The Last House on the Left (1972)


The Last House on the Left is one of those movies that has had staying power on reputation alone.  It does have a number of scenes that are quite disturbing and verge on the unwatchable, but some of it is due to bad attempts at humor, terrible pacing and all-around bad acting.  It is known as one of the more disturbing exploitation films, and for good reason, but this is undercut by hamfisted attempts at comedy and terrible musical cues. 

Wes Craven's debut as a director was originally intended to be a hardcore pornographic film.  It baffles as to why that would have even been considered, due to the subject matter, which is largely a remake of Ingmar Bergman's movie Virgin Spring.  There is a particular genre of older adult films called "roughies," in which the situations simulated rape (with the woman supposedly getting off on it, of course), but I can't even see that kind of idea applying here.  It's a rape and revenge film which, with its grainy 16mm film stock, looks and feels like a snuff film.  Though they most likely do not exist, I could see The Last House on the Left being the movie that could have started such a rumor.  There seems nowhere that any actual pornographic sex (i.e., something that a person could get off on) could be presented here, and I would definitely not want to share a theater with someone who got off on what's in the rest of the movie.

That said, The Last House on the Left is probably more effective simply because of its lack of style.  Craven's directing skills at this point are pretty much non-existent, and there is a huge jump in technique from this to The Hills Have Eyes five years later.  It's difficult to fathom that this is the same Wes Craven responsible a number of classic horror films later on.  Still, though it's hard for me to say I actually like the film, I have to admire it for achieving what it sets out to do, which is shock an otherwise unexpecting audience. 

Mari (Sandra Peabody) has just turned 17.  She and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) head into New York to see a concert and, on the way, try to find somewhere to score some weed.  Unfortunately, the person they ask is Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler), the son of escaped convict Krug Stillo (David Hess).  It turns out that his gang, including partners Weasel Podowski (Fred J. Lincoln) and Sadie (Jeramie Rain), have other plans for the girls.  After a night of torture and rape the girls are thrown into the back of Stillo's Cadillac as they head for Canada.

The car happens to stall near Mari's home and, when they open the trunk, the girls try to escape.  Unfortunately, the attempt fails, and after another session of humiliation they are both murdered.  However, with no place to go, the gang unwittingly stays for the night with Mari's parents John (Richard Towers) and Estelle Collingwood (Cynthia Carr).  The parents soon realize what has happened to their missing daughter and aim to make sure that Krug's gang never leaves their house alive. 

The scenes in the forest where the girls are murdered and where the parents take their revenge are the most effective, largely because the music fits the tone of what is going on, with synthesizer stabs matching the thrusts of assailants' knives and discordant tones matching the action.  The blank looks on the faces of Krug, Sadie and Weasel as they do what they do is actually a bit of good acting and, truthfully, David Hess does a great job with the character of Krug.  A lot of the acting is amateurish to say the best, but he stands out as a truly frightening character. 

The problem is Hess also did most of the soundtrack.  That should not be a bad thing, since he had close to two decades in the business by this time and his songs are actually good to great, but many of them do not match what is happening on the screen.  There are jaunty banjo tunes at times where there should be music to raise the tension, and whether or not the upbeat "Krug's Theme" was supposed to be ironic - making it sound like the band of rapists and murderers were happy-go-lucky miscreants - is questionable.  Since there were intense themes used when things got really dark, I have no idea why these other times it was used wrong.  I am all for using happy music to juxtapose against a violent or dark scene, but it has to be done in a way that works.

The other major difficulty I had with the movie was that I couldn't tell if Craven conceived this as a dark comedy, a horror film or if he had two different movies in mind (one possibly being a slapstick porno) and then jammed them together.  There is a host of comedic banter between the bad guys at the beginning before they capture the girls, and the description of their crimes on a news report are ridiculously over the top.  On top of that there are bumbling small-town cops that, after finding out the car they dismissed earlier belongs to the escaped felons, head back to warn the Collingwoods, only to have their vehicle break down because the deputy forgot to fill it with gas.  The rest of their journey is on foot and filled with comedic events as they try desperately to get a ride.  The very first lines in the film are the postman saying how he thinks Mari is about the prettiest little piece (keep in mind, the character is supposed to be 17) that he's ever seen.  Add that to the Hee-Haw style banjo music and one can't begin to wonder if anyone bothered to watch the dailies or how much weed Craven was smoking in the editing room. 

I know this movie has so much written about it and has a history in both horror and exploitation.  If one likes these genres then I am sure there will be some interest in The Last House on the Left.  I really can't say enjoyment, because the bulk of the movie is not there to enjoy, but rather endure, and the elements that are the most disturbing are undoubtedly so.  It's important to remember that the movie is also the product of someone putting their toe into the movie making business, and someone who at this time had little knowledge of how to put together a comprehensible film.  It's a wonder what he got out of it has endured so long.

The Last House on the Left (1972)
Time: 84 minutes
Starring: Sandra Peabody, Linda Grantham, David Hess, Fred J. Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Richard Tower, Cynthia Carr
Director: Wes Craven 






 

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