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The Last House on the Left (1972)

Rating: *** out of 4

“All that blood and violence. I thought you were supposed to be the love generation” – Estelle Collingwood to her daughter Mari.

Cast: Sandra Cassell, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, and Jeramie Rain.

Writer: Wes Craven

Director: Wes Craven

Raw. Revolting. Brilliant. Powerful. Horrifying. Tense. Depraved. Stunningly real. These are all words that expertly describe Wes Craven’s directorial debut. Due to a brilliant marketing campaign, the words “It’s Only a Movie; It’s Only a Movie; It’s Only a Movie!” reverberate through everyone’s mind whenever they think about this film that is as palpable and effective today as it was back in 1972.

For those who are unfamiliar with the premise, the film is a modern interpretation of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which itself was inspired by a 13th century cautionary folk tale. This version of the story finds young Mari Collingwood celebrating her 17th birthday with friend Phyllis, but along the way are abducted by four violent fugitives, led by Krug, who desire to commit the sex crime of the century. What makes this film so effective is not that Craven delivers a larger than life villain (which he would later do in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street), but rather offers up a real-world brand of villainy. Krug, Sadie, Weasel, and, to a lesser extent, Junior are all very human and realistic. The film isn’t scary so much as uncomfortably real and therein lies its power.

The film’s portrayal of violence is something out of left field. There is a montage of nature shots early in the film that start off rather serene and beautiful before turning rather rapid and violent which mimes this film’s structure. The film opens with a few soft scenes wherein Mari is admiring her body, Mari engages in a fun little scene with her parents, and discusses her changing body with Phyllis. These scenes are all overly light and cheesy, but once the girls meet Krug, the film shifts into an unrelenting nail-biter that is played for pure realism. The film gets so tense that when one of the girls is stabbed, you almost feel the knife wound. Oddly, it happens off camera and doesn’t even have a typical squish sound. No, it is just shot so well, and the actors play it so truthfully that you can feel it.

Craven has never been one to shy away from screen violence, and here it works in the film’s favor. The violence is not cartoony as in an Evil Dead or Quentin Tarantino movie. It is not over the top or unrealistic in any way. It portrays violence as it happens in real life. The same can be said for the rape scenes. The act is disgusting, humiliating, and foul. What’s interesting is where Craven aims the camera. It starts off on the victims, but each time veers off and lingers on those committing the rape. He doesn’t sexualize the rape for the viewer as often happens (see I Spit on Your Grave, or even Game of Thrones), but has them see, almost from the victim’s point of view, how revolting the act is. There is this great moment after the rape has been committed where Krug and company all look at each other uncertain what to say and bearing the slightest look of shame and disgust. Opting to focus the camera on the victimizers, rather than the victim was a bold, and, dare I say, brave move. It’s never really done. The camera always focuses on the victim, but audiences don’t need to be told what is going through the victim’s head and how they are reacting, because the audience is quite reacting appropriately anyway. No, audiences should see how the rapist deals with what they are doing, both in the moment and after it is over. What is shown is quite repellent, and forces viewers to stop and take a moment to deal with what they are watching for supposed enjoyment. These are real acts of violence that happen every day, and you should take a moment to recognize what you are gaining enjoyment from. There is nothing enjoyable about this scene and it plays to the film’s benefit.

It is interesting to see themes emerge in this film that play a part in many of Craven’s future pictures. It follows several strong female characters, which are often the center of Craven’s films. This film is no different. Mari starts off as the face of innocence, but grows quite swiftly, even trying to get Krug’s illegitimate son, Junior, to assist in her escape. Phyllis is a fighter, and features as Mari’s comfort, even as all these bad things are being forced upon her. Sadie, though one of the films villains, is both a genuine physical threat as well as a proud and impassioned young woman who stands up to the rest of Krug’s crew. Lastly, Mari’s mother is the one to uncover Krug’s identity and takes on two of the film’s antagonists in the white knuckle climax.

It features many more themes that would go on to be staples of a Wes Craven film such as; weaponizing your home– Home Alone style, the old fashioned parent and the worldly youth, suburban/rural crime, taking justice into one’s own hands, and the figure of the dark father/parent. On the film’s commentary, Craven said that he modeled Krug on his own father, and Junior was a representation of himself, to some extent.

As much as I praise the film for its successes, there are a few damning weaknesses. First off, there are two incompetent policemen (another theme that would emerge in many of his other works) that are added for the sake of levity to lighten the otherwise humorless movie. Every single scene they feature in grinds the movie to a halt. If you lift their scenes (or simply skip past them), the film becomes instantly better. Secondly, the editing is a bit choppy, but the way Craven explains it on the commentary, there is no original cut of this movie left and what exists are what remained after outraged projectionists hacked up the copies out of sheer revulsion at what was unfolding on film. So, the inept editing could be a result of that. Thirdly, the music. My god! It is so bad! It has this weird hillbilly score that is unceremoniously upbeat and is downright in conflict with the tone of the movie. Oddly enough, the film’s score and ballads (yes, there are a few sung ballads in this film!) are performed by the actor playing Krug. Biggest misstep ever. If one were to replace the awkward music with a more tonally appropriate score, I think the film would be so much stronger. As it is, the score makes it almost more off-putting than the films general content.

Lastly, the biggest problem with this movie is also its biggest benefit; it is so raw and real that it is damn-near unwatchable. There is nothing enjoyable about watching this film. Like, at all. Sure, the climax is both a nail-biter and offers some excitement, but by that point in the film’s light 84 minute runtime the viewer has been taxed so emotionally, physically and morally that, even if they did like the movie (as I did), they never want to watch it again. Ultimately, as Craven explains it on the commentary, the filmmakers set out to make a movie that would be “an assault on the senses,” and they very much succeeded in this feat. For this, I have to give him lots of credit. He made a movie that is crass and disturbing, but justifiably so. It would have been disingenuous to tell this same story any other way because anything else would offer entertainment, but what is entertaining about rape, violence, and revenge? He set out to challenge the viewer’s moral beliefs, and very much succeeded by the film’s final scene. But seriously, why the hillbilly music? Unforgivable.

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- October, 2015

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