MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Exploitation Horror-Thriller/ Stars: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Eleanor Shaw (aka Cynthia Carr), Richard Towers (aka Gaylord St. James), Marshall Anker, Martin Kove, Ada Washington/ Runtime: 84 minutes
I feel you should know that in the annals of horror film history, “Night of the Living Dead” from 1968 and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” from 1974 respectively are a pair of quite distinct entries. By that I mean these films were ones that while they were the subjects of quite the critical beating when they first came out, time has managed to be quite the kind and devoted nurse to the point that they are now viewed as revolutionary and truly iconic films. The reason I bring this up dear reader is because this is also a label that I feel could be applied to an early film from horror maestro Wes Craven known as “Last House on the Left”. Yet somehow even though close to 5 decades have come and gone since its release, this movie still hasn’t been as regarded as it could be by movie lovers with the exception of, surprise surprise, hardcore fans of the horror genre. Indeed whilst this is most definitely not the smoothest film Craven ever made, I still look at this as one of the more visceral experiences amongst his filmography to the point that even Craven himself made clear quite a few times that he never ever wanted to even ATTEMPT to equal it in any of the work he made in its aftermath. This is because, above any other reasons, Last House was the first ever film that desired to showcase to audiences just what the real blowback from a horrendous and merciless act of violence truly looked like. A feat that was made possible not only through terrifyingly realistic acting courtesy of a cast of unknowns, but also the low-budget, almost documentary-in-nature realistic filmmaking style that Craven contributed thus giving the film the chance to gut punch the audience harder than the vast majority of studio films could aspire to. Yes this movie is quite flawed in many respects, but it really is a testament to how potent the film is that you will find yourself able to brush them aside. Indeed one of the most flawed gems ever made might just be an odd manner of describing a movie, but that would be an accurate way to describe this film for sure.
The plot is as follows: now as most people who have either seen or heard of this film know, the basics of the story is a 1970’s set retooling of Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring”, but for those of you who don’t well away we go! Last House on the Left tells the riveting story of a pair of teenage girls by the names of Mari and Phyillis who, when our story opens, are headed into the city to celebrate Mari’s birthday at a rock concert for a band they’re both fond of. However when our two heroines decide to try and find someone who could sell them some grass, this is the 70s after all, they wind up walking head-on into a nightmare. A nightmare brought to them courtesy of a group of escaped psychopathic convicts by the names of Krug, Weasel, their mutual yet equally as deranged girl Sadie and Krug’s drug-hooked yet also guilt stricken son Junior. A nightmare that consists of these deranged lunatics proceeding to snatch these girls and, having tortured them psychologically to the point of a breakdown, proceed to break them down physically courtesy of taking advantage of and brutally slaying them. However even though for the girls the nightmare has reached a tragic conclusion, for their assailants it is only just beginning. This is because following their horrific acts the group decides to lay low and seek shelter at the nearest house. Unfortunately for them their hosts happen to be Mari’s parents who, upon uncovering just what their new house guests have done to their little girl, proceed to take matters into their own hands and unleash a wave of violence upon their guests that they never could have imagined possible…
Now it is the long and quite excruciating part in this movie where the psychopaths both torture and then brutally slaughter the pair of girls at the heart of the story is where this film manages to really impress (if you wish to call such disgusting material impressive). I say that because before this section gets underway, our antagonists have been showcased to us as slightly bungling, almost decent in a way people so that when you see just what kind of horrendous despicability they are actually capable of all the more jaw-dropping. Also Craven does a tremendous job of adding to this by filming the more visceral material in this section with a potent, raw, and almost documentary-style vibe that, despite being due primarily to a microscopic, by Hollywood standards, film budget as well as lack of real film helming experience at the time, does manage to give the terrifying things occurring on screen a totally unnerving vibe of realistic. Craven also manages to do a wonderful job of showcasing his unique ability to play with an audience’s range of emotions courtesy of interjecting into the horror a series of slapstick moments involving a pair of completely clueless police officers who encounter a wide variety of mishaps whilst looking for the gang of psychopaths. Indeed while the concept of blending together the gruesome violence and the offbeat humor is one that proves to be potentially quite effective, the sad reality is that the moments with the cops are so over-the-top that they contrast a little bit too much with the more visceral moments in the film. With that being said, when the time comes for the 2 teens at the core of the film to go to the great beyond, their death scenes are both extended and quite gut-wrenching to watch. Indeed you must understand dear reader, back in that long gone year known as 1972, this approach to screen violence was unheard-of and even today still holds up as both potent and stomach-churning in equal measure.
Ultimately however, it is the impressive contributions of the cast of unknowns that is the key to ensuring this film is as potent as it turns out to be. However even though both Cassel and Grantham do terrific yet also believable and empathetic work in their key roles of the victims and Shaw and Towers are wonderful at mixing both gut-wrenching grief with righteous fury and vengeance as they take on their daughter’s murderers, the real credit must go to the antagonists. Indeed Hess, who also put together the quite effective musical accompaniment for the movie, is absolutely terrifying in his part in turning the character of Krug into one of the more terrifying psychopaths in cinema. Indeed this is because there isn’t anything otherworldly or supernatural about this guy; he’s just a guy who is ruthless and sick pure and simple. Hess however is nearly matched beat for beat by veteran adult film helmer Lincoln in the quite potent role of Weasel. Indeed, unlike Krug, Weasel is terrifying because before we see the potent and ruthless violent acts he is capable of committing, he really does seem like a comical and relaxed kind of guy thus making it all the more frightening when the mask is removed and we see him for who he really is. Now even though this film is often quite potent and visceral, it also does have a fair bit of entertainment value to it as well. Indeed this is most evident when violence is not being executed since Craven gives audiences a fair amount of both decent dialogue and effective dark comedy to enjoy. A concept that is best showcased in the now notorious sequence involving Weasel receiving a particular painful vengeance courtesy of Mari’s mother as well as the intriguing dream sequence that comes before it and which manages to be both gasp-worthy yet curiously engaging all at once. Yet above everything else it would have to be the, quite ironically, anti-violence stand that the film makes which has really helped this film stay memorable. Indeed Craven is not one to let any of his cast take satisfaction for any of the brutal and/or ruthless things that they do. Instead he brilliantly uses those things both to move the narrative forward and as a catalyst to punish certain characters for their actions whilst also showing other characters a side to themselves that they never thought possible, but never does it seem like the violence is purposeless in its execution in any way, shape, form, or fashion.
All in all I have seen quite a few movies more times than I can shake a stick at. I guess they managed to leave some kind of mark on me for me to wish to rewatch them time and time again. The reason I bring this up dear reader is because I have seen Last House on the Left on at least a trio of occasions in my life and there are very few movies I have seen which have made the type of impact which this has. Indeed this is a visceral outing and one that will never ever leave you no matter how hard you try. Indeed there is imagery in this that is just about as primitive in nature as you could possibly go without feeling like you too have been sapped of your humanity. Suffice it to say then that with this film, celebrated horror helmer Wes Craven was able to tap into something that seldom few have since been able to copy let alone best though not for lack of effort as seen in 2009 with a remake being done of this very film. Make no mistake about it however movie lovers: this is the version of this haunting tale that will always have quite the potent effect on me and on you as well I suspect. A bit ironic really seeing as the only reason I even sat down to watch this film was because when I was much younger and much more of an ignoramus, I was convinced that, besides Jaws and the original Halloween, the original Nightmare on Elm Street was the scariest film I could ever see (oh the naivety). However when I discovered that before Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven had some other horror films on his resume that he had made prior, I knew I had to find them and find them I did starting with this one. Little did I know that what would occur in the ensuing hour and a half would literally amount to no more and no less than a direct onslaught on all of my senses. How bad was it? Well let’s put it this way: it felt like everything that was positive in the world had been snapped out of existence and all the whimsically cheesy and campy horror films like Friday the 13th were exposed for what they truly were. Indeed it’s not that they are not fun horror films, but they aren’t genuinely scary much like how a Steven Seagal film about combat is clearly nowhere close to being in the same vein as Black Hawk Down. Not only that, but unlike many films it actually enabled me to feel a wide range of emotions from nauseous to ashamed, and afraid. Indeed it was so bad that after watching it I had to go for a walk just to clear my head and get some semblance of normality back. Suffice it to say then that Last House on the Left isn’t just scary because of its content, but because of the fact that this is a situation that, unlike a killer doll, a machete-wielding killer, or an American young man turning into a werewolf in London, could actually happen. A fact that perhaps is the most frightening thing of all…..on a scale of 1-5 I give Last House on the Left “72” a solid 3.5 out of 5.