Remakes Are Not The Enemy

Virgin Spring & Last House on the Left posters

@lcfremont sets about reminding us just why remakes have a place in horror...

The remake has become a much maligned beast in the horror world and while this is, mostly, understandable, it's also an unavoidable thing that will continue on. Always and forever. Remakes are an unusual thing in the sense that a film remake is kind of necessary after time. A book or play is not written in order to be re-written. Only cinema provides a medium that allows for and encourages updates that reflect how our culture has changed, for better or worse. Also, it allows for people to play with their newly acquired gadgets that make things explode bigger and louder, monsters made of CGI and blood that flows from arteries like water from a spring. Recently, it feels as though the horror genre, in particular, has been experiencing a deluge of remakes and this has made a lot of fans understandably cranky. At times, it can be difficult to keep an open mind when a movie that you hold close to your heart is remade, but there are times that a remake is legitimately good. Whether you know it or not, you are a fan of a remake and that's o.k. It doesn't mean that you're being unfaithful to the original or that you love it any less. It just means that you are willing to accept the same story in a different way. My personal favorite example of a remake that works is Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. His take on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring reflects the time period it was made and this adds, rather than detracts, from the true spirit of the remake.

Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring is the original celluloid interpretation of a thirteenth-century Swedish ballad. Tore's Daughter at Vange tells the story of a young girl who meets a brutal and untimely end. The only child of privileged parents, she wears a dress embroidered by fifteen maidens and her blue shoes with the pearls on them for her journey to deliver the Virgin Mary's candles to her church. Watching Karin, the blonde, virgin beauty, get dressed for her trip showcases just how spoiled, adored and sheltered she is. Her absolute ignorance to the fact that there are people in the world who can, and will, do her harm is her one fatal flaw.

Despite the pleas of her pagan and impregnated travel companion, Ingeri, to not go into the woods because they are so dark, Karin proceeds anyway. In Karin's world, every moment is beautiful and she insists Ingeri stay with a local villager as she finishes her trek. It is while stopping to feel the sunshine on her face, that she attracts the attention of three herdsmen. Karin's innocence leads her to believe that sharing her lunch with these men is a generous and safe gesture. Unfortunately, this will not be the case and we will all be witness to her brutal rape and murder.

Released in 1960, The Virgin Spring encountered censorship battles over Karin's rape. Specifically, it was cited that any views of the herdsmen pushing up her dress, exposing her thighs and holding her legs while another man moves on top of her were to be cut. Later, the Criterion Collection would release the film in it's entirety, but the scene is still a brutal one and that is what really ties The Virgin Spring and The Last House on the Left together. Though one is more visually explicit than the other, neither is anywhere near the graphic level that we have become accustomed to today and, yet, both are horribly visceral viewing experiences.

Bergman filmed this tale of rape, murder and revenge with such a loving eye that it's inherent beauty is almost devastating. Nothing comes as close as devastating as the look on Karin's face when she looks directly at her attackers, though. So little is said through dialog, but volumes are spoken via glances and gestures in this film. To watch the attack on Karin is to experience it, in a way. So much better to get you on the side of her mother and father when they turn the tables on the herdsmen.

Max von Sydow played the role of Tore with such an impeccable balance of authority and grief that it seems impossible to not feel as conflicted as his character when the violence really comes full circle. Whether you've seen The Virgin Spring, The Last House on the Left (1972) or The Last House on the Left (2008) you know how this story ends and it's bittersweet to say the least. Curiously, it's the 1960 version of the story that stings the most when the patriarch takes his revenge. Is it because he cleanses himself before committing the murders, because he takes revenge on a child or is it because Bergman crafted a movie that transcends mere film and infests your soul with it's conflict? Perhaps a little bit of both. To describe The Virgin Spring as gorgeous, enthralling and timeless would be to sell it short.

Knowing that one cannot improve upon such an achievement, Wes Craven set out not to improve upon Bergman's film, but to make his own version. Brought up in a strict religious house, Craven used LHOTL as a way to deal with just a few of his conflicting emotions. We meet Mari and Phyllis on their way to go see a band called Blood Lust. Despite her father questioning her choice to leave the house sans bra to see a band famous for killing live chickens at a show, it's plainly obvious that Mari is the apple of their eye and can do no wrong. Much like Karin and Ingeri, the dynamic between Mari and Phyllis is one that displays two very different women. One has been coddled and loved her entire life while the other is a bit more worldly and worse for the wear.

In The Virgin Spring, Ingeri despises Karin for this and wishes harm to her, but in LHOTL, Phyllis is a protective and loving friend who tries to shield Mari from harm. Again, it is the youthful naivety that allows the girls to believe that following a stranger to his place to score drugs will end well. Of course, the girls end up in the clutches of two escaped convicts, a heroine addicted bastard son and an animal like woman. In The Virgin Spring, it is two older brothers and a younger one who defile our fair maiden, allegedly, at the hands of a nasty prayer said by our animalistic Ingeri. In LHOTL, it is the son of a convict, the convict's pedophile friend and an animal like woman named Sadie who are the villains. This is a nice way of updating the story to showcase the current time the film was made and better illustrate how truly despicable our villains are. The main bad guy, Krug, was incarcerated for the murder of two nuns and a priest - you really can't get more obvious than that when it comes to not so subtle symbolism.

As with it's predecessor, LHOTL seems to take a voyeuristic enjoyment in the defilement of our virgin, but that's only on the surface. Both of these films force you to feel dirty and debased in an effort to you compel you to feel enthusiastically complicit when it's time for our mother and father to take their revenge. It's within the violence where the two movies really begin to differ from one another.

LHOTL isn't gratuitous, but it's also unflinching in it's depiction of humiliation, torture, rape and murder. Craven takes it one step further, though, by making Sadie the one who seems to derive the largest amount of pleasure from all of this. Sadie is the one singing "Singing in the Rain" just like another droog who enjoyed a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence and she's also the one who instigates the entire abduction and subsequent torture of the girls.

Declaring that she won’t be putting out anymore until there are more women to even the playing field, the entrance of Mari and Phyllis is basically gift wrapped. Not only does Sadie partake in the rape of the two girls, but she also seems to derive the most amount of sadistic pleasure from their deaths. There is a moment in the film when the mixture of excitement and remorse is palpable, but it’s coming mainly from the men and not Sadie. In The Virgin Spring, Ingeri prayed for something terrible to happen to Karin. In LHOTL, Sadie didn’t just wish for it, she reveled in making it come true.

In both films, the rapists and murderers unknowingly take refuge in the home of the girls whom they just killed and it is the always watchful eye of a mother who pieces everything together and then demands that her husband dole out revenge. Craven chose to harness the power of mildly elaborate booby traps in an effort to help Mari’s father gain the upper hand. Famously, Mari’s mother simply used her feminine wiles to take revenge on Frank and his “poor, little thing”. Thankfully, she is also the one who got to take out the trash that went by the name of Sadie. There is just simply something truly satisfying about Mari’s mother being the one to kill Sadie.
In Bergman’s film, the wife stands by as she watches her husband take revenge on their daughter’s killers. After ceremoniously cleansing himself, Von Sydow’s character turns into a man fueled by anger and he wastes no time in killing the two men. It is when it comes to the child that the true nature and cost of violence is felt. Watching him kill a small boy in such a barbaric way is one of the most disturbing things put to film.

The Virgin Spring deals with themes of religion in an obvious and symbolic ways whereas LHOTL does it in a much less overt way, but both stories tell a heartbreaking tale of the ramifications of revenge. The Virgin Spring is truly one of the most gorgeous films I have ever had the pleasure to experience and it is this stunning beauty that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, unable to look away from such horrific acts. Though LHOTL is nowhere near the same level of beauty, it’s also successful in making it feel impossible to look away.

So, what’s the point of all of this. Just that sometimes, a remake, a reimagining, a reboot, a recalibration or any other fancy euphemism you want to use can, indeed, be a good thing. There are times when another artist’s interpretation of a subject allows you to appreciate the original in new and different ways. Remakes aren’t the enemy. Closed minds are.

Lisa Fremont

Twitter: @lcfremont

Images: IMDb & Amazon.com

Comments