Fifty years ago this month, the late Wes Craven premiered The Last House on the Left, a film notorious even in an era of exploitation and underground cinema for its unadulterated depictions of violence and depravity. So notorious was the film that it nearly derailed, then launched, the horror maestro’s career; and, to those unacquainted with Craven’s filmography beyond the seminal slasher franchise of Scream, this relic of the video nasty era bears in retrospect both a shared penchant for unremitting, sadistic tension as well as the surprisingly anodyne aesthetics of narrative characteristic of the low-budget ’70s. A psychological punch to the gut for most of its runtime, The Last House on the Left chronicles debasement physical and psychological: two teenage girls are picked up by a crew of vicious gangbangers and subjected to sexual humiliation, before being murdered mere yards from one of the girls’ own house. The gangbangers then spend the night in this very house, where the parents host and then hunt them down in progressively brutal fashion.
The polarizing reception The Last House on the Left continues to enjoy till this day is, in a way, a happy product of its low-budget context of production. Originally slated to be a pornographic feature in order to cash in on the realism such a format would purportedly offer, the film sports — indeed — a somewhat gratuitous premise even without venturing into sexploitation territory proper. Early on in its runtime, the oily Weasel (Fred Lincoln), convicted child molester and peeping Tom, asks his partners-in-crime what “the sex crime of the century was”; Krug (David A. Hess), serial rapist and the group’s leader, replies with Albert DeSalvo, the infamous Boston strangler, while Sadie, the group’s only female, comically butchers Freud’s name. (“Do you remember when a telephone pole was just a telephone pole?”) An element of meta-theatricality courses through the events of the film, although it naturally insists, otherwise, on the “truth” of its “witness.” It’s as if Weasel, Krug, Sadie, and Krug’s heroin-addicted son Junior (Marc Sheffler) were avengers of an immoral crusade designed to overturn an established hierarchy of law and order; the product and symbol of counter-culture par excellence, a necessary antithesis and logical consequence of American conservatism. Heavily influenced by the rape-revenge narrative of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring some twelve years prior, and containing a slight but sharp homage to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange only one year before it, Craven’s debut pits the hand of karma against its automaton characters, each almost rendered devoid of feeling — the killers as signifiers of incurable evil, the parents as enforcers of justice where the law catches up too slow.
But of course, it’s reductive to attempt an interpretation of The Last House on the Left as nothing but reactionary anxiety toward the tumultuous future. Where, indeed, Craven’s film anticipated much of its nihilistic genre to come — in works of unrelenting emotional horror as I Spit on Your Grave and, later, the trademarked shock of The Human Centipede — its own birth recalls the troubled moral uncertainty of the ’60s and the feeling of reckoning Americans faced on issues both domestic and foreign. The American psyche, fragmented through the prisms of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, had already called into question many of the institutions it had once revered, undermining previously stable moral codes. The film’s depiction of the policemen tasked with investigating the disappearance of the two girls has frequently come under fire for its inappropriate jauntiness amidst murder and mayhem, although its slapstick qualities could be recontextualized as precisely the doddering shadow of the past audiences find themselves unable to relinquish their faith in. A similar jarringness extends itself in the presence of Craven’s alleged amoralism, inversely fleshing out the gangbangers’ love for lust despite providing scant thematic motivation for it. When Krug and Weasel carry out their diabolical acts, leaving Sadie to viciously and willingly partake in the systematic degradation of women and leaving Junior helplessly complicit in this cycle of violence, one finds little recourse to stock villainy: these are aggressors through and through, primal in their destructive appetites and predatory all the more with their command of language and reason.
The bare-bones metaphor for America’s encounter with nihilism and ennui has yet to emerge with a clear critical consensus fifty years on: Roger Ebert, famous detractor of many video nasties, was unwavering in his praise for the film, although his fellow viewers found themselves struggling with not just the conflagration and subsequent catharsis of the message, but also the stiltedness of the medium. Mari (Sandra Peabody) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), the unfortunate girls unceremoniously discarded despite their frantic search for escape and absolution, are avenged when Mari’s parents learn of their guests’ role in their disappearance. On-screen, however, the parents’ movements belie expressions almost stoically theatrical, of either knowing impotence or shell-shocked determination. They pick up the pieces, seal the exits, oil the blades; Mari’s mother prepares to decimate her daughter’s killer by insulting his manhood, but not before inflating it; Mari’s father tragically stands against Krug’s less-than-paternal figure, both as failed assertions of masculine security. Cue the low production value of the film, of how — despite Hess’ method acting which, according to Peabody, “scared” and traumatized her greatly — both mom and dad seem to go through the motions of their scenes, preparing for the final showdown with nary a streak of agony, a welling of tears. Intentional or otherwise in this regard, The Last House on the Left remains an (accidental, perhaps) exemplar of its time, setting its creator up for four decades of continuous reinventions of horror’s most recognizable lodestones. In its opening minutes, Hess croons a haunting ballad on “the road” which “leads to nowhere,” bracing audiences looking for cheap thrills to consider looking elsewhere. Today, this warning has scarcely lost its hook. When you enter the last house on the left, expect no one — not the law, not conscience, not parental authority, and certainly not the sanctity of youth — to save you.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.