Synopsis: Easy going Mari Collingwood and her fun loving friend Phyllis are on their way to a Bloodlust concert to celebrate Mari’s 17th birthday when three escaped convicts kidnap and torture them. But Mari and Phyllis are fighters, and although they are drugged and beaten into unconsciousness, stuffed in a car trunk and driven into the woods for even more brutality, they are still alive…. But for how long?
eyelights: its unusual shifts in protagonists. its DIY quality.
eyesores: the sloppy direction. the poor plot development. the continuity errors.
“All that blood and violence. I thought you were supposed to be the love generation.”
‘The Last House on the Left’ is the 1972 directorial debut by Wes Craven. Produced by Sean S Cunningham (of ‘Friday the 13th‘ fame), it was an extremely controversial film at the time, initially attributed an X-rating in the United States and censored heavily, if not outright banned, in many countries – sometimes for decades.
It tells the story of two teenaged girls going to the big city for a concert and being kidnapped by a trio of escaped convicts and their moll. Sexually assaulted, the girls are taken on a road trip by the gang, only for the car to break down midway. As the group make their way through the woods, the girls are intensely abused.
And left in the woods.
The criminals eventually make their way to a house in the woods, only to discover that it is one of the girls’ home. Having pretended to be traveling salesmen, they are allowed to stay by the parents, who are worried sick about their daughter’s whereabouts. That is, until they discover the harsh truth about their visitors.
‘The Last house on the Left’ was made on less than 90 grand and it shows: it’s a grainy, slightly hodge-podge affair that is gritty and sometimes nonsensical. It mixes graphic violence and liberal amounts of sexuality (it was originally intended to be a hardcore film) with a goofy humour that seems contextually out of place.
It has a ‘Straw Dogs‘ and ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ quality to it that is already shocking, but which is even more disturbing when one considers the big picture: What was up with this era that, within just a few years, so many movies focused on violence against women? Was it a reaction to the growing feminist movement?
While one might imagine that it was sensationalistic, perhaps piggy-backing on a questionable trend, the filmmakers claim that they were inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Jungfrukällan’, which recounts a father’s reaction to the rape and murder of his daughter. Either way, Craven’s film is exploitative and, thus, questionable.
Frankly, I have no issue with telling such a story; the human race is hardly pristine and this is a reflection of some of our behaviour. However, these filmmakers chose to focus on the violence and degradation of the gang’s victims (going so far as forcing the girls to have sex together). I found it in extremely poor taste.
While it might be argued that these acts were merely the perverted thrills of some very sick individuals, the way that Craven and Cunningham chose to exploit their behaviour actually caters to the basest desires of the few people who want to see this sort of thing. It’s not designed to shock – it’s designed to titillate.
At some point, you have to draw a line in the sand.
These guys crossed it.
The problem with the approach that this picture takes is that it makes criminals’ actions appealing and can create the desire to replicate it. Even if the villains eventually get their just desserts, the fact remains that what they’ve done appears appealing. And the little regret they show is followed by more intentional carnage.
Again, it’s not the story so much as the way it’s told: shock vs. titillation.
On the flip side, the picture is fascinating structurally because it changes protagonists three times: At first, the girls are the central focus, then it’s the convicts, and, finally, it’s the parents. It’s an approach that I thought helped to hold up a picture that has otherwise the barest plot. Surprisingly, this is about character, not plot.
Characterization is a rare concern even in the best horror films, and I can’t even think of another picture that manages this feat of exploring three sets of protagonists (I’m sure they exist, but there are so few that I can’t think of another one right now). So this is certainly a very strong point in favour of this film.
Another strong point are the female characters. While they are victimized, a few of them (notably, Mari’s best friend Phyllis) are very strong-willed, gutsy, and resilient, something we certainly didn’t see much of back in 1972, let alone in the horror genre. While it doesn’t redeem the harm done them, it’s a big plus.
Then there are the performances. Granted, most of the cast are low grade performers and won’t win any awards soon, but I was quite surprised by some the cast, notably Sandra Cassel as Mari; she had a pleasing naturalism that made up for the unconvincing dialogues she was fed and the staging by our novice director.
Her character is the weak point of the picture for me, however, in that she is easily victimized and freezes immediately instead of defending herself or her friend. Or even trying to escape. This may have been necessary to build a certain amount of terror into the picture, but it didn’t win her any brownie points in my book.
Still, despite that, the filmmakers’ approach, its schizophrenic tone, some inconsistencies, and an implausible third act, ‘The Last House on the Left’ is suitably proficient in creating suspense and terror that it might be worth seeing by fans of the genre. At the very least, it’s a notable first work in Wes Craven’s oeuvre.
Thus, I give it a pass. With some reservation. And caution.
Date of viewing: October 17, 2015