‘To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie… only a movie’. If you’ve never seen Wes Craven’s 1972 horror film Last House on the Left, chances are you’ve heard of it or have at least heard the infamous tagline. Notorious upon release and hugely influential on the horror genre and exploitation film, Last House was the first feature written and directed by Craven (The Hills Have Eyes, Nightmare on Elm Street) and produced by Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th).
Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960), the picture follows friends Mari and Phyllis who are on their way to a concert to celebrate Mari’s seventeenth birthday. On the way there they hear a radio report on a recent prison escape involving a group of sadistic rapists and murderers. After the concert and on the lookout to score, the girls befriend Junior, unbeknownst to them he is actually one of the prison escapees, who takes them to an apartment from which they will not return…
What ensue from here are repeated acts of sadistic and revengeful violence. Both Mari and Phyllis are sexually abused and raped and are eventually killed after being tortured by the gang. These scenes were problematic for the BBFC and upon its cinematic release in 1974 it was refused a certificate. When released uncut during the 1980s home video boom, the film found itself embroiled in the ‘video nasties’ debate and became banned. Over the next two decades the feature was refused a certificate unless certain cuts requested by the BBFC we made. It was eventually given an 18 certificate and released on DVD in the UK in 2003 after 31 seconds, including scenes of sexual violence, were cut. In March 2008, the BBFC finally classified the film uncut for video release.
Watching it now, with next year being its fortieth anniversary, Last House on the Left still packs a punch. In the wake of the ‘torture porn’ genre that has been quite dominant in horror over the past ten years, some of the gore and the violence may seem quite tame or inferior to an audience used to watching scenes that are a lot more graphic. However, the minimalist narrative and some great acting by the cast make for some really affecting scenes.
Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham are good as Mari and Phyllis respectively, with a few scenes that embellish their friendship acted out rather naturally. Fred J. Lincoln (Weasel), Jeramie Rain (Sadie) and Marc Sheffler (Junior) are all memorable as the escaped gang, each adding something different and unique to their characters sociopathic profiles. The weakest point, in my opinion, lies with Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr playing Mari’s parents. Compared to the rest of the cast, it feels like the two of them are holding something back, Carr in particular whose grief and desire for revenge only scarcely swims to the surface of her performance. The cast highlight is, without a doubt, David Hess as gang leader Krug. Entirely believable and revolting in his depiction of an abusing and manipulative father, the scenes in which his character’s sadistic behaviour really come into show feel genuinely played out, right down to his every smirk. Hess also wrote and performed the films soundtrack, often played as an ironic counterpart to the scenes being shown adding more malice to violence shown on screen.
In his book Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman eloquently sums up the general feeling that Craven creates within Last House on the Left, that ‘violence degrades everyone involved, victim and victimiser, just and unjust’. Mari’s parents become nothing more than Krug and his gang due to their lack of character development. Neither their grief nor their anger feels real enough, Carr and Towers bland portrayal of them as stock characters contrasting with the multi-faceted portrayals of the criminals means that their revenge lacks the momentum and impact that the girl’s deaths at the beginning have. In this sense, there is no pay off for Mari’s parents or the audience.
Last House has influenced films across the horror genre since its release, from revenge tales such as I Spit on Your Grave and Death Weekend to serial killer road movies like The Devil’s Rejects. Hess continued to reprise his Krug role in the decade Last House was released in similar imitations, most notably Hitch Hike (1976) and House at the Edge of the Park (1981), whilst the producer and director of the feature went on to become to heavyweights in the horror genre in the 1980s. Sean S. Cunningham would direct Friday the 13th in 1980, producing various entries in the franchise over the years, whilst Wes Craven would continue to write and direct other horror classics, kick start the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and go on to satirise the genre and his career in the 1990s with the start of the Scream trilogy. With many films owing much to Last House on the Left, if you haven’t seen it yet, make sure it’s not that last horror film left on your list to watch…