by Patrick Crain
Sometime after moving into my grandparents’ house in 1986, I felt a great silence about me. I was no longer a little kid with parents doting on me or Saturday morning cartoons screaming at me. My parents were mostly busy dealing with the aftermath of my grandmother’s death, setting up a new house, and both working highly stressful jobs. I was mostly alone which, really, couldn’t have come at a better time. In the new house, I was between two great video stores; TV World and Appliance to the north and the mighty, regularly-frequented Bob’s Video to the south. Between the two of them, I could get about 90% of what I wanted to see and would also stumble upon a whole new batch of films that were ripe for discovery.
One of my earliest discoveries was Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. I knew who Wes Craven was as his previous year’s Nightmare on Elm Street was about the hottest, most-discussed horror film since Friday the 13th. After hearing about Nightmare on Elm Street from the neighbor kids who dared see it in the theater (and called it the most frightening thing they’d ever seen), I couldn’t wait for it to come out on video. My reaction to it was positive but probably a little more subdued than my friends’ reactions, the reasonings and details of which are better left for another entry.
Suffice to say, Nightmare on Elm Street was my entry into the filmography of Wes Craven. So when I stumbled onto the Vestron Video box of Last House on the Left which had a quote from Roger Ebert’s three-and-a-half star review emblazoned across the top of the back cover, I was more than intrigued. I liked Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street and I loved Roger Ebert so this one was going to be a cinch. How had I not known about this film?
I watched with my jaw on the floor. What I saw numbed me. I remember wandering around the quiet house, still full of my grandparents’ furniture and bric-a-brac, in an unholy funk that I couldn’t process. A book I had owned since a little kid, a primer on the Universal Monsters that had images in it which frightened me, now seemed absolutely silly. What I saw in Last House on the Left was demoralizing and depressing and I hated it. I felt gross and violated. Where, in horror movies before, the antagonist was a monster or unstoppable killer, Last House on the Left made me feel like I had simply been kidnapped by really bad people. This was a new kind of horror.
Yet, still, I was still intrigued. Soon after seeing it, Roger Ebert’s second Home Video Companion was released which contained reviews for older films and I got my chance to see the full review. There was talk of Vietnam and its effect on America and there was much written about its plot; two girls who are kidnapped are taken into the woods where they are raped and killed after which they take refuge in one of the victim’s house wherein her parents exact revenge. This, I was told, the plot to Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring. Even with this pedigree, it still felt cheap and I didn’t understand this kind of violence.
The Psychotronic Video Guide spoke about the film’s famous ad campaign (with its instructions for a squeamish you to keep telling yourself that it was only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…). I soon learned about the film’s release and, due to the result of differing regional moral thresholds and distributors who couldn’t find an appropriate name to get asses in the seats or cars in the drive-in, respectively, how a movie with the name Sex Crime Of the Century could open one place with a 90 minute running time and end up in another place as Last House on the Left with a 87 minute running time.
I thought about the movie a lot and was drawn back to it. I remember that when I would walk to Bob’s Video, I would pass a very 1960‘s style house with dark windows that sat on a corner that always seemed to be shabby and unkempt and I imagined that killers like the ones in Last House on the Left lived there. I once found $25 in various bills in the front yard and immediately thought it was due to someone they kidnapped dropping their cash in the struggle on the way from the car to the front door.
I rented it about three more times and likewise depressed myself about three more times before Bob’s stocked a whole other version of it. The same Vestron box art (though with an orange spine and slightly different text) but with MORE FOOTAGE, it promised. This blew my mind. I checked the back of the box and made a comparison on the running time with the original. One minute. That was enough. I rented this version and depressed myself all over again, only, this time, with the help of one more minute’s worth of footage (which, if memory served, was the insertion of more frames during Phyllis’s death scene and the infamous moment when Krug carves his name on Mari’s neck).
I would visit this film over and over and it became an obsession. Who were these actors? I recognized Martin Kove from the Karate Kid but what about the rest of these people? A classmate told me that if I liked Last House on the Left, I should also check out House on the Edge of the Park which also starred, in his words, “David Hessen.” I did so and that traumatic experience is most definitely for another entry (or, at the very least, should be articulated in a therapy session). I remember, at age eighteen, almost losing my mind when seeing a picture of Jeramie Rain with then-husband Richard Dreyfuss in the weekly Parade magazine. “THIS is THAT girl?!?!?” Fred Lincoln’s name popped up on the marquee in a picture of 42nd Street in a college textbook. Dick Towers (credited in Last House as Gaylord St. James, a name I’d use like a motherfucker) popped up unexpectedly credited as Greg Reynolds in a highly illicit viewing of Doris Wishman’s anti-masterpiece/Chesty Morgan vehicle Deadly Weapons. Pre-internet pieces of information would come my way and I’d eat it all up.
I also branched out and covered Wes Craven’s career to the best of my ability and was mostly underwhelmed at every turn. After having a decently successful run in the 70’s and early 80’s, Craven bottomed out after Nightmare on Elm Street and began to churn out films that ranged from unremarkable (Serpent and the Rainbow, Deadly Friend) to unwatchable (Hills Have Eyes Part 2). He then trafficked in the worst type of intellectual dishonesty in 1996 with Scream where, for a whole generation of horror fans, he carelessly presented John Carpenter’s Halloween as a cliche-riddled, hector-worthy slasher film it most certainly is not.
In most ways, Last House on the Left is Craven’s best effort because it feels as formless as John Waters’s early work. His utter lack of formal cinematic education, either academic or self-taught, gives it the raw edge it needs to get under your skin. Half the time, it sounds and feels like a porn film with its reverb-heavy, cavernous interior sound, blown lines, inappropriate jump cuts, bad foley, gate hair, and grainy, natural-light night photography. And, in fact, it was envisioned as a hardcore feature with honest-to-god pornographic elements to be mixed in with the violence; the ultimate roughie.
And like most porn directors of that time, Craven doesn’t know what he’s doing. Technically inept, the film also contains a number plot holes and problems. The Collinwood phone moves from being out of order to working seemingly at will, the film has remarkable tonal issues, and it runs out of gas once the killers get out of the woods.
A rape-and-revenge film is only as good as its two halves. The reason the somewhat similar I Spit on Your Grave holds up better is that the shocking violence in the front is matched in the back. If this isn’t equitable, there is a problem and, in Last House on the Left, the parents don’t much hold up their end of the bargain in the second half of the film. Not only do they lack a white-hot grief that would be burning their universe, they make stupid, impractical choices (why drag the corpse of their daughter onto the couch?, why choose oral-castration over a sharp kitchen knife?).
If Wes Craven was trying to tread through the territory cleared by Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which was released the year before, he failed to capture Dustin Hoffman’s gradual transformation of man to beast, lifted to violent highs by forces both internal and external. Here, the parents seem to lurch from one emotion to the next, finally settling on the emulation of lurid pulp novel anti-heroes with more built-in ingenuity than they really would have (a trope Craven would use again in the final reel of Nightmare on Elm Street). The killers, too, don’t seem to have much of a plan that we can discern once they get in the house other than to allow the story to have its giant turnabout. The idea that they think they’ll be able to go to a garage and get their car fixed with an all-points bulletin out on them seems idiotic. That they just don’t tie up the parents right away, Manson-style, makes little sense. That they don’t do anything after they realize that these are the parents of Mari is even more baffling.
Much has been made of the inappropriate David Hess score but I’ve always kind of liked it. With its nonsense lyrics about wine, cherries, castles, and roads to nowhere, it is actually a great snapshot of the last remnants of hippie folk; the kind of ground John Sebastian basically owned for as long as he pleased. The rocked out, kazoo-laden traveling music is also a point of contention as its bouncy tone really undercuts the basic horror of these people with whom we’re asked to identify also have a couple of teenage girls in their trunk. I get that. I also get that the scenes with the buffoonish cops, hoofing it back to the Collinwood house after hearing the APB but running out of gas halfway there, kill the flow of the film and really don’t much add up to anything. But, to a 12 year old, those two elements saved the film from being relentlessly depressing and unapproachable (like House on the Edge of the Park was).
Rising above the film’s issues are the performances which completely sell it when it needs sold. The sequence in the woods still stands as the most incredibly horrifying piece of transgressive cinema I’ve ever seen. Completely stark in its realism, when Sandra Peabody’s Mari Collingwood says “I don’t want to do this” while being stripped naked and demeaned, the audience can tell that she means it. Likewise, when Lucy Grantham’s Phyllis Stone is asked to piss herself, she does so. And when Fred Lincoln’s child-molesting, rapist Weasel Padowski tells them both “You’ll have plenty of time to feel the pain,” we want to vomit. While the unknown things in the dark are terrifying, they’re trumped by the immediacy shown here; trapped like a rat in broad daylight and (admittedly conveniently and implausibly) mere yards from your front door. Where most horror films would later call on the heroine to take elaborate steps to come to a successful resolution and defeat the monster, Last House on the Left showed how, in reality, most people can’t even clear the most basic hurdle of getting free and running across the street.
The other performances are top-notch, too. David Hess, who, by all accounts was a very nice guy, gives one of horror’s greatest performances as the sociopathic Krug Stillo. One of the greatest heavies in all of the movies, Krug Stillo is a disgusting, amoral prick. Quite his opposite is Marc Sheffler as his son, Junior Stillo. A sympathetic and pitiful junkie whose introduction to heroin was courtesy of his father, Junior is one of the most complex of the bunch. Tortured by his implicitness of the crime but unable to break free of his addiction, his agonizing end is more heart-wrenching than the movie deserves. The same could be said for the moment after Mari’s rape when the killers realize they’ve gone too far and silently look at each other with total disgust; a powerful moment in a movie that only partly earns it.
Both Sandra Peabody (here credited as Sandra Cassel) and Lucy Grantham deserve much praise for being put through the ringer and being heartbreakingly real. While it’s damn near impossible to not feel for Peabody who was truly frightened throughout most of the filming, Grantham’s rough-edged, hood girl is no less sympathetic as we watch her wily and combative character meets a slow, torturous fate.
The film also scores points for its gross, realistic mise-en-scene. That dirty lake, the heavy wood-paneled interiors, the squat bathroom in the baddies’ apartment hideout, and the contemporary design of the Collinwood house are all wonderful touches that give the film its gritty texture and documentary-style feel. Like most low-budget horror films, it manages to get the exact era’s style absolutely correct due to the fact that these type films were shot in locations with minimal dressing and more “as-is.”
I‘ve oscillated over the years as to whether or not Last House on the Left was a good movie or not. There is an equal amount of repulsion and fascination in me that has caused me to go back and revisit it more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve looked forward to and purchased each release on whatever happens to be the latest format and have been justly rewarded with even more recovered scenes, commentaries, and documentaries about the film’s production. Each time I’m spending the weekend at his house in Dallas, I thumb through my friend Bradley’s copy of the David Szulkin book that chronicles every nanosecond of the film’s production and release. I probably know more about its history than any other movie. And, to be fair, it’s a powerful experience that still manages to get to me.
On the other hand, it’s something of a shame that Last House on the Left has to be included in the pantheon of pioneering horror films like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Because, no matter what, Last House on the Left is a pretty shoddy film by a mediocre filmmaker. And while one could say that same thing about Tobe Hooper, it’s inarguable that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a beautifully made, full-on masterpiece that’s so good, it alone gets Tobe Hooper into Director Heaven regardless of the myriad disappointments that would litter his career.
Wes Craven never earned that kind of capital up front with anyone.