|The Last House on the Left
1972 - unrated - 91 Mins.
|Director: Wes Craven
|Producer: Sean S. Cunningham
|Written By: Wes Craven
|Starring: Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred J. Lincoln and Jeramie Rain
|Review by: Bill King
Before he hit the big time with "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984), Wes Craven started out as a college professor who left that job to pursue a career in film. The world hasn't been the same since. Wes Craven is today's most successful director of horror films. There is such an undeniable level of high quality in his work that even his recent weaker efforts (like "Scream 3") look better than most other horror movies.
Prior to Craven's biggest successes with "Nightmare" and "Scream" (1996), he wrote and directed a low-budget shocker in 1972 called "The Last House on the Left." (The film was previously titled "Last House on the Left," with no "The" at the beginning.) It was extremely controversial for its time. It was explicitly brutal, even at a time when Herschell Gordon Lewis had been directing gore films since the early '60s. There are moments of sheer terror and ghastly violence, and this film set the table for what was to come. The '70s is considered by many critics as the last great decade for movies. That description extends into the horror genre as well. After Craven's directorial debut, horror movies pushed the envelope to achieve the same kind of raw terror that Craven built up so well here. "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Exorcist," "Dawn of the Dead" and "Halloween" owe something to "The Last House on the Left."
Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) are two teenagers going to New York City to attend a concert (the band is called Bloodlust). Mari's parents, John (Gaylord St. James) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr), wish her well on her trip, and after she leaves, they decorate the house and bake a birthday cake for her. In NYC, Mari and Phyllis decide to score some weed before going to the show. They meet Junior (Marc Sheffler), a stoned loser who is part of a gang of escaped convicts. He pretends to offer some weed, and after he takes them to his hotel room, the girls find themselves in unpleasant company. Krug (David Hess), Weasel (Fred Lincoln) and Sadie (Jeramie Rain) are the other culprits. The four criminals beat the girls, stuff them in their car and drive them to the countryside.
This is where the film becomes more intense. Their car breaks down in the woods. The criminals drag the girls out of the trunk, and Mari notices that they've stopped right in front of her house. The criminals don't know that, and they take the bound and gagged girls into the woods. Here, the girls undergo brutal torture and sadistic mind games at the hands of Krug and his pals. These scenes are very graphic. At one point, Krug carves his name into Mari's chest and blood pours out all over her body.
When this segment of the film is over, a curious development ensues. The thugs unknowingly wind up spending the night at Mari's house. John and Estelle find out about the crime and plot their revenge against Krug, Sadie, Junior and Weasel. While this all sounds like a crime movie, it qualifies as horror due to the disgusting and nauseating nature of the crimes we see in this movie. The film takes a documentary type approach to the material. Nothing is glamorized. It is all unbearable, and depicted in an honest manner.
Does that mean that "Last House" is a good movie? Not really. While there is plenty of tension in some scenes, and while it's terrifying in a realistic way, it isn't a completely successful movie. Numerous production problems plague the film, resulting in an uneven finished product. The first, and most noticeable, aspect is the soundtrack. This movie has the worst soundtrack for any movie I've ever seen. At one point, a goofy song highlights a scene in which the criminals drive the girls into the country. The lyrics sing an inappropriately happy song. A kazoo is even used as an instrument.
There are also two lame cops, played by Marshall Anker and Martin Kove (the only actor in this movie to go on to a reasonably successful career). Their car runs out of gas and they try to hitchhike their way to the Collingwood residence. These scenes are played for comic relief, which is something this film should not have attempted. Again, the soundtrack jumps in at the wrong time. There are also synching problems and other glaring goofs that are probably a result of Craven's freshman outing. The fact that the criminals stop, in all places, right in front of Mari's house is coincidence I'm not prepared to accept.
There are good things in this movie. The performances of the two teenagers sends shivers down the spine. The nature of their torture is extreme, and the emotions they project is a difficult thing to pull off, yet they do it. The actors portraying the criminals are all appropriately slimy. I liked the actors and their work, but the fact that this is an amateur project shows through. Did I mention that insipid soundtrack?
"The Last House on the Left," while lacking on a technical level, is effective in terms of delivering the shocks. It's scary, but we shouldn't be distracted by the filmmakers' questionable decisions. When we get involved in the moment, the last thing we want is to see Mari breathing when she's supposed to be dead, or to listen to that dreadful soundtrack.