Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Last House on the Left (1972) - A Review

To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…”

A huge allure of horror films when I was younger was the taboo that seemed to encapsulate them. I was strictly forbidden from watching them when I was young, at least when mom was in the house, so naturally (much like any other young child who is told they can’t do something) I was drawn to them. I think that’s something that transcends young age, and in the world of horror it is far from unheard of for films to be banned for decades before they are seen within the borders of some countries. Many films have met this fate, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but one of the biggest to be slapped with the fated rating of X was the exploitation horror, The Last House on the Left. 

Written and directed by Wes Craven, this film broke boundaries when it was released in 1972. It was exceedingly violent, gruesome, perverse and downright awful, but then again that’s what makes it a horror film that we are still discussing 40 years later. Funny enough, Sean S. Cunningham (who went on to direct Friday the 13th) actually produced this one through his own studio so we saw two great masters of horror working together years before they went on to mark their names in the horror books forever. Friday the 13th meets A Nightmare on Elm Street? Sounds tasty. 

Title: The Last House on the Left
Director(s): Wes Craven
Writer(s): Wes Craven
Producer(s): Sean S. Cunningham
Starring: Sandra Cassell, Lucy Gantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler
Studio: Sean S. Cunningham Films
Release: August 30, 1972
Running Time: 84 minutes


Mari is a beautiful young girl, who is celebrating her 17th birthday by attending a concert with her friend Phyllis. Her parents are initially apprehensive of her going out with Phyllis but ultimately allow her to, but not before giving her a peace symbol necklace as a birthday gift. 

While her parents are decorating the house for a party and baking a birthday cake, Phyllis and Mari are driving into the city when they hear a report on the radio detailing the escape of group convicted serial killers and rapists: Krug Stillo, his son Junior, his “girlfriend” Sadie and friend Fred “Weasel” Podowski. They think nothing of it and when they arrive in the city they begin their hunt for some good grass which ultimately leads them to the door of Krug and his gang. 

After Krug and the others drag them out to the forest (which also happens to be only minutes from Mari’s house) they viscously murder Phyllis before raping Mari and leaving her for dead in the lake. They wash up and stumble upon the home of Doctor Collingwood, Mari’s home, and spin a tale that they are travelling salesmen but when her mother Estelle discovers Mari’s peace necklace slung around the neck of Junior, the parents discover the truth about what happened to their daughter and form a plan for revenge that entails mutilated genitals, chainsaws, shotguns and pistols.
This film was Wes Craven’s directorial debut. After working on the film Together with Sean S. Cunningham, the two became friends and were given a large budget for a horror film by the distribution company, Hallmark Releasing (no relation to the greeting card company). While it was written with the intention of being an extremely graphic and hardcore film, the decision was made to edit it down and turn into a softer film. The film still, none the less, sent shockwaves throughout terrified audiences and was subsequently banned and censored in dozens of countries. 

It’s an interesting film, certainly not bad, but upon first viewing you may think of it as so. In true exploitation film fashion, it focuses heavily on the shock of murder, blood and guts BUT keep in mind who is directing. Wes Craven is a true horror genius and often times with his works things are never placed unceremoniously into a film simply for the sake of filling space. Craven is known for using various psychological approaches to horror and heavily researching small nuances that he can place into his films to create the most profound impact on the audience. One of the best examples of this is why he wanted Freddy Kreuger’s sweater to be red and green. It is believed that the clashing of the two colors causes a feeling of fear in those who see it. Kind of funny, considering that those are the colors widely associated with Christmas. I believe that this is the same approach that he began to hone with his work in The Last House on the Left.

Upon first viewing, one of the first things that may stick out at you is the soundtrack. While I don’t think that it is all that effective, in fact I believe it to be distracting, the music often conflicts with the actions being presented on the screen. Scenes containing gratuitous amounts of rape and violence are followed by a score that can only be described as upbeat, happy and jovial; this song being called “The Baddies Theme”. I do think that this was Craven honing what became a trademark of his though. Unlike John Carpenter however, Craven didn’t compose his own scores and in fact, the score for Last House was done by David Hess who played Krug in the film. There were moments however where the soundtrack was effective. I have a deep seeded love for the 60’s and early 70’s, and I believe that this time was well represented. Sweet songs and ballads that were reminiscent of the time come through and put you at peace which is nice after watching a girl be raped and slashed open. 

Being an exploitation film, you can’t necessarily expect to have an all-star cast (especially within the world of horror) but we were presented with an ensemble of folks who handled their parts well. I wouldn’t say that there were too many stand out actors in this one, however you do feel for Mari and the things that she is going through. I thought that it was a little strange however, to see how her parents reacted to the death of their daughter. There were no wails of anguish, there was no shock or awe, upon first viewing you’re almost not even sure if she’s dead or not.

I’m not going to do a P’s and C’s for this film, you may call it laziness, I call it a nice deviation from standard format. I have no particular high-light for this film, over-all it’s a fun film that’s definitely worth a watch and could very well become a film that you toss on when there’s nothing else to watch (much like it has become for me). The low-light for me would have to be the “comedic cops” who serve virtually no purpose in the film, other than to provide a little bit of comedic relief into the viscera presented on screen. While it’s understandable that in 1972 that such a thing was needed, but for me, save the screen time for a little more gore.


- Rg Lovecraft

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