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Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left is a tough subject. In 1972 it represented a quantum leap forward in what could be shown on American screens. Few prints survived circulation without being censored by distributors, or by exhibitors right in the theaters where it played. For a standard audience it's still an indefensible carnival of cruelty and carnage, with unendurable pain and suffering meted out to two innocent girls by a quartet of pitiless human monsters. The movie can claim a certain legitimacy, not only in the raw truthfulness of its approach to its subject matter, but in its relation to horror films in general. It's also a commercial product by daring filmmakers that understood the notion that the only way to get attention in the film biz was to be as shocking as possible.
Last House has attained legendary status, and its shocks are said to be intact here. MGM / Fox's Blu-ray retains all the extras from a DVD special edition release from nine years ago.
It all starts innocently enough. Virginal but adventurous Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) leaves her country home to attend a rock concert with her more worldly friend Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham). On the way, they stop off to score some dope, and like lambs to the slaughter, fall into the clutches of Krug Stillo (David Hess) and his informal group of craven criminals: 'Weasel' Podowski (Fred J. Lincoln), the aptly-named Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Junior (Marc Sheffler), a neurotic drug addict. Mari and Phyllis are driven to the woods in the trunk of Krug's car, where they're tormented through sick games, and then sadistically raped and murdered. When the killers' car won't start, they stop off for help at a local house, posing as harmless straights. But what Krug and Co. don't know is that they've come right back to Mari's neighborhood, and their friendly hosts just happen to be the parents of their victim.
Most horror fans are aware that the plot of this shocker is borrowed from Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, although the producer of Last House, Sean Cunningham, prevaricates even at this late date by claiming their source was the same Scandinavian folk tale that Bergman used. There's thirty years' worth of lore surrounding this film, from the "It's Only a Movie" tagline to the ballyhoo suggestion that the movie had value as a warning lesson for parents to teach their children.
Last House is undeniably frightening. Its first section, before we get to the Collingwood house, is very well made. The acting is excellent and extremely believable, especially David Hess and his ferocious partners. Although it began as an 'adult' movie made by adult filmmakers (the self-serving Cunningham again sidesteps when he describes his previous soft-core and borderline hardcore work as being 'documentary'), Wes Craven's aim to make the worst possible horror scenario has a legitimate artistic basis. A growing number of contemporary mainstream films like The Wild Bunch had expressed the boiling violence of the times; I believe Craven when he says his cinematic atrocities were his reaction to the turmoil of Vietnam, Charles Manson, the '60s assassinations and Richard Nixon's America. In 1971, the country was a pressure cooker that some radicals believed would actually spiral into revolution. Many Americans were terrorized by the thought of a rising tide of violence.
Charlie Manson laughed at the establishment, predicting that its own children would 'come at them with knives' in retribution for society's hypocrisy. Krug and Co. is America's worst nightmare, an alternate family of sex killers and dope addicts, a fusion of sick personalities that encourage the worst in one another. They have free sex. They sell drugs. They respect nothing. Mari and Phyllis' very innocence triggers Krug's lust to defile and destroy, to outrage even himself.
Most everyone's been intimidated, maybe even threatened, by the kind of bullies or toughs who turn their own fears and powerlessness into aggression. Krug and his cohorts express their rage by wielding power over helpless victims. We get the feeling that their desire to give Mari and Phyllis 'the works' is an explosion of hatred that's built up over months of simmering hostility. It's premeditated only in that the killers know that they're going to have themselves a party. Everyone knows that to have fun at a party, one needs to let go and express oneself.
Last House differs from previous terror sieges like Lady in a Cage in that it tears up the assumed 'contract of politeness' with the audience. It pulls out all the stops and unleashes an orgy of violence. Critics often made facile observations about violence in movies, saying that every new cinematic wrinkle in cruelty or sadism desensitized audiences, requiring the next film out to be stronger. Last House is totally outside this idea. The basic brutality here laughs at theories, and anyone so desensitized as to enjoy it for its own sake, is already a borderline sociopath.
A familiar captivity fantasy is the standard situation where the reader or viewer measures his or her inner strength against how the characters of a drama stand up to torture. Craven knew that terror is in the details, and that's why he adds the disturbing incident where Phyllis is made to urinate on herself. When Phyllis pees herself on demand, Krug and his fiends are teaching her a lesson in power -- whatever they want her to do, she'll have to do. Breaking the mild taboo of public urination is in itself a relatively tame humiliation, but the line has been crossed. Ever have a boss, or a 'friend', insist you do something just for the principle of demonstrating who's in charge? The horror shared by all is that both victim and tormentor know the stakes will soon escalate.(spoilers)
The torments in Last House are direct and pitiless, and covered with a documentary eye so passive that it all could be real. Nothing is stylized, not even to the extent that the atrocities in something like Salo are 'aestheticized.' Phyllis and Mari are breathing, shivering, pleading girls one minute, and after an extended agony, dead meat. "See what I can make you do? See what I can do to you?" they seem to be saying, but when their mutilated victims are dead, the killers collapse into sullen silence. They are beyond the pale, yet there remains a pitiful humanity in their nervous, self-disgusted 'regrouping' after the crime.
Craven's plan to bring the horror full circle with the borrowed structure of The Virgin Spring is sound, but, unlike the later Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi gore-fests, his production lacks the basic technical sophistication for the third act at the Collingwood house. It's all interiors, which require experience to light. The cramped spaces force the footage to be broken up into more conventional angles, which can't match the docu veracity of the exteriors. Compared to the earlier section, big pieces of Last House's final reels are distractingly amateurish.
The violence in the house is also far less honest than the horror in the woods. The Collingwoods use the best tricks they can come up with, but this is more plotted and hyped -- with one of the first manic uses of a chainsaw. There's an obvious obscene bit where Estelle Collingwood (Cynthia Carr) bites off a piece of Weasel's anatomy. It comes from the Herschel Gordon Lewis school of exploitative shock, and the pandering instincts of the filmmakers is what makes it cheap. In general, the whole third act is an artistic betrayal of the honest terror in the woods. "Just remember", the advertising should say of this section, "It's only degrading exploitation."
The 'Crime and Retribution' angle doesn't work too well. The random, senseless slaughter of the two girls is the kind of thing that happens too often to be ignored, and therefore has validity. But when the killers are delivered unto the Collingwoods for a payback slaughter, the show becomes a fantasy that teaches the wrong lesson. The Collingwoods aren't Max Von Sydow. They don't pull heirloom swords from the attic and re-forge them as weapons for a ritual slaughter. They're an average couple that presumably hasn't had survivalist and terror scenarios running through their heads for years (as many people do now, admittedly). Their response is a horror-comic fantasy entirely different than the raw realism in the woods. The show really stumbles when the Collingwoods retrieve their daughter's body. They just sit over her a moment, and then it's back to Killing 101. There's no pause for them to recover from their emotions. When they go into battle with such cool heads, the believability connection is lost.
True, a consistent finale would definitely not have been as thrilling for the audience. Krug and his fiends might believably escape direct punishment, even if convicted of other crimes. If they were caught, legalities would probably mandate a protracted, agonizing trial, as in The Onion Field. But The Last House on the Left is first and foremost an exploitation film. Viewers sobered by the horror in the woods respond like a vigilante mob in cheering the slaughter at the house. I wouldn't be surprised if Craven and Cunningham originally planned a more naturalistic variation on a Herschel Gordon Lewis film, and their superior cast inspired them to overachieve in the first section of the movie.
So the notorious The Last House on the Left finally comes to Blu-ray, in an Unrated Collector's Edition. The original photography is grainy and on the drab side, and has been carefully transferred by MGM in an appropriate 1:85 widescreen aspect ratio. This picture is never going to look "pretty" but it does seem sharper than the 2002 DVD release, if only because of HD's better contrast and higher resolution. Fans with older tapes and prints are going to be impressed.
The disc is flush with the original extras from the first release, made at a time when MGM was putting considerable resources behind its library products. An optional introduction by Wes Craven is too rushed and difficult to understand. Elsewhere Craven almost sounds ashamed of the movie, and his intro is far too tentative. Greg Carson's lengthy documentary features the producers and actors in fairly frank interviews. All comment on the film's enormous influence. Craven characterizes himself as being stoned half the time during shooting; although he was no kid, in the outtakes he looks like a longhaired art student. Cunningham, the so-called 'documentary' filmmaker, makes claims to loftier ambitions: his allusions to this being a spiritual film like Bergman's are mildly offensive. Last House's female heroines are given an undeveloped lesbian relationship, after all, an exploitative remnant (presumably) of a more sexually explicit original conception.
Both producer and director participate in the engaging commentary, telling the story of the making of the film while poking fun at themselves. They come off better here than in the docu -- Craven has a wry sense of humor and Cunningham is more open about the primitive level of production he was able to muster. Appropriately, they sober up somewhat around the area of the murder. It's obvious that Craven, at least, is still somewhat conflicted by his 'academic' exercise in horror.
The Outtakes section, for those who need to know, includes a lot of fake entrails pulling that will either sicken or amuse. The short bits of film include a great many stage waits and post -- "Cut" moments that happily show that the actors are just acting. It's a professional cast, even though most of the main players made very few movies (at least as listed in the IMDB). David Hess has a continuous list of acting credits, and Fred J. Lincoln became a prolific porn director -- the list of titles he's directed is mind-blowing.
A third section called Forbidden Footage is not legendary gore cut from the film but a discussion of the roughest scenes already in the movie. It plays like a chapter exiled from the docu. Lucy Grantham seems pleased that her urination scene was authentic. I don't think the extras show any excised footage (unless I missed some), but instead offer alternate or extended bits from the outtakes. (A couple of added bits, like a longer view of Junior's head wound, are in the docu as well). Savant happened to be in the post-production house during work on the extras and talked to the editor. He told me that there was a surfeit of gross and sexually oriented outtake material that wasn't used, and I don't think he was pulling my leg.
Pictures like The Last House on the Left moved horror away from abstract and romantic notions to gut-wrenching literalizations of real terror in the real world. Raw sex and raw violence in films have an instinctive attraction of their own that works outside of dramatic and aesthetic considerations. This ordeal isn't about suspense, subtlety or cinematic graces. It even has cheap comic relief with bumbling cops and a black chicken farmer to lower the sophistication quotient. The example of the late '60s porn explosion naturally gave horror directors the notion of transgressing even farther than had Night of the Living Dead, and with The Last House on the Left, the genre took a plunge into X-rated territory.
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T'was Ever Thus.