The Last House On The Left
"I think it's crazy, all that blood and violence. I thought you were supposed to be the love generation," a concerned mother says to her 16-year-old daughter before sending her off to New York City to see a concert by the tellingly named Bloodlust, a group famous for butchering chickens on stage. Before the girl leaves, her father gives her an early 17th-birthday present, a peace-symbol necklace. When her murderers show up the next day, the parents recognize them by the fact that one wears the necklace. By 1972, peace and love weren't what they used to be. The product of those souring times, college professor turned horror filmmaker Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left occasionally plays like the longest, grisliest drug-scare film ever made. A spur-of-the-moment decision to score marijuana turns into a protracted orgy of rape, psychological torture, and death for protagonists Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham, who run into a gang of prison escapees described by a radio report as "murderers, dope pushers, and rapists" whose leader is so evil that he hooked his own son on heroin to better control him. Little of the technical finesse that Craven displayed later in his career is in evidence here. In fact, there's little finesse at all. When Cassel and Grantham first encounter their eventual killers, the film keeps cutting back and forth between their torture and Cassel's parents' birthday preparations, as if anyone could miss the point. It comes close to camp at times, which Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham all but acknowledge on this new DVD version's unpretentious commentary track. For a while, policemen provide broad comic relief, the killers seem more cartoonish than threatening, most of the violence takes place offscreen, and there's even a goofy theme song to sum up the plot. No one gets raped by a giant lobster or consumes an obscene number of eggs, but only a hair's breadth separates the first portion of Last House from the films John Waters was making at the time. Then the film begins offering one scene of menace and grisly violence after anotherscenes staged, whether by inexperience or design, so uncinematically that they take on the texture of a documentary. "Places we went in Last House, I haven't gone again and don't really have a desire to go," Craven says in one of the DVD's several short documentaries. That vague statement probably refers to the visceral intensity of the film's violence. Of the many who showed up to turn Last House into an unexpected hit on its initial release, few could have known that they were in for an experience so unpleasant that it precludes repeated viewings. It wouldn't work without the violence, but the violence alone doesn't make it work. The film adapts Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (and not all that loosely), but it throws out the transcendent ending. Bergman's film is itself an adaptation of a medieval folk tale, and in every incarnation, the story works as an unsparing parable of freedom and its consequences. Craven's version just happened to arrive when much of the world was living in the aftermath of the consequences.