The Last House on the Left, 1972.
Directed by Wes Craven.
Starring David Hess, Sandra Peabody, Fred J. Lincoln, Lucy Grantham, Richard Towers, Cynthia Carr, Martin Kove, Marc Sheffler, and Jeramie Rain.
Two teenage girls are kidnapped and brutalised before the attackers in knowing seek shelter at the home of the parents of one of the girls.
Often cited as a huge influence on horror and exploitation cinema, Wes Craven’s feature debut The Last House on the Left is finally given the treatment it deserves in a lavish 3-disc limited edition Blu-ray set courtesy of Arrow Video. Having been a subject of controversy since its original release in 1972, this powerful rape/revenge movie has often divided fans and critics not only for its brutal and graphic content but also because, despite its importance in genre cinema, it is a film made by young and inexperienced filmmakers who didn’t really know what they were doing, something that director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street/Scream) and producer Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) have acknowledged several times over the past five decades.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring – itself based on a Swedish folk tale – the plot of The Last House on the Left is a simple one in that two teenage girls head into the city for a rock concert but get kidnapped by the sinister Krug (the brilliantly sleazy David Hess – Swamp Thing/The House on the Edge of the Park) and his gang of reprobates, which includes his junkie son Junior (Marc Sheffler – 30 Days to Die). The girls are taken out into the woods where they are raped and humiliated before being murdered, and then Krug and his gang seek refuge at a nearby house which, unbeknownst to them, belongs to the parents of one of the girls they have just killed, and once the parents suss out what has happened and who these people in their home are all bets are off as the peaceful middle class couple exact their revenge in various vicious and bloody ways.
Made during the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, The Last House on the Left – alongside that other notable ‘70s classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – is really a huge howl of rage on the part of the filmmakers, reflecting humankind’s intolerance of each other, whether through class, race, religion or gender, and how desperate situations can force people to behave immorally when they normally wouldn’t, and vice versa. Wes Craven would go on to explore similar themes in a more efficient and economical way in 1977s The Hills Have Eyes but here his anger at the state of his county at that time is rawer and less polished than his later endeavours. His storytelling naivety, and that of producer Sean S. Cunningham, is on the screen for everyone to see in what is essentially the first rape/revenge movie to be made where the whole rape is shown with the camera lingering on every detail.
On that basis it is easy to see why the film has attracted so much controversy over the years as 46 years on it is still uncomfortable viewing, but what is more noticeable in these enlightening times, when every other detail in the filmmaking process is exposed for all to see, is how much Craven, Cunningham and company were really winging it to see what they could get away with. Take, for example, the much-maligned comedy cops – one of whom is a young Martin Kove from The Karate Kid/Rambo: First Blood Part II fame – bumbling along to some jaunty banjo music that Craven always said he put in just to add a bit of a lighter tone. It does indeed change the tone but its inclusion is so jarring and clumsy compared to the darkness that comes before it that it doesn’t so much offset the violence that Krug and his goons dish out but make it more uncomfortable than it already was, albeit for different reasons.
And talking of uncomfortable viewing, the final 20 minutes where Mr and Mrs Collingwood (played very badly by Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr) take revenge on the gang for their daughter is still the nastiest thing Wes Craven ever filmed. Yes, it may come across as a bit hammy and OTT but that is mainly down to poor performances and harsh editing, and when you look at the exploitation thrillers that filled up the grindhouse cinemas over the next decade you can see where those earnest young filmmakers got their inspiration from. Despite the crass nature of its execution, seeing a man get his penis chewed off still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, so to speak.
If ever a film were ripe for a remake then The Last House on the Left surely qualified due to its technical flaws and narrative shortcomings and in 2009 Hollywood (with Wes Craven’s involvement) obliged with a slick and glossy retelling that, whilst technically very proficient, failed to recapture the gritty depravity and shock value of the original, which was always going to be the case as torture porn – a brutal horror sub-genre influenced by movies like The Last House on the Left – was at its zenith and horror audiences at the time were more than used to realistic scenes of rape and torture thanks to the likes of Hostel and The Devil’s Rejects. With that in mind it is important to view The Last House on the Left as an important, even culturally significant, movie but it isn’t necessarily a ‘good’ movie; you certainly wouldn’t put it on to impress anybody and if you were in the mood for a watchable (see ‘more enjoyable’) violent movie then the remake would be the one to go for.
However, for those searching for something a little less mainstream and cinephiles looking not just for the film but for contextual supplementary material then this magnificent set is a must-have. Not only do you get an authentically grainy HD print of the unrated cut you also get the R-rated cut and the alternative Krug & Company cut, and the Australian version of the film that is slightly shorter than the unrated cut but doesn’t really offer up many noticeable differences, although it is nice to have all the versions in one set. There is quite a bundle of archival material that has been available before, including commentaries, deleted scenes, making-of featurettes and interviews with cast and crew including Wes Craven, Sean S. Cunningham and David Hess, and also some new features including an informative commentary by podcasters Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes, a trip to the original shooting locations, interviews with actor Marc Sheffler and make-up artist Anne Paul, a Wes Craven tribute from several of his former collaborators, footage from a 2017 Q&A with actor Marc Sheffler and, as a treat for Wes Craven fans, his unfinished short film Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out; to be honest, it is only 11 minutes long and contains no audio but for the completist it is something to treasure.
If that wasn’t enough you also get the soundtrack CD, featuring David Hess’ folky singalongs in all their remastered glory, plus postcards, a poster, reversible sleeve and a 60-page book featuring writings on the film by author Stephen Thrower, and so for presentation alone this set is stunning and pretty much definitive when it comes to this movie and its reputation amongst genre connoisseurs. However, it is one for collectors rather than for casual viewer and taken as a film on its own The Last House on the Left still proves to be as excruciating and frustrating to sit through as it always has been, although not necessarily for the same reasons that it was back in 1972.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★