Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)

I don't suppose many of my readers find it too surprising that I decided to spend Valentine's Day not by wooing some local nymphet or treating a handsome middle-aged British lady of affluence to a $50 prix-fixe dinner but by staying home alone to watch Wes Craven's damn-this-feels-like-a-snuff-film The Last House on the Left.

Hey, what can I say? I'm a romantic. I'm sure it shows throughout the entries of this blog.

The Last House on the Left, the debut feature by the creator of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises (and produced by Sean S. Cunningham, creator of the Friday the 13th franchise), could be seen as either a prime example of trashy grindhouse exploitation that crosses the line of decency, a film that manages to transcend its drive-in roots by exploiting the public's postwar anxieties (Mr. Craven has stated in interviews that he wanted to convey that sense of violence he saw in news footage of the Vietnam War), or both (a film that works as pure trashy exploitation and as "art").

Obviously, I find it to be in the third category. Although using the infamous tagline in its trailers and posters, "To Avoid Fainting, Keep Repeating: 'It's Only A Movie, Only A Movie, Only A Movie...'" it has higher ambitions than being "only a movie" (or rather, only a midnight movie offering cheap thrills).

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of the film:

Last House On The Left is a tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie that's about four times as good as you'd expect. ... Wes Craven's direction never lets us out from under almost unbearable dramatic tension. The acting is unmannered and natural. There's no posturing. There's a good ear for dialogue and nuance. And there is evil in this movie. Not bloody escapism, or a thrill a minute, but a fully developed sense of the vicious natures of the killers. There is no glory in this violence. And Craven has written in a young member of the gang ... who sees the horror as fully as the victims do.

(Note: although relatively tame compared to a few scenes, the following clip is not exactly work-friendly.)

Spoilers begin here. In the film, Mari Collingwood (played by Sandra Cassell) celebrates her 17th birthday by attending a Bloodlust concert with her friend, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham). Her parents give her a gift, a peace symbol necklace, before she leaves. Traveling to the city, Mari and Phyllis hear a radio report of a recent prison break, involving a man named Krug (David A. Hess), his son Junior (Marc Sheffler), his girlfriend Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and his partner Weasel (Fred Lincoln).

Upon arrival in the city, Mari and Phyllis stroll the streets, seeking someone who might sell marijuana. They run into Junior and ask him if he has any weed. Since he's been told by Sadie to bring home some girls if he wants to get high (Krug keeps Junior addicted to heroin to control him), Junior tells Mari and Phyllis he does. He leads them up to an apartment, where the group of psychopaths entrap the girls.

The next morning, the Krug's gang throws the girls into the trunk of its car and they drive into the countryside as the gang intends to leave the state. Their car breaks down and, unable to get their car fixed, they take the girls into the woods to torture them. Despite Phyllis attempting to make a break for it and Mari trying to befriend Junior (by giving him her peace symbol necklace and offering him drugs through her father, a doctor), both girls are ultimately tortured, raped and killed.

At Mari's home, Mari's parents have traveling guests, who turn out to be Krug's gang, looking better dressed than before. The couple agrees to let them stay over night. However, Mari's mother Estelle (Cynthia Carr) eventually sees Mari's necklace around Junior's neck. She and her husband John (Richard Towers) realize that their houseguests killed their daughter and plan their revenge, which is doled out quite savagely for a middle-aged square couple (Mari's father attacks Krug with a chainsaw while her mother lures Weasel outside to perform fellatio on him to bite off his penis...yes, you read that right...and slice Sadie's throat). Spoilers end here.

Cheery stuff, I know.

Oddly enough, this incredibly graphic and savage movie is a remake of a 1960 Ingmar Bergman film called The Virgin Spring (JungfrukÀllan), which is in turn based on a 13th century Swedish ballad. The plots of both films are identical: two young women venture out on their own and are confronted by a gang of sociopaths, one of whom is retarded. The gang tortures, rapes and kills the two girls, then through pure coincidence, winds up staying at one of the victim's family's house. The parents discover that their lodging guests have killed their daughter, and exact revenge.

Having explained this, these films couldn't be more different in style, tone and even content. On how radically two different the films are, the staff of the Onion AV Club writes:

"Wes Craven's low-budget thriller Last House On The Left exploited turn-of-the-'70s anxieties about teen freedom in the post-counterculture era by making two 17-year-olds' trip to the city to see a rock concert a descent into Charles Manson-inspired hell. But their kidnapping and eventual murder backfires when their hippie-ish killers happen on the girl's square parents, who put two and two together and exact violent revenge. Craven's film couldn't be any more a product of its time, but more than the modern trappings, explicit violence, and gone-memorably-awry fellatio scene set it apart from its surprising source: Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film The Virgin Spring. Set in medieval Sweden and based on a ballad from the era, Bergman's film concerns, at least in part, the shift from pagan values to Christian forgiveness, and it ends with an unexpected miracle. Craven's film also deals with shifting values, but offers less hope that the times to come will be kinder.

Despite there being several elements that patently do not work - the "comic relief" portions with the sheriff and deputy trying to find a ride after their squad car gets stolen is jarringly out of place, the soundtrack is at times distractingly inappropriate - The Last House on the Left deploys a sense of docu-realism via its low budget, hand-held camerawork, amateur acting (meant in a good way; i.e., natural), realistic violence and semi-improvisational dialogue (a docu-realism that would be seen again two years later in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) that prevents it from being easily dismissible as cheap trash.

Wincing every now and again,

James "Retarded Junkie" Comtois

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