By Chris Kavan - 06/04/11 at 09:01 AM CT
The original Last House on the Left is notorious for many things. It’s one of those films that exist in many different versions (the one I’m reviewing is the unrated collector’s edition released in 2008) – most releases are censored in some way. It’s the directorial debut of Wes Craven, who would go on to helm A Nightmare on Elm Street and revitalize the horror genre with Scream. And, surprisingly, it has a lot in common with a classic Ingmar Bergman film, albeit with a lot more violence.
Yet I have to admit, for all the uproar over this film, I found it didn’t meet my expectations. It’s one of the reasons I have yet to see the original version of I Spit on Your Grave – I’m afraid it will be a letdown as well. The problem really isn’t the story – which is actually a pretty good revenge tale (more on that later) – it’s that you can tell this was made on a limited budget and definitely tell it was made in the 70s.
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I think this movie may have started the whole sex & drugs = death in horror movies. The two main victims get into their predicament by searching for drugs before attending a concert on the bad side of town (no doubt by some Satanic “rock” band). Also, our 17-year-old Mari is all about flaunting her new-found sexuality – no bra for this girl! Of course the drug dealers turn out to be escaped convicts (one a murderer of a priest and two nuns, the other a man convicted of child molestation and peeping Tomism). Krug is our main baddie and David Hess plays him to the hilt. Our second man Fred 'Weasel' Podowski (Fred J. Lincoln, who has said in interviews this was the worst film he's ever been in) is the switchblade-loving would-be Lothario.
Also along for the ride is Krug’s heroin-addicted (by Krug himself, to keep the boy under control) and somewhat dim bulb Junior and wild woman Sadie (anyone who kicks a police dog to death is pretty hard core). The foursome of course kidnaps our two wayward teens in order to have a little fun.
This, of course, is where all the hoopla from the film comes from: humiliation, torture, rape, and murder – nothing pleasant goes on at this point of the film. There is a hope of escape at one point, but you know it’s not going to work out. Although the rape scene itself is quite short it is also very raw – Sandra Cassell (now Sandra Peabody) looks genuinely afraid. Plus the following scene of her walking into the lake is just as hard to watch because of how broken she looks.
After that brutal scene our killers clean up real nice and end up at the house of the poor girl they have just defiled and murdered. And after chugging wine, sporting mysterious bandages and acting just a bit off kilter, mom finds Junior in the bathroom suffering from withdrawal and wouldn’t you know, he’s wearing the same necklace (given to him by Mari in hopes of an escape that never quite worked out) that her dad gave her for her birthday. Well, a little investigative work later – why the killers decided to keep their bloody clothes at all is beyond me – they decide revenge is in order!
And what a revenge: trip wires, electrocution, chainsaw and… shaving cream! Really – it makes the floor slippery you know – plus mom takes the ultimate revenge on our Weasel – let’s just say that he’s missing a very important piece of himself before the movie ends. After Junior is dispatched by suicide via a talking to from dad – Krug finds himself on the wrong end of a chainsaw after beating poor dad to a pulp. Dad takes a kind of Straw Dogs route going from meek Greg Brady to Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the blink of an eye. The most horrific scene in the movie for me? Despite Weasel's ultimate end, I find his dream sequence involving a hammer, chisel and front teeth to make me want to avert my eyes even more than the brutal rape or intestine grabbing from earlier.
But oh, if only it was a simple murder/revenge story. But no, for whatever reason beyond my comprehension, they had to add in one little point that feels completely wrong for this type of film. I’m talking about our cake-loving Sheriff and his fuel-forgetting deputy. Like some bad stereotype out of Dukes of Hazzard, the two are the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the films – even if one happens to be the most recognizable name to come out of this movie (Deputy – played by Martin Kove). It just seems way to cheesy and fun loving for such a dark film. I cringe every time I see them on screen.
Speaking of cringing, the other thing that seems completely wrong for the film is the music. Be it the song choices or the score itself, it is jarring. It the Krug & Company theme song is something way too cheerful and the rest isn’t much better. I guess when you’re on a budget having your main actor (in the is case David Hess) helps save money, but in the end you don’t get such a good soundtrack.
Now on to something that blows my mind. I have watched The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) by Ingmar Bergman and, surprisingly, the two films are remarkably similar. Both films are about a young woman who runs afoul of a group of bad people and ends up raped and murdered. In both cases the killers wind up at her parents house and a piece of clothing from her body alerts the parents to their true natures and an exacting revenge is taken. Obviously Bergman’s film is a highly-regarded classic – haunting and somber. Last House is exploitative and violent – and also has bumbling cops and crappy music.
Still, the one thing that Last House truly did was open the eyes of moviegoers. Remember, this was 1972 – while the violence is very real – I dare say it almost seems tame compared to the rash of torture porn that has shown up recently. Yet at the time, it was like nothing else – the emotions that were presented, the realistic blood and simply the length it went on – this was all very new and disturbing. No wonder it was banned in so many countries and chopped to pieces by theater owners – it was a big step and it took a man like Wes Craven to make that step. It was a low-budget, rough, raw film and, I can’t emphasize this enough, had truly terrible music, but it did have an influence on film and horror in a profound way. I just wish it could have aged a bit better.