Last House on the Left (1972) – Film & DVD Review

last_house_on_the_leftWes Craven’s landmark 1972 shocker gets a second DVD go-around with a much more comprehensive set of extras, but the recent UK DVD release easily trumps all previous entries. Last House on the Left is as important a step in the growth of the modern horror film as either Night of the Living Dead or Halloween, even though House rarely gets recommended on that level. The zombie flesh eaters of Night are practically genteel in comparison to what Romero wound unleash in later decades (not to mention the merciless levels of violence that would become part and parcel of the European variant), and the elegant steadicam photography of Carpenter’s Halloween would easily justify its place alongside Kubrick’s The Shinning in any discussion of the evolution of modern cinematography. But after almost 40 years, Last House still possesses the raw power to shock and offend – not just through the plethora of cheap, improvised makeup EFX, but by confronting its audience with the kind of absolute horror that most films dealing in murder as entertainment conveniently overlook.
Craven’s film uses the barest outline of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring in telling the story of teenagers Mari (Sandra Cassel) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), who stop off in a sketchy neighborhood in NYC’s lower east side to buy pot before going to a concert. Their would-be dealer, Junior (Marc Sheffler) leads them upstairs to conclude the deal, where they are set upon by escaped convicts Sadie (Jeramie Rain), Weasel (soon-to-be legendary adult film director Fred J Lincoln), and worst of all, the malevolently evil Krug (actor and musician David Hess, guaranteeing himself exploitation cinema work in perpetuity). The next morning, the gang throws the girls into the trunk of their car and race up to the country to have some more “fun” with their captives, but coincidently choose an area nearly in the backyard of the Collingwood’s home – Mari’s parents.
It’s easy to dismiss Last House as the worst sort of pandering grindhouse fare; several of the filmmakers were involved in the adult film world both before and after its production (an early draft of the script was rife with outrageous pornographic content), and the majority of the acting on display is desperately amateurish. The local police (including a young Martin Kove) are straight out of a Bethel Buckalew picture, and the scene where they pull over an elderly black woman driving a depression-era truck filled with chickens (actually Cunningham’s parent’s housekeeper, Ada Washington) is perhaps the most epically out-of-place moment in the history of American horror cinema. The intent of the ham-fisted comedy relief is clear, though the tonal shifts are enough to give a first time viewer whiplash.
Fortunately, nothing can blunt the power of the infamous sequence when Mari and Phyllis are ravaged in the woods. Until that point, the cheap production values and semi-pro performances have served to distance most viewers. But something happens from the moment Krug and Company (actually one of the myriad alternate titles used for the film early on) drag the girls to what will likely be the last place on earth that they will ever see.
It begins with the performances of Cassel and Grantham (Cassel spent the early ’70s appearing in several NYC-lensed adult films with titles like Love-In ’72 and Teenage Hitch-hikers, while Grantham’s film CV consists of only Last House), both of whom appear realistically and distressingly frightened for their lives. From the first, relatively benign atrocity of forcing Phyllis to urinate on herself, to the almost unwatchable (and heavily edited) sequence in which the girls are made to be “intimate” with each other, nothing is presented to titillate – it’s a rape of the girls’ body and spirit.
The realistic vibe put out by the actress is picked up in turn by Hess, Lincoln, and Rain, each of whom demonstrates with terrifying verisimilitude the utter absence of humanity or compassion. The sequence concludes with a moment as remarkable as we’ve ever seen in a genre film, in which we actually see the killers reach their collective limit, and their sadomasochist glee is turned off as if by flipping a switch. Is it remorse that we see on their faces, and are we willing to grant them the very thing that we’ve just watched them brutally take away from their victims?
The sequence – as with the rest of the film – is shot in a very grainy, verite style that is both a product of the budget and the stated aesthetic of the filmmakers to achieve the documentary look of TV news reports coming each night from Vietnam. Critics who complained about the level of violence were missing the point; the violence in Last House was itself the central theme, not merely an exploitable byproduct. Craven saw a culture being slowly desensitized by the horrors around it – a world where the Manson ‘family’ perverted the hippie idealism of the ’60s and used it as trappings for their murderous antisocial rage, and where Craven’s own generation were being systematically slaughtered halfway around the world in a war nobody wanted. The audience is forced to coldly observe the atrocities of the film’s crew of killers until the mayhem passes beyond the comfort zone of even the most hardened genre aficionados and asks “Is this what you came to see?”
The show falters somewhat during the second half, once the gang arrives at the Collingwood home after their car breaks down. Here the film becomes more of a traditional revenge picture and ceases to challenge its audience (though one quick dream sequence is undeniably effective).
Few horror pictures have had as checkered a history on home video as Last House; two different edits appeared on VHS, courtesy of the beloved Vestron Video, the second of which was billed as ‘complete and uncut’, running roughly 83min. MGM/UA’s first go around with the title on DVD was back in 2002, and offered the most complete version yet, along with commentary by Craven and Cunningham, featurettes on the production and Hess’ music, and several minutes of outtakes, some of which feature extra moments of intestine-pulling that was best left on the cutting room floor.
Last year, the UK was finally able to see the film without cuts in a nation-wide release (it had previously held a place of honor at the top of the BBFC’s “video nasties” list) via a massive 3 disc set from Metrodome, featuring an additional commentary track with baddies Hess, Lincoln, and Sheffler, a brand new 40-min production documentary produced by Blue Underground (“Celluloid Crime of the Century”), which provides an extensive look into the making of the film; the interesting “Krug Conquers England,” which covers the first uncut theatrical showings in the UK; an excerpt from the short film “Tales that’ll Tear Your Heart Out ,”which reunited Craven and Hess; all of this in addition to the same set of outtakes and general ballyhoo from the previous release.
However, the main selling points that might drive interested parties to double-dip are housed on the second disc, which includes a marginally different cut of the film under the title “Krug & Company” (which contains some footage found in no other version and has at least one astounding plot difference regarding the fate of Mari), and some the infamous soft core sexual footage shot during the forced copulation of Mari and Phyllis. Like much of the film’s more extreme footage, it had fallen victim over the years to the vagaries of local “decency laws”, with theater managers excising out any would-be offending material (and saving it for their own personal collection, of course) and few prints making it back to the distributor’s office intact.
Not even Craven and Cunningham appear sure of what exactly would constitute a final cut; while much of the ‘intestine’ footage was clearly never intended to be used, who knows how much of the forced lesbianism ever actually made it into any complete version? (We’ve heard from various parties that this footage has always been around, but until recently no one had bothered getting the actresses to sign off on the necessary release forms).
MGM/UA’s newest offering is geared to take advantage of Rouge Pictures’ upcoming remake, and cherry picks several features off the Metrodome set, while leaving off the Krug & Company alternate cut and the “Krug Conquers England” featurette to fit onto a single disc (the 3rd disc on the Metrodome set was devoted to a documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film). Unfortunately, the new MGM release continues the tradition of no-thought, Photoshop paste ups for the cover art; Last House has some of the most memorable promotional artwork ever made for a horror film (much of which is retained on the Metrodome set), and MGM’s disc makes it look like a DTV Wrong Turn sequel.
We would like to acknowledge our dog-eared copy of David A. Szulkin’s invaluable book, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, the best available resource for anyone interested in the film. Portions of this review were previously published on my blog, The Blood-Spattered Scribe.

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