The Last House on the Left (1972)
Directed by Wes Craven
Midnight: Friday (November 16) and Saturday (November 17)
Released in 1972, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was one of the first exploitation movies to scratch its way into public consciousness. Bolstered by one of the best horror ad campaigns of all time (it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie), Last House made a killing in the box office, ushering in a truck load of copycats and imitators over the next few years.
For all its notoriety and acclaim (or disdain, depending on what circle you listen to), Last House on the Left is a strange concoction even to this day—a brutal rape-revenge movie with art house roots. Though not nearly as wretched as its reputation implies, Last House on the Left still has some deeply unpleasant moments, and, despite its sloppiness and deaf tone, it’s told with a good deal of confidence by Craven.
Craven largely lifts the plot for Last House from Ingmar Bergman’s similar medieval revenge film The Virgin Spring, where a pair of parents begrudgingly allows their virginal daughter to venture out into the wild with her friend in tow only for all of the world’s ills to rain down on the girls’ shoulders.
In both films, the naïve teens wind up in the hands of rapacious wanderers, who have their way with the girls before leaving them to rot. After the rape and murder of the girls, the bandits find themselves unwittingly taking refuge in the girl’s home, being cared for by her worried parents. When the parents discover that they are housing their daughter’s killers—that’s when the cardigans come off and the chainsaws comes out—at least in Craven’s version.
Though Bergman’s virgin target is out delivering candles to a nearby church, and Craven’s is out trying to score weed before a concert, Craven doesn’t venture too far from Bergman’s blueprint with his modernization.
The mean streets of New York City double for the Swedish wilderness in Craven’s story, with junkies and escaped cons taking the place of wolves and murderous shepherds. Throughout the movie, Craven juxtaposes images of the horror of the city with the bucolic calm of the girl’s countryside home, implying a kind of invasion of otherworldly evil into the serenity of nature.
What’s always struck me an odd about Last House on the Left, though, is Craven’s tone and choice of music. Along with his nature/city and violence/serenity compositions, he also adds an odd sheen of goofiness to the film’s more extreme scenes. Sometimes, Craven’s musical gambit pays off. The swinging “Baddies Theme” that plays as the gang drives out into the country with the two girls locked in their trunk is horrifying. These guys aren’t torturing these girls out of some unspeakable pathological need—like, say, the way Jason Voorhees chops up camp councilors–this is how these people have fun. That’s a gut-wrenching revelation as you watch a rapist’s drool wash down his target’s tear and blood stained face.
But Craven’s use of dopey folk songs and slap-stick to contrast the horror that’s unfolding on screen doesn’t always work. A later scene where the gang forces the two girls into having sex with each other is accompanied by a ballad—which, I suppose is supposed to be irony of some sort, but it reads like Craven pulling his punches. By layering oddity on top of horror, it detaches you from what’s going on because you’re too busy trying to figure out just what the hell Craven is doing to fully process what you’re seeing.
The same goes for the film’s pair of dopey sheriffs, who spend the entire movie trying to barter a ride along an abandoned highway from teenagers and a woman with a truck full of chickens. One minute you’re seeing a girl’s intestines getting pulled out, the next you’re in Mayberry.
Even with its purposefully uneven tone, Last House on the Left is still punishing and difficult to watch.
The film’s first half is the stronger portion of the two, with the latter half of the film, where one of the girl’s parents discover the identities of the killers and plot their revenge, striking the violence begets violence chord a bit too hard. The implication with the ending is that the violence wrought in the first half turns this pair of loving parents into monsters; but, save for one of them, there’s no reason to feel any sympathy for the girls’ attackers. Craven does too good of a job making his cartoonish bad guys utterly reprehensible to make the parents’ sick revenge seem extreme or monstrous. Even when the mother gnaws off a guy’s… little guy, you kind of have to cheer her for it.
But… then again. Maybe that just says something about me.