The horror movie challenge continues. Next up?
This was Wes Craven’s big film debut. It . . . is not the easiest movie in the world to watch.
Two teenage girls, Mari and Phyllis, are kidnapped and tortured by a group of sadistic criminals. And then there is revenge!
1. This movie begins with this statement:
The events you are about to witness are true. Names and locations have been changed to protect those individuals still living.
Which, of course, is bullshit. The closest Last House on the Left comes to being based on a true story is the fact that it’s likely based on Ingmar Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring with Max von Sydow. I’ve never seen The Virgin Spring, so I can’t really comment on their similarities and dissimilarities. What I can say is this: I wish the horror genre would stop trying to frighten me with their we-swear-it’s-for-reals-yo movie scenarios. Peoples, I get that you’re trying to make the movie scarier and more authentic and whatnot, but what you’re really doing is making the people in your audience go, Yeah. Uh-huh. SURE it’s real. I’m SUPER scared now. See? Your false claim to authenticity just makes me disinclined to take you seriously, and that means we’re getting off on the wrong foot. Not the best play for a movie that’s trying to frighten me.
2. But enough of pet peeves. You want to know if the movie itself is any good. And my answer to that is . . . well, I’m not sure yet.
I can tell you right now that this is not a horror movie for everybody. If you know nothing else about it, know that The Last House on the Left is an early 70’s exploitation film, a low-budget, rape and revenge movie. If you’re unfamiliar with exploitation movies, then you should know what you’re getting into: icky stuff. Like, supremely icky. And I’m not just talking about gore—it’s been about forty years since this movie was made. Clearly, there have been gorier films. But exploitation movies are all about a sense of the explicit, about pushing boundaries and jumping up and down and on taboos. The Last House on the Left has a lot of disturbing material, and if you feel completely repulsed or scandalized by the idea of watching psychos subjecting their victims to pissing themselves or violating one another, well, you’re going to have problems with this movie.
Of course, you’re supposed to feel completely repulsed. That’s kind of the whole point—squicky horror, squicky horror, squicky horror, and then BLOODY REVENGE. It’s kind of like a catharsis, see, but it’s not for everyone. And I haven’t quite made up my mind if it’s for me yet.
3. Some positives:
A. The Horror
If you’re not a fan of scary movies, you might be surprised to hear this, but a lot of horror movies are lacking in, well, horror. Sure, there are plenty of stupid women running around in string bikinis, screaming bloody murder and getting their faces peeled off, but mindless violence isn’t actually the same thing as terror and dread. I mean, it’s fun; don’t get me wrong. I’m clearly a big fan of mindless violence, but there’s seldom anything truly horrific about these movies. They might make you cringe once or twice, but they probably won’t keep you up at night. All flash, no substance.
But Last House on the Left IS a disturbing film. It’s dark and unsettling and tense, and you feel for these girls. You want them to make it because what’s happening to them is so awful. If nothing else, Last House on the Left didn’t seem like just any other silly horror movie to me. It left a lasting impression, a taste in my mouth. For better or worse, I was thinking about the film for the rest of the night.
B. The Revenge
I can’t lie: I’m such a sucker for pro-vengeance stories. When they’re done right, you get a very powerful sense of shared vindication from watching them. Everyone likes seeing bastards get what they deserve, and Last House on the Left has some truly stellar moments of ohmygod, that ROCKS! I certainly like the basic structure of this film.
Easily, the biggest problem with The Last House on the Left is tone because it’s wildly inconsistent at several points, namely when it tries to balance horror and comedy.
One of the things The Last House on the Left does well at is juxtaposition. Wes Craven really likes to go back and forth between the steadily worsening situation that Mari and Phyllis have found themselves in, and the blissful ignorance that Mari’s parents are feeling, and for the most part, it works. (There are some bad editing choices where scenes appear to be chopped before they’re even through, but it is a low-budget horror film from the 70’s. You kind of have to expect some bad editing to come into it.)
But the cops in this movie . . . well. Let’s just say policemen must hate this movie.
While an incompetent police department is almost a staple of the genre, the Sheriff and Deputy in this film are not only ridiculously inept; they’re actually played for laughs, and it’s just bad. I can’t quite decide if Wes Craven was trying to cover plot holes and create obstacles in order to keep the story going, or if he was simply trying to soften the blow of his macabre film with this bad slapstick, but somewhere between the cops running out of gas on the highway and their inability to commandeer a vehicle from a toothless old woman hauling chickens . . . well, I gave up. These scenes in the film feel horribly out of place, and I think the movie as a whole suffers greatly as a direct result.
This tonal inconsistency extends to the film’s soundtrack as well. The Last House on the Left is jam-packed with music, and there are a lot of interesting decisions that are surprisingly effective and even darkly funny . . . except for the banjo music that almost always accompanies the inept cops. This isn’t funny; it’s just . . . it’s frustrating, is what it is, and it took me out of the movie every single time it popped up.
6. The acting in this film is really nothing to write home about, but it’s not ridiculously awful, either. The only person of any note is the Deputy, and I’m only singling him out because he’s played by this guy:
Yes, the bumbling deputy is actually the evil sensei from The Karate Kid. Excellent.
7. Finally, you ever watch two female characters talking and just know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they were written by men?
Men can’t always get a handle on women. They certainly can’t always get a handle on good girls. Phyllis isn’t so bad, but Mari, the innocent of the movie, is kind of stupid to the point of being ridiculous. She likes to imagine making love to the members of some huge scary metal band called Bloodlust, only she thinks it will be all gentle and cloud-like and fluffy. (This isn’t an exact quote, but honestly, it’s probably closer than you think.)
I mean, come on. No one over the age of thirteen is this naïve. I’d get it if she was talking about having sex with The Beatles or something, but she’s talking about a band called Bloodlust, and there is no irony here, folks. She is deadly earnest and dreamy about the whole thing. It’s like women only come in two forms: slutty yet worldly or virginal yet retarded.
Mari also talks about how she feels like a real woman now that her breasts have grown in, and while I can acknowledge the possibility that late-bloomers who weren’t sporting training bras in the third grade might feel this way, I honestly don’t believe any of them would ever be quite so vapid about it. Boobs might be magical to men, but women just sort of have them, you know? They may be a source of annoyance or pride, depending on the woman and/or the cup size, but it’s a far cry from Pinocchio, folks. Mari could be in one of those awful videos they show you in school, where they’re trying to psych you up for having your first period by showing you a bunch of twits who are positively beaming about their newfound womanhood and ruined panties.
The rest of what I want to talk about includes spoilers, so if you are not afraid of such things, follow below . . .
I’m tired, and I don’t want to go over this whole movie scene by scene. Mari and Phyllis leave to go to some concert in the city. On the way, they try to score weed—Phyllis is supposed to be a bad influence, but it’s not like Mari’s objecting all that hard—and they stupidly go into some stranger’s apartment to buy some. Unfortunately, the people in said apartment are Krug and Weasel, two sadists who just escaped from prison. Krug’s equally sadistic woman, Sadie, and his weak, junkie son, Junior, are also there.
So, a lot of bad stuff happens to these girls. Phyllis does her best to protect Mari, make her feel as safe as she can, and I respect her for that. The bad guys end up taking the girls out to the woods the next day—not too far from where Mari lives, coincidentally—and Phyllis runs away so that the bad guys will chase her, leaving Mari alone with only Junior to guard her. Now, I know Mari does her best, trying to get Junior to run away with her, but this guy can barely stand for half the movie. If she had just run away from him, she probably would have made it. It’s a bit frustrating to watch, especially considering what happens to Phyllis.
What does happen? Well, Krug, Weasel, and Sadie eventually catch up to Phyllis, and while she puts up a more than decent fight—she hits Sadie in the head with a rock and later, in defiance, spits in Weasel’s face—they stab her to death. It’s a fairly brutal scene. I mean, I knew Phyllis was going to bite it, but I couldn’t help but hope. She tried so hard, you know? After killing her, the others catch Mari, rape her, and murder her as well, leaving her body floating in the river.
The bad guys can’t drive off because their car is broken down. So they spend the night at the closest house nearby—yes, with Mari’s parents. At first, John and Estelle are nice, accommodating hosts, but they quickly grow suspicious because these guys are really not the best actors in the world. Eventually, Estelle overhears them talking about her little girl, and she and John go and find Mari’s body.
Then it’s vengeance time.
Estelle is really a bit of a badass. She’s also exceptionally committed. She finds Weasel alone in the house—he’s just woken up from a having an exceptionally creepy and vaguely prophetic nightmare where Mari’s parents, in medical garb, take a hammer and chisel to his teeth, like, eeeep—and leads him outside, pretending to be attracted to him. She even starts to actually give him a blowjob, which he’s enjoying, right up till the point where she bites his dick off. It’s hardcore. She leaves him there, presumably to bleed to death. Meanwhile, John and Krug square off. Junior gets tired of his dad’s evil ways and holds a gun on him, but since he’s a weak-minded shit, his dad pretty much talks him into blowing his brains out instead. If I’m supposed to feel sorry for Junior, well, I don’t. I mean, sure, he had a shitty life, and you can argue that he never really had a chance, but . . . nope. Not buying it. He stood by during everything that happened to Mari and Phyllis, and that makes him culpable in my book.
Estelle continues being a badass by killing Sadie. John, meanwhile, goes after Krug with a chainsaw. The inept cops who have been bumbling around this entire movie pop up just in time to say something like, “No, John, no!” And then John promptly kills Krug anyway and the movie ends.
Successfully horrific but tonally inconsistent. When the dark humor’s on, it’s ON, but when it’s off, it’s a huge blow to the movie. Plus, the film’s just missing . . . something. A better script might have elevated this movie into something really outstanding.
Drugs kill. Or, at least, just score at the concert with a hundred other people instead of going into some stranger’s apartment where you’ll be completely helpless if he turns out to be an utter psychopath. Safety in numbers, and all that.
Also, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Obviously.