Thursday, December 11, 2008

#51: The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)

I have no doubt that The Last House on the Left is an effective horror film. I just don't like it very much. It makes me feel dirty. I don't enjoy watching people being tortured. It's not my bag. Rape and sexual humiliation also are not big cinematic treats for me. Wes Craven, in his first film, creates a powerful atmosphere, serious shocks, and some striking images. The film achieves what it sets out to do, but it's so damned unpleasant with a thoroughly depressing view of humanity. Besides Last House on the Left, the only Craven film I've seen recently (though I watched many of his movies when I was a kid) is Scream, which would be my least favorite movie of the last decade and a half if Paul Haggis' Crash and the oeuvre of Oliver Stone ceased to exist. Shit, I forgot about Patch Adams. Scream is better than Patch Adams. At any rate, Craven strikes me as a shitbag of a human being based on these two films.
(Warning: Multiple spoilers ahead, for this movie and others.)

Bizarrely, Last House on the Left remakes Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, which itself was based on a Norwegian folk tale. In the Bergman original, a barely pubescent girl, a blonde little pixie whose budding sexuality and angelic appearance attract the wrong sort of crowd, falls victim to a group of bandits. The bandits later seek shelter at the home of the now-dead girl's father, Max Von Sydow, unbeknownst to them. When he discovers their misdeeds, he viciously slaughters them. In Craven's film, two teenage girls try to score some weed in the city before attending a rock concert and are kidnapped by a group of escaped convicts: a bisexual spike-haired refugee from a John Waters film, her alpha-male ringleader rapist/murderer lover and his heroin-addicted teenage son (who has been plied with the drugs so he can be easily controlled), and a dim-witted rapist/murderer. (That the gang of killers all have Jewish features has already been covered in someone else's blog, but is worth reiterating if for no other reason than to express bafflement.) The girls are humiliated, raped, tortured, and, finally, killed. The murderous gang's car runs out of gas near the home of one of the girls' parents. They pose as traveling businesspersons, the parents take them in, the mother sees one of the gang wearing her missing daughter's necklace, murderous revenge occurs.

The difference between Bergman and Craven is vast. Bergman presents the allure of a girl on the verge of womanhood with lighting and facial expressions. Craven has a mailman deliver a monologue about what a piece of ass a teenage girl has become while delivering her letters, then shows the girl getting out of the shower and gazing happily at her own breasts, then has her father ask her why she's not wearing a bra (borderline creepy, but still somewhat fatherly) while grabbing her by the bottom of her shirt and telling his wife "Look, you can see her nipples" (out of the ballpark creepy), then flashing to a scene of the girl and her friend in the woods in which the girl talks happily about how much her breasts have filled out.
The dialogue in the film is mostly atrocious, but the actors are very strong. They deliver the ridiculous lines believably, they physically inhabit the characters, and they carry the movie on their shoulders. The scenes of torture and violence are hard to watch. One stabbing, in particular, seems to carry some psychic residue from the Manson family murders, still very recent news at the time of the film's release and a violent episode in American history that haunted pop culture for twenty years afterwards. The bizarre Hee-Haw style comic relief from two bumbling local policemen and an African American woman driving a pickup truck loaded with live chickens raises many questions I will never be able to answer.

I Spit on Your Grave might as well be a loose remake of this loose remake. (All roads in torture porn lead back to Norwegian folk tales.) Both films feature women sexually tortured for an extended duration, followed by revenge killings. The ringleader of the creeps in both films is a Semitic-looking man with dark, curly hair who smokes cigars and hates everyone, especially women. In Craven's film, the victims are rural Connecticut girls hitting the big city. In the other film, the victim is a New Yorker spending the summer in rural Connecticut. In both films, the women are raped and beaten in the Connecticut woods. A penis is bitten off during oral sex in Craven's film. A penis is scissored off in a bathtub after a masturbatory rubdown in I Spit on Your Grave. Roger Ebert called I Spit on Your Grave "a vile bag of garbage" but gave Craven's film 3 1/2 stars out of 4. To each his own.
Weird facts about the actors:
Fred Lincoln, the dim-witted rapist/murderer, eventually became a porn director. You may know him from such films as Thighs Wide Open, Sextraterrestrials, Prettiest Tits I Ever Came Across, Cajun Heat, Bone Appetit: A She-Male Seduction and Last Whorehouse on the Left.
Jeremie Rain, the only woman in the murder gang, was married to Richard Dreyfuss for several years.
Marc Sheffler, the heroin addicted son, wrote seven episodes of "Charles in Charge."
Richard Towers, the father of one of the murdered girls, acted in this film under the fake name Gaylord St. James.
These facts sound suspiciously like the bullshit I like to invent, but they are real.

My parents saw this film early in their relationship in the theater on a double-date with my dad's best friend and his then-girlfriend. During one shock scene, my dad's friend threw his popcorn and soda-pop in the air. They landed on the person sitting behind him.

An image from The Virgin Spring:


Alex Steed said...

My mother saw this in the theater too and she told me all of these things that she remembered from the film that weren't actually in it. I sort of like the version that exists in her head much more than I like the film itself (which I don't like very much at all).

You have neglected to mention one of my favorite parts of LHotL: the soundtrack, which is - as far as I can tell - a series of terrible original folk renditions that narrate exactly what's going on in the scene. It's sort of like:

[jangly banjo music]
crazy Jewish hipsters
old whore, junkie son and murdurah!
driving down the road
what happens next?
better watch out, country girl!
a ding dang doo!
[more jangly banjo music]

Also, it is worth noting that this movie did for Semitic-looking people traveling in rural-ish Connecticut EXACTLY what Craven's Nightmare on Elm St. did for burn victims prowling dreams.

Dr. Mystery said...

I absolutely should have mentioned that bizarro world Gordon Lightfoot-esque score. Your web site is excellent, by the way.

Your mother's version of the movie reminds me of my childhood playground version of Porky's, which I wrote about here: