Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left is the kind of film that is difficult to view with anything resembling objectivity. On one hand, it has so influenced the horror genre that it is difficult to see how revolutionary it once was; it's been imitated so often (and so often, so poorly) that much of the impact it must have had in 1972 has dimmed. On the other hand, it has been so thoroughly lionized over the 37 years since its initial release that its flaws--and there are many--are often forgotten or ignored. Personally, I find myself somewhere in the middle on Craven's debut effort. When it works, it really works. But there is quite a bit of it that doesn't work, not at all.
The story is absolute simplicity. Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) lives out near the woods with her middle-class parents, John (Richard Towers) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr). She's celebrating her 17th birthday by heading in to New York City for a rock concert with her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), but they get sidetracked on the way to the show on a hunt for grass. They're kidnapped by Krug (David Hess) and Weasel (porn director Fred J. Lincoln), two recent prison escapees, and their accomplices Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Junior (Marc Sheffler). The quartet graphically rapes and murders the two girls before shuffling off to find a place to crash. Coincidence of coincidences, they find themselves in the Collingwood home, and when a telltale necklace tips their hand, Mari's parents get their revenge.
Craven shot the film on 16mm for a song, and its low budget is certainly felt in the low production value, as well as the stilted quality of many performances. But the no-frills, documentary-style aesthetic is also highly effective--in places, it's like we're watching the Manson family home movies. Craven has since said he intended the film to have the same quality as the news footage from Vietnam he was seeing on television every night; it certainly makes for a unique and discomforting viewing experience.
The trouble is that he undercuts that realism and power at nearly every turn. The primary culprit is the abhorrent music, most of it performed by actor Hess with the mellow acoustic guitar sound of bad 70s AM radio. It's not just that they're bad songs--they're wildly incongruent bad songs. As Mari wanders away from the villains after her rape, up comes a retch-inducing ballad in which Hess croons away about how "you're all alone now." As the gang takes its leisurely drive out to the country, we hear a bouncy tune about their adventures ("Baddies Theme"), slightly undercut by the fact that the two people we're supposed to care about are in the trunk of the car. I've heard some argue that the music serves as some kind of ironic counterpoint, and if that's what they're going for, they fail. The songs do little more than call attention to themselves by mocking the horror we're witnessing on screen. There's a famous story, often told by John Carpenter himself, about how Halloween was "saved by the music." Last House is the flip side of that, a film that is nearly ruined by the music.
Equally destructive is the inclusion of the notorious "comic cops," a dunderheaded sheriff (Marshall Anker) and deputy (Martin Kove, best known a decade later for his work as "Kreese" in The Karate Kid) who offer no help to the worried parents and ignore the strange car parked near the woods, only to realize their mistake later and engage in a series of slapstick misadventures on their way back out to where, you know, all the raping and killing is happening. Their shenanigans are scored with yee-haw banjo music or something, and these scenes are so bad, you want to build a time machine, go back to 1972, and cut them out yourself. I'm not sure what Craven was trying to do here--did he really think that the graphic and difficult scenes of violence could somehow be softened by the addition of "comic relief"? It's a lapse in tone, judgment, and taste that does serious harm to the movie.
The performances range from dull to serviceable, with only Cassel making any real impact. The narrative also has a sorely missing beat; we never see the parents in the act of deciding what they're going to do, weighing the consequences, etc. For these kinds of upwardly-mobile characters, surely a moment of reflection wouldn't have been out of place. Nor would genuine grief for their daughter, though there's a hint of that in the missing scene that has been rather incompetently spackled over with a moment where the parents lean over Mari's clearly breathing body and say, "She's dead," even though their mouths aren't moving.
The complaints pile up, but there is also no denying the power of Last House. The assaults in the woods are horrifying, genuinely suspenseful, and terrifyingly real. Moments in those sequences made this fairly hardened reviewer gasp, flinch, look away. In its rawest, most visceral moments, it earns its place alongside Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the annals of horror film history. But you do wish it didn't include so much other bullshit.
MGM is re-releasing Last House in a new "unrated collector's edition," obviously to tie in with the theatrical release of the new remake (and the ultra-slick cover art looks more appropriate to that film than this one). There are many versions of varying lengths floating around, but this appears to be the same one that MGM previously released in 2002, albeit with new extras (and the removal of others, including, unfortunately, the commentary with Craven and producer Sean Cunningham).
I'm not sure how good an image is possible here--the film's low budget shows most obviously in its grainy 16mm photography. We're probably seeing the best possible transfer, but only so much can be done with these rough source materials. The anamorphic 1.85:1 image is soft and full of grain, with plenty of visible scratches and dirt. Of course, for many of its fans, the rough look is part of the package; it wouldn't like right much cleaner than this.
The mono soundtrack is about what you'd expect--thin and tinny, with occasional echoes and other indications of its original low fidelity. That said, dialogue and sound effects are mostly audible, and that terrible score is crystal-clear.
English, Spanish, and French subtitles are also available.
Fans of Last House will have plenty of goodies to feast on here, all new to region 1 (most appeared on last fall's R2 DVD). First up is an Audio Commentary by actors David Hess, Marc Sheffler, and Fred Lincoln. It's actually quite a compelling track. All three are veterans of the exploitation movie scene, so they speak in an enjoyable shorthand and offer up plenty of funny and interesting anecdotes and insights on the making of this and other films. That said, these grizzled veterans may not be the classiest guys walking--shortly after the rape sequence, Sheffler notes (somewhat tangentially) that the film "got me laid a lot."
"Still Standing: The Legacy of The Last House on the Left" (14:55) is framed by a new interview with Craven, who talks about the creation and reaction to the film, in addition to speaking at length about its graphic violence. He also details the creation of the remake and his involvement in it.
"Celluloid Crime of the Century" (39:34) is an exhaustively detailed making-of featurette, full of clips, outtakes, and behind-the-scenes photos. Filmmakers Craven and Cunningham are interviewed, as is most of the cast. Much of the same material is covered as in the previous featurette, but in greater depth and with a bit more style. Overall, it's a tremendously well-assembled and fascinating look at the film. "Scoring Last House" (9:45) captures Hess strumming his guitar and reminiscing about putting the music together; if you like the music (and there apparently people who do), you might want to give it a look.
"Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out" (11:25) is a compilation of raw footage that Craven shot for an early, unfinished section of an anthology film. There's rough and amateurish, with no sound or much indication of what it's about, but hardcore Craven finds may enjoy it anyway. Next is a "Deleted Scene: Mari Dying at the Lake" (1:00) is the scene that was excised and replaced with that awful, clumsy one mentioned earlier; it's removal is puzzling, since it provides more motivation for the parents and makes more sense. "Never Before Seen Footage" (5:35) is a compilation of silent outtakes, most of it related to the so-called "forced lesbian" scene, the rest from the subsequent escape attempts and assaults. The special features conclude with Trailers for several other MGM horror releases.
The Last House on the Left is, by just about any barometer, a bad movie--amateurishly made, barely written, poorly acted, incompetently scored. But its fleeting moments of brilliance and power have made it a semi-classic, for better (kick-starting the career of Wes Craven) or worse (creating the template for more recent "torture porn," up to and including its own new remake). If you've got the stomach for it, it should be seen, but more as a curio than anything else.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.