To avoid fainting, keep repeating "It's only a movie... It's only a movie...."
A pair of teenage girls encounters a group of brutal, sadistic killers, led by a maniac named Krug.1 After Krug and his deranged band torture, molest, dismember, and kill the girls, they take refuge in the titular home: occupied, as fate would have it, by the parents of their principal victim.
The parents-- one of whom is a doctor-- uncover the identity of their unexpected guests.
Wes Craven announced his presence to the world with this film, which he wrote and directed. He took his inspiration, believe it or not, from Ingmar Bergman's Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring), itself based on an ancient folk ballad. Craven gives the plot new, if repulsive, life, and ushers in an age of boundary-pushing horror and so-called torture porn. I leave individual readers to decide whether this constitutes a good thing. Audiences back in '72 certainly found the film shocking. According to Craven2, distributors had trouble retaining an intact print; local theaters kept returning it edited to meet local standards.
The film begins with a slow-paced first act of the sort that can go a long way towards establishing character. This would require, however, strong actors and dialogue. As it stands, The Last House on the Left moves, at the start, in a slow and painful way.
The girls give their best performances under tortuous pressure; one wonders if they weren't, as has been reported, just genuinely disturbed by the experience. David Hess has moments as Krug. The good, natural moments, alas, clash with several amateurish performances.
The local cops, for example, apparently trained with Keystone Studios. While the movie occasionally mixes horror and humor in a successful and shocking manner (the appropriately inappropriate score, for example), the police segments seem badly conceived and misplaced.
The second act is painful to watch, but its ugliness makes a point about real-world violence that slicker, less controversial films rarely manage, and this carries through to the conclusion. Despite its many inept moments, Craven has conceived his brutal revenge picture with an intelligence rarely found in grindhouse. The execution proves less consistently impressive. Disturbingly realistic scenes sit side-by-side with obviously fake ones.
The more horrific scenes, the humiliation and brutalization of the girls, provoke a very strong visceral response. Much of the film, however, is drawn out and dull, the police scenes badly off-tone, and aspects of the revenge sequences so far-fetched as to be laughable. As with the films it birthed, Last House is more miserable and distasteful than scary or suspenseful. Time and worse horrors have lessened its ability to shock us, and I see little other reason for this film to exist.
The Last House on the Left can be understood best in the context of 1970s exploitation cinema. Films were testing and breaking past boundaries, and those that did so successfully drew a crowd. Like other low-budget horrors and drive-in fare of the era, Last House channeled the shock and gore of the evening news into a kind of art. The film, along with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead, established and popularized the cheap exploitative horror film. Whereas Chain Saw Massacre and Living Dead still have much to recommend them, I regard Last House, despite its substantial influence and occasional intelligent moments, as one of the most overrated films of the 1970s.
Written and directed by Wes Craven.
Sandra Peabody (aka Sandra Cassel) as Mari Collingwood
Lucy Grantham as Phyllis Stone
David Hess as Krug
Fred Lincoln as "Weasel" Podwoski
Jeramie Rain as Sadie
Marc Sheffler as Junior
Richard Towers (aka Gaylord St. James) as Dr. John Collingwood
Cynthia Carr as Estelle Collingwood
With the grotesque and the gruesome dominant elements in early twenty-first century horror, it surprised no one when a remake of Last House appeared in 2009.
Technically, it's a better film.
The remake addresses several problems with the original script. More than mere coincidence takes the villains to the Collingwood home, and several other plot developments have more plausible explanations. The new film dispenses entirely with the idiotic police sequences, and directs the revenge portion of the film intelligently and with suspense. The girls—- who fight back, even, in the original—- now have a degree of backstory, greater depth of character, and a sense of themselves.
The third act also taps potential for the revenge sequences largely ignored in the original. The Collingwoods commit more gruesome acts, while avoiding the implausible traps of the first film.
The film features generally superior performances. Garret Dillahunt, in particular, gives a chilling take on the murderous Krug. The teenage girls also seem believable. I didn't quite buy Clark's Justin, however; he seems far too adjusted for someone raised under these circumstances. I wanted to like Riki Lindholme; I love her work as one-half of Garfunkel and Oates, and she's done decent acting elsewhere. She's not terribly impressive in this film, however, and the fact that she spends much of it topless will not keep anyone from noticing her weaker-than-average performance.
The film features a creepy, if conventional score and some excellent shots. Unlike its predecessor, they built this House with a budget.
The documentary edge of the original, however, has been dulled. In place of the realistic-looking, slightly goofy Collingwoods of the first film, we have an idealized family right out of Hollywood blockbuster. In the final scenes, the film turns laughably Brukheimeresque, with fake-sounding dialogue and an artificial fight scene, a jump through a glass window and a crash through a staircase railing. It's difficult to reconcile these moments with the suspenseful tension we experience moments earlier, or Dr. Collingwood's reactions as he examines the body of his daughter.
These movie conventions also don't quite fit in the same film that features a disturbingly graphic rape sequence.
The 2009 House dispenses with the prolonged humiliations of the girls, but it drags out the rape interminably and amplifies the revenge-fueled violence. And yet, if the ending to this story could not be happy, it certainly comes closer here than in the original. It's a strange blend.
Wes Craven's film has a crude artistic purity and a third act which raises some moral questions—though it hardly lingers on them. The 2009 remake features superior direction and a cleaner Hollywood feel, but it dodges entirely the moral conundrums raised by the revenge picture genre.
And some people might reasonably wonder if a slick Last House on the Left has any reason to exist at all.
Directed by Dennis Iliadis.
Written by Adam Alleca, Carl Ellsworth, and Wes Craven.
Sara Paxton as Mari Collingwood
Martha MacIsaac as Paige
Garret Dillahunt as Krug
Aaron Paul as Francis
Riki Lindhome as Sadie
Spencer Treat Clark as Justin
Tony Goldwyn as Dr. John Collingwood
Monica Potter as Emma Collingwood
The Virgin Spring deals with the horror and emptiness of vengeance and concludes with the father repenting. The first Last House on the Left concludes with an ironic ending in which we see that the parents, in their bloodlust, have become something akin to the killers. The 2009 version concludes by pushing the vengeance-fueled violence further over the top, in a celebration of revenge.
The reader can draw his or her own conclusions about the relative healthiness of each film's approach.
1.The similar names of this film's chief killer and Craven's most infamous villain allegedly have been derived from the name of a bully who harassed him in school.
2. Craven, Wes, commentary. The Last House on the Left. Dir. Wes Craven. Produced by Sean S. Cunningham. 1972. DVD. MGM, 2009.