Before it turned up on videotape courtesy of Replay in June 1982, Wes Craven’s directorial debut The Last House on the Left was largely an unknown quantity in the UK. It had been banned by the British Board of Film Censors in 1974 when it was presented to them by distributors Oppidan, denying it a theatrical outing and Replay’s release came out of the blue with nothing much about its advertising to mark it out as anything particularly special. Just over a year later it was gone, one of the first casualties of the “video nasties” panic and such was its power to press buttons that no-one wanted pressing that it remained out of circulation for two decades. Feature Film Company tried for a theatrical release in 2000 but the BBFC was having none of it and rejected it out hand again. A year later Blue Underground optimistically submitted an uncut version for consideration, hoping for a DVD release and they too were sent packing. On appeal they got it through in 2002 with just 31 seconds of cuts but an unadulterated release had to wait a further six years until finally, a full 36 years after it was shot, Britain finally got to see the film intact. Was it worth the wait? In part. Technically rough, as you might expect for a debut film, it still has much to commend it but it’s serious intentions are rather undone by some hugely ill-advised comic relief and a patchy script further compromised by various versions (there are many) missing everything from a few minutes to entire key scenes.
Much has been made over the years of the way the plot owes a considerable debt to Ingmar Bergman’s Jungfrukällan/The Virgin Spring (1960). Teenagers Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassell, real name Sandra Peabody) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) head into the big city from their small town home for a rock concert by the aptly named Bloodlust, ignoring troubling radio reports of a prison break staged by rapist Krug Stillo (David A. Hess in the role that would come to dominate his entire career), his heroin addict son Junior (Mark Sheffler), the sadistic Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and violent serial pervert Weasel Podowski (porn actor and director Fred Lincoln – Last House was supposedly originally conceived as a hardcore porn film). Looking for drugs for the concert, the girls encounter the gang who abduct them, rape them and drive them out into the woods where they are further humiliated and assaulted before being killed. The gang seek refuge in the home of a nearby family, unaware that their uncomfortable hosts are in fact Mari’s initially unaware parents. When they spot Junior wearing a necklace they gave Mari for her birthday, they investigate, find their daughter’s body in a lake 1 and return home to take revenge on the gang.
Boasting unusually strong performances, a multi-layered script that contained allusions to everything from the Vietnam war to the changing roles of men and women in the early 70s, from the conflict between the urban and the rural (a popular theme at the time thanks to the succcesses of Straw Dogs (1971) and Deliverance (1972) to the death of the hippie dreams of the 1960s – “Blood and violence,” sighs Mari’s square mother (Cynthia Carr). “Aren’t you supposed to be the Love Generation?” The strength of the characters make the bursts of violence all the more shocking. The rape scenes may not be quite as confrontational as their gruelling, extended equivalents in Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman/I Spit on Your Grave (1978) but they’re suitably upsetting and hard to sit through. The gang’s humiliation of the two young women – beyond the sexual violation – is just as repellent and adds to the audience’s ever-growing sense of discomfort and despair.
But the film takes frequent breaks from the events in the seedy flat that the gang have managed to appropriate with unbelievable speed after their escape and later in the woods and those breaks mainly involve a ridiculous pair of cops (Marshall Anker and Martin Kove) who get into all sorts of “comic” scrapes, none of which involve them actually doing anything to find the missing girls. Accompanied by jaunty country music (there are some fairly decent songs written by Hess but this stuff, largely written by Harry Chapin’s brother Stephen, is unbearable) they get involved with a woman driving a chicken truck (a scene missing from the initial UK video release) and generally faff about in scenes that often feel like they’d wandered in from another film entirely. It’s understandable that Craven might have wanted to reign in the mayhem a bit, and indeed opted to remove some of the more contentious footage of graphic disembowelling for the film’s US theatrical release, but this isn’t what was needed. It’s a silly distraction, unfunny knockabout stuff that runs the risk of trivialising the more distressing events happening elsewhere.
But when it gets things right. The Last House on the Left was the first manifestation of the class struggles that were going to dominate Craven’s horror films for many years. In The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the mutant desert-dwelling outcasts run up against the the affluent city-dwellers who wander into their dismal domain aboard their expensive-looking RV. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the residents of a cosy American suburb are terrorised by the working class maniac Freddy Kreuger, a school janitor burned alive for his vile interest in young children. Perhaps most potently, the often under-rated People Under the Stairs (1991) pits a poor black family against their wealthy landlords who are harbouring a terrible secret.
The Last House on the Left also draws the battle lines, if only briefly and half-heartedly, between the generations. In the opening scenes, John Collingwood (Gaylord St John) is shocked by Mari’s sexually liberated views and recoils in horror at the very thought of the infamous Bloodlust. He and his wife later vent their anger on the younger interlopers who have violated both their daughter and their home in a furious display of cunning and violence. Elsewhere, Krug has a troubled relationship with Junior (he must have fathered him at a very young age – Hess himself was only in his mid-30s when he made Last House) that ends in tragedy when an increasingly deranged father successfully persuades his son to kill himself.
The central thesis of the film is that violence just breeds violence, that once the thin veneer of respectability is stripped away, we’re all just as savage as each other. Though initially presented as almost comically grotesque, Krug and his gang are quickly revealed to be repulsive through and through but the Collingwoods are barely any better when they realise what they’ve done. Dad is happy to wield a chainsaw 2 and Mum will happily felate the revolting Weasel if it means she has a chance to castrate him with her teeth. It doesn’t take long for their blandly appointed middle-class home to be transformed into a charnel house as their seething rage – which one suspects had been bubbling away long before their daughter was killed – boils over and in an orgy of animalistic revenge. Craven has almost obsessively explored the idea of rival family groups unleashing pent-up feelings against each other. Even comic slasher spoof Scream (1996), though written by Kevin Williamson, has two family groups brought into destructive conflict when long buried secrets are revealed (the serial killings stem from an extra-marital affair that broke up a family).
There are some impressive quieter moments among the gore and humiliation that impress far more than the film’s excesses. The initial rape of Phyllis takes place off camera, Craven instead focusing on the horrified facial reactions of Mari as she tries to comprehend the nightmare she’s suddenly been thrust into; the unexpected and entirely wordless moment of regret and shame shown by the killers after they’ve shot Mari, an unusual turn of events or this sort of thing; the first use of actual nightmares in a Craven film when Weasel seems to wake up to find the Collingwood’s preparing to knock out his teeth with a hammer and chisel…
When the film opened in the States in August 1972 it inevitably provoked an angry response, with several protests staged outside cinemas calling for it to be withdrawn and critical response was just as brutal. But it was a reasonable success and has endured over time as one of the most influential and controversial American horror films of the 1970s. Many years later, Lincoln – a pornography veteran remember – expressed his regrets at having taken part in the film, saying that it was the one film he regretted doing and wishing that “it had been banned in the United States.” He also admitted that the cast did nothing to make the uncomfortable experience of making the film any easier for Sandra Peabody, he and Hess remaining in character between takes: “She was scared to death of us this entire movie,” he said. “We put her through hell.” Peabody has never talked about the film since it was released. Hess went on to play a very similar role in Ruggero Deodato’s La casa sperduta nel parco/House on the Edge of the Park (1980), Craven enjoyed a subsequent up and down career that included horror classics like The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream but also an awful lot of dross and the film itself triggered a slew of similar films, some of which – particularly those made in Italy – surfaced in the States bearing bogus Last House of the Left Part II (Antefatto/Bay of Blood (1971, so actually predating Craven’s film)) or New House on the Left (L’ultimo treno della notte/Late Night Trains (1975)) titles. It was remade – far less effectively – in 2009 by Dennis Iliadis.
- An alternate version of the film, titled Krug and Company, includes a scene in which Mari struggles out of the lake and is found barely alive by her parents. She relates to them what happened to her and Phyllis before she dies. ↩
- The Last House on the Left was one of he earliest films to feature a chainsaw as a murder weapon but it wasn’t the first – Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun (1968) and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore got there first. ↩