A few weeks ago I called a dirt-bike drama from Paul Verhoeven a vile piece of work. It was sexist, homophobic, and all around brutish in his depiction of teenagers in Holland. Yet here I am about to give a much more positive review to Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, a film that depicts brutal violence, torture, rape, and murder. The natural question is why do I find one film’s depiction of deplorable things vile and the other’s depiction of the same and worse somewhat entertaining?
The answer lies both in genre and directorial intent. Spetters is a realistic drama concerned with the lives of young people living in Rotterdam in the early 1980s. The characters may be behaving as the real counterparts did at that time and place but this only serves to make the action more disgusting. Art holding up a mirror to society does not make the art any less difficult to consume. The Last House on the Left is a horror film. It isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but depicts terrible things as entertainment. We could argue about whether that in itself is no less vile, but we shall table that discussion for another time. Horror is designed to give us a guttural reaction as a sort of cleansing. I can watch the characters of Last House abuse each other in the most horrific ways and come out clean, whereas watching Spetters I am only enraged about how terrible we can be to each other.
This isn’t to say that The Last House on the Left is some kind of comedic romp. Or that it is somehow automatically better than Spetters simply because its a genre picture. It is a dark, difficult, brutal film. Wes Craven was raised by strict Baptist parents who severely limited the type of culture he could consume growing up. When he left home, he got a graduate degree and began teaching English at university. Feeling unsatisfied there, he moved to New York and made a go at making movies. He started in the pornographic industry where he met Sean S. Cunningham (the future creator of the Friday the 13th series) and was hired to work as an associate producer on Cunningham’s Together starring pornographic actress Marilyn Chambers in what IMDB calls a mock documentary about sex.
It made enough money that Cunningham gave Craven carte blanche to make a horror film. Initially conceived as a hardcore film featuring enormous amounts of violence, gore, and uncensored sex, once shooting began it was toned down quite a bit (though still not enough to keep itself from generating loads of controversy and getting banned in Britain). This was 1971, the peace and love movement of the 1960s was dead. The Vietnam War would wage on for another four years. The economy was in the tank. Civil unrest was high. Young people were angry. In cinema, the Hays Code had been abolished, and with it, restrictions against violence and sex. With Deep Throat, hardcore pornography had become chic. Grindhouse movies featuring all sorts of depravity that would have gotten their filmmakers thrown in jail a few years ago now were everywhere. It was the perfect timing for an angry, dingy, revenge film.
Wes Craven stole his story idea from an unusual place - Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The basic plot elements - a young woman is raped and murdered by three men who inadvertently take rest in the home of the girl’s parents who then get revenge - are swiped wholesale, though of course Craven makes it his own. In this case, the girl is Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody), who along with her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), leaves her country house for the big city to catch a rock and roll concert. Looking for some drugs before the show, they meet Junior (Marc Sheffler), who lures them to his apartment where they are attacked by three sickos - Krug (David A. Hess), Weasel (Fred Lincoln), and Sadie (Jeramie Rain), who proceed to gang rape Phyllis.
On the run from the law, the criminals put the girls in their trunk the next morning and take them out to the woods where their car breaks down. They take the girls out where they torture, rape, and ultimate murder them. They change clothes then decide to hide out at a nearby house, which happens to be Mari’s home. Masquerading as traveling salesmen, Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood (Gaylord St. James and Cynthia Carr) allow them to stay the night. Even more coincidences allow the Collingwood to discover the true identity of the strangers and they then have their revenge.
Once considered extreme, the violence and gore feels relatively tame by today’s standards (if your standards include regular doses of torture porn). The handheld nature of the filming, coupled with the general grimness of the production adds plenty of gritty realism to it. I can’t help but wonder what the film would look like if Wes Craven was alive and young and made it today. In order to shock, would he have gone the hardcore route he originally planned? Would he cut out the rather jarring scenes featuring two bumbling cops as comic relief? Who knows? What we do have is a dirty little horror film full of all sorts of depravity that influenced horror films for decades to come and launched the career of one of the genre’s greatest creators.
Arrow Video has done a remarkable job putting this set together. The film caused quite a stir in its early days, leading it to be sliced and diced any number of times for distribution in different parts of the world. This release gives us three different cuts - unrated, R-rated, and the Krug and Company cuts - all of which are virtually identical with the unrated scene adding in slightly more gore and the Krug and Company cut keeping one of the girls alive slightly longer).
Arrow did a complete restoration of the film. Original 16mm negatives have long since been lost and due to the independent nature of the film and its grindhouse distribution, even original 35 mm prints were impossible to find. Eventually, they located a dupe print from Sean S. Cunningham’s archives and cleaned it up from there. It looks…good. Shot on the cheap with handheld cameras, I doubt the film ever looked great and a few decades of misuse have not done it any favors. But most of the debris has been wiped (I noticed a few scratches and the like but not many). It still looks dark in places and grainy all over but much of this was intentional in order to give the film a documentary feel. One imagines those used to seeing nightly-news footage from Vietnam immediately saw comparisons in the film. Dialogue comes in clear and the hokey, folk soundtrack sounds good.
There is a whole slew of extras including:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the Unrated Version
- Isolated score newly remastered from the original 17.5″ magnetic tracks
- Brand new audio commentary with Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes
- Archival audio commentary with writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham
- Archival audio commentary with stars David Hess, Marc Sheffler and Fred Lincoln
- Archival introduction to the film by Wes Craven
-Still Standing: The Legacy of The Last House on the Left: archival interview with Wes Craven
- Celluloid Crime of the Century: Archival documentary featuring interviews with Wes Craven, Sean S. Cunningham, actors David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler and Martin Kove
- Scoring Last House: archival interview with actor/composer David Hess
- It’s Only a Movie: The Making of The Last House in the Left: archival featurette
- Forbidden Footage: the cast and crew discuss the film’s most controversial sequences
- Junior’s Story: a brand new interview with actor Marc Sheffler
- Blood and Guts: a brand new interview with makeup artist Anne Paul
- The Road Leads to Terror: a brand new featurette revisiting the film’s original shooting locations
- Deleted Scene: “Mari Dying at the Lake - Extended Outtakes and Dailies, newly transferred in HD
- Trailers, TV Spot and Radio Spots
- Image Galleries
- The Craven Touch: a brand new featurette bringing together interviews with a number of Wes Craven’s collaborators including Sean S. Cunningham, composer Charles Bernstein, producer Peter Locke, cinematographer Mark Irwin and actress Amanda Wyss
- Early Days and “Night of Vengeance”: filmmaker Roy Frumkes remembers Wes Craven and The Last House on the Left
- Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out: unfinished short film by Wes Craven
- Q&A with Marc Sheffler from a 2017 screening of the film at The American Cinematheque
- Krug Conquers England: archival featurette charting the theatrical tour of the first ever uncut screening of the film in the UK
- Six collector’s postcards
- Double-sided fold-out poster
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
- Limited edition 60-page perfect-bound book featuring new writing on the film by author
The Last House on the Left is not a perfect film. I wouldn’t even call it a particularly good one. It is certainly effective as a brutal horror film and its legacy is absolutely cemented in film history. Arrow Video has put out the definitive release of the film so if you are a fan this is a must buy.