There was a period in American Horror, from the 70’s onward, that spawned a certain type of film. Ostensibly it was seen as a reaction to the Vietnam War, not a politically motivated action, but a subconscious one. The violence that was shown on television at the time permeated into the violence you would see on screen. With the leaps being made in special effects (What better frame of reference than some news footage on TV) it meant that filmmakers could push the boundaries of what was seen before. Indeed, filmmaking itself was getting cheap and mobile enough that it was easier for a Director with no budget to go out and shoot something.
It’s this perfect storm of influences that led to Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left.
Essentially a retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which in turn was based on a Swedish ballad. It tells the story of two girls who happen across a group of thugs. They’re subjected to repeated acts of rape and torture before being slain. The killers end up in the titular house to shelter overnight, but the parents discover it’s one of their children that has been killed. Finding her body they set out to exact revenge.
Though it was released as a low budget exploitation flick, and was banned for years here in the UK, Craven’s film still possesses the ability to shock. It was never an easy watch, nor should it be, the subject matter alone – no matter how it’s handled – should be enough to shock and appall. Indeed, it’s even hard to qualify the film as ‘good’ so much as ‘successful’. Craven and Co set out to get a very specific result and they certainly got it.
The scenes of violence against the girls is perhaps the most gruelling thing I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not enough that they’re tortured, or raped. It’s the seeming game of one-upmanship that the leader of the gang, Krug, gets into with himself. No sexual act is gratifying enough, no scream is loud enough, so he pushes and pushes beyond breaking point. There is a moment that the gang feels a pang of consciousness for their actions, but that’s forgotten about momentarily once the girls are killed.
The parents retribution too is graphic and not any more satisfying that Krug and his associates exploits. Craven’s point is not a new one but one still worth making: Violence begets violence and it forces people into terrible places until they don’t recognise themselves. Death by chainsaw, death by oral sex and a violent throat slashing are not the acts of normal people, but instead the acts of people pushed past into action by a horrific action they were otherwise powerless to stop.
There was a remake of the film recently that follows the same beats more or less (Though one of the girls live…which sort of betrays the point to begin with) and while that was Hollywood ‘gritty’, Craven’s film really shows what gritty can look like. Working handheld and with a low budget, Craven’s film feels like someone has found this horrible footage and have decided to share it with us. It’s perhaps that which is most visceral, with a Hollywood production you see the dollars on screen but here there’s no such distance from the events that unfold.
Sadly it’s the one area the film drops the ball. And I’m aware of how it sounds when I use that adverb in this context. But there’s a few instances where Craven can’t help little flourishes get in the way. The soundtrack, composed and occasionally sung by David Hess, the actor who plays Krug, is disconnected from the action on screen. For example after a rape scene a soft ballad is played. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether the disconnect is intentional or not (I believe it is, that doesn’t mean I think it works to the intended effect). The other issue is the completely out of place comic relief in the film, in the form of two bumbling detectives. Slapstick ensues…literally.
It’s odd to have scenes of violence intercut with comedy, but that’s exactly what Craven does here. Perhaps to make a larger point, or just to provide the viewer some relief from the events on screen. It’s here that Craven’s background in pornography comes into effect, in this regard the film is structured like a porn film. Light-hearted moments provide a respite between the ‘action’ scenes and allow the viewer to recover. Again I can see the point of it but I don’t feel it works.
Last House is not a film you like so much as you recognise in its place in horror, particularly American horror, and considering the now famous poster used the tagline “To avoid fainting, keep repeating – It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…” it seems that Craven couldn’t help but keep reminding us himself.