Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Last House on the Left is a brutal and realistic horror film, and a very 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. But 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.
Last House has attained legendary status, and its shocks are said to be intact here. MGM's special edition
contains some good extras, including original outtakes, that will appeal to those for whom the appalling film has a special meaning.
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 two-thirds, 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 (Cunningham again sidesteps when he describes his previous softcore and borderline hardcore work as being 'documentary'), Wes Craven's conception of the worst possible horror scenario has a legitimate artistic basis. A growing number of recent 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. An extension of Manson anxiety, Krug and Co. are America's worst nightmare, an alternate family of sex killers and dope addicts, a fusion of sick personalities that encourage the worst in one other. They have free sex. They sell drugs. They're completely out of control. 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 Co. 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 goes beyond any such theory, and anyone so desensitized as to enjoy it for its own sake, is already a borderline sociopath. 1
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. 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. 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 there's a line that's been crossed. Ever have a boss, or a 'friend', insist you do something just for the principle of demonstrating who's in charge? Phyllis and Mari are undergoing that, but the horror shared by all is that both victim and tormentor know the stakes will soon escalate.
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.
Nothing's perfect, certainly not an overreaching shocker like The Last House on the Left. Craven's plan of bringing the horror full circle with the borrowed structure of The Virgin Spring is sound, but, unlike the later Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi gorefests, his production doesn't have 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 don't have 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 less impressive because it's not as honest as 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. 2 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. 3 In general, the whole third act is an artistic letdown from 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, even if what happens is what we want to happen. The Collingwoods aren't Max Von Sydow and they don't pull heirloom swords from the attic and reforge them as weapons for a ritual slaughter. They're an average couple who presumably haven't had survivalist & terror scenarios running through their heads for years (as many people do now, admittedly). When they respond with such
cool killer instincts, it's a horror-comic gore 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, 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.
It's kind of a surprise seeing such a graphic film come from MGM, the company sensitive to corporate image to the point that it won't allow a swastika to appear on the packaging art of its World War II films. When they start getting letters from consumers who mistakenly show their families this picture (and it's going to happen), MGM may wish their logo wasn't on the box. The Last House on the Left goes about 50% of the way to Salo territory, a notorious film for which MGM also owns some rights. 4
Savant is pleased with the quality of the video transfer. 6 The original photography is grainy and on the drab side, and has been carefully transferred by MGM, with flat and 16:9 widescreen versions on opposite sides of a flipper disc. The movie was shot hard-matted on Super16 mm, which means that the blowup of the pan'n scan (an 11mm movie, folks!) is pretty awful-looking, cropping away a lot of horizontal picture area. The 16:9 version is soft but acceptable, and is in great shape. Fans with older tapes and prints are going to be impressed. It's nice that an introduction by Wes Craven is optional, because it's too rushed and hard to understand. Elsewhere Craven almost sounds ashamed of the movie, and his intro is far too tentative.
The isc is flush with extras. A documentary produced by author David Szulkin with MGM's Greg Carson features the producers and actors in fairly frank interviews. All comment on the impact of the film. 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 'documentary' filmmaker, tries to characterize his ambitions as loftier than they really
were, and Savant thinks 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 talk on 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 outttake material that wasn't used, and I don't think he was pulling my leg.
The generic haunted house on the keep case cover has nothing to do with the movie, and indeed the rest of the
packaging gives no indication of the strong content inside. Most smaller companies offer some kind of text warning on their gory or adult-oriented films, which might have been a good idea here. With its convincing, almost real scenes of personal agony, Last House has a far stronger psychic impact than the average Italian Zombie gutfest.
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, and if the viewer wants to get to The Last House on the Left's legitimate political aims, he must first sort out the graphic content on a personal level. When Roger Ebert praised the film long ago, he must have been responding to its considerable visceral power. 5 This is a harrowing ordeal that 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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last House on the Left rates:
Movie: Good, but not recommended for any but fans of gore
Supplements: Docu, Outtakes, 'Forbidden Footage', trailer and commentary track with Craven
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 1, 2002
1. Savant's already on record on the subject of gore films, namely Herschel Gordon Lewis' pictures, which are somewhat different from Last House. The cartoonish but imaginative smashing of taboos in pictures like The Gore Gore Girls isn't about violence in the real world, but instead about the 'artist's' joy in transgressing over the lines of obscenity and violent pornography. Lewis knows he's making trash, and that the only atrocious element in the show is himself, the filmmaker. The fact that his shock cinema is so artificial doesn't mitigate its sadism. It's so outrageous that a common defense against it is humor. The fans of the films that attend the screenings and aggressively laugh out loud at the atrocities are identifying with Lewis' "Artistic Krug" powers, and reveling in his shock-glory (while, of course, intimidating newbies in the theater who rightfully feel as if they've entered a room in Hell). Lewis is the ultimate exploitation filmmaker. If he thought there was a buck in it, he'd have his actors shove excrement at the camera with big smiles.
2. In the docu, Craven can't remember the movie poster showing a chainsaw battle,
from an earlier movie. I think he remembers Dark of the Sun (The Mercenaries), a fairly sadistic adventure movie directed by Jack Cardiff.
3. I guess this sex-mutilation idea impressed director Jamaa Fanaka, as he used it time and again in his early 70's blaxploitation films. There's a certain overkill to violence, which ol' H.G. Lewis knew how to exploit, but when you start in with a smorgasbord of juicy, sex-charged violence as in the Collingwood house, the Smut Factor overwhelms any artistic goal.
4. There's Salo, again. Salo, for the uninitiated, is a Pier Paolo Pasolini film in which a group of perverted fascists in Mussolini Italy (or perhaps post-Mussolini Fascist Italy) are given the children of executed Communists and other opposition parties, to dispose of as they will. Just as in
Last House on the Left, the dozens of youths are humiliated and tormented in appalling horrid and unwatchable ways, individually and in groups, and finally slaughtered in a circus of scalpings, eye-gougings and the like. Unlike Last House, the carnage is all observed with a remote, aesthetic calm, often with gentle music playing. This abomination takes a strong stomach to watch and is an obvious political stab at conservative cruelty -- Pasolini's most horrid effect is to have the assembled sadists watch the arena of death from far away, but using binoculars ... relishing the torment and agony, but at a genteel, refined distance.
Savant doesn't recommend Salo to anyone, but I have to admit that my attitude toward movie violence (and institutionalized torture killing) was altered by it. I have no patience with the glamorized, 'We Are the Champions' killings in Rambo or Schwartzenegger's films, or anything that smacks of cheerleading for aggression.
Torture is torture, and politically, The Last House on the Left is at least partially justified for demonstrating the reality of torture for complacent people who think of it as an abstraction or a statistic.
5. I really hate the overused words 'visceral power' and 'palpable terror', used to defend violate-the-body gore films, but sometimes buzzwords are a shoe that fits.
6. The story on the version of Last House on the DVD, from Savant's most reliable source. By what the IMDB says, MGM's cut is 7 minutes short, but author/expert David Szulkin has corrected Savant by saying that this copy is intact, and the full original length. For this new transfer, MGM checked all of its elements and all were cut. The original neg is missing. David Szulkin informed them that a German company had a 35mm I.N. of the uncut version, and MGM, with a possible assist from Sean Cunningham, negotiated to get access.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson