Our Halloween-related content continues with Wes Craven’s troubled rape-revenge “classic.”
Artwork by A.D. Black
Who made it?: Wes Craven (Writer/Director), Sean S. Cunningham (Producer), Hallmark Releasing.
Who’s in it?: Sandra Cassell, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Gaylord St. James, Cynthia Carr.
Tagline: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It’s only a movie! It’s only a movie!”
IMDb rating: 5.9/10
The Last House on the Left has always been a film more famous for its notoriety than its content, having endured many censorship battles over the decades. It took thirty-seven years for Craven’s debut to be released uncut in Britain. Many regard the picture with distaste, highlighting the strong sexual violence and gutchurning murder sequences. It’s a crude film, certainly; made on the cheap for the booming exploitation business, Last House doesn’t appear to be a film of great importance. That’s until you recognise its influence on the genre. The film’s gritty, dispassionate depiction of human cruelty broke new ground. Craven’s death scenes were ugly and protracted. The violence felt more realistic and believable. The camera never panned away, just like the war footage that had enraged millions of Americans. It is very much a film that embodies the social and artistic friction of the period. One historian even described it as the “Altamont of horror films.”
Craven was trying to break into the film business as the 1970s began. A former humanities professor, he was a well-educated, angry man rebelling against his strict Baptist upbringing. Having never seen a film until his twenties, he quickly grew fascinated with cinema, landing his first job in the industry as a sound editor for a post-production company in New York. It wasn’t until he crossed paths with an entrepreneurial producer, Sean S. Cunningham, that he got his start as a filmmaker. Craven had been hired to sync-up footage shot for Cunningham’s film Together (1970), a soft-core porn flick that typified a trend in low-budget films in the early 70s. This temporary surge of popularity would reach its apex with Deep Throat (1972), a narrative-driven porn film that achieved mainstream success. Like many of them, Together would play in rough, inner-city cinemas (or “grindhouses”) in the seedier parts of New York. While Craven was coy about the nature of his early work, it did give him the opportunity to edit film, handle some of the photography, and for some of its scenes, direct. The movie became a hit and sparked a friendship between Craven and Cunningham.
Their distributors, Esquire, were an off-shoot of a larger company called Hallmark Releasing Corp., who would handle the distribution of their own in-house projects. What they offered Craven and Cunningham is still rare in independent filmmaking: a $90,000 budget, with the guarantee that it would receive theatrical exhibition. The only stipulation being that the pair create a violent horror film. Cunningham decided to produce the project and, having recognised his friend’s talent, offered the writing, editing and directorial chores to Craven.
Befitting the nature of exploitation cinema and its speedy turnaround, the prep for the film that became The Last House on the Left lasted a mere two months. It is widely known that the basis for Craven’s screenplay was “borrowed” from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), which was set in the fourteenth century and based on Swedish folklore. Its plot, about a young girl being raped and murdered by a group of herdsmen who later seek shelter in the home of her parents, is copied in Last House. While the parent’s vengeance in Bergman’s film is grim, Craven would take the sequences of retribution to the extreme, indulging in the graphic violence the distributors demanded. His first draft was infamous for scenes of unspeakable acts, all of which had sexual overtones which the film’s original pornographic aims.
Updating the concept to 1970s America seemed like an easy enough task. In Craven’s version, free-spirited friends Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassell) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) are on their way to see the controversial rock band Bloodlust (subtle), but make the mistake of scoring marijuana from Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler). His father, Krug (David Hess) is an escaped convict who, along with his cohorts Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Weasel (Fred Lincoln), kidnap the girls with the intention of taking them across the border to Canada. When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the gang take the girls into the forest for some “fun.” Later, they come across a nearby house, which, miraculously, is the home of Mari’s parents (Gaylord St. James and Cynthia Carr). When they discover what Krug and his miscreants have done, they plot bloody revenge.
Elements of Last House could be described as a critique on the failed ideals of the hippie movement which were drifting away at the time. David Szulkin, author of a book about the making of the film, asserts that “the fate of the girls makes for a grisly, cynical commentary on the demise of the hippie dream,” and that the picture “tapped into an aggressive form of entertainment which bluntly addressed the turmoil, anger, and drugged-out disillusionment that seeped through the cracks.” The opening scene in the Collingwood household drops several allusions to the cultural transitions of the time and Mari’s bickering with her parents has been classed as emblematic of the 60s generation gap. After hearing her husband complain about the constant reports of violence in the newspaper, Mrs. Collingwood turns to Mari and announces, “I thought you were supposed to be the Love Generation!” Such heavy-handed dialogue is furthered by a gift given to Mari by her parents; a peace symbol necklace. Used as a plot-device by Craven to identify the killers later in the film, the image nevertheless works on a subconscious level. With the war continuing to rage overseas and the grisly fate that awaits Mari and Phyllis in the back of the viewer’s mind, the peace symbol takes on an ironic quality.
The scenes of violence that have made Last House controversial are easily the most effective (and memorable) in the film. The “splatter” film craze was beginning to take off, and has been attributed to Herschell Gordon-Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore (1970), which placed as much emphasis on its grisly make-up effects as possible. It was a profitable film, launching a hundred imitations. The desire to cash-in on this new, ultra-violent style by Cunningham, and Craven’s hopes to give the scenes weight and meaning, ultimately made Last House an uneven film. It can be flippant and darkly humorous in some moments, yet reprehensible in others. It is due to the film’s sordid content that Craven saw fit to include moments of “comedic” relief, following a Sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his Deputy (Martin Kove) in their attempts to capture Krug and his accomplices. These awkward scenes, which don’t work within the context of the film, have been a bone of contention with fans of the picture for years. If the Three Stooges had mixed a little gore into their acts at inappropriate moments, it might have looked something like this.
While the violence was requested by Hallmark, the influence of Vietnam lingers. Victor Hurwitz’s grainy, handheld camerawork (shot on cheap 16mm film) gives portions of the picture immediacy and a startling realism reminiscent of what people were seeing on the evening news. Naturally, some critics have condemned the film for indulging in the very bloodshed it claims to decry. There is definitely some truth to that, as a grotty exploitation film is what the financiers desired. Craven, however, continues to ague that Last House’s more unsavoury attributes were a direct reflection of his own mistrust in the system, calling it a “howl of anger and pain” and a “protest film.” Even with an anti-war message in mind, Craven’s film is difficult to watch. The woodland location where the Stillo gang sexually assault their captives is frightening for its sense of isolation and plausibility, using the terrain to instil rising dread in viewers. John Boorman would use a similar backdrop in his masterpiece Deliverance, released a year before (and which also featured scenes of rape and revenge, albeit in very different ways).
After Phyllis manages to escape, a lengthy chase sequence through the Connecticut woodland ensues, eventually coming to a close when Krug lunges at her from outside the frame with a machete; a telegraphed “jump” moment that Craven would continue to refine over his career. Mari’s fate is even worse. Krug slashes his name into her chest, and to violate her even more, rapes her as his “family” watch. What follows is unexpected – a quiet, sombre moment of reflection among the villains, showing signs of shame and guilt. It was a moment that divided audiences, the reason for which is uncertain. Arguably, it’s a beat engineered to show that the bad guys, no matter what crimes they have committed, are still human. The villain’s shame is only temporary, however. From this moment, Last House changes tone considerably, and the realism is replaced with sheer movie fantasy. The characters undergo a transformation of sorts, washing the blood off their skin and changing clothes. They are purging themselves in a certain way.
The idea that the group stumbles upon Mari’s home by sheer chance is definitely a contrived plot development that requires a suspension of disbelief from audiences. Yet, even in its sillier moments, the film takes the time to flesh out its subtext. The director toys with role-reversal and the notion of human duality for Last House’s outlandish, “crowd-pleasing” finale. The Collingwood’s discovery of their guests’ true nature is forced, as is their form of revenge. According to Craven, he was comparing each family, exploring the idea that anyone can commit evil deeds if pushed too far. He seems to enjoy the notion that these very straight parents could become absolutely lethal and cunning (a mistrust in authority figures that would become one of the signatures of his work). The Collingwood’s methods of punishment are over-the-top and nonsensical, shifting the film into a more agreeable splatter paradigm. This involves the use of a chainsaw, a full two years before Tobe Hooper introduced Leatherface. It’s more amusing than it is horrifying, culminating in one of the most ill-fitting closing credits songs in history. Although I do like the moment in which one of the crooks takes the easy way out and kills himself; that damned peace symbol necklace caked in blood around his neck. Craven’s symbolism is as subtle as a nuclear explosion.
Due to its taboo nature, the finished film would become a commercial hit, although such success was slow. A recurring trend in exploitation cinema was to test films with different titles and to see which name attracted the biggest crowds. Some of the possibilities were Night of Vengeance (the original working title), Sex Crime of the Century, Krug and Company, and The Men’s Room. The eventual choice, The Last House on the Left, had no clear relation to the plot of the film but proved to be a canny decision that somehow enticed the public. Coupled with an imaginative (and often imitated) marketing campaign – informing viewers that “to avoid fainting, keep repeating, it’s only a movie!” – Craven’s film managed to earn over $3 million during its initial release. For a film shot so cheaply for the grindhouse circuit, such a figure was impressive.
Where do you go after The Last House on the Left? Craven struggled for years to make another film outside the horror genre. His debut painted him as a perverted sicko that shouldn’t be trusted with more thoughtful material. To earn money, he eventually teamed up with producer Peter Locke for The Hills Have Eyes (1978). Similar to Last House, the film follows a family who have to become savage murderers when confronted with cannibals in the desert. The low-budget film was another hit for Craven, sealing his fate as a director of blood and guts cinema. He would perfect his craft, eventually achieving fame and fortune as the director of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Last House is controversial to this day and feelings toward it vary greatly. It is far from a perfect film and I happen to think that the 2009 remake is superior in every possible way. Craven’s direction is as unreliable as it is powerful, giving the picture an exceedingly cheap feel that forever flags it as grimy exploitation. The acting is uniformly awful (except for the late Hess, who cuts an intimidating figure as Krug), and the sadistic moments just make you feel dirty. Yet it is also completely unforgettable, with images and moments that are iconic in their own peculiar way.
Ultimately, the film’s legacy is a double-edged sword. The realism of the violence ushered in the era of “neo-horror” – films that utilised gore in an unflinching and convincing manner, pushing the limits of the ratings board to bursting point. Despite breaking ground, Last House led to a raft of unpleasant, soulless imitations that were usually bereft of meaning or reason; their aim to satisfy a demand for the bizarre and depraved.
I was going to go with Weasel’s brilliant nightmare sequence, but it isn’t on YouTube. Also, none of the clips available are embeddable. What are they trying to say? Go here to see some unpleasant behaviour.
- David Hess composed the music for the film, as well as playing Krug. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) features several cues from the soundtrack, including a re-recorded version of the main theme, “The Road Leads to Nowhere,” by Hess’ sons. In 2015, Quentin Tarantino used “Now You’re All Alone” in The Hateful Eight.
- The production assistant on the film was Steve Miner, who would later direct Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and 3 (1982), Halloween H20 (1998) and Lake Placid (1999).
- Martin Kove, who plays the inept Deputy, would go on to star as the villainous John Kreese in The Karate Kid movies. He also appeared in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
- The child who has his balloon popped by Krug’s cigar is Craven’s son, Jonathan. Father and son would later collaborate on the awful Mind Ripper (1995), with Lance Henriksen.
- Craven famously walked out of a screening of Reservoir Dogs (1992) because he found the violence distasteful, to which Tarantino replied: “The director of The Last House on the Left walked out of MY movie?!” Incidentally, the scene in Pulp Fiction (1994) where Bruce Willis is searching for a weapon in the pawn shop bares an uncanny resemblance to a similar scene in Last House.
- The late Fred Lincoln, who played Weasel, would eventually become a highly prolific porn director. He has a staggering 316 credits on IMDb.
- A lot of films have attempted to capitalise on the title, most notably with The Last House on Dead End Street (1977). Hess would play a Krug-like character again in Ruggero Deodato’s catastrophically cheesy The House on the Edge of the Park (1980).