The Spring, Defiled:
Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring and Wes Craven's Last House on the Left
Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.
Jacques Derrida, "Positions"
In 1972, Cries and Whispers, Ingmar Bergman's thirty-fourth film, was released to universal acclaim, followed by a foreign-language Academy Award. The same year, Wes Craven, a neophyte, made The Last House on the Left, a picture that even today, after the near disappearance of drive-ins, can be found in selected video stores only under the category "Drive-In Horror." If merely for this utter coincidence, the two names would never meet on the same page of film history. But they do, for, incredibly, The Last House on the Left is a remake of The Virgin Spring, a film Bergman had made thirteen years earlier.
This fact, while widely publicized in film literature from Gerald Mast's Short History of the Movies to popular video guides, goes unannounced in The Last House on the Left . Instead the legend reads, "The events you are about to witness are true. Names and locations have been changed to protect those individuals still living."
Why deceive us? Or is it really a deception? In the realm of doubling visions and mutating images, which is precisely what the culture that favors the remake should be, the question, Why wouldn't a filmmaker admit to remaking a classic? could be only another way of phrasing the questions, Why remake classics at all? and What is the remake?
The remake is not a genre, nor is it a kind of film. It is neither a newly filmed old script nor a new script based on an old one. It is nothing but a film based on another film that is itself a system of narrative and cinematic properties.
As such, the remake can be seen among aesthetic expressions built on reinterpretation and engaged in a "trialogue" with nature and a culture
other than their own. But unlike the stage production of a play or the film adaptation of a literary work, the remake interprets the work of the same medium and thus bares its own secondariness. It skips the act of meta-aesthetic transition in which, according to the widely accepted modernist prejudice, originality begins. This, of course, is what the remake should be praised rather than blamed for. It provides us with countless clues to the medium, the culture, and ourselves that would be eclipsed by the study of what the original material has gained or lost in passage from one medium to another.
Indeed, Hamlet and Medea would not be classics had they not offered a vast scope of options for interpretation. We have seen Hamlet-poets and Hamlet-impotents, Hamlet-soldiers and Hamlet-nerds, Hamlet-rebels and Hamlet-fascists. In Shakespeare's play, theater sees a literary "empty space" (to use Peter Brook's famous formula) to be filled with a new theatrical content, and the magic of this space is that its shape, size, and texture seldom say no to new meanings. But plays are intended to be reinterpreted on stage. Films are not made to serve as sources for other films, just as books are not written to be rewritten, unless by Pierre Menard, the father of all remakes, who resolved to compose Don Quixote —not just "another Don Quixote, " but "the Don Quixote "—as if it had never been done before.
The gap between the worlds of the remake and other aesthetic translations is not as technological as it is cultural. Stage and screen adaptation existed from the beginning of their respective arts. The remake has become the most explicit gesture of a culture that finds its psyche in the Other and cannot express itself through anything but a quote. In this culture's tired eyes, life does not imitate art—art has replaced life. Michelangelo and Fellini, Bach and Picasso are there, just as the air and the trees, and there is no pretending otherwise. Trying to avoid Oedipus when telling a story of a man who tried to avoid his fate would be as senseless today as setting up a camera in a bathroom and dismissing Hitchcock's eye in the drain. Culture, that Ortega y Gasset's window separating an artist from the garden, has become a garden of its own, and its flora, all those fleurs du mal, leaves of grass, and rose tattoos beat the natural vegetation. Similarly, The Virgin Spring is as "real" for the postmodern imagination as any other spring, and Wes Craven is as telling as he is teasing when he suggests that his film is based on "a true story."
This story is not true, and not only because it is too implausible and contrived to seem real. The Last House on the Left is in fact an uncredited remake ("a rip-off," according to Leonard Maltin ) of The Virgin Spring, and the first evidence it offers to us is, clearly, the narrative.
Stripped of all imagery and magic down to an austere plot, the Last House narrative is, in fact, closer to its source than those of such admitted remakes as Scarface (1932, 1983), Cat People (1942, 1982) and The Fly (1958, 1986).
In both films, an innocent teenage girl, the only child of loving parents, leaves home for a weekend excursion, accompanied by a shrewd confidante. On the road, she is brutally raped and murdered by a gang of criminals. (In The Last House on the Left, the girlfriend is similarly attacked and killed, providing one of the few notable deviations from the original). Fleeing the scene of the crime, the killers stumble upon their victim's home and stay overnight (a coincidence equally unmotivated in both scenarios) only to meet a merciless retribution from the girl's father.
If this is a story of crime and punishment, then neither film is about its story. Nor is it about the young, the girls on whom each picture centers briefly only to liquidate them and move on. Here the narrative parallels between films end.
As if it were a western, the black-and-white Virgin Spring is ruled by dichotomy. It juxtaposes the virgin, Catholic, and blonde Karin, who is killed on her way to mass, with the pregnant, pagan, and brunette Ingeri, who survives to lament and possibly to convert. Preoccupied with moral (and other) dilemmas, Bergman gives his pain and lens to the father, who is played by the then-thirty-year-old Max von Sydow as an ascetic warrior undergoing a tremendous internal turmoil. He is torn between the pagan God he has renounced and the Christian God he does not understand. The killers are godless, but so is the father's eye-for-an-eye revenge. A hero of a classical tragedy, seen through a prism of modern culture—Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Camus—he kills because the God he has chosen has not only left him but has also left him no choice. Ultimately, The Virgin Spring becomes a story of a shattered faith redeemed in repentance.
In The Last House on the Left, Dr. Collingwood, played by the unforgettably bland Gaylord St. James, is all but faceless compared to his "paternal" model. He also takes over the initiative in the end, yet not because his self is tragically conflicted but because it is his turn to be violent. Violence in Wes Craven's films is the measure of all things; it is the last "means of communication" left for his characters to respond to the cruelty of the others and the world. Rape and murder and then revenge—these climactic eruptions of violence, so crumpled and clumsy in The Virgin Spring that the attackers and not the victims seem to be suffering from the mess—are what The Last House on the Left dwells on. Not off to the church and not "after the rainbow," as the song on the sound track suggests—the girl is after a rock band called "Blood Lust," and the film insinuates that the director made it to the concert while his heroine didn't. Unlike moralist Bergman, for whom any savagery is senseless, the post-Vietnam "immoralist" Craven provides the world's violence with a cause as appalling as its absence in The Virgin Spring: "We're gonna have some fun," promises the Mansonesque killer before he rapes. Conversely, where Bergman takes great pains to establish motives for the father's revenge, Craven throws his doctor into a
whirlpool of unwarranted cruelty and gives him a hand only when it comes to choosing a weapon simply because there is nothing else left for him to do.
Just as The Virgin Spring was a tale of faith, The Last House on the Left becomes a tale of havoc. Order returns at the end of The Virgin Spring; it never does at the end of The Last House . But isn't it the incentive of every remake to tell the same story with a different meaning?
The otherness of the meaning, of course, is visible only to the informed. Clearly, one must be familiar with the original to understand what the remake alludes, or bids adieu, to. Like one of those tricky airport billboards that reads "Welcome" or "Have a Good Flight," depending on the passenger's direction, the remake says one thing when read as an original work and another when seen in retrospect, through the lens of its source.
The Last House is as full of hidden (and not so hidden), playful (and straight-faced) allusions to its prototype as its landscape is full of springs. Just like the coquettish blonde Karin, who insisted on the white Sunday dress that was a bit too immodest for a medieval Swedish maid, the coquettish blonde Mary Collingwood argues with her parents about clothing. She puts on an outfit to which her father remarks, "What, no bra?! You can see nipples!" propelling a lengthy discussion on "tits." Later, the delinquent kid—or "little toad," as his fugitive parent refers to him—says he wants to be a frog. The character does not mean what Wes Craven does: in The Virgin Spring, a toad, squashed by the ill-natured Ingeri into a loaf of bread, is found by the boy. Having latently recognized himself in the amphibian, the urchin repents, just as his offspring in 1972 will. Neither one lives to see the end of his film.
Here, at the stage of narrative interaction, many remakes would stop. But what would do in the screenwriter's heaven of Hollywood mainstream, where remaking a film is often synonymous to retelling the story, was not good enough for Wes Craven, a pioneer of rediscovery and a rebel with a cause to dare the guru of European film auteur.
If The Virgin Spring were a tapestry it would be made of canvas, the coarseness of which would only be highlighted by its artist's translucent style. Canvas and wood are two basic materials this universe is made of. Fire and water are two elements that combat one another here for man's soul. Sven Nykvist's camera, solemnly frontal, creates an image as pure and minimalist as the world it depicts. This world does not know any middle ground, just as its inhabitants are unaware of compromise. If it's raining here, watch for the Deluge; if it's hurting, await a bloodshed. In this world, the woods are teeming with ravens and goblins. The ravens caw; the goblins see "three dead men riding north"; both prophesy ill. Everything is an omen here,
and nature speaks to man. Pagan Ingeri begs Karin to turn back, for "the forest is so black." Karin doesn't listen, and pays for it.
There is nothing this world values more than a ritual. A film whose legendary time spans from dawn to dawn, The Virgin Spring begins with Ingeri starting a fire while conjuring up the god Odin and ends with the father's invocation of the Lord. In between, there is one of the most startling film rituals ever: the father's sacred cleansing bath before the sacrificial killing. (See figure 20.) The father wants to be Christian, and this world—pagan, primitive, fossil—does not make it easy for him. Another word for this world would be mythic, which seems to entirely match with Bergman's conception, inspired, according to the opening credit, by the fourteenth-century Swedish legend. In the realm of myth, all dimensions of The Virgin Spring —thematic and formal—coincide and intersect in an ultimately tuneful order.
The remake's bond with cultural mythology is as solid as it is basic. What a serious, conscious remaker sees in the source film is an individual expression of the myth to be remade. From the narrative, through the filmic prop-
erties, to the underlying cultural myth lies the trajectory of any remake that is of interest to thinkers and not just to financiers.
Of course, there are myths, and then, there are myths. The kind of myth-making in which the remake is involved is "low" and popular, not "high" and classical. But what is the difference? What is the difference between Orestes and James Bond? Both are great spokesmen for their times. Both are serial heroes. Neither can breathe outside the genre structure.
There was nothing that popular culture, this spoiled and prodigal offspring of romanticism, would seize more eagerly from its classical parent than the notion of genre: genre as a formula and genre as a model channel, or conductor, for myth. The convenient beauty of the genre is that its formulaic and mythical qualities are not discrepant. Genre in fact does in culture what no individual genius could: it formulates myths.
This is why most remakes are genre films. The self-conscious, referential culture of the remake, constantly in search of codes, finds a dual code in the genre film to make over: the code of the individual source and the code of its genre. (Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, for example, was not only a remake of J. Lee Thompson's picture but also of the thriller formula as a whole.) Even more significantly, genres do for remakers what sieves did for gold miners: they sort and retain, they distill the myths of the time.
When the myth of a genre (the frontier naïveté of the western, or the apocalyptic dread of the disaster film) does not match the myth of the time, the genre fades away. For the same reason some ideally formulaic genre offerings fade away untapped by remakers (the western in the 1980s, the "invasion film" after the end of the cold war).
But if the secret of a successful remake is chiefly in finding a perfect match between the genre and the epoch (which is true about many remakes, all based on genre films), this secret was of no use for Wes Craven in remaking The Virgin Spring, a film without a genre. Yet Craven, a director dressed to head the A list of B moviemaking, knew perfectly well what he was doing when he picked one of the most mythical films ever as his prototype. He found exactly what he wanted: a different kind of myth, a modernist myth, unscratched by popular culture. In Bergman's pure, distilled, and culturally virgin myth, Craven had a perfect spring to defile.
What in 1959 was the fourteenth century, becomes 1972 in 1972. And what in fourteenth-century Sweden was primeval forest, the realm of basic elements and instincts, in 1972 becomes an American suburb. (See figure 21.) Typically peaceful and sweet, typically boring and dull, typically middle class, it is decorated with integrally standard facades (on the outside) and requisitely moderate "abstract" prints (on the inside). Here, what looks like wood is actually Formica; what could be canvas is really nylon.
Yet Craven does not reduce the poetry of myth to mythless prose. Rather,
he embarks on a dimension no less mythological than Bergman's, but with different kinds of myths.
Suburbia, the citadel of normality in American culture, is where the myth of family values found refuge from society's nervous breakdown. An isolationist haven (ours is the last house on the left, which also could be the first house on the-right ), the suburb is a mutation of urban and rural mythologies. Neither city nor country, it appropriates (in the collective subconscious of its inhabitants) the best and the safest of both.
Never a paradise, but always a target, the suburb is a perfect setting for the bizarre, more so against the backdrop of nauseating and often fake familial serenity. In the 1950s, the suburb was the most sacred site that the rootless body snatchers could possibly invade; its invasion, therefore, was the scariest. In the early 1980s, the suburb, an ideal metaphor for neocon-servatist mentality, returned as a favorite location for science fiction and horror films, a scene most appropriate for the invasion of alien (Steven Spielberg's E.T. ) or supernatural (Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist ) forces. A few years later, David Lynch, the poet of provincial void, romanticized suburban evil by demolishing the suburban myth in Blue Velvet (1986).
The Last House on the Left, with a rock sound track that sounds as if it were
borrowed from Easy Rider (1969), is one of the first ventures into the renovated, postradical myth of the 1970s. It is also one of the first reactions to the defeat of the 1960s, coming from inside the generation that lost. A film with plenty of violence, it is also a film without suspense. It is not meant to frighten us or in any way involve us emotionally—something suspense cannot do without. A surgeon rather than a lyricist, Craven, who will return to suburbia in the more baroque but less personal Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), gives us nobody to identify with and maintains his own distance. What he sees is a society that has fallen asleep (or was put to sleep), a desensitized society to which Philip Kaufman in 1978 will find a perfect metaphor in the 1950s' Invasion of the Body Snatchers . This society is crushed here by the hippielike killers and, even more so, by its own chain-saw defense. That this chain saw belongs to another story and a different, "antisuburban" myth is precisely what Last House on the Left is about.
Hitchcock was only kidding when he began Psycho with a tale of theft that led nowhere. Craven's play is less elegant but more candid. In the opening, he also promises a different kind of movie, a "sweet sixteen" melodrama, with a fruity birthday cake, cute neighbors, and the indispensable generation gap, expressed in conflicting approaches to brassieres. These promises are as vain as they are essential for suburban utopia, absurdly solid and solidly absurd.
The wishful destruction crushes this sleepy world with a savage energy that makes Bergman's violence look like figure skating, just as Craven's handheld camera and jerky editing make Bergman's frontal grandeur look like an old master's frescos. When Mary's mother, a housewife with facial features all but washed out, bites off the assailant's penis, there can be no mistake: something went awry in this world. When Mary's father, who looks like the Reverend Billy Graham, splatters the rapist's brains all over his tacky furniture we know sweet suburbia is no more. Violent frenzy has invaded the myth of normality as it took over intellect in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971). Similarly, George Romero's crazed zombies snatched the bodies of loyal citizens.
In 1959, Ingmar Bergman made a film about a tragedy that inevitably accompanies the shift of mythologies, the passage of cultures. So, in 1972, did Wes Craven. Only his is a kind of tragedy that could be written not by Shakespeare but by Shakespeare's Fool: ruthlessly cynical and painfully funny.
As a postmodern artist has no other way to "interview" reality but through an interpreter of another culture, it is hard to imagine a remake made within the same cultural tier as the original. The cultures must vary, either in time, as is the case in The Thing (1951, 1982), The Fly (1958, 1986), Cape Fear (1962, 1992), and most other notable remakes, or in space, as it hap-
pens between Yojimbo (1961, Japan) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Italy), Seven Samurai (1954, Japan), The Magnificent Seven (1960, USA), and even George Cukor's Adam's Rib (1949, USA) and its Bulgarian remake (1956), and Rambo's First Blood (1982) and the Russian response to it, currently in production, in which an Afghan war vet comes out of his drunken oblivion to fight the evil of the world. In any case, the remake remains a metacultural medium that has to cross borders, temporal or spatial, in order to connect.
The Last House on the Left at least tripled the shift. It switched from the 1950s to the 1970s, from European to American sensibility and, last but not least, from a militant, genreless auteurism to an excessively personal style of a B slasher movie before the genre went mainstream. Wes Craven's film met its prototype and interlocutor on the terrain of myth and proved that only mythless times will not be remade. If only one could imagine times like that. And if only one could believe that times like that deserved a remake.