Last House on the Left (1972)
Wes Craven’s landmark rape-revenge horror film that launched his career as well the “torture porn” genre of horror that has risen up over the past decade, “Last House” first assaulted its audience in 1972. Heralded in by one of the most infamous (and duplicated) ad campaigns ever that encouraged it’s audience that if the film got too intense for them to repeat the mantra “It’s only a movie…only a movie…..only a movie”, the film was one of the few movies for its time whose ads was more than just a shock tactic.
Envisioned by its creators Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham as a quick way to make some bucks as an exploitation film, they shifted gears during the writing process to make it a modern re-telling of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”. The final result falls somewhere in the middle. This is an exploitation film, but one with a point to it. Being somewhat of a hippy, Craven wanted the film to be a commentary on modern-day violence and the death of peace as a result of the violence shown in the news from the Vietnam War. Craven wanted to show how violence begets violence and the futility of vengeance. This is an ugly, sometimes very hard to watch film, that still packs a punch to this day. If you are familiar with my reviews you know I sometimes go into a more critical analysis and this is no exception, which is basically a roundabout way of me saying there are spoilers past this point, so tread with caution.
The film starts off with the birthday eve of 17-year-old Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) taking a shower and examining herself in the mirror while the theme song for the movie “The Road Leads to Nowhere” plays over this montage. It’s an important scene that sets the sexually bleak tone for the movie to come. Mari is a very attractive, but innocent (read: virginal) young lady who is just learning to accept herself as attractive, but as we already know from the poster that the next 80 some minutes of the film are not going to be kind to her, or if we were unaware of the ads, the song foreshadows the fate that awaits Mari (and all the characters of the film).
Mari then has some exposition with her parents, John (Richard Towers, under the amazing pseudonym Gaylord St. James) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr) in which we learn that she is going out with her friend Phyllis to see a band called Bloodlust in a bad part of the city. Again, foreshadowing. John doesn’t want Mari going out because she has no bra on, and the film isn’t exactly clear if Mari is going out like this as a sexual thrill or if she considers herself a feminist bra burner. She is certainly a hippy and is overjoyed at the early birthday present she receives: a golden peace pendant. Mari’s character thus becomes symbolic of the peace generation which is the crux of the films metaphorical point and commentary on those ideals. Mari is then pestered by her mother about Phyllis. If Mari is the symbol of the innocence of the 60’s movement, Phyllis is the free-loving component of it. Estelle all but calls her a slut in her objections to Mari hanging out with her.
Phyllis for her part, acquits herself very well with Mari’s parents with likability and quick wit. And so the girls go off on their adventure to the big city. A radio announcement then tells us about the breakout of psychopathic criminals Krug Stillo (David Hess) and Fred ‘Weasel’ Podowski (Fred Lincoln). The film shifts gears to focus on these villains as we learn more about them. Krug and Weasel were sprung from the joint by Krug’s moll Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and his son Junior (Marc Sheffer). This part oddly enough humanizes the rapist-killers, but is most sympathetic to Junior, as we learn that Krug has hooked him on heroin in order to control him. The bad guys crack jokes, and hang out and everything is cool until Krug and Weasel decide they both want to bang Sadie. Sadie wants no part of this as she has been reading women’s lib magazines and feels empowered by them. It turns out she is also bi-sexual and suggests they get some girls to share.
Junior is sent out as bait to find some girls, and around this same time the girls are in the same part of the city post-concert looking to score some pot. Phyllis who is used to this spots Junior and starts up a conversation. In a scene that shouldn’t be funny (but is) Junior tells them he has some awfully cheap Columbian grass, man. And at this point the main characters all meet each other and the atrocities begin. Krug awards Junior his “yum-yums” and the gang proceed to beat and rape Phyllis.
The next morning the gang loads up their victims in the trunk of the car and drive off into the woods where they decide to commit the “sex crime of the century”. In the midst of their plans, their car breaks down not far from Mari’s house. Improvising on their plan, Krug and company head into the woods where their violence toward the Marie and Phyllis increasingly escalates as they egg each other on to be more and more depraved. Sandra Peabody is disturbingly convincing during this portion of the film. In a case of art imitating reality, she was naive as to what her character would go through during the rape/humiliation scenes. The scenes are harrowing to watch because she is legitimately freaked out of her mind. To this day she hates this film and distances herself from it. David Hess adds on the commentary track that for his part he was living his part as well and was really assaulting her. It should be noted however that David Hess is quite possibly insane and has said he had sex on-screen with another co-star in the Italian knock off “House on the Edge of the Park”.
When then cut back to Mari’s parents who have put out an APB for their missing daughter with the bumbling sheriff (Marshall Anker) and deputy (Martin Kove, who you may remember as John Kreese from “The Karate Kid” series or Ericson from “First Blood part 2″. Interestingly he’s the only actor in the film to have a major mainstream career). The filmmakers tried to add in comic relief with these two characters but failed horribly. In scenes better left on the cutting room floor the two keystone cops half heartedly search for Marie before running out of gas (ironically right in front of Krug’s car). They then try to hitch a ride with an elderly black lady Ada (Ada Washington, the maid of Craven’s parents) on her chicken coop. The goofy tonal shift is jarring to the point of ruining the film for many people. And Ada Washington is one of the more horrific sites in the film.
So we cut back to the woods where Phyllis tries to get away. Just before reaching the road, Sadie and Weasel catch up with her. Weasel and Sadie take turns stabbing Phyllis to death in a nauseous scene that shows how ugly violence is. Sadie ratchets up the violence by eviscerating Phyllis and playing with her guts. In the meantime, Mari convinces Junior to let her go, pleading with the drug addict that her dad is a doctor and if he will come with her to her house she can get him his fix. She also promises to be his friend and gives him her peace pendant. Junior falls for this but before they can make it to the house Krug stops them.
In the most infamous scene of the movie, Krug carves his name on Mari’s chest before raping her. If Mari is the symbol of peace and love, Krug is the emblem of hatred an nihilism and plays this part with as much gusto as he possibly can. Intensely unhinged Hess takes the character to its logical extremes but never plays it for camp value. It’s completely believable this guy is real throughout the film, which led to him being typecast as the same character through most of his career.
After the rape Mari walks off in a shocked daze into the river, presumably to drown herself, before being shot by Krug. What makes the movie so different from other exploitation films is that these killers are played as actual humans. At this point the blood lust and sadism has gone away from them. They are stuck with themselves, sick with guilt at what they’ve done. They wash up in the river and change clothes without even being able to look at each other. None of this is enough to make them better people, but this brief glimpse that they are aware at how horrible they are gives a disturbing, realistic edge to the movie.
Heading down the road to find shelter they stop at the Collingwood house. Telling John and Estelle that they are salespeople they are welcomed in and given food and shelter. Weasel immediately takes a liking to Estelle who is all like “WTF”. All the guilt they had before has now vanished, except for Junior. Racked by guilt and going through withdrawals Junior has a panic attack and is checked on by Estelle who finds Mari’s peace pendant around his neck.
John and Estelle realize what has happened and at the same time Krug and company figure out whose house they are in. However, the baddies have not realized that Mari’s parents are onto their ruse and hellbent on vengeance. They begin to take out their retribution. Weasel gets in the worst in a scene that has to be seen to be believed. Estelle seduces him and Weasel brags about how can do it with his hands tied behind his back. Estelle eggs him on to do this and takes him outside where she proceeds to perform oral sex on him right until he is about to climax, at which point she chews his penis off and spits it into the lake. An enraged and completely crazed Krug convinces Junior to shoot himself in the head before being challenged to a fight by John. Krug pretty much hands John his ass before John goes down to the basement and returns with a chainsaw to get medieval on Krugs ass! Oh yeah! Being that this film had no budget, they used a real chainsaw, so Hess could have been killed for real reals not for play play. Estelle has a cat fight with Sadie before slashing her throat open. The cops return just in time to see John give the deathblow to Krug with the saw (predating the use one as a murder weapon on-screen seven years before there was a massacre in Texas).
The movie ends at this point. The house is in shambles, the victorious parents are morally compromised and no better than their daughters killers and most likely headed to prison. We of course are sympathetic to the parents actions, but they are as savage and cold-blooded as the villains. Murder is murder regardless of reasons, which is the point that Craven is trying to make with the symbolism of peace being raped and murdered. All this though is ruined by the montage credit sequence which shows a promo reel of the entire cast smiling and happy while the goofy “Baddies Theme” plays over it. Once again, the film shoots itself in the foot.
The most interesting thing to me about the film is the dichotomy between the characters and how the story progresses organically from their actions. A lesser person would have written the movie as a total sleaze fest glorifying the action of the depraved gang. Craven goes through makes the point to show how pathetic the killers are and that their actions leave them only feeling sick instead of satisfied. Violence to them is like a drug, they crave the rush of it only to come down from the high and realize how fucked up they are only to try to catch the high again, which is as realistic a description of a sociopathic sexual killer as one could imagine. Even the vengeance the parents wreck leaves them empty and their lives ruined. The girls are fun-loving and free-spirited, which isn’t bad in and of itself, but they are also careless about playing around in dangerous situations which leads to their demise. I’m not saying they deserve it, but there is a certain amount of personal responsibility to be placed on them for going off with a complete stranger into an unknown area to score dope.
The film isn’t quite sure what genre it is. It’s not completely a horror, not completely a drama, has loads of black comedy in it (I’m not even going to touch the conversation they have on the way to the woods), has a bit of an art house vibe with a documentary quality, but then goes off into exploitation territory. It’s a vitriolic film filled with the anger of a youth who has grown up only to find the world isn’t what he thought it would be. A subtext to the crimes committed against the youth is the way the world comes crashing down on the innocence of youths as they grow older.
Another big component is the folk-style songs that play throughout the movie. In addition to starring as Krug, Hess composed and sung the soundtrack for the film. For me, his music works. It’s very somber, very moving, very 70’s. Except for the “Baddies Theme” which is a uber upbeat polka style ditty which gleefully contains the lyrics “Let’s have some fun with these two lovely children and off ‘em as soon as we’re done”. However, the iconic “The Road Leads to Nowhere” which captures the soul of the film is the crown jewel of the bunch.
The creators of this film would go on to spawn two of the biggest horror icons of all time. Wes Craven went on to make “A Nightmare on Elm St.” and Sean Cunnigham went on to make “Friday the 13th”. I grew up on both these franchises, as did most kids in the 80s. I watched every horror movie I could get my hands on, but sticking mainly with slasher films or supernatural horror. Then the internet came around and I read about “Last House on the Left” on-line and was ecstatic to see a movie made by the guys who made both Freddy and Jason! So the summer of ’97 I took the plunge and rented it. I was expecting to be disturbed, the reviews I read on-line primed me for that. I wasn’t expecting to be saddened by it though. Sandra Peabody’s performance made me truly feel sorry for her. The film stock is old and grainy, giving the whole film a more gritty aesthetic; albeit non-intentionally. I cut the movie off at that point and it took me a day to get back to it. Me and a friend watched it together and something else happened: laughter. Mari telling Junior “You’ll be my friend! I’ll call you Willow!” became an inside joke we’d say to each other from time to time. The theme song we’d bust out at random every so often at church as though it were a hymn. Gaylord St. James holding a chainsaw is very awkward and made hilarious when he cuts through a door.
Most of my favorite films are ones connect with the emotionally due to what is going on in my life at the time. When I watched this film I was the same age as the girls in the movie, and a lot of changes were taken place (including the death of my father), and I was just bitter at life in general. The feelings expressed in this film resonated with me deeply. That summer was also one of the best I ever had. So this film reminds me of that bittersweet time. I’ve watched the movie quite a few times since then and read up on it quite a bit. It’s not for everyone and quite a few people flat-out think this movie sucks. I can see that viewpoint even though I will never begin to share in it. It’s a film whose influence can still be felt to this day. It’s been duplicated by lesser filmmakers who focus only on its baser, sensationalistic, elements. For that it, it’s a cult classic that will never die.