Review by Teddy Blanks
Posted on 10 October 2006
Source Orion VHS
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, the director and producer of this gritty post-hippie slasher, are responsible, respectively and separately, for the two most iconic and longest running horror franchises in Hollywood. There is no supernatural Freddy or Jason in Last House on the Left, Craven’s debut feature. But in it he immediately and crudely establishes the themes — the temptations and risks of teenage sexuality and drug use, the loss of innocence and the preservation of the status quo — that would dominate his career, and serve as the template for a genre he would popularize. These early scenes are overt to the point of being laughable: there is a shot of a naked teenage girl in the shower, blurred by the glass. This girl, Mari Collingwood, emerges to chat with her parents before she heads out for a concert (for a band called Bloodlust) in the big city. Her dad asks, “hey, no bra?” and when she replies declaring that the way her generation deals with “tits” is better than the way her parents’ generation does, he says “what’s this tits business?” Mari meets up with a friend, who her mother regards as a bad influence, and they talk excitedly about their budding sexuality and wonder what it would be like to “make it with Bloodlust.” Because we now know the formula so well — that is, sexual-activity-leads-to-imminent-danger — it is clear from the start that Mari will be killed.
The plot is brain-dead simple: the girls try to score some ‘grass’ at the concert, as a result are kidnapped by a gang of escaped convicts who beat and rape them, drag them out to the woods for more humiliation, and kill them there. When the gang heads to the house nearest to their broken-down getaway car to lay low, the unassuming married couple that lives in it happens to be Mari’s parents. Quickly realizing the situation, they proceed to take revenge on their daughter’s killers, murdering each one. This story, loosely based on Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, is a transitory concern for Craven. He is more interested in the psychological implications of killing, which are more complex here than in any of his later, more tightly constructed pictures. In the film’s second set of murders — somehow more disturbing and bizarre than its first — the parents set up elaborate Home Alone-style booby traps, the mother seduces one of the killers only to bite his dick off, and the father chases the gang’s leader around the house with a chainsaw in an action that anticipates Tobe Hooper’s seminal horror film.
It’s difficult to know how to judge Last House on the Left. While many elements, such as the bumbling backwoods police duo and the innocent parents preparing their daughter’s 17th birthday cake, reprise the camp of the film’s opening, most of the torture and killing scenes have a tough realism. The soundtrack, all late 60s folk and classic rock, could be from Love Story or The Graduate. But this is only sometimes as funny as it sounds; the juxtaposition of a dirty, beaten teenager with the sounds of sensitive guitar balladry can be eerily poignant. Craven falters slightly in giving us villains we can’t really be afraid of. The ravenous psychopaths are introduced to us by way of a radio bulletin, heard by the girls in the car on the way to the concert. Their crimes, which include “child molesting, peeping tom-ism,” and “the slaying of a priest and two nuns,” seem to be merely the most evil ones Craven could come up with. Top it off with Krug (not Krueger), the leader of the gang, who has hooked his son on heroin so that Junior may better “control his life,” and you have a group of characters with no particular background or motivation other than being crazy and violent.
Why did Craven choose to make one of the killers female? Sadie, who once calls herself a dyke, is ‘one of the boys’ in the sickest way. She rejoices in the torture and rape of Mary and her friend, as does Krug and the rest of the gang. (Junior is alone in feeling any remorse for the girls—his plight is the film’s most multi-dimensional.) Is Sadie there just to offset the inherent misogyny in spending the bulk of the film’s second act with the grueling defilement and death of two young girls? Craven probably thinks: If a woman is present and participating, the killings become less male. The villains no longer hate women; they hate people. They are universally “evil.” But Sadie, like the other villains, is so bluntly drawn she can’t help but be anything other than a stand-in for another evil man, delighting in the other men’s monstrous behavior.
The drawn-out killing scenes, which are admittedly difficult to sit through, have elicited Last House on the Left comparisons to John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, another cheap-looking movie whose predominant obsession is filth rather than gore. Of the two films, though, Waters’ appears rougher, less interested with storytelling, more concerned with pointing a camera at its obsession and showing it to us, ad nauseam. Craven at least reveals a desire to master some of the basic tenets (character development, pacing) of moviemaking, and even creates a few tense, gripping moments that come more from good direction than from how disgusting whatever he’s showing us is. When, after stabbing one of the girls in the back, the killer says, “how’s your back baby?” Craven goes in close, and she spits blood in her assaulter’s face. It’s brutal.
Last House on the Left was a sleeper hit for its shock value; its unflinching, documentary-style spree of torture, rape, and murder was something audiences hadn’t seen before. But it also incited a heap of angry criticism, with many calling the film sadistic and perverse. Other than Larry Clark’s Kids, I can’t think of another film that spends so much time reveling in its debauchery, feigning an after-school-special morality to get out of jail free. After thirty-plus years and a recent resurgence of relentlessly explicit violence in horror, this little picture still shocks, disgusts, and disturbs, and I guess that was the point. Why, then, are we not allowed to delight in its mayhem as we might now with, say, Hostel or Saw? Well, we are, but only in the end. The revenge sequence, no more or less violent than the original killings, delivers real, fascinating terror—we’re into it. But the death of the girls — painfully long, slow, and depressing — is cinematic dead weight. We can’t take our eyes off of it, but it doesn’t make us jump out of our seats, either.
This contradiction, Craven’s insistence upon using one sequence to disgust and horrify and another to entertain and terrify, is what makes Last House on the Left so weird. We are left feeling a combination of campy delight, nervous excitement, and abhorrent shame. The movie is, at the same time, a moral disgrace, a horror masterpiece, shabbily made, and brilliantly manipulative.