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Keep driving past ‘Last House on the Left’

Despicable sequel lacks even the sadistic original’s courage of conviction and proves that you can't always make a better film out of a bad one.

I’ve always been of the frame of mind that filmmakers should be remaking bad movies instead of good ones, thus avoiding comparison and also getting the opportunity to more successfully execute an interesting plot. (“Ocean’s 11” was a perfect example of taking a movie that was well known, but not necessarily beloved, and putting a new spin on it.)

While Wes Craven’s “Last House of the Left” launched the horror director’s career by filming a rape-murder with sickening and almost documentary-like detail, it’s a movie that could stand some improvements. Between the inappropriate moments of humor, the happy-time-Shakey’s-Pizza bluegrass score and the less-than-honed acting, the original “Last House” stood as a perfect candidate for a remake.

And now we have one, but the result is a movie that is more polished and professional, yet still completely odious in its own way.

In Craven’s original — which he somewhat disingenuously claims to be a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” — two teen girls are tortured, raped and slaughtered by a dangerous quartet of evil misfits. The assailants’ car breaks down, and they wind up seeking shelter at the home of one of the girl’s parents; when mom and dad realize who their guests are, they take bloody vengeance upon them.

This new version gives us young Mari (Sara Paxton), a champion swimmer and good girl (who’s not above taking a toke or two), who gets kidnapped by Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and his crew of fugitives. Mari’s friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) is killed, while Mari is brutally raped and then shot at when she runs and then swims away.

Stuck in the woods in a rainstorm, Krug, his brother Francis (Aaron Paul), his creepy girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and his son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) — Justin being the only one among them with a working conscience — find respite at the lake house owned by Mari’s parents, doctor John (Tony Goldwyn) and Emma (Monica Potter).

Here’s where the new “Last House” lets itself and the audience off the hook in a way that the old one didn’t — Mari doesn’t die, and somehow manages to drag herself back home. The first movie gives us two desperate people who know that their daughter is dead, and who get brutal revenge even though they know it won’t bring their child back. In this new one, John and Emma have to get Mari to their boat, since it’s the only way to the hospital, and the only way to do so is to neutralize their homicidal houseguests.

Not that the “Last House” remake is so high-minded that it doesn’t constantly play upon its perceived audience’s worst impulses, from the graphic and disgusting rape scene to the various explicit bouts of violence visited upon its villains. This is the kind of movie that prompted Michael Haneke to make “Funny Games” twice, and while I loathed that moralistic scold of a film, “Last House” almost made me concede Haneke’s point.

Perhaps most tragic of all is the waste of fine actors like Goldwyn, Potter, Lindhome and especially Dillahunt (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) in material this grisly and exploitative. They all spin as much silk as they possibly can, but there’s no covering up this sow’s rotted ear.