Friday, 19 August 2011

Video Nasty #28 - Last House on the Left

fainting
Last House on the Left remains the only Video Nasty to be directed by a major American film maker and it seems an awful long way from Wes Craven’s 1999 Meryl Streep vehicle Music of the Heart. When the film was submitted to the BBFC back in 1972 it was rejected outright. Ten years later the film resurfaced in Britain on VHS - such was the fledgling UK video industry’s lack of regulation that the film enjoyed a brief second life before it joined the DPP’s list of obscene titles. Last House on the Left forms part of the backbone of the Video Nasties list, along with Cannibal Holocaust, Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave and SS Experiment Camp. I saw the film in the early 90’s on a near unwatchable 10th generation bootleg, and despite the heavily degraded quality, the film left me bruised and battered.


Like it or not Last House on the Left is now firmly established as a classic of American Cinema. For the Horror genre it marked something of an evolution in its unrelenting depiction of violence, and like the seminal Night of the Living Dead it reflected a particularly caustic view of American life emerging out of the troubled final years of the 60’s – the increasingly unpopular Vietnam war, civil unrest, political assassinations, the Manson Family slayings and the violence at Altamont. A frustrated Wes Craven felt that Cinema had not addressed this state of affairs and set about writing a film, (then called Night of Vengeance) that would depict violence and murder in all its ugliness. In this regard the film is wholly successful but in many respects the film is deeply flawed. It’s a masterpiece, but a reluctant one.


"I don't go back and watch that film, but certainly I think it has the right to exist” said Wes Craven perhaps unwilling to relive the raw emotions that fed into the film. Every inch of Last House on the Left looks like a first-time student film. Technically the film is primitive – the framing is often disastrous with the actors falling in and out the shot, the static camera set-ups dull and unimaginative. Also, the transposing of the plot from The Virgin Spring to contemporary America isn’t completely successful. The violent retribution doled out by Max von Sydow’s character in Bergman’s film is more believable considering the film is set in 13th century, but in Last House on the Left, the transformation of the loving parents into methodical, brutal killers is rather implausible. However these faults pale in comparison with the comic subplot involving two bumbling cops – Craven probably felt his film needed a counterpoint to the sadism but it’s a huge mistake and when interjected into the film’s most vital moments threatens to derail it.


Flaws aside, Last House on the Left is often remarkable for its raw power. The early section of the film when the girls unwittingly fall into Krug and co’s clutches at their grubby apartment is incredibly claustrophobic. The film noticeably shifts up a gear when the girls are taken to a stretch of woods, signaled by a shot of Mari spotting the post box just yards from her home – a cruel irony but Craven tightens the screw even further. For the central sequence of the film where Mari and Phyllis are raped and murdered by the gang, Craven’s flat detached directing style comes into its own, the powerful quasi-vérité feel achieving the accidental quality of a snuff film. The quick shot of entrails-ripping is suitably gruesome but it’s the little bits of business by the killers that make the sequence all the more disturbing – Weasel kicking Phyllis on the ground after stabbing her in the back, the gang’s excitement as Krug carves his name into Mari’s chest, and Krug’s spit dribbling onto the Mari’s face as he rapes her. It's a depiction of violence far removed from the Hollywood glamour of Bonnie & Clyde or the slow-mo bloodshed of The Wild Bunch


Surprisingly for a low budget exploitation film the performances among the cast of unknown actors are strong. Fred Lincoln as Weasel and David Hess as Krug form a chilling double act, both genuinely menacing and perfectly controlled. So effective was the Krug persona that it outgrew Last House on the Left with Wes Craven resurrecting the character as dream demon Freddy Kruger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and David Hess reprising Krug in all but name for Hitch-Hike and House on the Edge of the Park. Impressive too are Sandra Cassell and Lucy Grantham playing Mari and Phyllis both very believable in their roles. Casssell, who bears something of a resemblance to Linda Harrison’s human savage Nova from Planet of the Apes has spoken little of the film over the years, perhaps the stories of her rough treatment at the hands of her co-stars are true.


Metrodome’s 2008 DVD of Last House on the Left, perfectly illustrates the seismic shift in policy at the BBFC in recent years, the Board finally granting the film a full uncut release. The film itself looks about as good as it gets – framed at 1.85, the transfer faithfully reproduces the grainy 16mm image in all its grungy glory – honestly, would you care to see this on Blu-Ray ? Audio is also good, and is free of hiss and distortion. Extras for the film have been spread over two discs – the Craven/Cunningham commentary track from the earlier MGM disc, plus a second commentary gathering together David Hess, Fred Lincoln and Mark Sheffler (who played Junior). The director/producer commentary is the better of the two but both are interesting and worth listening to.

A still from the outtake footage - note the Night of Vengeance title on the board
Next up is the excellent 40-min Blue Underground produced documentary Celluloid Crime Of The Century. David Hess turns up for two short featurettes, Scoring Last House and Krug Conquers England. Also included is some silent outtake footage from the shoot, as well the surviving 11 minutes of footage from Roy Frumkes’ abandoned anthology film Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out, which Wes Craven worked on. By far the biggest extra on the set petaining to Last House on the Left is a complete alternative version of the film under the Krug and Company title, and featuring extra lines of dialogue but less explicit violence. The quality is inferior compared to the main feature but it's an interesting addition nonetheless. Finally, Metrodome have added a third disc to the set containing the excellent 2006 documentary Going To Pieces: The Rise And Fall Of The Slasher Film. It’s not especially relevant to Last House on the Left but a welcome addition all the same. An essential purchase.

5 comments:

  1. It's definitely the performances that sell this film, I've only seen it once and I can still vividly remember how convincing the acting was. I saw a copy off an original so the quality was pretty good. I've never felt the need to revisit it since, as powerful as the movie is and as much as I admire it I couldn't say that I liked it. I'm becoming softer in my old age!

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  2. softer ?

    Not at all Mart, I’ve only seen the film 4 or 5 times over the last 20 years, it’s not exactly a great night-in. Having said that, the film is a powerful experience even if it doesn’t rate high on the rewind-factor. Some fans consider this to be Wes Craven’s greatest film but I prefer The Hills Have Eyes and for me Craven will never better A Nightmare on Elm Street

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  3. Great review, Wes. I am enjoying catching up with your posts. I am one of those who thinks this is Craven's best films but that probably won't surprise you!

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  4. Yeah, not a happy film, and watch it close to a shower so you can hop right in as the credits roll. But there is certainly a power to it - although my younger viewers at last years weekend horrorfest did not like it - they came to it with its legend vivid in their minds ('gut wrenching" was what it had been called) but they just didn't get it. I first saw it on a supposedly uncut VHS - but I don't think it was uncut.

    I now own it on that then-mythical Blu-Ray you prophesied. Well done. I'm also with you - Nightmare is #1, Hills is #2, and Scream is #3 for me - this one is a little further down the list.

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  5. Yep, very strong stuff, and successive decades of harder Horror films have not diluted its power. I can remember exactly the first time I saw this film, I was 15, 16, and green as hell, and despite the condition of the VHS tape, copied to near extinction, and a swarm of riotous tracking lines and fluctuating color, I still had to switch the film off half-way thru to take a momentary breather, before restarting it again...

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