The tidal wave of '70s and '80s genre film remakes that started up in the early years of this decade has produced works of wildly varying quality, from indefensibly wretched (The Hitcher) to no better than absolutely necessary (The Hills Have Eyes) to unexpectedly good (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The only watermark yet to hit was one that I, at least, never really expected to see passed, but here we have a new version of The Last House on the Left that is not just a good horror movie - rare enough nowadays - but markedly better than the original.

Or shall I say, rather, the second original. Wes Craven's 1972 directorial debut was an admitted, though uncredited remake of, get this, an Ingmar Bergman movie, 1960's The Virgin Spring. Other than the obvious debt Hostel owes to Of a Thousand Delights, this makes Last House the only modern splatter film with roots in the 1960's European arthouse, which is likely because most splatter fans have probably never heard of Bergman - or Europe - while most Bergman fans probably regard splatter movies as a genre only slightly less infamous than kiddie porn snuff films. Logically, you'd expect that it would be exactly the opposite, that horror directors would be hellbent on raiding art films for plots, secure in the knowledge that their target audience would have no clue of the wanton thievery going on. It should not take that much imagination to turn The Seventh Seal into a hard-R gorefest.

In all cases, the plot involves the maiden daughter of loving, protective parents who runs afoul of some vicious locals who savagely rape her, leaving her for dead in the woods. When a storm forces the evil men to seek shelter, the only place they can find on short notice is the parents' home, where they act just strange enough that the parents realise something very wrong is going on; from there it's not too hard for them to deduce what happened. Outraged to their very core, these good and moral people then take bloody revenge on the men. The only really substantial difference between the new film and its predecessors is that the daughter is not actually killed in this case; her death was the very point of the spiritually transcendent Virgin Spring, while Craven used it mostly as a means to hammer away at the audience with the unremitting nastiness that has made his film one of the most notorious works of brutality in cinema history. I cannot come up with any explanation for the change other than the modern vogue for "safe" horror, though the new Last House is quite savage enough whether the girl lives or no.

The 1972 film unquestionably earns its wicked reputation, and it is certainly one of the most influential works in the development of all the hyper-nihilistic horror that followed. It is also not very good, thought it lays all the foundations for Craven's next film and perhaps his best, the original Hills Have Eyes. The problem with Last House is that it's not entirely sure how brutal it wants to be: some moments, especially the rape sequence, are almost indefensibly savage, yet they bunch up against what's just about the most idiotic comic relief in splatter history, in the form of two bumbling cops. Later films in the '70s would plumb the psychic scars of post-Vietnam America with terrifying intensity, but Craven's film is just clumsily cruel.

The chief change in the new version is that director Dennis Iliadis and writers Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth aren't making a Grand Guignol flick, like Craven arguably was doing in '72 and the legions of torture pornographers are clearly doing to this day. First and above all, their film is about the dear cost of violence. The opening scene of the film features our main killer, Krug (Garrett Dillahunt - and if his presence isn't enough of a tip-off that the film has a bit more brain than your average thriller, I can't think of what would be) escaping from a police car with the aid of his thuggish hangers-on, and strangling the cop who'd been snarking at him. This is one of the least glamorous deaths in a gore movie in recent memory, mostly because strangling is an essentially bloodless form of murder; it's also just about the most sickening to watch.

That's it for a while, as the film switches over to the Collingwoods, just arrived at their backwoods cabin for a vacation: dad John (Tony Goldwyn), mom Emma (Monica Potter) and teenager Mari (Sara Paxton). Actual characters are rare enough in a horror film that I always get a thrill when they appear, and the Collingwoods are some of the most fleshed-out protagonists in any film like this from the last decade. They have a dead son, Ben; they have quietly implied marital problems that seem to go beyond the obvious "we have a dead kid" blues. The film takes some care to make us understand who these people are before throwing them into the bowels of Hell: and they are not unlike us.

This focus pays dividends in the rape sequence, which is much less tawdry than the original, and much more harrowing. For the most part, the camera focuses always on Mari's face, sometimes cutting to the killers' hands on her body; it's much less focused on the savagery of the act than on the girls' psychological torment. It helps that Paxton (doing her own stunts) is absolutely convincing in every frame, and the result of all this is one of the most nightmarishly powerful moments of movie violence I've seen in a while.

The justification for this kind of thing is wildly subjective, as art always ought to be: my oft-repeated position is that a touch of hideously unpleasant brutality is good for the movies. It's easy to become complacent in the face of violence; we hear of death and rape and murder and torture in the world, and it seems very matter-of-fact. Anytime a film can rub the viewer's nose in the reality of those things, and make them seem incredibly horrible and not at all cool, I'm absolutely all for it. The new Last House does that tremendously well.

Then comes the ending. Which is done very well, by all means; when the film is good, it is very good, and when it is bad, it's still good enough. But from almost exactly the moment that John and Emma figure out who their new houseguests are, the film takes a precipitous tumble from the rawness of the middle sequence, and becomes a typical, though technically accomplished revenge thriller. For the most part, it's clear that the killings take a lot out of the Collingwoods, physically and emotionally, and I cheer the movie that understands that actually snuffing the life out of a human body isn't meant to be a stylish affair. At the same time, the film clearly wants us to get a vicarious kick out of seeing our heroes take matters into their own hands. It's a rough blend at times, and it implodes in the very climax of the movie: the final death is an outlandish, idotic sop to the bloodthirsty that I won't spoil, though the film's trailer already gave it away. It's the one completely sour note in a movie that has already gone a touch off-key in the endgame.

Still, there's no denying that Last House is a remarkably un-fun horror movie, much likelier to make the audience feel sick than to clap and laugh. That is praise, I assure you: any film that wants to traffic in human depravity has an obligation to make you feel it. And oh, yes, I did feel it.