Prior to revisiting Wes Craven’s scandalous debut Last House on the Left on its well-scrubbed DVD — released the last week of August 2002, roughly thirty years to the day it had its big-time theatrical launch in Boston — I hadn’t seen it in about twelve years.
Yet during that time, one moment stuck with me: not the hideous sexual violence of the film’s human monsters, not the equally horrifying come-uppance scenes late in the game, but the moment when the four killers on the lam — vicious ringleader Krug (David Hess), his junkie son Junior (Marc Sheffler), and their sicko accomplices Weasel (Fred Lincoln) and Sadie (Jeramie Rain) — stand around in a break in the carnage, sticky with blood, their eyes hooded with emotions we can only guess at. Shame? Self-disgust? Sadness? Wes Craven has said many times that he intended Last House to show violence as what it truly is — repugnant and ugly — and he certainly does, but the real proof is the post-violence blues, if you will. The “fun” is over, and in a quiet moment the monsters are left with awareness of themselves.
Hired to write a quickie horror film for a Boston distributor, Craven delivered a steaming Petit Guignol package both reactionary (in both senses; Craven was reacting against the antiseptic screen violence of the day, and whether he intended this or not, the film definitely shows the perils of being a teenage girl out in the city looking to score weed) and derivative (Craven cheerfully swiped the plot from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring; ever wonder whether the melancholy Swede ever saw the grindhouse knockoff of his classic?). The script went further and pounded harder than anyone was really prepared for; but because it was the early ’70s, everyone involved (after some tremors of doubt) shrugged and jumped into the deep end. The result is the real thing — the rubbery voyeuristic horror of snuff, wedded to a classical revenge arc. Craven and company tapped into something hot, dark and deep; Craven has since made fun, scary horror movies — indeed, he’s been the most consistently successful horror director of his generation — but he never again captured the low-budget nightmarishness of Last House, the sick rustle of gore-drenched leaves, the grainy verisimilitude of the abattoir dragged out into the daylight of nature.
The first reel or so is downright cruel — in some ways crueller than any of the brutality that follows, especially on second viewing, because it offers joy and innocence about to be splintered. We meet Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) on the verge of her seventeenth birthday. She and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) — they’re close, but have only known each other less than a year — are going to the city to see Bloodlust, a rock band that sounds suspiciously like Alice Cooper (chicken death is mentioned). Almost as an afterthought, they decide to score some pot, and their wanderings bring them into the lair of Krug and company (one of the film’s early titles). Interestingly, it’s the woman of the group — Sadie, whose name carries a whiff of the Beatles song and the Manson family — whose bisexuality disguised as feminism prompts Krug to order Junior to bring back a couple of girls. The next half hour takes a hard left into psychological and physical torture, of which the most painful to watch is the former: Krug, feeling his power, orders Phyllis to piss her pants, and later encourages Mari and Phyllis to disrobe and “make it together.” (Significantly, Craven does not take the opportunity to unveil the forced-lesbian scene a lesser exploitation flick would call for; we see very little of their tearful, awkward fumbling.)
Death comes, as it must, and the film is off and running towards its second half — when the killers wind up at the house of Mari’s parents, who are concerned about her whereabouts but aren’t yet aware of her situation. It’s comedy of the sickest kind to watch this motley crew — particularly Krug — trying to play the perfect polite houseguests. The dinner scene, down to the choice of spaghetti, seems informed by Malcolm McDowell’s uneasy repast with Patrick Magee in the previous year’s A Clockwork Orange (and Craven even has Sadie croon “Singin’ in the Rain” in her tub in an early scene). At this point, weird things start happening in your brain: You know what has to happen — the bloody revenge of the parents — and yet, even though you’ve seen the horror of the killers’ actions, you don’t want it to happen. You want a flicker more of the remorse you saw before; you want someone — maybe Junior, the most guilt-wracked of the bunch — to come clean; you want the felons to be taken into custody; mostly, you don’t want the parents to get revenge because of what it will do to them.
The howling and snorting about Last House‘s moral vacuum ring nonsensical to me: here is a film in which the two lengthy setpieces of beastly behavior are followed by sickened quietude. I think that’s what gets to people; if the film were less artful, less serious about its purpose, it could easily be brushed off as another 42nd-Street revengesploitation flick. Still, in 1972 people were awfully bothered about the increased violence of movies as a result of the (then) more lenient R rating — Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, Polanski’s scarifying Macbeth: one film after another was reflecting the nation’s soul-sickness knee-deep in Vietnam. Last House, with no stars and no name director, was the easiest target of the bunch. Of the major workaday critics, Gene Siskel excoriated it, while Roger Ebert awarded it three and a half stars (a case could be made that Ebert’s influential rave greatly helped not only Craven’s career but also that of producer Sean Cunningham, who went on to direct Friday the 13th, an irony Ebert couldn’t be expected to enjoy). It became one of the banned “Video Nasties” in Britain, where it stirs up trouble to this day. Exhibitors would routinely recut prints of the film to their liking.
Due to that last, there has been much debate over the past three decades as to what constitutes the “complete, uncut” version of Last House. The film could become more or less graphic depending on which theater you saw it in, or which videocassette release (Vestron, MGM, CIC) you watched. Throw a stick on the web and you’ll hit ten online video retailers claiming to have the most complete version. MGM’s DVD includes an intro by Craven himself, who puts the seal of complete-uncut approval on what you’re about to watch; there may still be gorehounds who insist that the DVD is missing three seconds of the celebrated disembowelling scene, but the truth is, except in fits and starts, Last House on the Left is not nearly as gory as you’d think. True, it has its sanguinary moments, but, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it gets its overall charge more from the constant threat of sadism than from anything we actually witness. (And in any event, the current DVD represents Craven’s final director’s cut, and that should be enough. If the thought of a Dutch bootleg out there that’s 29 seconds longer bothers you, my advice is to get more fresh air and a hobby or two.)
The actors — even Marshall Anker and Martin Kove as goofy sheriff and deputy in the much-maligned comic-relief subplot — deliver what’s needed; Ebert accurately judged the performances “unmannered” and “natural.” We like Mari and Phyllis because the actresses are smart and amiable (Mari has an easy rapport with her parents, whom Craven depicts as a fairly hip couple with a healthy shared libido — how rare is that for a film made in the “never trust anyone over 30” era?). The spiky Jeramie Rain, the mopey Marc Sheffler, and the passively sadistic Fred Lincoln are three of the more distinctive lackeys of evil in movie history, headed by David Hess in a performance of crowning loathsomeness as Krug. This überpsycho is given a cartoonishly ominous build-up; the radio informs us that he killed “two nuns and a priest,” and we see him popping a child’s balloon á la Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (the child, by the way, is Craven’s son Jonathan). Hess brings a scruffy, Abbie Hoffman-by-way-of-Charlie-Manson brio to the role (Craven, by then a father of two, was possibly exploiting parental fears of predatory male hippies), and if Hess was bewildered (as he’s said) that people confused him with Krug, one might fairly ask Hess if he saw the movie. Perhaps the most appalling aspect of Krug, as interpreted by Hess, is the maniac’s smug assurance that things will inevitably turn his way. When Mari’s father gets the drop on Krug with a chainsaw, Hess, who was genuinely wary since it was a real chainsaw chewing up real wood, used his fear to give Krug a dawning awareness that he might not get out of this one.
And how many horror films can you name whose lead villain not only composed the song score but sang it? In another corner of his life, David Hess was — and continues to be — a busy musician; among other things, he cowrote the Elvis hit “All Shook Up.” Hess contributes several tunes here, such as the opening-title “Wait for the Rain,” a gentle Led Zeppelin-esque ballad with the refrain “And the road leads to nowhere,” and the rather too exact “Baddies’ Theme,” with lyrics like “Krugsie, you know that this foolin’ around isn’t getting us out of the state.” And his mournful composition “Now You’re All Alone” graces the post-mortem scene with Krug and his cohorts surveying the human wreckage. Those expecting the soundtrack of such a notorious film to be more … I don’t know … kick-ass will be disappointed; but the mix of the tender folk singing and the bestial Krug — both, of course, emerging from David Hess — makes the movie, I think.
And in that juxtaposition the movie’s true source of horror and posterity can be found. Like the best and most indelible horror films, Last House on the Left is completely sui generis, often imitated but never duplicated, and I submit that it says more about the collision of the Love Generation with the sulfur of Altamont and Vietnam than any ten officially “serious” movies of the period. Craven didn’t need to conjure up Freddys or Ghostfaces back then; all he had to do was glance at a newspaper.