Rape/Revenge Review – The Last House On The Left (1972)

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Arguably, however, despite The Virgin Spring being the first ever Rape/Revenge movie, the first movie to actually establish a Rape/Revenge genre in mainstream cinema was the infamously controversial The Last House On The Left. It was an early creation by Sean Cunningham and the directorial debut of legendary horror filmmaker Wes Craven – who until then was happily working on numerous pornographic movies. The Last House On The Left was, as I’ve stated before, heavily inspired by The Virgin Spring, only with more of a 1970s exploitation cinema feel that was well suited for the dirty grindhouse cinema circuits on 42nd street. The Last House On The Left goes above and beyond the original story of The Virgin Spring, however, by adding more gore, more violence, and more mental and physical torture. The Last House On the Left gets rid of any thought-provoking messages on morality or religion in favour of intense brutality and disturbing realism. Nonetheless, despite all the blood and torture, The Last House On The Left was an incredibly successful affair: it was played on more cinemas than Wes Craven wanted it to, it had one of the greatest marketing pushes of 70s cinema with one of the most memorable trailers ever made: ‘To avoid fainting, keep repeating: it’s only a movie…’, it was granted a shining 3.5/4 star review from famous movie critic Roger Ebert of all people – even though his partner in criticism Gene Siskel disagreed – and all of this added up to The Last House On The Left earning a whopping $1.3 million at the box office, even though the movie itself was made on a budget of only $87,000. The film was a success all over the world, which of course let to criticism, backlash and numerous copycat films from directors the world over (ironic, seeing how The Last House On The Left was a copycat of The Virgin Spring in the first place).

However, such violent film would not get let off lightly from the censors and moral panic groups. The Last House On The Left became one of the most controversial movies of the 1970s. In America, the film had to be sent three times over to the MPAA in order to earn an R rating, and even then certain cinemas took it upon themselves to cut the movie to shreds before showing it in order to avoid public outcry and ‘uphold moral dignity’. However, in the UK, The Last House On The Left was targeted by the media, conservative MPs and the DDP, and it was subsequently banned and placed onto the infamous list of ‘Video Nasties’ for all to see and hear about. I’ve talked before at length at how the ‘Video Nasty’ phenomenon didn’t do anything to stop the sale of those films, and the name The Last House On The Left still carries weight in England as one of the most famously nasty films of the 1970s. That being said though, that’s all that gets talked about with The Last House On The Left – the controversy, but nobody seems to talk about its quality…

The story of The Last House On The Left is a very simple, yet famous one: the plot revolves around the story of two seventeen year old teenagers, Mari and Phyllis, who unwittingly come into contact with violent sadist Krug and his band of merry criminals. Krug tortures, rapes and brutally kills the girls before, by coincidence, winding up taking refuge with Mari’s parents. Once the parents find out about what Krug did to their daughters, they decide to take justice into their own hands and murder the criminals for their actions in equally brutal ways. However, the first thing that I noticed about The Last House On The Left after re-watching it, was that it’s very topical about 1970s culture, especially teen culture. The film is quite socially conscious about the naivety and impulse of teenagers in 1970s America as society was steadily becoming more liberal about such topics as sex, drugs, rock & roll and the freedoms of young adults. The Last House On The Left uses those ideas and paints a tragic picture of how naivety, impulse and lack of restraint can reach the point of no return, and ruin the lives of so many. That tragic picture doesn’t just concern the female victims though, as all of the characters are wrapped up in their naivety and impulses: Mari and Phyllis act on impulse when trying to score drugs and naively approach Krug’s shifty son, Junior, who takes advantage of their naivety, and the girls reach the point of no return when they enter Krug’s apartment. Krug and his gang of sadists act on impulse and take advantage of Mari and Phyllis, reaching the point of no return when Krug lets loose his anger and slaughters them both. Mari’s parents act on impulse when they decide to murder Krug and his criminal buddies, reaching the point of no return when they kill them all, and they sit in silent mourning over what they’ve done once the police arrive to their home, and the credits roll onscreen. If anything, I feel like it’s safe to say that The Last House On The Left is a tragedy on human error. Although the movie depicts Krug and his gang as pure evil, the reasons as to why each situation happens are placed solely in the hands of the victims: the girls approach Krug’s gang in vain search of drugs, Krug approaches Mari’s parents for shelter. Personally, I don’t feel like this storyline of The Last House On The Left is ‘victim blaming’ in any way, shape or form, but its rather a comment on poor judgement and human error that can lead anyone into terrible situations and past the point of no return.

However, although I believe that the ideas behind the story are firmly established in what they’re trying to say, the actual cinematic payoff is quite flawed. Although the film is incredibly intense and horrifically brutal to witness, the film is also quite atonal in nature because it’s spliced together horribly. In the middle of a very depressing, hard to watch scene of Mari and Phyllis being abused by Krug, the film will jump to a happy scene of Mari’s parents baking a cake with no warning or appreciation of a steady tone. This breaks the tension horribly. It’s not just jarring, but it confuses the hell out of me as to what I’m supposed to feel from a viewer’s perspective. I feel like I should be feeling disturbed and upset from the horror that I’m witnessing, but instead I’m being bombarded by happy scenes before swiftly being thrown back into the horror of the situation. It’s so uncomfortable to experience because it feels so out of place, and not in a good ‘avant-garde’ sort of way. It’s distracting, and it annoyed me more than anything. Although I understand why Wes Craven wanted to do this – insert happy scenes to make the intense scenes even more intense – and this approach has been done incredibly well in other movies, it just doesn’t work in this movie because the happy scenes are spliced in between the distressing scenes, and the contrasting tones don’t complement each other, thus creating confusion. That’s not to mention all the forced comedy sequences that occur time and time again throughout the movie, and these comedic sequences prevent the movie from keeping a consistent tone. I’m not sure if Wes Craven wanted to insert the comedy in an attempt to try and tone down the horror, but it doesn’t work. if there’s one thing that I expected the filmmakers to learn from The Virgin Spring, it would be how to keep a consistent tone, and how a consistent tone creates a memorable emotional impact. However, I really just chalk this up to inexperience on Wes Craven’s part as he was still very new to horror movies at this time. Nonetheless, however, with all this silliness and irrelevant comedy, it makes me wonder if Wes Craven was actually treating the topic of rape and murder with the seriousness it deserves…

The rape scene itself is definitely one of the more brutal rape sequences in cinema as The Last House On The Left doesn’t just show a scene of rape, but alongside the rape there are multiple scenes of physical and mental torture. Krug and him gang humiliate, de-humanise and physically torture the girls before killing them in surprisingly horrific ways. Phyllis is carved up, disembowelled and mutilated, and Krug takes it upon himself to sadistically carve his own name onto Mari’s chest before forcing himself upon her. The whole scene is as intense and distressing as it sounds, and it drags on and on, only ending with a ceremonious gunshot as Mari re-enacts Millais’ Ophelia. The whole scene is sick, intense, horrifying, and it even traumatised Sandra Peabody (Mari) who actually walked off set during production and refused to interact with David Hess (Krug). Although part of that may have been the fact that David Hess didn’t drop character when the cameras weren’t on him.

In contrast, however, the revenge is rather silly. It’s over the top and ridiculous from having the mother bite off the penis of one of the criminals, to having the father chase Krug around the living room with a chainsaw. The revenge itself just feels unnecessarily silly and exploitative with revenge by homemade traps, revenge with a Straw Dogs style double-barrelled shotgun, and revenge via a Texas Chainsaw Massacre style chainsaw chase. This silliness really does not gel with the intensity of the earlier scenes, and thus presents itself as another reason as to why I call this movie atonal. This ‘kitchen sink’ approach to the revenge should have been scrapped for something more down to earth and ‘personal’. If the parents had killed the criminals in more realistic ways, such as following Wes Craven’s original idea of having the father kill Krug with a scalpel, or maybe having the parents bash a criminal’s head in with a wrench – something that’s alluded to whilst the parents plan out the revenge – then I feel it would have worked a lot better. By toning down the silliness, the movie would keep a consistent tone. By creating more ‘personal’ deaths for the villains, there’s more chances to create intense, almost sickening deaths that contrast what Krug and his gang did to Mari. As it stands now, the revenge feels far too over the top, and it doesn’t justify or contrast in any way to what the criminals did to Mari and Phyllis.

As for the film’s technical aspects, The Last House On The Left is clearly a low budget affair. The quality of the film itself is incredibly rough and grainy. The editing is relatively shoddy with David Hess’ arguably fantastic music being unnecessarily shoved over the majority of the movie, a choice that I feel distracts from so many important scenes. The acting is very amateurish with only a few stand out actors such as David Hess, who gives his all in every single scene even though he isn’t the best actor, and Lucy Grantham, who definitely stands out against her co-star Sandra Peabody. However, the greatest aspect of the movie is the camera work and cinematography style. For the cinematography, Wes Craven adopted a voyeuristic shot style because it was what he was used to back when he worked in pornography. This style consists of long, uninterrupted, handheld medium shots that create a distance between the screen and the action. Whether intentional or not, this really works. It works especially during the intense rape scene as it makes the viewer feel like they’re witnessing the brutality in person. It makes them feel like they’re part of what’s happening. Instead of creating a fourth wall, this voyeuristic style actually breaks the fourth wall, thus making it feel like the viewer is watching what’s going on through the eyes of one of the criminals. It makes the scene much more intense and disturbing. This is a technique that needs to be adapted in more and more movies, especially in horror movies and intense thrillers. Unfortunately, I feel that this style became irrelevant once ‘found-footage’ became an adopted style as it achieves the same effect in a not so subtle way. However, The Last House On the Left proves that this style is really effective. It oozes subtlety and quiet intensity.

Despite all the criticism and controversy, I understand why The Last House On The Left became a huge hit. The film itself does a lot of good things, and it shows a lot of promise in those who made it. On the other hand, however, the film has a lot of flaws that hold it back from being a great movie. Anything the movie does well, it does really well, and anything that the movie does badly, it does it really badly. To me, The Last House On The Left is so-so. It could’ve been great, but there’s far too much that holds it back and despite its good intentions, the lack of experience from everybody involved really does mar the film. It’s great to know that many of the people involved in this movie would go on to become legends: David Hess became a star, Sean Cunningham created an iconic horror franchise in Friday The 13th and Wes Craven’s career needs no introduction. However, this was quite a shaky introduction into their later careers. Although The Last House On The Left is probably worth a watch to see what caused everyone to go crazy over grindhouse cinema back in the 70s, understand that better films would succeed it over the years as the Rape/Revenge genre would grow and grow, and those who originally made it would go on to make bigger and better things.

That is until Sean Cunningham and Wes Craven returned in 2009 to give The Last House On The Left another shot…

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