Review: “The Last House on the Left” (1972)
Produced by: Sean S. Cunningham
Written by: Wes Craven
Starring: Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jaramie Rain, Marc Sheffler
Music by: David Alexander Hess
(Warning: This movie is likely to be found disturbing by many.)
This was actually kind of a hard review to write. One of the earlier mainstream movies to make use of its disturbing violence as not just a marketing strategy but a prime selling point, Last House‘s edge has definitely dulled in the nearly 40 years since its initial release, but the disgusting crimes committed on screen remain disturbing as ever.
That isn’t to say that the movie is a profound experience or anything. It certainly remains potent, especially the scenes set in the woods, but some strange editing choices and a climax that kicks into overdrive on the over the top cheesiness kept this movie from matching the expectations I had based on its cult classic status.
The film’s poster, as you can see, taunts audiences who dare to see it: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie …only a movie …only a movie …”. Though the film opens with a disclaimer that the names of those involved have been changed for their protection, the film is, in fact, just a movie — a complete work of fiction by horror mastermind Wes Craven (dir. Scream, A Nightmare on Elm St.) and is itself, apparently, inspired by The Virgin Spring by the widely acclaimed filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who in turn based his own film on the 13th century Swedish ballad Töres döttrar i Wänge. As if I knew that, of course. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)
The focus of the film is on two girls, Mari and Phyllis, who go missing after a trip downtown to celebrate Mari’s seventeenth birthday with a concert, while her parents, Estelle and Dr. John Collingwood, stay at home and prepare a party for her. The two girls, young products of the 1960s peace and love atmosphere, are clearly happy in their lives and frolic carefree in the woods together before heading downtown. I did mention this movie has a definite cheese factor, right?
While there, the girls attempt to buy some weed and are invited upstairs to a strange man’s apartment. Unfortunately for them, they’ve fallen into the hands of a recently escaped gang of sadistic perverts: Krug, Fred, Sadie, and the perpetually stoned Junior. The girls are continuously raped and humiliated all night before being bound, gagged, and blindfolded and taken into the countryside, where the car breaks down… right in front of Mari’s home.
Mari’s parents, who have already reported the girls’ disappearance, are completely unaware of what is going on just meters away from their home as the gang continues to degrade and abuse the girls before eventually growing tired and disposing of them.
The film caused widespread controversy upon its release and remained banned in the UK in its uncut form until fairly recently in 2008. As always, the overreaction to the film was misguided and uninformed, as the amount of violence and torture in the film actually seems to support their stance, from a certain perspective. The rape and torture of the two girls, it could be argued, are representative of the destruction of innocence. However, the film simultaneously calls those out whose innocence leaves them ignorant of life’s often harsh realities.
Had the film ended with Mari and Phyllis’ deaths, perhaps there could have been at least some grounds for complaint, but the fact is that the deaths take us only halfway through the film.
The gang, cleaned up and looking proper, is invited into the home of the still waiting parents of Mari. Though they continue to worry for their daughter’s safety, they naively allow the gang to stay the night in their home, rather than put them up in a hotel. The killers even sleep in the bed of the daughter they didn’t know they had already lost.
When Junior begins to have withdrawals, however, Estelle comes to help and notices the necklace she had given Mari as a present just the day prior, draped around Junior’s neck. She discovers the bloodied clothes hidden in their luggage while eavesdropping on their conversation, where it’s confirmed that these people are responsible for her daughter’s disappearance and death. That’s when the once inviting, idealistic parents begin their brutal plot for revenge.
Last House seems to be saying that innocence is an illusion, a facade meant to hide one’s own dark side. If it ever existed, we’re bound to destroy it. The film also pokes fun at the sheriff and deputy investigating the case, whose scenes, filled with slapstick humor and goofy music, stand out as the most jarring aspect of the film, if only because they’re often intertwined with the girls’ torture.
The goofy music makes many awkward appearances, too, such as during the parents’ birthday preparations and an… unusually casual conversation between the gangsters on their car ride to the countryside. It all flies in the face of the serious nature of the crime being committed throughout. The only time the music ever really feels appropriate is the solemn ballad that plays once only one girl remains.
The Last House on the Left was difficult to review primarily because, while there are moments of surprising tenderness between Mari and Phyllis as they comfort each other and I admire its tenacity and willingness to tastefully show the graphic, gruesome scenes of rape and torture while never celebrating the actions, the stunted acting, general goofiness of various parts, and, yes, the nihilistic perspective turned me off the film more than it drew me in. There’s a quality movie to be found here, but the original Last House just feels like a blueprint that somehow made it to the screen. Dare I say it, but I expect the 2009 remake, produced by Wes Craven, to be the film that I expected this to be. Perhaps I should rent it…
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5