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...
Note: This mass market release was previously a Best Buy exclusive. There are no differences at all between this disc and the Best Buy exclusive disc. The contents, transfer and audio quality are identical.
Last House On The Left looks about as good as you can reasonably expect it to in this 1.85.1 widescreen 1080p AVC encoded high definition transfer. As the film was shot on 16mm film it is definitely on the grainy side but the grain here looks natural, and thankfully MGM made the right decision and opted not to apply heavy noise reduction to the image. Detail is definitely stronger than previous DVD releases have been and while it's not going to compare with the latest and greatest big budget blockbuster, the high bit rate ensures that there are no problems with compression artifacts nor are there any issues with heavy edge enhancement. Colors look good, though the film has always had a fairly drab look to it in that regard, while skin tones look pretty natural. Minor specks show up here and there but heavy print damage is never a problem. All in all, the movie more or less looks how it should look - gritty, grimy and grainy, though the high definition face lift provided by the Blu-ray transfer ensures that it's less compressed and more natural looking than it was on DVD.
The only audio option for the feature is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track, with optional subtitles provided in English SDH, French and Spanish. The audio quality, like the video quality, isn't going to amaze you but it does faithfully replicate the film's sound. Hess' odd folk score doesn't have the resonance that a remastered orchestral score would in a lossless surround sound mix but this track does offer improved clarity over the DVD release. Dialogue can be a bit flat sounding but is never hard to understand and the levels are always properly balanced. Any hiss or distortion that creeps in is minor and overall, the audio is fine, if limited by the source material.
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. A second commentary track gets Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham in front of the microphone for a pretty detailed talk about the history of the film. They discuss where they were at in their respective careers at the time, why the various participants were cast in the roles that they wound up playing, what it was like on set, editing the film, some of the controversy that surrounded it and more. It's a more structured and formal commentary than the cast track and in some ways more informative but both are worth listening to.
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. There's also a pretty great retrospective featurette included here entitled It's Only A Movie (29:01) that once again includes interviews with Hess, Craven, Cunningham and the rest. It covers much of the same ground as the other pieces but it's here for those who want it even if it is a bit redundant. More interesting are the Outtakes And Dailies (14:01) collection of snippets, presented without sound, and the Forbidden Footage (8:12) collection of scenes that includes Cunningham and Craven discussing the more imposing and unsettling clips from the film. Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, animated menus and chapter stops. All of the extras on this disc are presented in standard definition.
Last House On The Left remains as confrontational and disturbing as ever and this Blu-ray offers it up in the best quality we've seen on home video so far. Those with an aversion to heavy grain won't appreciate the transfer but it really does offer up the movie as it should look and without an abundance of digital tweaking. The extras, while not exclusive, are plentiful and informative and the movie itself holds up very well. Highly 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.