demeanor also involved a "New Patriotism," and "New Confidence" in America and its institutions, and that 1980s trend is the very image that De Palma repeatedly and successfully undercuts in Blow Out. The film is dominated by stirring images of America and American patriotism...but these images are the background for horrible, monstrous events. The symbols of American freedom are mocked, because in this setting, they are empty representations.

For instance, the finale of Blow Out is set against the backdrop of "The Liberty Bell Jubilee," the first instance in a century that the Liberty Bell has been rung. All too quickly, this patriotic parade and celebration of American history becomes an opportunity for the psychotic Burke (Lithgow) to stalk and murder Sally.

Ironically, this vicious killer views himself as a patriot, and it is strongly implied that he serves at the pleasure of the President (the man, ultimately, who would benefit from the death of McRyan). How do we know? Well for starters, Burke wears a Jubilee Button that reads "I Love Liberty" throughout the film's final sequence. It's not difficult to extrapolate that Burke is a fictionalized version of zealous, right-wing thugs such as G. Gordon Liddy, the enthusiastic criminal who was convicted for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping for his supervisory role as a Watergate "plumber" during the Nixon Era.

Liddy's mission was to keep Nixon in office, and Burke serves the same function in this fictional tale, offing the President's competition before he can prove dangerous to political continuity. Again, in real life, Giddy (who served eight years in prison for his crimes), also considered murder (of Jack Anderson) -- at least according to his own autobiography -- to preserve Nixon's hold on power. (Liddy, G Gordon, Will. St. Martins Press., 1996) pp. 208–211.

At the conclusion of Blow Out, Burke drags Sally up the steps of a grand building as glorious fireworks explode in the heavens above. Then, he strangles her to death against the backdrop of a colossal American flag.

There can be no question about the significance of these particular images. As Sally dies before Old Glory, the red, white and blue lights of the fireworks suddenly turn lurid, sleazy and ugly...soiled by those who kill in America's name. By positioning Sally's death against these powerful and patriotic symbols, De Palma successfully makes the point that the "reality" of America is very different from the glorious imagery that dominates her landscape, and inspires such fervent nationalism.

In attempting to rescue Sally, Jack accidentally runs his jeep into a storefront window that is decorated with the American legend, "Liberty or Death." This is, again, a literalization of Jack's agenda. He is in search of truth...or he will most certainly die, at the hands of a corrupt government. When Jack crashes through the transparent glass window housing that legend, he is literally crashing through the illusion of American liberty.

Even Burke's murder of a hooker in a train station bathroom is framed deliberately so as to feature a message about freedom and liberty. The most prominent object in one high-angle shot of a bathroom stall is actually a tampon dispenser decorated with the brand name "Stayfree." "Stay Free?" How can people stay free if the truth is hidden?

In Blow Out's most ironic and mocking use of iconic American imagery, Jack arrives too late to save Sally from Burke, but De Palma's camera triumphantly spins around the tragic duo nonetheless. As an "average" citizen dies below so the powerful may continue to "serve," in the heavens above fireworks explode with orgasmic glee and abandon.

The illusion of freedom and liberty are alive for all to see in the sky, even if Sally (and the truth...) die right here; their ends acknowledged only by Jack.

Sally's personal story in Blow Out also serves as a metaphor for disillusionment and disenfranchisement in America. Sally begins her journey as a disinterested observer, just minding her own business trying to make a buck any way she can. She doesn't even watch the news "because it is too depressing." When Sally finally does get involved in the "political process," in a quest with Jack to reveal the truth about this conspiracy, what happens? She is brutally murdered.

In this case, a murdered innocent in a movie may very well represent a disappointed, disillusioned electorate in real life. Most people don't get involved in politics, and those activists who do so inevitably face disappointment because things don't seem to change, or get any better. The parties in power may alternate, but the entrenched interests don't. Killing Sally in Blow Out is, essentially, killing hope in the democratic process; it's killing political involvement. From a certain perspective, there are no reak "good guys" in Blow Out because even the guy in "search of the truth," -- Jack himself -- exploits the simple-minded Sally (representing the American electorate) for his own purpose. He ruthlessly uses her for his ideological agenda...and she ends up dead, even though that agenda was inarguably noble.

Writer Rob Nelson, of Minneapolis Movies wrote about Blow Out in 1996 that:

"Jack's increasingly selfish and obsessive sleuthing reflects an '80s tide turning away from political action and toward selfishness and misogyny: A woman whom he'd saved from the crash, a makeup artist named Sally (Nancy Allen), becomes no less a pawn of Jack's scheme than the villains'. The film is full of male manipulators bound together in a vicious circle: The dead man's political rival had used Sally in an attempt to frame him; a smarmy TV news reporter manipulates Jack; and Jack in turn exploits Sally by subtly goading her into wearing a wire for her meeting with the killer...In the amazingly hyperbolic finale, DePalma conflates patriotism, dirty tricks, violence against women, and slasher movies into a single sick joke, one that's all the more dark for how fully it resonates with the real zeitgeist."

Indeed, this is where some critics detect misogyny on De Palma's part, but as I offered last week, I see this as the director's commentary on misogyny. Sally is brutally used. Buy one political side (the assassins) to discredit a "good man." She is then used by the opposition ("Jack") to get at the truth. After she ends up dead, she is, finally, used again, this time by the media. Her "perfect scream" (her scream at the moment of her death...) gets exploited by filmmakers to be enjoyed in a bad slasher film. This is a comment on exploiting women in the culture all right, but it isn't De Palma who is doing the exploiting. He's exposing the exploitation. And I don't think he's talking about slasher films either: he's talking about our predilection to be distracted by tits and ass, bread and circuses, while the business of the nation passes us by.

I Didn't Hire Her For Her Scream. I Hired Her For Her Tits

As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review, "more important than anything else about ''Blow Out'' is its total, complete and utter preoccupation with film itself as a medium in which, as Mr. De Palma has said along with a number of other people, style really is content. If that is the case, ''Blow Out'' is exclusively concerned with the mechanics of movie making, with the use of photographic and sound equipment and, especially, with the manner in which sound and images can be spliced together to reveal possible truths not available when the sound and the image are separated."

Canby is correct to note Blow Out's obsession with the technical aspects of filmmaking. Early in the film, De Palma provides a split-screen image of Jack hard at work at his Independence Film offices. On the right side of the frame is a TV news story covering Governor McRyan. On the left hand side of the frame is an insert shot of Jack at a sound editing machine, adjusting levels, labeling tapes, etc. The implication here is one of routine, tech-ish multi-tasking. The eye goes to the report on the TV, while the hand goes to the work of sound cutting. This is before the car accident/assassination occurs...and so Jack still handles his job in a work-a-day, routine fashion...not thinking about the serious implications of what he does.

When Jack goes out to the creek to record various sounds, De Palma also reminds us of the breadth of our technology, revealing in detail how a directional microphone picks up authentic sounds from great distances. A series of staggeringly beautiful long-shots join the percipient and the perceived within the same frame. We thus see Jack connected (in the background), to a majestic, hooting owl (in the foreground). Yet importantly, these "real" sounds are soon to be placed over unreal events; ones staged especially for movies. And movies, of course, are false narratives. It's another explicit reminder from De Palma that movies do lie; both in images and sound. That although the sounds may be "real," their context has been altered in ways we can't begin to imagine by the time they reach our ears.

Later, we watch in detail as Jack creates a sort of film strip of the car accident by utilizing photographic film stills (featured in a popular magazine). We watch him laboriously photograph these stills one-frame-at-a-time, and the result -- when we watch it assembled -- is a visual record of the governor's car accident; one that gives the incident new life, new shape. Yet, as illuminating as these visuals remain, without the sound of the accident, there is no hint at all of a gun shot; only the accidental "blow-out." The truth is not in the film. At least not obviously.

But the important thing here is that De Palma is including us in the process, just as he did with the split-screen multi-tasking. He's showing us the building blocks of film so we can understand how pictures, how sounds, can be created and manipulated. This is the crux of the story, of the conspiracy.

In one beautifully-crafted scene, Jack returns to his studio to find every single one of his reel-to-reel tapes blanked out...erased. De Palma shoots this scene in novel fashion by spinning his camera around the studio in a series of sequential, overlapping (time lapsed) circles, as though we are positioned on one of those damaged reels ourselves. This round-and-round movement of the camera mimics the movement of the reel tape; and we get the idea that Jack is "spinning" on his heels himself; ambushed by Burke's erasure of the critical sound recording.

The film's punch-line, of course, marks the (grim) line between the film's "reality" and the "fiction" within the film. Jack spends much of the film trying to locate the so-called "perfect scream" for the horror movie he is working on. The director brings in several actresses to record new screams...but they are all lacking in some fashion. They lack passion. They lack authenticity. In the end, Jack uses Sally's death scream in the slasher movie. Her scream is blood-curdling because it is real. It is the voice of terror. It is that real scream which is applied to the fictional film-within-a-film to lend the shlocky enterprise some sense of authority or gravitas. The horrifying truth, of course, is unknown except to Jack. It's sort of a small-scale conspiracy balanced against the national conspiracy. But nobody seems to care about the truth anymore...

In the film's last shot -- slowed down for emphasis -- Jack hangs his head low, hands over his ears, as the scream repeats. Jack was a man who wanted to "hear" the truth, but ended up hearing too much. Now he just seeks silence. He wants to hear no evil.

The fetishistic attention to technical detail (editing, sound recording, etc.) in Blow Out reminds us that nothing in the art of film is what it seems on a simple viewing. The component parts -- the parts coming together in a final cut -- can literally be anything. The truth can be exposed...or hidden in film depending on the whim of the director. Or the President of the United States...

You'd Be Amazed What Some People Would Do For a Story Like This.

An obvious foundation for Blow Out is the similarly-titled 1966 Antonioni film Blow-Up, which concerns another artist (a photographer, instead of a film's sound engineer...) becoming embroiled in what he perceives to be a crime...a murder.

In that film, the lead character, played by David Hemmings, begins to lose focus on his "real" life. He begins to obsessively question reality itself. In some senses, that's also the journey of Jack in Blow Out, but he starts to question political reality -- the images of patriotism and nationalism so proudly displayed.

De Palma's other sources here arise not from movie history, but from conspiracy lore. The setting of the car "accident" at a creek -- and the presence of an unmarried woman in the passenger seat of a married politician's automobile -- clearly recall the July 18, 1969 Chappaquiddick incident involving Senator Ted Kennedy.

The Karp film, which -- because it lacks sound -- cloaks the truth of the conspiracy rather than exposing it, recalls the much-debated, much-analyzed Zapruder Film. In this case, Manny Karp, the originator of the McRyan film, had foreknowledge of the car "accident," so he could be present at the creek to film it. That fact retroactively raises questions about the late Zapruder, and how he came to be filming the Kennedy assassination. Indeed, some people have suggested a connection between the late Zapruder...and the CIA. And, as I mentioned above, Burke is pretty clearly a model of the Watergate Plumber, namely the most infamous of the lot, Liddy.

In referencing all of these terrible incidents (JFK's assassination, Chappaquiddick, and Watergate), De Palma asks the viewer to consider the tumultuous and bloody nature of modern American history, and how much we really "know" for certain about it. Indeed, Blow Out was released just months after the attempted assassination of President Reagan by another lone gunman (and friend of the Bush family...), John Hinckley.

Just ask yourself, how would history have been different if an unvarnished Ted Kennedy -- having no Chappaquiddick incident to mar his personal history -- had run against Nixon in 1972? How would history have been different if Reagan had not survived his first term, and George Bush ascended to the Presidency in 1981? I believe what De Palma was prescient in Blow Out, making us feel that kind of paranoia as a sort of palpable fear. We begin to understand how politicians and the media can manipulate images and sounds; manipulate truth using certain indelible images.

The attacks of 9/11? Dukakis in a tank? Bill Clinton hugging a beret-wearing Monica Lewinsky in a crowd? Willie Horton's mug shot? Bush Jr. with a bullhorn on the rubble? "Terrorist" fist bumps? "Let's Roll?" "The Fundamentals of the Economy are sound?" These "clips' were brought to you by a selective corporate media. Why?

In Blow Out, De Palma delves into a dark place, one where seeing and hearing is not necessarily believing. He tells us, again, that film can be a powerful and insidious tool in the court of public opinion. But trenchantly, the master manipulator himself shows us the tricks of the trade this time. De Palma lifts the curtain and reveals how the magic works. And it's not all in the wrists.

It's in the microphones, the editing bay, the scissors, and the camera lens.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of Men, Morality and Microwaves: A Trip Back to The Last House on the Left

Writer/director Wes Craven created The Last House on The Left (1972) as a "Generation Gap" Era re-interpretation of the 1960 Ingmar Bergman film, Jungfrukallan (or The Virgin Spring), an Academy Award winner for best foreign film. Going back further, you can trace the film’s violent tale to a twelfth-century Swedish ballad sometimes known as “Töre's daughter in Vänge."

There are some two-dozen variations of this particular ballad, but all versions are built upon the bloody pillars of rape and revenge. The story also involves the destruction of innocence or purity, and the moral price of vengeance.

The filmed versions of "Töre's daughter in Vänge" all feature a relatively affluent doctor, his innocent young daughter, and the violent, unwashed “herdsmen” who -- after raping and murdering the girl -- arrive at the doctor’s home to stay the night. In the end, after learning of his daughter’s death or suffering, the doctor exacts bloody and righteous vengeance against the murderers.

The three celluloid versions of this long-lived story offer starkly different interpretations of the ballad. Bergman's take is overtly religious and redemptive. Craven's "God is Dead," Manson-era take seeks morality in a universe totally absent the Divine. And the post-Bush/Obama era version of Last House on the Left offers a sort of "let's turn the page" approach to morality; leaving us to draw conclusions for ourselves after we have witnessed horrific, cruel, pre-meditated violence.

"You See It and You Allow It:" Violence and Faith in The Virgin Spring

Bergman’s The Virgin Spring explicitly concerns faith. Indeed, the tragic incident from start to finish may even be interpreted as a "test of faith" for Dr. Tore, played by Max Von Sydow.

He wonders why God permits such atrocities in the world of man. “You see it and you allow it! The innocent child’s death and my revenge…you allowed it! I don’t understand you!” he laments near the film’s conclusion.

Tore searches for meaning in the death of his beloved child, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson); but also in his own blood-thirsty, violent actions. He is a faithful servant…so why was he punished in this cruel fashion? Why was his dignity -- his sense of civilization -- stripped from him? Was he right to act so barbarously?

Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), Tore’s wife, believes that the innocent child was taken from the family because the parents loved and adored the beautiful Karin more than they worshipped and honored Christ. In other words, the parents were punished for not putting their love of God first. A shaken Dr. Tore swears to erect a church in the very spot in the forest that his daughter died; a kind of testament to the Mystery of Faith.

God rewards the tortured, doubting Tore. The Supreme Being miraculously creates a bubbling spring at the very idyllic location where Karin died; a sign that Tore’s continued faith is justified; and that his violent actions were justified too. Tore sees his faith restored by this miracle. A rapturous, high-angle shot reveals the creation of the virgin spring, and Tore’s awe at God’s wisdom and power.

An affirmation of religion (specifically Christianity), The Virgin Spring suggests that God forgives even the most atrocious acts of violence…if only the perpetrator is faithful. Tore may never have all his answers (God moves in mysterious ways), but the doctor can satisfy himself that God exists...and that God has heard him; and that he remains the Lord's servant.

Brilliantly and artfully crafted, Bergman’s version of "Tore’s Daughter" may boast a darker, more sinister interpretation too, especially given our times. The film seems to suggest that after committing heinous violence, the self-righteous will be rewarded with a miracle, and more than that, even be granted certainty of the existence of the Divine...something most human beings are denied on this mortal coil.

Today, we see doctors murdered for performing legal operations, terrorists bombing innocent civilians, and nations launching into bloody war...all over personally-held beliefs or delusions that “God is on their side.” Religion thus becomes the excuse for ideological and literal warfare. Here we see the same thing on a smaller, more intimate scale: bloody vengeance is deemed okay, and forgiven...if one is devout.

The Road Leads To Nowhere And the Castle Stays the Same: The Last House on The Left (1972)

Wes Craven re-interpreted The Virgin Spring and "Tore’s Daughter in Vange" for The Last House on The Left, his widely-despised debut film.

The New York Times
reviewer walked out of the film (with an hour still to go) and called it “sickening tripe,” (December 22, 1972). Even Danny Peary, author of Cult Movies decried the film as a “sick sexual fantasy” and “an incitement to violence.” (Delacorte Press, 1981, page 348).

In The Last House on The Left, young Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) -- the equivalent of the Karin character -- is raped and killed by the sociopath Krug (David Hess). Her path intersected with Krug's while she was trying to score some weed on the way to a rock concert performance (by a popular group called "Bloodlust.") In The Virgin Spring, Karin had been on her way to "lighting candles" for Christ, to honor his suffering, when attacked. The distinction, of course, is critical. Mari is a self-involved modern teen of the Peace Generation; not a devout supplicant like Karin. Craven has thus stripped the religious veneer from the tale. But importantly, he has not stripped the moral underpinnings of the ballad. On the contrary, he has actually augmented them.

Although Mari prays to (an absent) God before she is murdered -- in a harrowing scene staged in almost identical fashion to Karin’s rape and murder in The Virgin Spring -- there is no salvation for her or redemption for her fallen parents here. Unlike the Tores in The Virgin Spring, Dr. Collingwood (Gaylord St James) and his wife in the 1972 Last House on the Left are not enlightened in the finale by the existence of God, or by a comforting awareness of Divine Method. Rather, they are left totally isolated in their shattered, middle-class living room, surrounded by the blood of villains. The camera does not majestically swoop heavenward to give the impression of God’s support; or even presence.

Instead, by freeze-framing on the shattered Collingwoods in the final (close-up) shot of The Last House on the Left, Craven reveals the futility of bloodshed and retribution in a way that the spiritually uplifting finale of The Virgin Spring does not. Very simply, the film ends on the face of two shattered people. They have been as violent and brutal as Krug and his fellow attackers (Sadie and Weasel)...and their daughter is still dead. They have achieved nothing...except the lowering of themselves to barbarism; to the level of the criminals who were so monstrous. They have survived; they have prevailed...but now they don't even know who -- or what -- they are.

On the soundtrack, a song entitled "The Road Leads to Nowhere" (composed and performed by David Hess) plays, and the title itself (also a lyric featured in the body of the pieces) expresses the futility of all the violence portrayed in the film. Despite the brutality, despite the revenge completed, "the castle stays the same," meaning that nothing changes. Mari remains dead and God does not right that wrong because the Collingwoods have "won." The subtext of the film is simple: as bad as the low class Krug and his compatriots are...the affluent, middle-class Collingwoods are really no better.

There's a fascinating moment in Last House on The Left, when Krug, Sadie and Weasel all pause by the lake, following the rape and murder of Mari (and her friend, here named Phyllis). For a brief instant, the criminals are silent. And they actually appear chastened. As if, for one fleeting instant...they have awareness of what they are; what they have done. At the end of the film, the Collingwoods kill with comparative abandon and glee. Mrs. Collingwood even bites off Weasel's penis while giving him head (a macabre touch not retained in the remake). The "respectable" Collingwoods seem to have no recognition of what they've done...not until that "freeze frame" captures them in the hell of their own making; in the aftermath of a bloodbath. In both these moments, violence is not championed, not even in the name of retribution. The opposite is true.

Why is The Last House on the Left so reviled by so many, so despised? In part because it accomplishes the unthinkable and the totally unsavory: it treats violence as real...and horrible. Most films, even great horror films, treat violence in a "tolerable" way, meaning that we may be frightened by the scary images...but we're not, ultimately, undone or debauched by them. Movie decorum keeps "the horror of violence" at an acceptable distance from our psyches..

Not so Last House on the Left. After titillating the audience with early glimpses of the comely Mari in the shower, arousing lascivious interest, Craven turns the table on his audience and stages a brutal, affecting, prolonged, utterly monstrous rape. He lingers there. The scene goes on and on until you feel sick to your stomach watching. Again, this is Craven's desired manipulation: he makes you thirst for the blood of Krug, Sadie and Weasel right along with Mari's parents. Your anger is justified and righteous. We identify with the Collingwoods. With their loss, with their pain. We want the bad guys to suffer too.

But then, there you are, at the end of the film -- having wallowed in the violence with the Collingwoods. And you don't feel good about it. You feel - like the Collingwood's in that traumatized, valedictory freeze frame -- ashamed . The Collingwoods have stooped to Krug's level and gotten their revenge...but what's left? The road leads to nowhere. Violence, while perhaps satisfying on first impulse, ultimately solves nothing. Forged during the time of the Vietnam War, Craven's Last House on the Left is perhaps the ultimate anti-violence, anti-war film. It doesn't romanticize violence, and furthermore, decries violence even when the situation is an archetypal Biblical "Eye-for-an-Eye" setting. It's ironic that Last House on the Left is constantly attacked as being an incitement to violence, when nothing could be further from the truth. It's just that -- as movie goers and perhaps even as critics -- we prefer our violence palatable...not authentically disturbing.

"Are You Ready to Be A Man?" The Last House on the Left (2009)

The remake of Last House on the Left (2009) makes a number of interesting and telling modifications to the Swedish ballad and original story of "Tore's Daughter."

In this cinematic version alone, for instance, the doctor's daughter -- again named Mari (Sara Paxton) -- survives the attack. Her survival removes some of "anger" that, theoretically, Dr. Collingwood should feel. His victimization, in other words, is not as severe.

Also, the leader of the "herdsmen" or thugs, Krug (Garret Dillahunt) is defined more in the terms of being one of Craven's "Bad Fathers," than in the original film. This Krug is almost constantly seen goading his son into violent action; telling him to cowboy up and be a man. Even the rape of Mari here seems to stem more from Krug's cruelty to his son than his own feelings of sexual desire. The point, I believe, is the cycle of violence: the passing of "abuse" from one generation to another.

Also, alone among the filmed versions of the tale, Dr. Collingwood in this film (Tony Goldwyn) gets to utilize his skills as a physician.

Some of these changes in the "Tore's Daughter" template are just superficial; and some run far, far deeper. For instance, in the last act of the remake, Dr. Collingwood stabilizes his badly-wounded daughter and plans to escape in a boat (and get her to a hospital alongside his wife). With the aid of Mrs. Collingwood (Monica Potter) and Krug's son, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), Dr. Collingwood also incapacitates Krug, eliminating any and all immediate danger..

But instead of simply escaping -- or killing Krug in the heat of a kill-or-be-killed moment (as was the case in the Craven version) -- this Dr. Collingwood takes his time and, with extensive pre-meditation, plans for the torture and death of Krug utilizing a malfunctioning microwave oven. In other words, this is no longer a case of flight or fight. Mari is safe. Krug is down for the count. But Collingwood -- a man sworn to protect life -- nonetheless breaks his oath and engineers a complex plan (involving a delicate surgery...) to kill Krug. Here's how I see this: Were my loved ones attacked and in jeopardy, I would certainly respond violently in the moment...perhaps even protect them. But, were my wife and daughter attacked, and the situation safely ameliorated, I can't imagine I would respond by engineering -- over a sustained period of time -- a brutal surgery and torture scheme. That goes beyond preservation of self and family. That's...extreme sadism.

There are two ways to read this alteration in the tale. Either this is a pander-fest to the modern audience, ostensibly a bread-and-circuses demographic, who demand Krug's blood and want him to suffer in a horrifying way. Or, as I believe, this is a comment on our post-9/11 age, just as Craven's version commented on the 1970s. Yes, we were brutally attacked in September 2001 and three thousand Americans died horrible deaths and the terrorists were EVIL. But The Iraq War occurred in 2003, the torture at Abu Ghraib happened in 2004, and over 101,000 Iraqis are now dead in the year 2009. Exactly when, you might rightly ask, do we get to stop avenging 9/11 with a free conscience? Exactly when does the "heat of the moment" of 9/11 fade away, and reason...and restraint...and LAW set in? We were right to strike back against those who hurt us and killed our loved ones...but how long do we continue striking back against enemies with moral impunity before we are the ones provoking a new cycle of violence?

In the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left, Dr. Collingwood expresses not one recrimination about his actions; and that's also the official take of our government, even today. President Obama wants to "turn the page" on American moral abuses of the Bush Years...thus leaving them unaddressed and unpunished. That's also the state in which we leave Dr. Collingwood. Mari (like America) is safe and sound, but he (like our nation) hasn't yet looked in the mirror and faced the consequences of his bloody actions. That needs to happen. For him and for us.

This is a fascinating change in the enduring Swedish original. In the past, Dr. Tore and Dr. Collingwood responded to violence with savagery, but it was always in the passion of the moment. And they had motives we sympathized with: the death of the daughter. Here, this Dr. Collingwood has time for reflection, time for pause, and his daughter yet lives. And despite time, despite the survival of his daughter, Collingwood still knowingly and mercilessly fries Krug's brain in a microwave.

He doesn't feel bad about it...and in this case -- I hate to say it -- that makes the Tore character worse than the despicable Krug. Because this Krug, like his previous incarnation, at least experiences that moment of humanity by the lake in which he realizes that he's a monster. This Dr. Collingwood still thinks he's a doctor and an upright citizen. He marches on...but his violence is left unaddressed. And Krug, for all his brutal crimes, clearly didn't set out one morning to hurt Mari or Page...he happened upon them...and his brutal nature asserted itself. That assertion doesn't take him off the hook for his crimes in any way, but they were crimes of opportunity. By contrast, Collingwood is the only character in the movie who plots out and executes -- in detail -- a torturous death for another human being.

In some ways, this newest Last House on the Left is the most disturbing version of the tale yet produced. It doesn't find answers in God, like Bergman's version. Nor does it find answers in man's nature, like Craven's tale. Instead, it just punts moral judgment down the line. The 2009 Dr. Collingwood feels he was justified in the pre-meditated torture and murder of another human being because he was attacked first....and I suspect many modern viewers feel the same way.

"Bloodlust" isn't just the name of a rock group. And it's not a feeling limited merely to black hat bad guys, either. We can find it right here, dwelling in our very own neighborhoods. Just turn by the lake, and stop at the last house on the left...