Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on The Left’ Remains a Highly Disturbing Cinematic Experience Years Later

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

“To avoid fainting keep repeating,

It’s only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie”

Exploitation movies, or “video nasties” as they are called in certain countries, have a power most do not have. They shock even the most jaded and seasoned of movie fanatics, and they burn into your subconscious in a way which cannot be undone. A lot has been written about Wes Craven’s “Last House on The Left” and of the impact it had on audiences upon its release. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” it’s a movie I was bound to see at some point. Many would prefer to stay far away from movies like this, but I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to be put off watching a movie just because it shocks more than half the world. Who am I to talk or criticize a particular movie if I haven’t seen it anyway?

“The Last House on the Left” was Craven’s directorial debut, and he made it with future “Friday the 13th” director Sean S. Cunningham on a very low budget. While many of Craven’s later movies deal with horror on a fantasy level like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” this one deals with the horrors of real life. It deals with real people and situations any of us could fall victim to. While it was made back in 1972, it still has the power to completely unnerve anyone who sits through it to this very day. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what was in store, this movie proved to be a true endurance test more than others of its genre. And like many horror movies of the past, it just had to be remade years later.

To dismiss “The Last House on The Left” as pure exploitation is not altogether fair. There is extreme violence, naked bodies and a lot of blood and gore, but there is more going on here than what we see on the surface. Throughout Craven’s long career, he has made movies which work on an intellectual level as well as a visceral one, and this one is no exception. Craven said he made this movie in response to the Vietnam War which was going on at the time. I can certainly see that, but I think it also deals with the death of the 1960’s as well as the destruction of innocence. This film also deals with humanity at its most depraved and animalistic and of how no one can ever go back to who they once were. Everything is changed when the movie is over, and so are we for having watched it.

This movie’s story is somewhat inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring,” and it follows two teenage girls, Mari and Phyllis, as they head into the city to go to a concert. While in town, they decide to score some grass and go to a total stranger named Junior who ends up taking them back to his place. But what the ladies find instead are a couple of escaped convicts and their girlfriend who proceed to torture them to their last dying breath. You can see why the tagline fits the movie so perfectly. You have to keep reminding yourself this is only a movie as everything we are forced to witness is all too evil to process right away.

As this twisted family of psychos viciously rape and torture the two girls in the woods right near where one of them lives, it is intercut with scenes of one of the girl’s parents baking a cake and preparing a birthday party for her. There is an innocence on display in these scenes with the parents, and it serves to make all the sheer brutality even more disturbing to sit through. You don’t watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” as much as you experience it, and movies don’t get much bleaker than this one.

Once the group has finished their dirty work, their car breaks down and they end up staying as guests of one of the girls’ parents who just welcome them into their home, completely unaware of who they actually are. They even take the time to make dinner for their guests and give them wine to drink. You would never ever see that happening today, ever. Perhaps it was the custom of people in the 1960’s to be hospitable to total strangers.

During the evening, however, the wife discovers a necklace one of their guests is wearing as being the same one she and her husband gave to their daughter before she went off with her friend. This leads to her discovering bloody clothes in one of their suitcases, and she and her husband rush off to the lake where they find their daughter dead. From there, both carry out bloody revenge against their guests, and it leads to one of the bloodiest conclusions ever in a motion picture.

To watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” is to witness how brutal human nature can get, and it makes you wonder how someone could do something so incredibly. It’s easy to see why Craven saw this movie as a response to the Vietnam War. We went into that country and raped it without much thought of what would happen to us, and this conflict bled deeply into our country and its citizens. This war been covered in many movies like Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” and “Redacted” as well as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.”

You have to give the actors a lot of credit here as they don’t play their characters as much as they inhabit them. Medals of bravery should be given to both Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham who play Mari and Phyllis as both are forced to suffer indignities no human being should ever endure. They are beaten, humiliated, stripped naked and violated in the worst ways imaginable.

But it’s not just the girls who die, the killers do as well, but not just in the literal sense. There is a perverse ecstasy they take in degrading their hostages, but killing them off leaves them with nothing much in the way of emotion. Seeing the looks on their faces after killing the girls proves to be one of the most fascinating moments in “The Last House on the Left” as we can see how each has lost any chance at redemption they could ever hope to get.

The late David Hess gives us one of the most despicable and vile villains in movies as Krug Stillo. There is no redeeming value to this character, and he sinks even deeper into a moral black hole when you realize he controls his son, Junior, through the use of drugs. Hess also did the music score which, to put it mildly, sounds utterly bizarre.

One other important thing to note is this is not the kind of movie where you cheer on the good guys. When the parents get their revenge, there is no joy to be taken in it and you are as emotionally drained as they are when the screen fades to black. Many people complain about the unspeakable violence in this movie, but then they go out to see the latest action extravaganza which features dozens of exploding limbs and severed body parts (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Don’t get me wrong, I like those movies as well, but it is hypocritical to get furious at one violent movie while excusing another one.

I should also add that one of idiotic cops we see in this movie is played by Martin Kove, the same actor who would go on to play Kreese in “The Karate Kid” movies. Kove seems to have been the only actor here to come out of this movie with a successful acting career.

With all the unpleasantness surrounding “The Last House on The Left,” why would I give it a positive review? Because it stands out from the average exploitation fare of the time, and there was a good deal of thought put into it. No, it is not enjoyable to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Craven doesn’t hold anything back, and he gets to the ugliness humanity has to offer the innocent and the unsuspecting.

It says a lot about a movie when it can still retain its power to shock and unnerve audiences even decades after its release. “The Last House on The Left” belongs in the same company with the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as neither have lost any of their visceral power. You don’t like unpleasant movies? Stay miles away from this one. For those willing to endure it, just remember it’s only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …With an utterly bizarre music score!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Advertisements

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘The Last House on the Left’ (1972)

Even in this day and age, people still complain of how Hollywood doesn’t do enough to warn them of how infinitely disturbing certain movies are. Regardless of the specific descriptions the MPAA lists in an R-rated movie such as graphic violence, nudity, blood, and gore, many still insist more needs to be done to warn audiences, and that’s even though they were warned extensively beforehand. Heck, you can have the whole movie spoiled for you when you visit its Wikipedia page as it often contains a plot synopsis of everything which happens. Regardless, parents still drag their children to movies they have no business watching at such a tender age just because they won’t spend the money to hire a babysitter.

I bring this up because the trailer for the 1972 exploitation horror movie “The Last House on the Left” does what most trailers these days never bother to do; warn prospective audiences of a seriously disturbing motion picture which will arrive in a theater near them very soon. The narrator speaks ominously of how the house rests on “the very center of hell,” and the musical stings are enough to send shivers down the spines of the most jaded filmgoer. And of course, there is the line of, “To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie.” These days, this refrain may seem laughable, but when it comes to this cult classic, this is a really good piece of advice to keep in mind.

It’s a relatively short trailer, but it shows how Wes Craven, who made his directorial debut with this one, shot “The Last House on the Left” in a documentary style to where it felt like we were watching something real and not staged. The only actors we see here are Sandra Cassel who played Mari Collingwood and Lucy Grantham who portrayed Phyllis Stone. These characters are put through absolute hell, but we do not see the full extent of their hell in the trailer. Instead, we get glimpses of the pain and torture they are put through, and it forces us to imagine the worst things they have been forced to experience. For myself, this trailer made me infinitely intrigued to check this movie out as it seemed like the kind most audiences would be quick to avoid. Having seen it, I can assure you this is not the easiest cinematic experience to sit through in the slightest, and you have to give credit to those who put this trailer together as even they were more than willing to make this point very clear to even the most adventurous of movie goers.

I love how “The Last House on the Left” trailer does an effective job of warning its prospective audience about how disturbing a movie this will be for them. These days, I tempted to think any studio releasing it would be much more focused on starting a cinematic universe regardless of its highly disturbing material. Just think of what could have been: “The Next to Last House on the Left,” “The Last House on the Right,” “The First House on the Left,” “The Last House to be Demolished on the Left,” etc. The possibilities may be disturbing, but they are also endless.

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Super Fly’ (1972)

Super Fly 1972 poster

With the remake about to be released, it was time to check out “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation crime drama which is considered one of the biggest classics of the genre. I have been aware of this film’s existence for years, and the photo on its VHS cover of Ron O’Neal holding a gun and looking ever so cool in his white suit and pants has been burned into my memory for decades. But like many movies I perused at local video stores, all of which have since vanished, I never got around to watching it until now.

While I certainly understand why “Super Fly” is long considered a classic blaxploitation film, it is not necessarily a great movie. On one hand the signs of its low budget are very much on display throughout to where I was reminded of what John Carpenter once said about the rule of making independent movies: “Shoot as little film as possible and make it as long as you can.” But on the other, it presents us with a New York time which no longer exists in modern day America, and the gritty realism of the city streets is on display throughout to where the movie’s existence is especially important as you can only fake this kind of realism in today’s cinematic world.

Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, an African-American drug dealer who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Harlem, New York. He got the name Priest because of the cross he wears around his neck. While this cross may or may not reflect his belief in God or any religious deity, a closer inspection reveals that the tip of the cross is fashioned in the shape of a spoon, and this allows him to do lines of cocaine whenever he needs a hit. In addition to his high-class apartment, the kind which would fetch at least a million in today’s New York real estate market, he also has a dedicated girlfriend in Georgia (Sheila Frazier), a white girl mistress named Cynthia (Polly Niles), the best set of clothes any man would be lucky to own and wear at the time, and he drives around town in a 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado. Looking at Priest is to be convinced this is a man who has a lot of power and confidence you would be foolish to question, and this is something he does not have to spell out to anyone in words.

But as successful as Priest is, he yearns for a life outside of the underground drug business. This, of course, leads to him to plan one last “big score” which he believes will allow him to retire and go straight, but those of us who have watched countless gangster movies know this last big score will be the one fraught with the most danger. It gets to where there I expected the one scene where Priest just shakes his head as if to say to himself, “I should have gotten out of the life sooner, and now it’s too late.” Still, Priest is much smarter than his friends and foes realize, and we watch as he plots his way to his biggest drug deal ever, and then attempt to stay one step of everyone else who wants to do him in.

It has been said that the screenplay for “Super Fly” was only 45 pages long, and this is why we get exposed to so many shots of people walking, driving and talking in restaurants. This is the kind of film editing you would never see today as everything needs to move at a fast pace. This ends up dragging the movie down a bit as certain moments play themselves out for much longer than is necessary. Still, it allows us to take a look back at the New York that was before it, for better or worse, was cleaned up to where much of the state if unaffordable to live in. This helps to make up for other scenes which are staged rather pathetically, especially one in which a character gets hit by a car.

O’Neal immediately comes across as the personification of cool from the first moment he appears onscreen. He was in his 30’s when starred in “Super Fly,” but his face has the look of a man who has seen a lot in life up to that point, and this makes his performance as Priest feel all the more powerful and authentic. I never got the feeling he was trying to glamourize Priest’s lifestyle, and he was not afraid to make this character a rough and unlikable dude at times. He simply portrays Priest as a man who makes his way through life the only way he knows how, and his methods as you can imagine are not always morally sound.

As for the rest of the cast, their performances range from okay to pretty good. Charles McGregor, who was released from prison before “Super Fly” began filming, has some good moments as Fat Freddie, and Carl Lee, who plays Eddie, has a strong scene in which he tells Priest if it wasn’t for him, he would have overdosed. This line of dialogue would later prove to be tragically ironic as Lee became a heroin addict, and he died of a drug overdose back in 1986.

When “Super Fly” was released, many African-Americans were said to have been displeased with the way the movie glamourized people like themselves as drug dealers and pimps, but it resonated deeply with others who saw the movie as an example of how to rise up in the American class system. Does this movie glamourize the lifestyles of drug dealers? Well, perhaps it does, but the scary truth is there is always an allure to a life like this as it affords us a wealth which constantly seems out of our reach. Still, it should be noted how we never really see Priest enjoying himself much in the movie. While he has many things a person would want in life, we see right from the start how he has long since tired of his role in society to where it is believable and understandable why he yearns to do something legitimate for a change.

For those who think “Super Fly” provides audiences with a rather ambiguous look at the world of drugs and drug dealing back in the 1970’s, you need to take the time to listen Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to it which, by the way, is one of the best of its kind ever. An exhilarating fusion of soul and funk music, Mayfield also provided lyrics which were very socially aware and took an even closer look at drugs and poverty in society. When you read the lyrics of the song “Freddie’s Dead,” you can see the evidence of this very clearly:

“Everybody’s misused him

Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan

Pushing dope for the man

A terrible blow

But that’s how it goes

A Freddie’s on the corner now

If you want to be a junkie, wow

Remember Freddie’s dead

We’re all built up with progress

But sometimes I must confess

We can deal with rockets and dreams

But reality, what does it mean

Ain’t nothing said

‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

Looking at this, it is no wonder the soundtrack ended up making more money than the movie itself, and the movie did make a huge profit.

So “Super Fly” may not be an example of great filmmaking, but it should be noted how its production succeeded in offering advances for African-Americans. The city of Harlem went out of its way to back the movie financially, and many black businesses helped with production costs. Furthermore, the majority of the crew were in fact African-American, something which was very rare at this time in cinema. Taking all this into account makes “Super Fly” all the more enjoyable as it was a movie made with passion and respect as the filmmakers sought to tell it like it is. Despite its glaring flaws, it is a very cool movie to experience, and I am glad I finally got the chance to check it out, especially before I went out to see the remake.

* * * out of * * * *