Wes Craven once said that if he were interested in reality he would be making documentaries. Despite this claim that the nightmares he gave us were not real, he began his career with a sick little slice of horror that sprang from an all-too-genuine place. There is an authenticity to his 1972 film THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT that still cuts deeply almost fifty years later. In a tagline borrowed from Hershel Gordon Lewis’ COLOR ME BLOOD RED, in order to keep from fainting, the filmmakers urge us to keep repeating, It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie . . . But this particular one has never felt like it was only a movie. It’s equally as hard to believe that Wes Craven was the driving heart behind such a malicious gut-punch of a film. In interviews, he seems like a kindly old uncle urging his brother’s kids to go into cardiology, or like the brilliant college professor that he actually was for a while. Horror documentaries, such as THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE and GOING TO PIECES, frequently sought him out for his insightful commentary. As a filmmaker who had risen from the bottom-barrel start of indie exploitation to a horror icon known worldwide, up and coming directors often went to him for advice. None were disappointed to have met the man, and almost all were surprised to find that he was a very civilized human being. The most telling testament comes from Terry Gross, host of NPR’s fairly classy interview show, Fresh Air. While vacationing in Montreal with her future husband, Gross walked into a theater that was showing LAST HOUSE. She knew that it was a horror movie, but she also knew that it was a kind of homage to Ingmar Bergman’s 1959 film THE VIRGIN SPRING. She was completely unprepared for what she was going to see. Gross had to get up and leave the theater at one point, only returning because her date was still sitting there. Ultimately, she watched the entire film, and, by the time she returned to her home in Philadelphia, she knew that she had to talk to the person who made this movie. If only to ask them why in the hell they did it. What Terry Gross found on the other end of the line was the same thing that horror fans have known for much longer. There was no monster or madman waiting there, not really. What she found was a “thoughtful, reflective, smart, articulate guy” who just happened to recognize and embrace the darker things that he found inside himself. There’s a lot to be said for looking into the abyss, especially when your intention is to show the world its less savory side. Craven has said that the first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself. This was a good place to start for a man who had barely even seen a movie until he was in college. Raised by an alcoholic Baptist mother who forbade movies and music, even comic books, due to their sinfulness, young Wes was steeped in the taboos of fundamentalism. He was nonetheless fascinated by Kafka and had already begun writing his own poems and short stories. About the time he came of age, he suffered a spine infection that left him temporarily paralyzed from the chest down. He ultimately married Bonnie Broecker, the young nurse who had nurtured him back to health. With his new wife at his side, Craven pursued a Masters in Literature at Johns Hopkins University. He was said to have a distinctly visual style of writing, while one of his deacons even suggested that he might become a good screenwriter someday. Instead, he did the most terrifying thing of all and became a father. Craven began teaching at a conservative college, but the cultural changes of the 60s were in full effect. Some of his closest friends were the very people his upbringing had warned him about, mainly authors, poets, and artists. They messed around with making 16mm movies, including a parody of the James Bond films. The first movie he had ever seen, back in his Johns Hopkins days, was TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. He was blown away by the experience. It wasn’t long before he was a regular at the local art theater, taking in the cinematic visions of Fellini, Bunuel, and Cocteau. He dreamt of writing poetry, comedy, and the Great American Novel. Like so many others, however, he feared that instead, he would probably have to suffer through a series of meaningless jobs that rendered him one of the walking dead. Combined with the pervasive philosophies of anti-Nam beatniks, these new perspectives started spinning a web of changes inside of Craven. He lost all faith in the beliefs he had been raised with. Inspired to do something different with his life, he dragged his wife and two children off to Brooklyn. The plan was to finish his story about the troubled son of a cemetery caretaker, then find a way to make movies. While teaching high school and driving a cab in New York, he struggled to make ends meet and still pursue his dreams. But dreams don’t often pay the bills, nor are they always the stuff of great marriages. He and Bonnie were soon estranged and he was camping out on friends’ couches. He was a long way from home now. He met young filmmaker Sean S. Cunningham in the summer of ’69. Predating the seminal porn classic DEEP THROAT by many months, they collaborated on a soft-core film called TOGETHER that starred former Ivory Snow girl Marilyn Chambers. Cunningham wrote, produced and directed, while Craven edited the movie. Due to the financial success of that venture, Cunningham was given the opportunity which led to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. It was not financed by the Mob or by pornographers, as the film’s mythology has often claimed, but was actually requested by a group of drive-in theater owners in the Boston area. They wanted a horror movie to run as the second bill in local double features and were willing to give Cunningham $90,000 to work with. Sensing a lot of hidden talent in the college professor who had edited TOGETHER, Cunningham approached Craven to write and direct the film. Despite his love of film, Craven said that he had never even seen a horror movie, much less knew how to direct one. Like a hustler with great insight, Cunningham suggested that Wes dig deep into his fundamentalist background and use all that repressed emotion. What Craven came back with surprised even the daring young producer. In the documentary THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, Craven described LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT as the film of a young man who had more rage than he realized. He took Cunningham’s advice and tapped into his own dark emotions. All of the repressive barriers that had held him back felt like part of another world as he began to write the original script, which was intended to be a graphic hardcore version of THE VIRGIN SPRING. It was tentatively called “Night of Vengeance.” Once filming had begun, he didn’t think his family, or anyone else, would ever see what he was doing out there in the woods of Connecticut. It felt so different from anything he had planned to do that much of it slipped past his own personal censors. It was a thing apart, he said. For the first time, he was free to be as bad as he wanted to be, and he encouraged his almost equally as inexperienced actors to find their own darker places. Vietnam was still in the air, with shocking real war footage on TV at night while families had dinner. Craven was repulsed by what he saw, and even more repulsed that the movies never showed violence as it really was. There was a lot of blood in the work of someone like Sam Peckinpaw, but it was all presented very stylistically. Almost like a ballet. Almost like an encouragement. He thought about the bow-and-arrow set that he got when he was a child in Ohio. Thinking himself a hunter, a warrior, he stalked the rats that crowded the local railroad yard. He imagined how it would be to send an arrow flying, finding its mark in one of these filthy, detestable creatures. But when he finally let the arrow go . . . the rat’s screams were so loud, so heart-piercing, that he ran home with tears in his eyes, ashamed and frightened of what he had done. No, violence was not pretty at all. And that’s what he would show us. With the audacity of an eager virgin, Craven went to work. He had not even read a book on how to make a movie, nor did he know how to use most of the equipment. He found a cinematographer who owned his own gear, so they didn’t have to rent it. As no one knew about dollies, almost everything was filmed by handheld cameras. The resulting style therefore mimicked the documentaries that Craven enjoyed at the time, giving the grisly proceedings a much more real feeling. Filming mostly took place on city streets or in the wooded property of Cunningham’s family. The soundtrack was done by Craven’s friend Stephen Chapin and cast member David Hess. The story was borrowed from Bergman’s film, which was itself based on a thirteenth-century Swedish ballad. It was a tale of rape-and-revenge, of the moral price of vengeance, and it was an extremely old story. But out here in the wilderness, everything felt very new and very authentic. There couldn’t have been a more appropriate movie than LAST HOUSE to greet the slow and painful end of the Vietnam era. Everything here is about the loss of innocence as it meets the true brutality of the world. There’s no accident that the first time we see virginal Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) it’s through the distorted glass of a shower door. Outside of her house, the mailman delivering a slew of cards for her seventeenth birthday is talking aloud to his dog. “She is about the prettiest piece I’ve ever seen,” he says. Inside, her father notes that she’s not wearing a bra, commenting that “you can see your nipples and everything.” A wealthy middle-class family, he worries that his daughter and her friend will be going to a concert in a bad neighborhood. Although her mother drapes a peace symbol on a chain around Mari’s neck, she notes that the band they are going to see is called Bloodlust. She says, “I thought you were supposed to be the Love Generation.” When the more worldly Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) shows up, the two girls have a moment alone in the woods before leaving for the city. Mari stretches out like an eager kitten, exclaiming in a very tampon-commercial kind of way that, “I feel like a woman for the first time in my life.” We already know that it’s a feeling she will soon regret. Despite the inexperience of all the actors involved, Krug and his gang feel like the most realistically drawn characters in the film. Fred Lincoln, as the aptly named Weasel, had the most acting experience of anyone. It was all in pornography. Jeramie Rain, the “animal-like woman” Sadie in the film, had done a few stage shows. Marc Sheffler, as the drug-addicted almost-good guy Junior, looked like an even more virginal Woody Allen. David Hess, as unofficial leader Krug Stillo, made such a terrifying debut here that he was forever stereotyped in the role of the sadistic rapist. All of them hung out together on the set, typically keeping away from the others until it was time to film their scenes. Maybe that’s why they really seem like the gang they are supposed to be, a thoroughly messed-up criminal anti-family. Despite the terrible things they are all about to do, they don’t initially seem like the worst people you’ve ever met. They laugh and argue and even talk about things that aren’t directly related to the plot. There are a few moments in the film where you can almost feel Craven’s sympathy for them coming through the screen. But they are truly human monsters. In their search for a little pre-concert marijuana, Mari and Phyllis are lured into Krug’s cruel hands. While Mari’s parents hang the birthday banner she will never see, Weasel flicks open his switchblade. Phyllis tells him that she’s going to scream. But, not wanting to get blood all over the floor, Krug punches her in the stomach. While Mari watches her friend get raped, her mother smears frosting across a birthday cake. It’s not until the next morning that Mari’s parents start to worry that their daughter never came home. The all-too-convenient irony is that Krug and the gang’s car has broken down right there on the street where they live, with Mari and Phyllis locked in the trunk. Mari sees her own name scribbled on the mailbox as they are hustled from the car into the woods. In the forest, Krug tells Weasel to cut Mari if her friend doesn’t do exactly what he tells her to do. Here’s cruelty at its worst, not that he will hurt you, but he will hurt your friend. So he orders Phyllis to piss her pants. Mari gets cut when she refuses, so Phyllis does not refuse anymore. They order Phyllis to hit Mari as hard as she can, but Junior steps in before it can get very far. He suggests they should have sex instead. In one of the film’s quietly devastating moments of tenderness, Phyllis holds the crying Mari protectively. She looks into her eyes and says, “It’s just you and me here.” In the background, we hear Hess’ own voice in a melancholy song about a road that leads to nowhere. It all somehow echoes the not so distant bloodlust of the Manson gang, which would have still been on everyone’s mind. Both girls make a futile attempt to escape. In an old graveyard, Phyllis manages to smash Sadie in the skull with a rock but ends up with Weasel’s knife in her back. She crawls away while Krug, Weasel, and Sadie watch and laugh. Krug holds her up against a tree while Weasel stabs her repeatedly in the stomach. Then Sadie has a frenzied attack, tugging loops of intestine from Phyllis’ broken belly. Meanwhile, Mari has convinced Junior to let her go, giving him the peace symbol necklace and telling him they can be friends. But Krug is there before she can make it through the woods to her own house. Weasel gives her the gift of Phyllis’ severed hand. As Mari cries, Krug carves his name in her chest and then rapes her. One of the most excruciating scenes comes next. Afterwards, Mari gets up and fixes her pants. Krug and the gang stand and watch as she throws up in the bushes. They look uneasily back and forth now, somber music playing low. Krug picks grass from his fingers. The overwhelming feeling here is a surprise for a movie such as this, and it’s what makes this the worst part for many viewers. It’s remorse. As ferociously animal as they were just a moment ago, they now obviously realize exactly what they’ve done. It probably wasn’t exactly what they had intended. Holding her stomach, Mari walks slowly toward the lake. The gang does not race to catch her. Like Ophelia preparing to drown herself, Mari pushes out into the water until it’s up to her chest. She stands there, with her back to them, waiting. Krug motions to Weasel, who produces a gun. He aims, his arm stretching out to the edge of the frame, and then shoots Mari dead. Beyond the sadistic violence, one of the things about THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT that has been most criticized is the pointless, slapstick nature of the cops in the film. When they are called to the Collingwood home about a missing girl, they completely ignore the strange car broken down at the end of the driveway. While Mari is giving Junior her necklace, begging him to let her go, they are playing checkers. When the deadliest three circle around Phyllis in the graveyard, the police are stuck on a country road without gas. While the worst atrocities are happening to Mari and Phyllis, the local law enforcement is trying to get a ride with the chicken lady and being left in the dust by a bunch of hippies. All the while, there’s that annoying music that sounds like the bastard child of bluegrass and the Benny Hill theme. It’s easy to wonder why the hell these cops are even in the movie. Craven admitted that he was not familiar with the horror genre and more or less made everything up as he went along. Was all of this just the evidence of an inexperienced writer and director? Possibly. But it serves another purpose as well, which only becomes apparent after another viewing. Here are a couple young and mostly innocent young girls, being brutally raped and murdered, while the ill-timed antics of the law render them completely insignificant. They are nothing but an annoyance, and even a source of anger, for anyone trying to get through this movie. Furthermore, when we finally get what we think we want (revenge on these animals in the form of Mari’s parents), we find that revenge has helped absolutely nothing. When all of this is stacked up against the fact that Vietnam had not even ended as this movie was being filmed, it makes much more sense. It’s total nihilism. It’s saying that we are all on our own, and utterly fucked. While any kind of god seems to be absent from Craven’s bleak vision, there is a strong backhanded morality here, if you choose to look for it. In terms of a rape-and-revenge story, where the movie fails for some of us is in the second half. Whether through the screenwriter’s accident or slyly on purpose, the killers are much better-developed characters than Mari’s mother and father. Basically, Krug and company are made more human than the parents. Having dispatched with the gang as violently as they dispatched the girls, the Collingwoods still don’t have their daughter. In THE VIRGIN SPRING, from which Craven drew the story, the father’s vengeance is rewarded with the appearance of the spring in the place where his daughter was killed. Sure, he had attempted to do penance for his actions by building a church. This only makes it worse, however, implying that God will reward your violence if it’s righteously motivated. With this kind of religious logic, anyone who believed in any god could destroy anyone else they felt had wronged them. But, in LAST HOUSE, the final image is a freeze-frame of a sobbing mother and father, holding each other amidst the blood and gore of their supposed revenge. Their vengeance has only left them broken people. So here, in a far more depraved and much less overtly religious film, violence is more adequately shown to have no real reward. Which is exactly what Wes Craven wanted to show us. Many years after he made LAST HOUSE, Craven said that horror movies are like boot camp for the psyche. They put our fears into a manageable series of events that give us a way to think rationally about them. He didn’t even realize exactly what he had created until he saw it in the theater. Sean S. Cunningham found the finished product too damn disturbing to enjoy, nothing like the thrill ride he had imagined it would be (he had to start that ride himself, several years later, with FRIDAY THE 13th). However, it created such a stir in the Boston drive-in circuit that Samuel Arkoff, of American International Pictures (which specialized in beach movies and biker flicks), took notice. He picked it up for a full national distribution, which began the cinematic career and undeniable horror legend of Wes Craven. He said that most people depend on films to blink at some point, but THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT did not blink. Instead, it held a mirror up to the audience and showed them the darkness inside. It announced that horror movies were no longer safe, nor merely escapism. It functioned as a kind of fictional documentary, which meant not looking away. To avoid fainting, keep repeating, It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie . . . – j. meredith In writing this article, I soaked up a wide array of articles, interviews, books and bonus features. The best of these would be the documentaries THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE and GOING TO PIECES: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, the Fresh Air interviews with Wes Craven, and Jason Zinoman’s book SHOCK VALUE. I would highly recommend them all. See larger image The Last House on the Left (Unrated Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray] (1972) Bold, powerful and starkly realistic, this chilling cinematic debut of horror master Wes Craven (Scream) is a shocking journey into the heart of evil. Written and directed with almost unbearable dramatic tension (Chicago Sun-Times), The Last House on th New From: $4.39 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.