A low budget remake of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham's 1972 The Last House On The Left was one of the hardest hitting horror films of its era and it remains a tough watch even today, in an era where horror fans are supposed to be jaded and desensitized.
The plot is a fairly simple one - two pretty teenage girls, Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) are on their way to a rock concert, they want to celebrate Mari's seventeenth birthday with their favorite band, Bloodlust. They decide to hitchhike and wind up getting kidnapped by a group of escaped convicts made up of Fred 'Weasel' Podowski (seventies porno actor/director Fred J. Lincoln), Sadie (Jeramie Rain), Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler) and their ringleader Krug Stillo (David Hess). The girls do their best to fight the thugs but wind up drugged and thrown into the back of a car. The gang takes them out to the woods but after a strange turn of horrifying events, the gang is forced to take refuge in the home of Mari's parents...
Say what you will about the contents of the film but it's impossible to deny just how harrowingly effective The Last House On The Left really is. Shot on Super 16mm in Connecticut and New York with a small crew and a low budget, the film has an unsettlingly realistic feel to it that elevates it above your standard cheap horror movie and makes it something more akin to a punch in the groin. The unflinching realism and incessant brutality of the movie result in a genuinely frightening film, one which 'could happen to you' and which mixes sex and violence with all the expectedly nasty results right up there on the screen in front of you.
Central to the film's success are the performances. While the gritty, documentary-like feel of the cinematography and camerawork certainly put the audience in there with the protagonists, it's the actors who convince us of the film's authenticity. Sandra Cassel and Phyllis and Lucy Grantham are utterly convincing in their roles likely because, particularly in Sandra's case, they were scared of their co-stars. Fred Lincoln, Marc Sheffler and Jeramie Rain all deliver enjoyably manic performances and do a fine job here but it's David Hess who really gets under your skin. You don't get the impression that he's acting here, rather, you get the impression that he's venting and the movie is all the more frightening for it. Just how much of Krug is really Hess is hard to say but his performance here has rightfully become the stuff of legend. Hess was also responsible for the film's soundtrack, a strange mix of ambient music and acoustic folk tunes that at times make for a strange contrast to the images shown on screen.
Of course, as all horror fans know, the film has had a massive influence. You can easily trace back the origins of the so-called 'torture porn' (what a completely insulting term) pictures like Saw and Hostel to Last House while 2005's Chaos, directed by David DeFalco and starring Sage Stallone and Kevin Gage is basically an uncredited remake (they even ripped off the marketing campaign). For better or worse, Craven and company permanently changed horror films with this one, ushering in a new era of violence and depravity. The film met with some pretty harsh audience response when it played theaters as moviegoers hadn't really seen anything like this up to this point. The resulting controversy lead to local theater's trimming prints of various naughty bits which meant that it was tough to know if you were seeing the film in its full strength version or not. Thankfully the unrated version contained on this and the 2002 MGM DVD present the movie in its uncut version, or at least as close to its uncut version as we're likely to ever get.
It's also interesting to note where bits and pieces from Last House pop up. Not only are parts of the score, namely the track 'You're All Alone' which is actually heard here in a longer version, recycled in a 1975 porno films entitled Angela The Fireworks Woman (which Craven is rumored to have co-directed - he does appear in the film in a non-sex role) but deleted scenes were used in a 1973 mockumentary entitled The Evolution Of Snuff (also known as Confessions Of A Blue Movie Star), also directed by Craven. In 2004 Fred Lincoln reprised his role as Weasel Podowski and appeared in and directed a XXX parody entitled The Last Whore House On The Left that was put out by VCA, and then of course, there's the big studio 2009 remake...
Last House On The Left looks about as good as it should, presented here in its original 1.85.1 widescreen aspect ratio in a progressive scan transfer enhanced for anamorphic viewing. There are still scratches and mild print damage present as well as a healthy coat of grain, but really, would you want this movie to look much cleaner than it does here? Probably not, as it really suits the nasty tone of the film. That said, detail is alright, and color reproduction looks decent enough. There aren't any compression artifacts or edge enhancement issues to not either.
The only audio track for the feature is the original English language Dolby Digital Mono track, with optional subtitles provided in English, English SDH, French and Spanish. While the audio here won't blow you away, it sounds fine given the film's low budget and original mix. Dialogue is easy to follow and the odd score sounds pretty clear. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion to note and the levels are all properly balanced.
First up is a commentary track from stars David Hess, Fred Lincoln and Marc Sheffler. This track originally appeared on the 2-disc PAL release from Anchor Bay UK. This is an interesting track done with a pretty snarky sense of humor, particularly from Fred J. Lincoln who starts the track off by remaking 'oh it's based on a true story, no wonder it's so good!' The three participants riff on Craven and Cunningham in spots as well as some of their co-stars, making fun of Fred's accent a few times as they go. They point out some interesting bits and pieces about the locations (parts were shot at Cunningham's house) and the performers and generally keep the conversation going as the movie plays out. They don't seem to take anything too seriously, Hess joking about his 'chain of gas stations' and talking about how their female co-stars were so afraid of them while they were making this film (something Craven confirms in Still Standing). They also talk about how 'everyone got caught with Lucy' - apparently she was a little promiscuous - and about where they were at, career wise, during the time that this film was made. It's an interesting commentary that really does give a pretty decent look at the picture's production from the point of the three core villains.
From there, check out the documentary Still Standing: The Legacy Of "Last House On The Left" (14:54) from Red Shirt Pictures. This is an all new interview with Craven that is exclusive to this DVD which starts with Craven admitting that they didn't really realize what they'd made until they saw the film in theaters. From there, Craven talks about how his background and world events influenced the script that he wrote, particularly how the media was portraying the war in Vietnam. From there he talks about response to the film, how he didn't think of the film as art but rather as an unrepressed film that 'allowed me to be bad for the first time in my life.' He then elaborates on the influence and lasting appeal of the film before finishing off by discussing the 2009 remake of the film.
Up next is the excellent Celluloid Crime Of The Century (39:33) documentary, which Blue Underground made for the aforementioned Anchor Bay UK release from 2003. This is a pretty in-depth look at the making of the film that features interviews with director Wes Craven, producer Sean S. Cunningham, actor (and pornographer) Fred J. Lincoln, actress Jeramie Rain, actor Marc Sheffler, actor Martin Kove, and of course, Krug himself David Hess. Each of the interviewees talks about making the film and what it was like working with each other, how they all bonded on many different levels and how everyone had to work as a unit. They cover casting, the influence of world events and of The Virgin Spring, and they talk about their careers in film up to this point. As the documentary plays out, there is a wealth of behind the scenes pictures shown as well as pertinent clips from the film. There's a lot of attention given to Hess' unusually realistic performance but even so, it's still a pretty fantastic piece that shines a lot of light on the history and making of this picture.
Scoring Last House (9:44), again done by Blue Underground, also appeared on the Anchor Bay UK DVD, and it's basically a sit down talk with David Hess about the score that he wrote and performed for the film. He talks about how he get into music at a young age and about some of the music he'd done before Last House before discussing his work on the film itself and how the music in the film makes the picture 'more horrific.'
Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out (11:24) also originally appeared on the Anchor Bay UK DVD and it's footage from an unfinished Wes Craven film that starred David Hess. It's presented here in its original fullframe aspect ratio without any audio, as none was ever recorded for it.
Deleted Scene - Mari Dying At The Lake (1:00) is exactly what it sounds like, a quick snipped bit where Mari dies in her parents arms near the lake. The Never Before Seen Footage (5:34) section is a collection of unused footage, presented without sound, that features an unused lesbian rape sequence with Sadie, Phyllis and Mari.
Last but not least, in the Trailers section you'll find promo spots for Pathology, Mr. Brooks, Asylum, Hit And Run and The Betrayed but no trailer for Last House On The Left (which is a damn shame as it's a fantastic trailer). Static menus and chapter selection are also included. It should be noted that the commentary with Craven and Cunningham that was on the previous R1 release is not included here and neither is the extended footage featuring the disembowelment footage. You'll want to hold on to your previous DVDs, kids. Also missing is the Krug & Company alternate cut of the film, the European trailers, Craven's intro, and the radio ads. So yeah, what's here is good, but there's a fair bit missing...
If you don't already have the various editions that have been released both stateside and in the U.K., then this is a decent package (despite the horrible cover art). However, if you do already have those releases, there isn't enough new material here to really warrant a purchase. Based on its own merits, however, the movie is still incredibly powerful and required viewing for anyone interested in the evolution of the American horror film. MGM/Fox hasn't included all of the supplemental material that exists for this film, but there's still a lot of extra stuff here to enjoy, and this disc is recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.