The Last House on the Left Reviews
It's disturbing, unnerving, and it really frightened me.
However, I have to say, there are many scenes that make the film seem very unorganized. Specifically all the comedic scenes of hippies stealing cop cars, baking cakes, and guys fallen off of chicken trucks. It seems way too out of the tone of the rest of the movie. I know that's probably the point, but it doesn't make it any less jarring. It's a film with an audience, but I definitely see more people disliking it than loving it, for many different reasons.
Wes Craven's first film is moderately awful shocker about two girls who are humiliated and murdered by convicts, and the parents who get sweet revenge. Interesting as Craven's first, and has its (admittedly) powerful moments, but it's cheap, repellent, and overall extremely uneven. Marshall Anker and Martin Kove are pretty funny as the policemen. Last 15 minutes or so should be the only thing worth seeing. Warning: This film is very graphic.
It's also pretty strange in that offsetting the scenes of rape and torture, are scenes are almost slapstick goofiness with the two bumbling officers and a slap your knee, twangy honky tonk soundtrack to boot.
But some of the scenes of torture are rough, though not as unsettling today as I'm sure they were in 1972.
In lesser hands I think this would've been just another campy horror flick like Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp or any number of the like, but in Craven's the movie rises above that and stands out as one of the best of that time.
But apart from its historical significance, the film is a hard watch. Even today, the ultra-low budget aesthetic and gory realism (enhanced by amateurish editing and a cast of non-actors) make it a disturbing and distressing but not necessarily enjoyable film. Even the revenge aspect of the story isn't as rewarding as one would hope, also unfolding with a sense of sadness and immense emptiness. But to be fair, these really shouldn't be points of criticism, but praise, since this was undoubtedly Craven's intention to be shocking, and in this respect he succeeded greatly with a truly impactful, nasty and scary horror film. As both the directorial debut of a horror icon and one of the definitive films of 70s exploitation cinema, The Last House on the Left is an important film and a staple for any horror fan, and it's cold and gritty bite still holds up today.
The first time I saw this movie was purely by chance. I was in college and my roommate and I were sent out by our friends to Blockbuster to pick some horror movies for the group to watch. It was Halloween night, so the horror section was well picked over. My roommate picked up the case for The Last House on the Left; neither of us had heard of it before, but it was directed by Wes Craven and the box had a quote from Roger Ebert: "sheer and unexpected terror." I can't remember the other movie we rented or if we even watched it. All I remember is how we all squirmed and turned our faces and swore at the TV. I remember one girl got up and left the room. I remember becoming mildly obsessed with the movie and reading as much as I could find on the film. I've only seen it one time since then and that was a week ago to prepare for this blog.
The Last House on the Left says it is inspired by true events, but it is actually a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. The plot follows two young girls from the country that go into the city for a concert, but are kidnapped by a gang of ruthlessly cruel criminals. The girls are sadistically tortured, raped, and murdered. Then, by sheer coincidence, the criminals seek shelter for the night with the parents of one of the girls. When the parents find out, they unleash their own brand of revenge. The Last House on the Left was meant to be an exploitation film, loaded with violence and sex to sell tickets. It was produced by Sean S.Cunningham, who would go on to direct Friday the 13th in 1980, a movie primarily concerned with kills and special effects. There's certainly nothing wrong with slasher films like Friday the 13th and its many sequels that revel in gory moments and nudity, as long as they still entertain and commit to their lack of substance. The Last House on the Left certainly has all the elements of a sleazy, low budget exploitation film, but in going from script to screen it became something substantial and frightening.
The Last House on the Left has a grainy, unglamorous look and a cast of unfamiliar faces that give it a feeling of realism that becomes uncomfortable as the film unfolds. This is a violent film and though the gore we see is nothing when compared to modern horror films, it is far more effective, awful, and terrifying. When one of the girls is being stabbed we don't see the knife stabbing her, instead there are sharp, quick musical cues which somehow make the stabbing worse. One of the criminals is aware that what they are doing to these girls is absolutely wrong, but he's helpless to stop the others. Afterwards, there is a scene where a quiet moment passes among the criminals as they seem to realize the deep cruelty of what they've done. It was a scene that Craven says audiences hated because it humanized the killers. I think that humanization, slight as it is, is important because it forces the audience to accept that human beings, not monsters or devils, did these horrible things.
Watching The Last House on the Left is a tough experience. There are other horror movies with more blood, more gore, and more death that are easier to watch. The Last House on the Left, unlike slasher movies, takes no joy in the death scenes. Even when the parents exact their revenge, it's not as victorious a moment as audiences would expect. Craven does not shy away from showing us what we already know but don't consciously think about: it is a horrible, terrible thing to kill another human being. Craven has said in interviews that he is fascinated by what can come out of ourselves. He says that the Vietnam War was a big influence on The Last House on the Left. During that time it became normal to see dead bodies and lists of dead American soldiers on TV, and to see photos of, or hear about, atrocities committed by Americans. It's never good when any of that becomes normal.
Just after Wes Craven passed, NPR's Fresh Air re-aired a series of interviews in which Terry Gross asks him about The Last House on the Left. I always enjoy watching or hearing interviews with Wes Craven because he comes off as such genial, normal, and even shy person that knows a great deal about films and filmmaking. He tells a story of when he was a young boy and had a bow and arrow. He would go hunting for rats and usually never found any, until he did and shot one with his arrow. The arrow hit but did not kill the rat. It let out a horrible scream and bled and thrashed. It fought so hard for its life but it was wounded mortally, and the young Craven was forced to put it out of its misery. If that rat fought so hard for its life, Craven thought, then surely it deserved to live and if rats deserve to live unharmed then so do people. The Last House on the Left is so intense and disturbing because it has a message, and it is a simple one that Craven does not hit us over the head with or bury in symbolism. He lays it out plainly resting just below those moving images: human life is precious and we should all act accordingly, otherwise violence begets more violence and there is no victory for anyone in that.