Middle class America, the hippie movement, and the criminal classes all meet in the justly famous The Last House on the Left, a blend of Desperate Hours, Bergman's The Virgin Spring, and Helter Skelter, with a scary father thrown in for good measure.
Last House pits two families against each other. The first is that of Doctor Collingwood (Richard Towers, using the screen name Gaylord St. James, an agent and actor), who lives in some with his wife (Eleanor Shaw) and daughter Mari (Sandra Peabody, as Sandra Cassell). It's his daughter's birthday, and she is going out with her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) to see the group Bloodlust. Phyllis is the opposite of Mari, a hedonistic troublemaker. Later, she is also the most firm and rebellious in the face of assault. Mari is a girl just coming into her womanhood, suddenly going around without a brassier, and tempted to be a groupie for Bloodlust.
While Dr. and Mrs. Collingwood stay home and set up birthday party decorations, the two girls hit Manhattan's lower east side, looking for pot as a prelude to a night dancing. In these circumstances they meet the film's other family, the grim black underside of the American experience. It's a group of escaped criminals led by Krug Stillo (David Hess), his illegitimate son Junior (stand up comic Marc Sheffler), whom he keeps addicted to heroin in order to control him, plus his quasi-literate bisexual moll Sadie (Jaramie Rain), who refers to "sexist dogs" and Freud's "pa-hay-lus" (phallus). Krug shares her with Weasel (porno star and producer Fred Lincoln, who is credited with 267 films on IMDBPro, including such titles as Leatherbound Dykes from Hell 9, Dresden Diary 9, and Rituals of Submission 2). They kidnap the two girls and attempt to spirit them out of the state in the trunk of their convertible. When the car breaks down, it just happens to be outside Mari's house. From there the kids are dragged into the woods where they are tortured, forced to perform for the criminals, raped, stabbed, and shot. While this is all going on, two buffoonish cops (Marshall Anker, Martin Kove) are trying to reach the Collingwood house.
With not much of a transition, the gang finds itself finding shelter in the house on the left, Mari's parents. Eventually it dawns on the two adults that these awkward kids are not what they seem. They put it all together and (also unseen) plot vengeance. The cops show up just in time to see the outcome of the carnage.
It need hardly be said that this is one of the world's most famous horror films, with numerous imitators, though mostly in name, i.e., title only, one of the first "vigilante" films, and one of the first of the "video nasties" that so shocked British parents. The film's cinematic clumsiness helps the horror, giving it a unsettling, distasteful feel (though claims about the film's ineptitude, even by those who made it, are exaggerated).
Craven, who was a young, retired college professor at the time, brought a lot of thought to the film. For one thing, unexpectedly, the villains become somewhat humanized. After their violent spree, they wash up, shaken and perhaps even remorseful. Then, in the house of their victim, they become the victims and the violent and the meek trade places. I suppose a flaw in the film might be how the Collingwood's grow so suddenly to be vigilantes. Perhaps their change is hinted at by the violent streak that seems woven into the fabric of their society. "I want to attack you," says the doctor seductively to wife while she is baking a cake. And later, the dumb cop is reading the Classics Illustrated comic book Caesar's Conquests.
By the way, the scene of the good Doctor looking for just the right weapon with which to dispatch his nemesis may be another moment stolen by Tarantino for Pulp Fiction
The film really benefits from multiple viewings. It's a deep, in many ways subtle critique of culture. But then, we knew that already from Robin Wood's masterly account of the film in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, 328 pages, $30, ISBN 0 231 05776 8, pages 121 - 129). The film just seems to gain resonance with every year: note the "Multiple Miegs" moment when Krug talks is own son into shooting himself, not unlike Hannibal talking Miegs into swallowing his own tongue.
VIDEO: MGM's transfer of Last House is as complete as its creators can make it, and it is as good a transfer as it can be, given that the film was shot by just-beginning professionals. An Ur-Blair Witch the film was made by guys who had been documentarians up until then (though sex film documentarians, one film with a young Marilyn Chambers), and approached the film as if making a doc. DP Victor Hurwitz's wide screen image (1.85:1), enhanced for wide screen televisions, is a little murky and has that "blown up to 35mm" look, which in fact it is, from Super16. The widescreen version appears on Side A. Side B has the full frame version. This is the film's first appearance on DVD in Region 1 (there was a R2 disc last year), and it doesn't seem to have been released on laser disc, though various shorter versions are available on tape.
SOUND: The Dolby Digital mono track is effective for a talky horror film. It comes with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. One aspect of Last House is how surprisingly musical it is. Often, the music runs counter to the tone of the scene, such as when Mari is raped. Actor David Hess, who was really an aspiring musician, did the songs for the film with the brother of Harry Chapin.
MENUS: Since this is a flipper, there is no label; the packaging consists of a keep case with a combo of images from the film and the title in the poster's typeface. The menu offers 16 chapter scene selection for the 86 minute movie. The original 91 minute cut of the film is apparently lost forever.
EXTRAS: Extras are extensive, and supervised by the man who wrote THE book on the film.
Commentary track with Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham This scene-specific running dialogue is highly informative and consistently funny. Sean and Wes get along quite well together, and the viewer learns all manner of trivia about the production. For example, Collingwood was Craven's high school. Jaramie Rain later went on to marry Richard Dreyfuss. DP Hurwitz was killed three years later when he was hit by a truck while on his bike in Manhattan. Peabody is now a drama teacher and children's television producer.
Intro The viewer has the option of starting the film with a 40 second intro by Craven, who issues warnings about the nature of the film to follow.
"The Making of Last House on the Left" Produced and directed by David A. Szulkin, who has written what must be the definitive book on the film, Wes Cravens Last House on the Left (FAB Press, 216 pages, $19.95. ISBN 1 903254 01), this 29 minutes doc blends archival footage, outtakes, ad slicks, and interviews with Craven, Cunningham, Grantham, Hess, Kove, Lincoln, Steve Miner (who as a youngster was a PA on the film), and Sheffler. Conspicuously missing are Peabody and Towers. Several mysteries about the film are solved, such as, where did the title come from? The working title was Night of Vengeance. That was changed to Krug and Company, and then to Sex Crime of the Century (Cunningham's favorite, which is linked to dialogue in the film). A man named Lee Willis, an advertising man with Hallmark Releasing Corporation, the Boston-based theater chain that financed the film, came up with Last House, and the ad campaign to go with it ("To Keep from Fainting, Keep Telling Yourself It's Only a Movie," borrowed from H. G. Lewis's Color Me Blood Red: "You Must Keep Reminding Yourself, It's Just a Motion Picture. He also came up with the poster quote ("It rests on 13 acres of earth over the very center of Hell"). This man is alluded to only vaguely in Szulkin's book, but named here by Cunningham. The filmmakers went along with his idea, even though the title had nothing to do with the contents, because nothing else had worked, but time has vindicated the oddly compelling title.
"Out -Takes & Dailies: Last House on the Left" Turning to Side B one finds this 14 minute segment of outtakes archived by Roy Frumkes. The footage lacks a soundtrack.
"Forbidden Footage: Last House on the Left" The second supplement on Side B is this eight minute treatment of the censorship issues surrounding the film. Cast and crew talk about the scene in which Grantham is compelled to pee her pants, and about the state of the prints that came back to them, cut up by irate projectionists and religious groups.
Trailer Finally, also on Side B is the effective 1.14 minute.