The Last House on the Left

LastHousePoster

Video Nasty #6 of 72

Year of Release: 1972
Directed by: Wes Craven
Run Time: 84 minutes (Edited down from an original 91)
Budget: $87,000
Alternate Titles:  Had working titles of Krug & Company, Night of Vengeance, and Sex Crime of the Century.  Also briefly saw release in US theaters as Grim Company
UK Censorship Status: Refused a video certificate and passed with 31 secs cut in 2002. Released uncut on 17 March 2008

Of all the trash on the Video Nasties list, three titles in particular stand out for the controversy they caused when they were first released, which was so great that it led to these films still being talked about today, regardless of their quality or even watchability. We’ll get to the other two in due time, but the first one to rise above the general stew of pond scum and sort of enter the mainstream (partially via a mediocre remake in 2009)  just so happens to be the directorial debut of famous horror director Wes Craven, as well as an early film for producer Sean S. Cunningham!
Now Craven and I have a kind of rocky relationship.  When the man is good (The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) he’s damn good.  But when he’s bad (Swamp Thing, The Hills Have Eyes Part II, Cursed) the results usually end up being pretty yawn inducing.  The man’s strengths really lie in knowing what buttons to push at the right times, jump starting horror related phenomenons once or twice a  decade and then riding the wave of popularity and money to produce mediocrity until he can find the next big thing.  (Although this strategy seems to have failed him recently because who the fuck really knows where the horror genre has been headed since about 1999).
This plan of action really started here.  The impetuous for the creation of Last House on the Left was  a desire to produce something so shocking and out there that people would to have to pay attention to it. It would rise above the grindhouse murk simply by being nastier than anything that was out at the time.  Originally conceived as a pornographic rape revenge fantasy full of hardcore sex and graphic violence, an idea that was actually agreed upon by the cast many of which came from the world of  porn, both Craven and Cunningham quickly chickened out and toned the script down considerably.  Well, probably not chickened out so much as came to their damn senses. The world wasn’t really wasn’t ready for graphic  full on rape scenes depicted onscreen at the time (I Spit on Your Grave was still five years away) and who knows what would have happened if they had made their film as is.  As it stood Last House was just the right amount of nasty to create a massive amount of controversy while still raking in the ticket sales to the tune of over 3 million dollars.  Not bad for what’s basically a low-budget rip off of Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring

We begin our film, after a bit of an odd introduction by a friendly postman who also seems like a bit of a dirty old man, by joining one of our main protagonists in a shower (of course).  Mari Collingwood is getting ready for a night on the town with her best friend Phyllis. Phyllis is obviously a kind of bad influence that comes from a less stable home than Mari (the two are shown sharing a bottle of something of Phyllis’s that probably ain’t Pepsi and talking about S-E-X).  Even though Mari’s parents have grave doubts about her friend as well as the concert they’re going to, they let her go because she’s a big girl and there’s not much they can really do about it.
Then we are introduced to our friendly neighborhood scumbags.  We have the leader, Krug (Alexander Hess, one of the few actors in this to have something of a career afterwards) and his dorky wimp of a son Junior. Junior is the only one of these scuzballs that you’ll feel bad for by the way. He might be yellow as a pee stained lemon but his dad did get him hooked on heroin she could control him!  Joining this duo is switch blade wielding Weasel (played by pornographic mainstay Fred Lincoln in his only mainstream role) and his girl, the sadistic Sadie (Jeramie Rain, who would later marry and divorce Richard Dreyfuss).
One thing that makes this movie really work is that before the awful really happens, we get to know both families on equal footing. It’s not just some random psychos that come out of nowhere, we get to learn their dynamics and pecking order pretty well. Probably even better than we do Mari’s family, who actually kind of get short shrift!
They also tend to be more interesting characters as well, as Mari and Phyllis are presented as pretty typical teenagers, which was kind of the point, I think. It was supposed to give you a “this could happen to anybody” vibe.  Or maybe Craven didn’t quite know how to write for typical teenage girls, I don’t know.
The girls end up cruising for weed after the concert and stumble onto the group’s hideout where they’re crashing after escaping from jail. (The news report the girls listen to takes special care to mention that Sadie kicked a dog to death during the breakout!)  Before you can say “drugs are bad” the girls are locked in the trunk of the group’s car and taken out to the woods to be mentally and physically abused by everyone except Junior, who really just wants his next fix.
This is, of course, where the movie first starts to earn its notoriety.  Shits hard to watch, man.  This is a kind of horrific that hadn’t been seen in (American) cinema’s yet.  This wasn’t Frankenstein’s monster menacing villagers or Dracula seducing young virgins, this was something very close to reality.  This is awful shit that really happens and now it was shoved right in the face of anyone that dared to buy a ticket.  It was a remarkably daring thing to do, and it ushered in a new era in horror film making, for better or worse.

The first half of the movie is basically a grim exercise in how far you could go on film before both girls are finally murdered and the scumbags head off to find a place to spend the night at what, irony of ironies, turns out to be Mari’s parent’s house.  This starts the second half, which almost feels like a totally different film.  Now instead of a nasty rape/torture film, we get an action packed home invasion movie with Mari’s parents taking out each bad guy one by one, ending with what’s possibly the first use of a chainsaw as a weapon in a horror movie!  Man, this film is full of firsts, isn’t it?  We also get the death of poor Junior, who always did what his dad told him, even to the bitter end…

Last House on the Left is a grimy and uncomfortable film, but it’s really not half as bad as its reputation makes it out to be. For one, the horror of the girl’s situation is undermined by a couple of comic relief cops that feel like they’ve been dropped in from a Dukes of Hazzard type TV show!  I’m not quite sure what the rather lengthy scenes featuring these characters is supposed to serve but they get almost as much screen time as anybody else! There’s a scene in the middle where they’re trying to hitch a ride on a chicken truck that feels like it goes on forever (although it’s notable because their incompetence gets the girls murdered!)
There’s also the matter of the rather inappropriate soundtrack, featuring some soothing acoustic guitar during a rape scene and a goofy country song (performed by the guy that plays Krug!) that plays when the bad guys are heading off to do nasty things to two innocent girls!   I get that it might be to contrast things by playing inappropriate music during heavy scenes but Craven wasn’t a good enough filmmaker yet to pull this off, and it just ends up being weird.
Still, even with its flaws Last House ends up being quite a nasty little film and a good representation of where America was at the time. This wasn’t the optimistic hopeful hippy filled world of the 1960’s, this was the 70’s and things had changed dramatically. Kennedy was dead and villages were being burned in Vietnam, a war that seemed like it was never going to end. Two years before, four college kid were murdered by National Guardsmen at Kent State University.  The ugliness onscreen mirrored the ugliness of the real world, which might be why the film struck such a nerve. We were staring our own brutality right in its ugly face.

Watch the trailer here

Random Things

  • The kid that gets his balloon popped by Krug is Wes Craven’s own son Johnathan.
  • It’s been awhile since I’ve watched Virgin Spring (Quite a few years since my obsession with Bergman) but I can still remember the rape scene in that movie like I saw it yesterday, it’s that disturbing. The major rape scene in Last House is almost a carbon copy of that one!
  • The film’s tagline has also strangely endured. “Just keep telling yourself, “It’s only a movie! It’s only a movie!'” was taken and used for quite a few films over the years and still gets parodied every so often.
  • I hope my write up did this film justice. You could publish a whole book about the making and marketing of this thing as well as the controversy its stirred up since its release.  In fact, people have!
  • It’s interesting to compare this to Bay of Blood, which has more death but the killings happen quickly to characters that are unpleasant anyways.  Last House lingers on the lengthy demise of two people that really didn’t deserve it, and is much harder to watch, even if the Craven was no Bava (and he never would be).

Next Time: The Man from Deep River

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4 comments

    • kurdt13

      I’m guessing it probably would have been something like I Spit on Your Grave a good five years before that happened, a movie that took the rape/revenge film to new and rather sickening heights. Did you know that Roger Ebert initially defended Last House? Which is kind of interesting since he was totally sickened by Grave.

      • Fringe Void

        I don’t think I knew that. Weird, I’ve always considered I Spit on Your Grave to be the better of the two. It’s not as rough around the edges.

        While we’re on the subject of “rape and revenge” films, were Ms. 45 or Thriller: A Cruel Picture video nasties? Also, I’ve read about a hardcore exploitation flick from 1973 called Forced Entry (not to be confused with the non-pornographic remake from ’75) where a Vietnam War vet rapes random women and slits their throats that’s apparently fairly disturbing. Though, I’m still unsure if there’s a revenge aspect to it.

  1. kurdt13

    Yeah, Grave also doesn’t have the annoying comic relief characters either,or the weird soundtrack, which makes it more relentlessly disturbing.
    Nope! It’s odd trying to figure out why certain films are on this list and others aren’t. Why, for instance, wasn’t Craven’s Hills Have Eyes prosecuted? Or Forced Entry, which I haven’t seen but I’ve read is pretty sick.

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