Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) is planning on attending a concert with her friend, Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), for her 17th birthday. Though her parents, John (Gaylord St. James) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr), express concern over the event, they nevertheless let her go anyway. On their way to the concert, they run into Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler) while trying to buy pot, and after he leads them to his gang, led by his criminal father Krug (David A. Hess), they are tortured and raped to death in the woods.
Following their depraved acts, they make their way out of the woods and take refuge with a well-to-do suburban couple after their car breaks down. Little do they know, in a stroke of coincidence all too cruel, that the couple they’re residing with are Mari’s parents.
Long before he became known as the “Master of Modern Horror”, Wes Craven was a struggling, aspiring filmmaker hired to synchronize dailies for future Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham’s low-budget film Together. From there, the two became friends, and after Hallmark Releasing (no, not that Hallmark) bought Cunningham’s film which would go on to achieve a moderate success, the company gave the two a bigger budget to make a horror film.
Enter The Last House on the Left.
With Craven serving as writer/director and Cunningham serving as producer, The Last House on the Left was originally meant to be a graphic “hardcore” film titled Night of Vengeance. However, after shooting began, the decision was made to edit it down to a softer film.
I can only imagine how graphic the original version was, if the final cut is what’s considered the “softer” version.
If the plot to The Last House on the Left sounds familiar, it’s ’cause it’s loosely based on the Ingmar Bergman classic The Virgin Spring from 1960. Well known for proudly flaunting the tagline “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie…'”, Craven’s exploitation-horror debut was a box office success, grossing $3 million on a $90,000 budget, and received generally positive reviews, but it wasn’t without its controversy. Its release was met with heavy censorship, bans in other countries and some viewers were so repulsed by the film’s barbarity that they broke into the projector room to destroy the film.
Nowadays, some, me included, view this as a landmark for grindhouse horror, launching Wes Craven’s career and, to a lesser extent, Sean S. Cunningham’s as well. Most notably, though, its success helped launch along with 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for better or for worse, what would become known as the slasher genre.
From a technical standpoint, The Last House on the Left is grainy and rough, which was entirely Craven’s point. Inspired by the graphic news footage of the Vietnam War, Craven went for a docu-style look to the picture just as unpleasant as the story. Obviously, compared to the 21st century torture porn craze, the brutality depicted here isn’t as gruesome, but for its time, it was viewed as repulsive. And to be honest, even today, its scenes of violence are still graphic, even if they’re not as violent as what’s done by filmmakers these days.
This isn’t a complete home run by Craven. There’s a campy scene involving two doofus cops and a chicken truck that feels completely out of place and detracts from what he’s trying to go for here. But beyond its flaws, the film’s underlying theme of how violence begets violence, which was similarly covered in Sam Peckinpah’s equally controversial Straw Dogs a year before this, packs a potent punch. The violence used by Craven is shocking, but it’s his uncompromising statement on the banality of evil and the dehumanizing effect of violence has on the aggressor (the criminals’ reactions to their savage butchery are telling and not what you’d expect), the victim and even the victim’s family that keeps this film from being a crappy amateur exploitation flick (for example, garbage like I Spit on Your Grave).
Like the tone shift involving the two bumbling cops, the performances also vary, which is understandably expected given what Craven was working with at the time. Jeramie Rain, Lucy Grantham and porn star Fred Lincoln, as Sadie, Phyllis and Weasel, respectively, don’t exactly show off the greatest of ranges with their performances which are two-dimensional at best. However, David A. Hess is convincingly slimy and despicable as the gang leader Krug and Mar Sheffler provides Junior’s antics with a touch of remorse and sympathy that distinguishes him fully from the pack of homicidal thugs he sides with. Sandra Cassel also turns in solid work as the endearing Mari whose final moments of defeat are utterly heartbreaking.
One aspect of the film which has garnered some flack from others that I wholeheartedly defend is Craven’s choice for a dissonant folk soundtrack (scored by co-star David Hess). It might seem off-putting, but one has to understand Craven’s influence at the time. Turn on the TV and you have news outlets shoving graphic images of Vietnam in your face. Flip on the radio and what do you hear? The Summer of Love. Yes, it’s a product of its time, but its a much more effective use of discordant tones, as compared to say Craven juxtaposing the film’s carnage with comic relief from the two cops that falls flat.
While it isn’t as evenly put together as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the later works that would turn Wes Craven into a household name, The Last House on the Left is still an effectively gritty, unapologetic tale on the depravity of man. Though this, of course, isn’t for everyone, and you could even argue it’s the original “not for everyone” film, its influence on not just Craven’s own work, but the horror genre as a whole goes without saying.
Social commentary or mindless exploitation? You decide.