Remake Double-Feature: The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960) and Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)

When considering films and their remakes, Ingmar Bergman and Wes Craven aren’t exactly two filmmakers you’d expect to tackle the same material.  Then again, you wouldn’t exactly expect Bergman, that master of the slow, introspective, and God-fearing-oriented film, to take on the story of a brutal rape and murder and a parent’s subsequent bloody revenge to begin with (and you wouldn’t expect horror / splatterfest master Wes Craven to have taken on the tacky, heartwarming Meryl Streep vehicle “Music of the Heart” either, but that’s another story entirely 😛 ).  But take it on is exactly what Bergman does in “The Virgin Spring,” and of course such a dark story (based on a 13th century Swedish ballad) will clash with Bergman’s iconic slow, deliberate style of storytelling here and there.   However, I was quite surprised (and nearly shocked) at how masterful a film it ended up being: at times slow, at times contemplative, at times truly and deeply disturbing, but always enthralling.

The concept of a perfect, spoiled, virginal young girl being raped and murdered by a couple of degenerates, and then the tables being turned on the degenerates by the girl’s parents, is a tricky one.  It’s a concept you’d expect in a thriller or an exploitative horror film, and indeed Wes Craven would do just that in “Last House on the Left,” which storywise is essentially a direct remake of “The Virgin Spring.”  Twelve years before Craven’s film, however, Ingmar Bergman had a hell of a task on his hands.  How to make such a heavy plot, rife with disturbing scenes and concepts, something more than exploitation, or some throwaway thriller?  Turns out, the solution was to not change a single thing about his signature filmmaking style: no bells and whistles that try to make the scenes of violence more disturbing than they already are, and for that matter, making the violence itself short and intermittent.  The key to “The Virgin Spring” is not these two acts of violence themselves, but rather the perpetrators’ reactions to the acts they’ve just committed, as well as the reasons why any given person could commit such atrocities.

It’s for that reason that it was so important for Bergman (and his writer Ulla Isaksson) to establish this family as a “normal” one in 14th century Sweden.  The film’s beginning section is quiet and rather uneventful (to the point, in fact, that I got a little bored), as we’re introduced to this family and all their seemingly mundane foibles.  There’s the god-fearing father Töre (Max von Sydow), his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), Torë’s pagan and pregnant daughter Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), and of course, the spoiled, virginal daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), whom both parents dote on to no end and Ingeri is wildly jealous of.  We see this family pray, eat, do chores, and prepare Karin to deliver candles to the church.  This certainly doesn’t make for an “exciting” filmwatching experience, but it’s vitally important for Bergman to establish these characters the way he does: as a typical family of “good” people trying to get by in the middle of nowhere.  We can identify with them, and that in turn makes Torë’s later act of revenge so disturbing.  The act itself is just a plot element.  The real question Bergman is asking is why.  Why would such a good man, who we’ve been introduced to and know is a good man, go over the edge as he does, and perhaps most importantly, is he justified in doing so?

As important as Torë’s presentation is, young Karin’s is just as important.  Bergman makes this girl the innocent victim to end all innocent victims (especially when considering the outwardly slimy degenerates that are her attackers): blond hair, pale skin, a lovely smile, insisting on wearing the beautiful (and attention-grabbing) yellow dress hand-made by her mother during her trek through the woods, and way too trusting of those strange men with rancid clothes, hair, and teeth who she meets in the woods.  Oh, and that part about her being a virgin doesn’t hurt that status as pure, innocent victim either.  Quite simply, she’s just begging for her terrible fate at the hands of the goat herders.  Is it the easy way out for Bergman to portray young Karin as simplistically as he does, wearing a target on her back that says “I’m the very picture of virginal innocence, please defile me”?  Yeah, probably, but I must admit that such a simple technique works in making Karin’s fate that much more disturbing. 

Karin is a fish out of water as she sits and eats with these two dirty men and their younger brother – you simply know that no good will come of this, and indeed soon enough this living doll will lose her innocence, her virginity, and her life.  The scene of this act of violence is quick (but not too quick) and explicit (but not too explicit), neither glorifying nor overtly condemning the goat herders’ actions.  I was surprised, actually, at how bluntly Bergman portrayed the rape and murder, especially given the previously-established stereotypical innocence of Karin and dirty guilt of the goat herders.  Karin and the goat herders may have been introduced as simple archetypes at opposite ends of the moral spectrum, but they end up coming together in a scene that is so shocking because it is what it is: an act of violence, with no added shock inducers like music or quick cuts by Bergman: just the dirty deed, straight-up.  When such an archetypal symbol like Karin is brought into an all-too real moment of demise, the result is a hell of a lot more disturbing than an onslaught of blood and guts in a typical slasher movie.

Bergman’s direction is clearly the reason why any problems with characterization are more than made up for in a scene as iconic as it is disturbing.  But I think the key to why “The Virgin Spring” is just so damn good boils down to what I’d like to think of as a Swedish triumverate: director Bergman, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and lead actor Max von Sydow.  This was the first collaboration of a long and fruitful partnership between Bergman and Nykvist, and the way direction and cinematography come together in this film, you’d think the two were working together for years beforehand.  Consider, for instance, Nykvist’s framing of Karin and Ingeri as they leave the safety of their farm on horseback.  Karin rides ahead of Ingeri, trees blocking our view of the girls, who themselves are framed in front of a wide lake at sunrise.  There’s just a bit more light on Karin, but both girls are small in the background and enveloped in shadow.  It’s a magnificent shot, and it accentuates both Karin’s innocence and the girls’ vulnerability against the cruel indifference of nature.  Later, following the murder, the goat herders unwittingly find shelter in the home of the parents of the girl that they have murdered.  As family and guests eat at the table (beginning with a wide shot suggesting the Last Supper, by the way), all focus is on the young boy.  Shocked and confused by what his brothers did to that girl, we see what he sees, as Nykvist’s camera cycles through the face of each person at the table in low-angle shots.  We see what the boy sees, and in turn we feel the guilt that he feels, as this wall of faces, made to simply appear suspicious through subjective point-of-view, closes in on us.  All of a sudden, we are in the place of the guilty party, and despite witnessing these grimy men of the wilderness commit such an unspeakable crime, we suddenly identify with, and even sympathize, with them.

It takes a hell of a lot of directorial talent (and a lot of courage) to make an audience sympathize with characters that only minutes prior committed the worst atrocity one person could commit upon another, but Bergman pulls it off.  Not bad for characters who were introduced as literally slobbering upon seeing the virginal Karin, and one of them even missing a tongue and having to communicate in a disturbing kind of gibberish.  And never is this sympathy more obvious than during Töre and Märeta’s vengeance upon learning of their beloved daughter’s fate.  I said before that Max von Sydow is the third reason why the film is as great as it is, and look no further than the agonizingly long “revenge scene” to see how director, cinematographer, and actor can collaborate to create something truly special.  As the goat herders sleep, Torë ever-so-slowly goes through their bags to determine the truth, and even more slowly prepares his blade to commit vengeance.  The set-up is interminably long, and you know what?  It was damned suspenseful!  Max von Sydow is incredible here, with his baritone voice and angular face barely suppressing absolute rage, but quite clearly seething as he prepares himself to commit an act he (and we) would never have suspected him capable of.  We watch endlessly as he goes through the men’s possessions, standing over them like a judge would stand over guilty defendants.  If you think it’s an agonizingly long process for Torë, just try putting yourself in the shoes of the unsuspecting men at his feet.  We want justice to be done against these men, but at the same time we don’t want Töre to become such a symbol of violence himself.  I’ve never seen von Sydow do finer work than as this grieving father torn between religious duty and a personal need for vengeance, and Bergman’s ability to drag out this agonizing decision makes the simple act of watching a movie scene as agonizing as the decision that Töre must make.

Anybody even remotely familiar with Bergman and his work will know that the man’s obsession in life was the silence of God and the place of religion and God in our world.  It’s a concept that he’s included in just about all of his films, and it’s actually my big gripe with “The Virgin Spring.”  Granted, 14th century Sweden was a place of religious upheaval as Paganism was fazing out in favor of Christianity, and this is certainly an important element of Torë’s character arc, but Bergman’s over-emphasis on the religious angle was just too much.  This family’s character types and religious views were established early on, so why not let actions dictate this idea of religious guilt and let the audience figure that out, rather than having monologue after monologue explaining this guilt?  We see the jealous Ingeri place a pagan curse on Karin immediately prior to her death, so why have Ingeri later go on an absolute religious breakdown to her father and suddenly find God?  We know Torë struggles to be a devout Christian from the moment we meet him, and that’s precisely why the long lead-up to his act of vengeance is so agonizing: no Christian should seek such a violent revenge as Torë seeks, and yet the terrible fate of his daughter calls for action.  This dilemma is inherent in the story, and yet we get monologue after monologue as Torë speaks to God, all leading up to a final “miracle” in the closing moments of the film that’s absolutely ludicrous.  I mean, not even Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” hit you over the head with the religious undertones (or should I say overtones) as much as “The Virgin Spring” did, and that movie dealt with a Crusader playing chess with the Grim Reaper!  That little complaint aside, though, what we get out of “The Virgin Spring” is a remarkable achievement, as Bergman’s iconic slow and reflective style combines almost perfectly with such a dark premise, and we get a tragedy, a thriller, and an fascinating ideological think-piece, all rolled into one.  Despite its flaws (namely the simplistic Pagan vs. Christian, innocence vs. guilt contrasts), this is unexpectedly one of the finest pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen come from Mr. Bergman.

Now, if the main point of a story like this is the reasons for and results of the violent acts themselves, don’t tell that to Wes Craven 😛 .  “Last House on the Left” has nearly the exact same premise as “The Virgin Spring” transposed into then-modern day New York, as two girls looking to score some weed on the way to a rock concert have a fatal run-in with psychotic runaway convicts.  The movie’s commonly seen as an iconic piece of shock horror filmmaking, and the proof is in the pudding.  Long before “Saw,” the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes,” and the rest of today’s torture porn trying to pass itself off as horror, “Last House on the Left,” Craven’s directorial debut, looks to shock you into submission with pretty much an endless stream of violence, blood, and sadism directed against these two girls (and later against their attackers).  In “The Virgin Spring,” the lead-up to acts of violence was drawn out endlessly, making for an incredible use of suspense.  Now, “Last House on the Left” draws out the violence itself endlessly.  Clearly, Craven’s film is supposed to disgust and shock rather than leave one in suspense, and for that reason “Last House on the Left” is the far more exhausting film to watch (and one I’d never like to watch again).  But, in a way, Craven’s way of using violence to affect the audience works, too.  Now let’s be straight here: “Last House on the Left” as a film is not even a patch on “The Virgin Spring’s” fanny.  But it’s also not quite the absolute disaster and piece of trash I thought it would be, either.

I think one reason “Last House on the Left” is effective is because Craven, whether intentionally or not, made it feel “real.”  The shitty, haphazard camerawork and the production value seem cheaper than the meatball sub I buy at Subway every week while I’m at work.  The phrase “documentary-like” is incredibly cliché by now, but I really don’t know how else to describe this movie, other than maybe “shitty for a reason.”  We get right in there as Krug and his fellow degenerates breathe down these poor girls’ necks, as the quick cuts and tight shots show every stabbing and gunshot and blood stain and naked body in all their non-glory.  Craven absolutely goes for broke in bombarding you with sickening images.  Is it exhausting and nausea-inducing?  Sure it is…but unlike the absolutely vile “Saw” and other pieces of torture porn, Craven here doesn’t glorify the violence.  It’s actually meant to disgust, not titillate.  Because there’s such a heavy emphasis on the violence, there’s almost no “suspense” to speak of, just outright horrific images.  For that reason “Last House on the Left” probably set the precedent for today’s sorry excuses of overblown blood and guts that are supposed to be “horror”, but hell, “Last House on the Left” is an onslaught of sordid images and acts steeped in the real, so for that reason it’s “scary.”

I say it’s steeped in the real, but that’s not to say that “Last House on the Left” doesn’t tread the fine line between “realism” and utterly cheesy absurdity, all because Wes Craven happens to use a cheap camera.  You look at the two girls and their stilted dialogue about budding breasts and going to see Bloodlust ( 😆 ) live in concert, or the two inept cops who’s zany antics belong in another movie entirely, or Mari’s parents and their status as stock un-hip movie mom and dad (at least until they catch wind of who their houseguests are 😛 ), and you have a hell of a lot of eye-rollingly cheesy story elements.  Not to mention much of it is incredibly dated, from the hippie music to the culture in general (would the news talk about a criminal convicted of “Peeping Tom-ism” today? 😆 ).  You really have to wonder, for example, whether Craven used that music in both scenes of tranquility and scenes of terror as a clever irony or just in incredibly poor taste.  “Realistically cheap” camera be damned, this is a movie that’s wildly uneven with some ill-advised side-plots (namely the two cops who wouldn’t be able to tie their shoes without supervision) and some horrifically bad acting from the characters we’re supposed to care about.  It all leads to some wild inconsistencies.  If you ask me, the parents get over their daughter’s death pretty damn quickly before they delve right into setting booby traps for their guests a la Kevin McCallister for the Wet Bandits in “Home Alone” 😛 .  All this combined with the onslaught of violence would make for an absolutely dreadful and outright offensive film, if not for the one redeeming quality that makes this movie very interesting: the group of psychopaths.

If the dialogue and delivery of the protagonists are stilted, then by comparison that of the four psychos might as well be the final frontier of realism.  There’s a scene early on where we find our group of whackos hanging out in a grungy apartment: Krug, the collected yet scraggly leader of the pack and fellow prison escapee, the well-dressed but soothingly terrifying Weasel are in one room, while Krug’s drug-addicted son Junior does frog impressions for Krug’s woman Sadie in the bathroom.  As these four hang out, have sex, chit-chat about this and that, take a sick amusement out of torturing the two girls, do their thing to twangy music not unlike the sound of the goat herder’s mouth harp in “The Virgin Spring,” and try and fail to act sophisticated for their hosts (the victim’s parents), you see a very strange kind of realism in these characters.  As I was watching, I thought to myself, “my god, I’m watching a John Cassavetes movie!”  You can tell that these psychopaths have known each other for a long time, and the things they say to each other and the common enjoyment (and subsequent ever-so-slight hints of guilt) that they share while torturing their victims are so random and bizarre (and so in contrast with the stilted performances by the other actors) that they achieve a kind of über-realism.  I can’t say that you sympathize with this movie’s killers like you do with the killers in “The Virgin Spring.”  The crime committed in Bergman’s film felt like a truly desperate and unexpected act by men who really didn’t know they had it in them to do it, so for that reason their perceived semi-guilt afterwards seems more genuine.  In “Last House on the Left,” the crime itself, and the perpetrators’ glee from it, is given so much attention that we can’t possibly sympathize with these psychos as we do those Swedish goat herders.  Well, at least the criminals in “Last House on the Left” are really interesting to watch, at least compared to the inconsistent robots that are first the girls, then the parents 😕 .   It’s a shame, really, that much of the movie as a whole around these four degenerates is so wildly uneven.  I’m not saying Torë’s revenge in “The Virgin Spring” is earned and justifiable, but for god’s sake, in the case of the parents’ revenge in “Last House on the Left,” you don’t even get the opportunity to consider that possibility.

I’ve said some good and a lot of bad about “Last House on the Left.”  Comparing it to the near-masterpiece that is “The Virgin Spring,” despite plot similarities, is terribly unfair, so putting that aside, is “Last House on the Left” a bad movie?  I say…yes, it’s a bad movie, but certainly one of the more interesting bad movies I’ve seen.  For every scene of police ineptitude meant as comic relief that makes you shake your head and for the absolute bewilderment that you feel as these wholesome parents suddenly become vigilante extraordinaires, there’s also the violence: so terrible to watch but so effective as an exercise in heart-pumping terror, as well as the fascinating characters who commit that violence.  They don’t have anywhere near the depth of the goat herders, and for that matter Craven’s film doesn’t have a shred of the depth of Bergman’s film in general.  But, it works to a degree because it’s meant to repulse, and repulsed I was.  Craven’s film was based on Bergman’s film, and Bergman’s film was based on an ancient ballad.  Either way, the story and concept of man’s instinctual drive towards violent lusts, and the moral justification or lack thereof for vengeance, is as old as humanity itself.  Just as myths and folk tales go through changes in details to reflect the times, two filmmakers, in a time when moral boundaries become less and less distinct, tell the same story, tweaking it to reflect those times.  So, is it merely irony or a telling sign of our increasingly desensitized society that it’s the later, lesser-quality movie that has no simple, moral conclusion all wrapped up for you?

The Virgin Spring: 9/10

Last House on the Left: 6.5/10 


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