The Last House On The Left Review
There are three common critical responses to Wes Craven’s debut film The Last House On The Left. The first is that it is incompetent, seedy rubbish which is neither insightful nor scary; the second is that it is a horrifying, harrowing and groundbreaking classic of horror cinema; the third, considerably cooler response is that it is an interesting film which manages to be significant and fascinating despite some very obvious flaws. Long unavailable in Britain, its delayed release in 2003 tended to polarise opinion into the first and second categories but five years on, a more considered view tends towards the third.
Last House is inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring, although there are considerable changes of emphasis. Two girls, Phyllis and Mari, stop off on the way to a rock concert to buy some dope and are kidnapped by their connection – a motley group of psychopaths led by Krug (Hess). The girls are raped, mutilated and killed in a remote forest. Later, their killers seek shelter at a suburban house which turns out to belong to the parents of their victims; this mild suburban couple discover the truth about their house guests and must resort to violence to exact their revenge.
All banned films have a weight of expectation which cannot possibly be carried by the work itself, as reactions to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Clockwork Orange indicated when they finally appeared on video around the turn of the century. The suggestion that these films have some inherent power which is so shocking that the public must be protected – or perhaps, in the case of Kubrick’s film, the filmmaker – can lead to expectations of something so shattering that the eventual viewing of the film can lead to nothing but disillusionment. Certainly, when I saw them on their theatrical re-releases, both Chainsaw and The Exorcist - another one-time BBFC bete noir – resulted in audience laughter rather than screams of terror. In this context, it’s barely surprising that many people watch Last House On The Left and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Indeed, there are many respects in which it is a very unsatisfactory film. Wes Craven had never directed a film before and, as he himself confesses, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing. The set-ups are often clumsy and sometimes stultifying – during the domestic scenes at the start, for example, he seems to have dumped the camera down wherever it was convenient and barely moved it, even when it means that the actors are ill-served, sometimes being half out of frame or missed out all together. Throughout the film, little attention is paid to camera placement, the static scenes interrupted only by grotesque close-ups of the actors. In other words, it looks cheap and amateurish. In comparison, the work of the actors isn’t really that bad and certainly not as bad as some internet pundits would have us believe. However, some of the performances can best be described as unfortunate and considering that the parents fall into this category, the second half of the film is very difficult to take seriously. Then there is the uncertainty of tone which afflicts the entire film as slapstick comedy cop scenes alternate with vicious brutality. By the end of the film, the tone has descended into absurdity as the broad soap-opera style performances of the parents suggest that some comic effect is intended – especially when the end credits roll over a jolly banjo ode by David Hess. As for the plotting, its often nonsensically contrived - there’s no convincing explanation as to why it should be the Collingwood house that the killers find themselves hiding out in. Nor does the shift in the Collingwoods from harmless suburban couple to revenge-crazed killers come across as naturally as it could do, largely because the characterisation is so weak. There’s no moral debate or agonising; the change simply happens.
So in some ways, the film doesn’t work at all. Yet, it remains remarkably interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, it has an intensely sleazy atmosphere which is redolent of its low-budget, independent origins and fundamentally exploitative intent. It’s a grubby film to watch and, at least during the most effective scenes, it’s hard not to feel as if one’s senses have been violated. The central section during which Phyllis and Mari are raped and killed is genuinely distressing, bringing home the horrible reality of violence in a direct way which is very different – although not necessarily more valid – than the more stylised method used by Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah. These scenes are intent and shot in a faux-verite style which is hugely effective, even when interrupted by the low comedy of the incompetent policemen. It’s also occasionally weirdly poetic, especially in the sequence where Mari walks into the lake as her violators stand and watch – this scene strikes me as very Bergmanesque and one of the few points in the entire movie which reminds one of the master who made The Virgin Spring. It also, in its crude and brutal way, says something about the society which spawned it, one going through the the whole bloody mess of Vietnam, Cambodia and Watergate.
Most impressive of all are the performances from the young leads. Whereas Mr and Mrs Collingwood resemble rejects from daytime television, Mari and Phyllis are quite believable as girls who want kicks to liven up their boring lives, and they both capably manage the more graphic scenes of violence. As the villains, David Hess and Fred Lincoln are brilliant, capturing the foulness of their characters without going over the top. Hess made a minor career out of this role but he never played it with quite as much bitter anger. Krug is, of course, a great character; a monster who hooked his own son on heroin and treats everyone with studied inhumanity. There’s a real nihilism inherent in him, a quality which is perhaps why the film isn’t easily forgotten.
The Last House On The Left is a long way from its origin in The Virgin Spring and it’s also weaker than the semi-remake of a few years later, Night Train Murders. But it undoubtedly has something, a weird power that resonates long after it is viewed. The savagery and sadism it depicts and, sometimes, just alludes to is very evident today in films such as Hostel - a film whose own plot contrivances are just as desperate as some of those in this one. Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham would go on to bigger and better films but neither of them made anything quite the same as this again. It’s cheap and sometimes stumblingly amateurish but it’s essential viewing for horror fans, even if they may simply end up laughing at it.
Anchor Bay released Last House On The Left as a 2-disc set back in 2003. It was an impressive package in many ways but had one crucial flaw; the BBFC had hacked out 31 seconds. Although the cuts were fairly minimal considering that the film had, at one point, seemed unlikely to be passed at all, Anchor Bay received much criticism for releasing an edited version of the film. Now, five years later, the BBFC have relented and Metrodome’s new 3-disc DVD release allows UK viewers to see the film complete.
The main feature is presented on disc one and looks about as good as it’s ever going to look considering its 16mm origins. It looks a little soft and is very grainy indeed but the colours, particularly flesh tones, are natural and pleasant. Detail is pleasing throughout. There’s a very small amount of damage in places but, if anything, this adds to the sleazy grindhouse mood of the film.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is excellent and considerably more satisfactory than the faux-5.1 and DTS mixes provided on the Anchor Bay disc. Naturally, the limitations of the original sound recording are just as evident as they always have been but the dialogue is crystal-clear and the music comes across very strongly.
The extras are plentiful and are spread across all three discs.
Audio Commentary Tracks
Two audio commentaries are provided, the contents of which are identical to the 2003 Anchor Bay release. The first track, also present on the MGM R1 release, features Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham who are recorded together and come across as old friends recalling their youth when they didn’t really have a clue about filmmaking. The second track features the male villains – David Hess, Fred Lincoln and Mark Sheffler – who are, again, recorded together. Although Fred’s published comments about the film might suggest there would be some friction, the men get along famously and have a good laugh watching the movie. Various interesting information is included, most of it trivial in the extreme, and fans of exploitation filmmaking will find it particularly fascinating.
Celluloid Crime Of The Century
A 2003 documentary which is carried over from the earlier UK release. It’s a frank, detailed 40 minute documentary on the making of the film which features comments from many of the cast along with Cunningham and Craven. Fred Lincoln is very funny, slating the film as “shit” and claiming to wish it had been banned internationally rather than just in the UK. The comments about the editing of the film by the BBFC are, thankfully, no longer relevant.
Scoring Last House
As those who have met him can attest, David Hess is a charming individual – very unlike his on-screen persona – and he’s very engaging here as he talks about writing the music for the film. He also sings some of the songs.
Krug Conquers England
A featurette about the first uncut UK showings of the film which features David Hess and examines the banning of the movie which Blue Underground fought so vigorously against. This is interesting stuff but it looks a bit amateurish compared to some of the other extras. Gunner Hanson – Leatherface himself – also appears to give him views and describe James Ferman as “patronising”, surely one of the great understatements of our time.
Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out
A somewhat baffling eleven minutes-worth of silent footage from an obscure early project by Wes Craven. David Hess appears but I couldn’t begin to tell you anything else. Some atmospheric scenes in a graveyard though.
Outtakes And Rushes
About fifteen minutes of stuff picked up from the cutting-room floor. It’s all silent but worth a look for fans of the film.
U.S. Theatrical Trailer
The wonderful trailer for the original release of the film complete with stentorian voiceover and the famous “Keep Repeating… It’s Only A Movie” tagline.
A vintage TV advertisement for a double bill pairing Last House with Don’t Open The Window - the latter film better known to us as The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue.
Somewhat over-the-top radio spots for the film, including a couple for a double bill also featuring The Amityville Horror and another which uses the music from Psycho.
Krug And Company
An alternative cut of the film which runs slightly shorter than the one on Disc 1. The main differences are some extra dialogue and a slightly shorter death sequence for Mari. Picture quality is generally rather poor and there's no real reason to watch the film except as a curiosity.
Interview With Carl Daft
Mr Daft of Exploited Films discusses the struggle to get Last House On The Left through the BBFC and the final triumph of getting a certificate earlier this year. The featurette also features unannounced appearances from the boom mike.
Exclusive Never Before Seen Footage
Some grainy, dark footage of extra scenes from the film including some lengthy shots of Phyllis being forced to perform oral sex on Mari.
Going To Pieces: The Rise And Fall Of The Slasher Film
This is a full-length documentary about the slasher genre which has been available on its own since 2007. It’s a thoroughly well researched look at the movies of the past thirty years which contains a large number of interviews, plenty of clips and some excellent archive footage, including the infamous Siskel and Ebert denunciation of the genre. The film begins with Psycho, moves through Halloween and Friday The 13th and finishes up with Scream and its ilk.
All the extra features from the original release are included here including an audio commentary from the producers and editor of the film, a text introduction from director Adam Rockoff, a trailer, some extended interviews and a couple of quizzes.
Metrodome have pushed the boat out for this release and it’s certainly a very worthy one. The uncut print and the good quality of the visual presentation is matched by a generous selection of extra features with the inclusion of Going To Pieces being the icing on top of the cake. Very highly recommended.