Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Last House on the Left (1972)

Worst camping trip ever!

Over 30 years after it's release, critical opinion is still divided over Last House of the Left. It's fans defend it as a harrowing study of violence, while it's critics dismiss it as exploitative trash. The truth is, it probably falls somewhere in the middle.

The plot of Last House on the Left is essentially a retelling of Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring. Mari (Sandra Cassel) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) are two happy, middle-class teenagers heading to a rock concert. It's Mari's birthday and boy does she like talking about her breasts. After a discussion of boob-accentuating sweaters with her parents, she launches into a celebration of her newly-developed breasts with her best friend. My wife informs me that discussions of this nature are atypical, which left me deeply disappointed.

In an attempt to score some grass they are abducted by a foursome of escaped convicts. They consist of the ferocious Krug (David Hess), his girl Sadie (Jeramie Rain), the knife-toting Weasel (Fred J Lincoln) and the heroin-addicted Junior (Marc Sheffler). The girls are bundled into their car and taken out to the woods near Mari's house where they are teased and tormented before being raped and killed.

Following this, the convicts seek refuge at a nearby house, not realising that it belongs to Mari's parents John (Gaylord St James) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr). During the night Estelle overhears them talking about their crime, and the parents decide to take matters into their own hands.

The scenes of sexual torment are broken up by a pathetic comedy subplot about two idiotic small-town cops (one of whom is played by Martin "Sweep the Leg" Kove) and Mari's parents preparing for her birthday. I imagine the juxtaposition was intentional, but the shifts in tone are clunky and awkward. The twangy, upbeat soundtrack (partially composed and sung by David Hess) is bizarre and often highly inappropriate.

The quality of the acting varies (most of the cast were in adult film), but David Hess gives a standout performance as Krug. He would go on to play a very similar role in Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park. Cassel and Grantham are convincing in their roles as the two victims, and according to interviews they were genuinely terrified of Hess. When they are forced to strip in the woods, Phyllis tries to comfort Mari by saying "There's no-one else here, just you and me", a heartbreaking line which I was surprised to find out was improvised. The film takes a downturn during the last act of the film. The class warfare set up between Mari's parents and the convicts is never really explored, and seeing Gaylord St James running around with a chainsaw is frankly hilarious.

There is a small amount of gore (Phyllis is disembowelled at one point) but, like Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the real horror comes from the inhuman cruelty forced upon the girls. It may have been the subject of controversy when it was released, but Last House on the Left can't be so easily dismissed as an exploitation film. It's apparent that Craven and Cunningham were trying to strip away the veneer of slick Hollywood violence. Fans of Scream or Nightmare on Elm Street might be shocked by the raw brutality of Wes Craven's first feature. It's sloppily made, and Wes Craven is quick to admit that he had no idea what he was doing, but it's evidence of the talent that would grow in their later careers.

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