Last House on the Left
= Highest Rating
don't kill people. People kill people.
I've never subscribed
to the cockamamie line of thought which says that aspects of
pop culture — be it book, music,
or film — contribute to violence
in society. Most recently (the mid '90s), Oliver Stone came
under fire from author John Grisham and a cabal of conservative
activist groups for his film Natural Born
Killers, when a couple of punks charged with murder claimed
they were inspired to the deed by watching Stone's movie. Stone
was taken to court for foisting a "defective product"(!) on
the public, a case which was fortunately tossed out on First
Amendment grounds. (I wonder how Grisham would've reacted had
some homicidal nutcase been arrested for killing lawyers, citing
his obsession with Grisham's legal thrillers as the reason for
his murder spree.) Art — and cinema
is an art form — is the one human
activity in which transgression against "taboo" themes is actually
necessary to enrich and invigorate it. If restrained by convention,
whether political or cultural, art then withers and eventually
dies. Now this isn't to say there aren't any limits, no lines
that can't be crossed. There certainly are. Child pornography
is illegal, and should be, but not because of what it is; it's
socially verboten and criminally actionable because the rights
of underage minors are violated in the making of it —
such a film isn't itself the "crime", but rather what was done
to create it. The same goes for animal cruelty and the so-called
Snuff films of urban legend.
So am I ever gonna
get to the review? Yes. Wes Craven's 1972 drive-in shocker Last
House on the Left is just such a "transgressive" film;
indeed, a rather influential one. It outraged a good many people
— you know, the types who are quick
to condemn that which they've never seen. It also outraged plenty
of those who had seen it. I can only imagine the reaction
of audiences to it some 30 years ago, even those supposedly
jaded by other exploitation pics of the period. I'm sure nothing
really prepared them for Last House.
The film's stark, documentary-style presentation of senseless,
sadistic violence really packs a punch. Moral ambiguity reigns
supreme. Expectations are tossed out the window. Uncomfortable
questions are raised.
Too bad the movie's not really all that good.
(Sandra Cassel) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), two teenage
girls trying to score some weed before a rock concert in New
York City, are kidnapped and abused by a gang of sadistic criminals.
This small band of thugs consists of Krug (David Hess), the
brutish, psychotic leader of the group; Weasel (Fred Lincoln),
a nasty twit with an Elvis pompadour and a penchant for switchblades;
Sadie (Jeramie Rain), the gang's vicious moll and 'community
lay'; and Junior, Krug's mentally retarded son who helped spring
the others from jail. The girls are doomed from the moment they
fall into Krug and company's remorseless clutches. Be prepared
for a harrowing experience, one all the more disturbing because
we know from news headlines that this type of horror can and
does happen in real life. No supernatural monsters here, folks...
Creatures of myth and legend couldn't be as cruel. Dracula needs
your blood to survive; werewolves can't control their animalistic
urges; flesh-eating zombies are merely hungry. Krug and his
pals rape, torture and kill for no other reason than they can
— just for fun. The film's middle
section centers on this nihilistic appetite for destruction.
When the gang's car breaks down on a rural country road the
girls are marched into the adjoining woods to meet their fate.
It ain't pretty. Phyllis is made to urinate on herself, then
the two girls are stripped naked and forced to "make it" with
each other. Mari, a 17-year old virgin, is brutally tortured
and raped by Krug. Phyllis is the first to die, stabbed and
disemboweled when she's caught after a failed escape attempt.
Then it's Mari's turn: Krug shoots her with a pistol when the
girl, resigned to her lonely, squalid death, wades into a pond
to drown herself.
In an astonishing
coincidence, the murders take place only a few hundred yards
from Mari's home. Her parents, distraught over their missing
daughter, are nonetheless charitable to the four strangers who
later show up on their doorstep telling of a broken down car.
Since the phone's not working they can't call for a tow; the
Collingwoods offer to put the four up for the night. (Yeah...
Sure they would.) But overheard snatches of conversation
and a telltale clue bring Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood to a horrible
realization — their daughter's
been murdered, her killers now guests in their home. With the
phone out of order the police can't be summoned. They must take
justice into their own avenging hands.
Last House made waves all out of
proportion to its actual quality as a motion picture.
(Pairing crude, documentary-style depictions of violence with
sensationalistic marketing ballyhoo was bound to have an impact.
For an example of how the film was promoted, check out the radio
spot MP3 link on the left-hand sidebar.) This was the first
feature-length film of Wes Craven, who'd later find fame and
fortune with A Nightmare on Elm Street
and the Scream franchise. His inexperience
naturally shows. That Last House
is the handiwork of a novice director, one operating with a
virtually nonexistent budget, is not what makes the film a bummer,
however. Craven does manage to engineer some compelling moments
— made so more by the startling bursts of method acting from
an otherwise amateurish cast than anything done by the folks
behind the camera. In his portrayal of the repellent Krug, David
Hess (who also composed the songs and music for the film) makes
an impression as a thoroughly soulless sociopath; he's a fairly
scary punk at times. Victims Casell and Grantham are incredibly
believable in the torture/murder scenes, upping the horror quotient
of these sequences substantially, even if in the beginning of
the film their performances are pretty awkward. What really
hurts the movie is the writing, which is uniformly bad (Craven
wrote the screenplay, too). The basic plot theme, Craven says
in the DVD's audio commentary, is his variation on Ingmar Bergman's
The Virgin Spring. The lame dialog
and ridiculous plot twists are all Craven's, however. He also
reports that he was stoned during most of the film's production.
Were ya tokin' too much during the writing process, too, Wes?
It must've been some killer weed for you to think it'd be believable
for Mari's mom —
who just found out her daughter's been murdered —
to be capable of giving Weasel a blow job (all the way to climax)
just so she can exact revenge. (It's the movie's most infamous
scene; pretty silly really, but you won't forget it!) How else
to excuse the absolutely wretched attempts at humor, most egregiously
in the form of the two bumbling cop characters? The "Chicken
Truck" scene is so awful I could easily imagine Last
House being pilloried for it rather than any depiction
of sexualized violence... Plopped right in the middle of a grim
and brutal "You Are There" crime story is something
you might expect to see in Dolemite.
The completely botched attempts at injecting humor —
not to mention the terrible
dialog throughout —
totally kneecap the film's repeat viewing appeal, even for dedicated
'70s Exploitation fans like myself. Still, Last
House remains an essential experience for anyone truly
interested in that period and aspect of cult cinema.
has done a truly excellent job with this rather grungy, sordid
In terms of A/V quality, this is the best this
extremely low budget (shot on 16mm) film is likely to ever look
and sound. So if you're expecting a pristine transfer akin to
a more modern release, forget it. All in all, the film looks remarkably
good given its origins. The Mono audio track is for the most part
clear and static-free. Instances of muffled dialog stem from the
film's original sound recording.
(A 2-sided disc, one can either watch the movie in 1.85:1 anamorphic
Widescreen or Fullframe formats.)
The DVD is absolutely loaded with extras considering its low price.
Viewers have the option of beginning the film with an on-camera
introduction by Craven. The theatrical trailer is included, along
with 14 minutes of outtakes and dailies. Forbidden Footage
is an 8-minute reel highlighting some of the more notorious sequences
in Last House; a longer cut of the
disemboweling scene presents a minute or two of additional gore
that was trimmed prior to theatrical release. An excellent half-hour
long documentary, The Making of Last House On the Left,
recounts the production via interviews with Craven, producer Sean
S. Cunningham (who went on to direct the original Friday
the 13th), production assistant Steve Miner, and stars David
Hess, Lucy Grantham, Fred Lincoln, Marc Sheffler, and Martin Kove.
Finally, Cunningham and Craven provide a terrific audio commentary
track that touches on just about every possible aspect of the
film. In turns both funny and serious, their take on just what
they had wrought over 30 years ago is as illuminating as it is
The DVD reviewed here went OOP in 2008. MGM is releasing a new
edition on February 24, 2009.