Monday, October 19, 2015

#1,890. The Last House on the Left (1972)

Directed By: Wes Craven

Starring: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess

Tag line: "Mari, 17, is dying. Even for her the worst is yet to come"

Trivia: This movie was banned for over 32 years in Australia. It was finally commercially available through DVD in 2004

Years ago, a co-worker of mine, a middle-aged woman named Bea, asked me what I thought was the scariest movie of all-time. “The Exorcist” was my immediate response (though I also told her about my love for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and John Carpenter’s The Thing). To keep the conversation going, I naturally posed the same question to her, and while she couldn’t remember the title of her most frightening film, I knew from her description of it (2 teens are kidnapped by rapists / killers and dragged into the woods) that it was Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (a movie that borrowed heavily from Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 classic The Virgin Spring). Bea was a teenager, about the same age as the film’s doomed young lead, when she and a few of her friends saw it in the theater, and the experience was almost too much for her. A brutal, unflinching motion picture, The Last House on the Left undoubtedly had a similar effect on thousands of girls the world over.

Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) is about to turn 17. As her parents, John (Richard Towers) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr), prepare for her upcoming party, Mari and her slightly wild friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) head to New York to attend a concert. Once in the city, Phyllis tries to score them some grass, and approaches Junior (Marc Sheffler) on the street, asking if he knows where they can get some. Promising to hook them up, Junior leads Phyllis and Mari back to his apartment, where, instead of marijuana, they find three escaped criminals: Krug (David Hess), Sadie (Jeramie Rain), and Weasel (Fred Lincoln), who immediately take the naïve young girls as their prisoners.

The next morning, Krug and company throw their two hostages into the trunk of a car and head out into the country, where, quite ironically, they break down on the very road where Mari and her parents live. Once the gang has “finished” with Phyllis and Mari, they head to the nearest house, which happens to belong to the Collingwoods! Though worried that their daughter hasn’t returned home yet (they even reported her as missing to the local sheriff), John and Estelle invite Krug and the others to stay over for the night. But it isn’t long before the distraught parents discover the truth, leading to a showdown that’s sure to end in more bloodshed.

Certainly the deepest horror”, Wes Craven once said, “is what happens to your body at your own hands and others”. And what happens to Mari and Phyllis in The Last House on the Left at the hands of Krug and his cronies is about as horrific as it gets. Once the actions shifts to the woods near Mari’s house, the two girls are humiliated beyond belief (aside from being forced to have sex with one another, Phyllis is ordered to urinate in her own pants), then tortured, and much worse. What makes it even more chilling is that Craven allows his camera to linger, focusing quite intently on these disturbing events (he doesn’t show us everything, thankfully, but we definitely see enough). Even though I’ve seen the movie several times now, it never gets any easier to watch. In fact, its middle sequence always has the same effect on me: by the time the evil Krug (Hess is absolutely terrifying in the role) and his cohorts have finished with Mari and Phyllis, I’m shocked, disgusted, and mentally drained.

I do have some issues with The Last House on the Left, primarily the characters of the bumbling sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his deputy (Martin Kove), whose scenes would be more at home in a Laurel and Hardy comedy short than in a horror film (while on their way to investigate the abandoned car in front of the Collingwoods, their own vehicle breaks down, forcing them to hitch a ride with a passing chicken farmer). I realize Craven was trying to lighten the mood with some comedy, but to throw these antics in after what is easily the film’s most alarming scene didn’t make much sense (I’m fairly certain the audience wasn’t in a laughing mood at that point).

That said, The Last House on the Left has definitely left its mark on the genre, and as tough as it is to sit through, horror fans should make it a point to do so at least once.


Wendell Ottley said...

The two cops completely derail this film for me for precisely the reasons you give. Like I'm sure these two fools would do, the movie shoots itself in the foot whenever they appear. They are the biggest evidence that Craven was a first-timer, here, because their presence comes across as him being unsure of himself, and his audience's ability to withstand prolonged horror. He would later learn to meld humor and horror seamlessly, but not here.

Luna Coyle said...

Some movies were never meant to be lightened. This is a good example of that. Unless it's a horror comedy or there's some basis for it but in this movie it seems really weird. Like"Oh, no. Those poor virus got tired! Time to giggle at stupid cops!"