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 * * * *

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‘Friday the 13th’ May Be No ‘Halloween,’ But it is Better Than the Average Slasher Movie

Friday the 13th movie poster

Look, no one is going to mistake any “Friday the 13th” movie for cinema at its best. It started out as a rip off of “Halloween” with a little bit of “Psycho” thrown in for good measure, and it soon became a never-ending franchise which, to this day, still won’t die. We had two of the sequels with the word “final” in them, and each turned out to be a flat out lie. Just when it looks like this franchise has breathed its final breath, it is resurrected once again. Perhaps the world is overpopulated with too many horny teenagers who need to be dealt with in a messy way. In the end, these films touch on our deepest fears and exploit them for all they are worth. We know they’re not good for us, but we can’t help ourselves and want to see what nasty crimes will be perpetrated next.

The “Friday the 13th” movies are essentially the equivalent of a fast food meal, the kind which has an obscene amount of cholesterol in them. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep coming back for more. It’s not just tapping into our deepest desires, but into our willingness to be bad and rebel against what our parents don’t like. Film critics never stopped attacking these movies and continually bashed them to pieces, and yet they made so much damn money on such low budgets. It represented horror being taken to the next level for the children of the 80’s. Our parents hated the movies, and that made us all the more curious about seeing them. Jason Voorhees eventually became as familiar to us as Santa Claus. I remember when “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” (LOL) came out when I was in the second grade, and none us had ever looked more forward to a movie none of us would be able to see (nor had we any business to). Yes, these slasher flicks bring back a lot of nostalgia for me.

The original “Friday the 13th” seems much better in retrospect. This is especially the case when you compare them to the sequels, let alone all the endless knockoffs, which came after it. What surprised me is how some of the murders which occur in this movie actually happen off screen. We have no idea they have occurred until we see the carnage put on display right in front of our eyes. It’s pretty vicious what is perpetrated in this film, and this was back when an arrow through an eye actually felt shocking. For the most part, “Friday the 13th” and a couple of sequels felt very real. You have to give the filmmakers credit because none of the slasher movies made today can’t even touch that feeling of reality. We all know we’re watching a movie when it comes to the sequels, but the original was experienced more than watched.

I’m sure we all know by now what Drew Barrymore should have known at the beginning of “Scream;” Jason was not the killer in this one. Instead, it was his mother, played in an over the top performance by Betsy Palmer. Mrs. Voorhees is basically what Norman Bates’ mother would have looked like, had Norman not have killed her off. Those moments where she is clearly schizophrenic and acting as if her son is actually telling her to kill people are both chilling and hilarious at the same time. This is far from a convincing performance, but Palmer is so much fun to watch in her deranged state to where it really doesn’t matter.

The cast of actors were basically hired not so much for their acting talent, but because they resemble, as director Sean S. Cunningham put it, those kids who came out of a Pepsi commercial. In many ways, this casting choice helped give “Friday the 13th” a stronger feeling of reality as they are people we recognize from our own lives. They are not models who have enhanced themselves with endless plastic surgeries (those would appear in the sequels). The ladies look very sweet and fetching, and the men look down to earth and not like those guys who spent way too much time at the gym.

“Friday the 13th” also was the movie which started the cliché of how if you have premarital sex with your boyfriend of girlfriend, you would die. The last person left standing was always a virgin, or the one too shy to ask a boy for a date. As a result, many people think there is some highly conservative Christian value system in place in these movies which one must follow in order to survive an experience with a masked maniac. Some will say Carpenter originated this with the original “Halloween,” but he made it clear in the DVD commentary he was not trying to spread religious dogma. Carpenter said the characters got killed because they weren’t paying attention, but ever since the first “Friday the 13th,” it’s been open season on kids who don’t practice safe sex.

There is also the crazy old man Ralph (Walt Gorney) who warns everybody of how they “are all doomed.” Of course, it’s always some crazy guy no one ever listens to. God forbid it’s some normal person people take the time to listen to. But if everyone were to believe this guy, then there would be no movie.

Of all the actors in this film, let alone the entire series, Kevin Bacon is the one who came out of it with the most successful career. “Friday the 13th” may not show off his best talents, but he does have one of the coolest death sequences in horror movie history. Bacon also gets to have one of the sweetest love making scenes any horror movie could ever hope to have. His character and his girlfriend actually do make love. It’s not one of those humping and pumping moments you can find in so many other movies where one person is doing all the work and the other is not having enough pleasure. It makes their inevitable deaths feel kind of sad. Even if we really wanted to see these two get bumped off, we don’t look forward to it.

Sooner or later, we were bound to see this movie because people couldn’t stop describing the more graphic moments in it. I remember my brother telling me about the scene where Kevin’s girlfriend does finally get it:

“You see her looking into the shower stalls and no one’s there. But while she is looking, you can see in the background the shadow of an ax being raised up. When she turns around, you can see the ax going into her face!”

My reply to this at the time was:

“Whoa! Cool!”

Then you have the unforgettable Harry Manfredini music score which basically sounds like Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score on speed. Never have woodwind instruments been as thoroughly pummeled as they are here. This is not to mention the “chi, chi, chi, ha, ha, ha” sound (it’s actually “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”) which is so clearly identified with this undying franchise. When you hear it, you know Jason is not far away with a rusty machete in his grasp.

Cunningham is no John Carpenter, and he is a better producer than a director, but he does keep the suspense quota of “Friday the 13th” at a high level and generates a number of good scares. This one does not focus so much on the killings as it did on the messy aftermath. While you did see characters gutted in the most painful places imaginable, there were a couple of others you kept wondering about until you saw their bloodied corpses. The later sequels would get a little more creative with the murders.

* * * out of * * * *