The Last House On The Left – Review
Rape-Revenge flicks, oh boy.
Perhaps no other genre of horror is more contentious than this one, and no other is used in a more controversial way. In fact, many entries into the genre could only possibly be made in more poor taste if they were a wacky American Pie style comedy set in a concentration camp. Typically, they rely on one of the most brutal and gut-wrenching forms of violence as a cheap means of advancing a b-movie revenge plot along, but instead replacing simple gun fights with genital mutilation… a very classy affair indeed. However, while the genre has suffered from a huge tirade of lazy and exploitative garbage, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some films who utilise the plot device with a more delicate touch, invoking an emotional reaction that isn’t merely anger. Enter in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), the film which launched Craven both into the world of Horror and into the infamous Video Nasties list. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the film was banned in the UK under the Video Recordings Act of 1984, primarily due to its explicit use of sexual violence, which has proven to be the ultimate taboo for British censors. In fact, the full uncut version only received certification in 2008. Last House does however deserve a higher recognition than just another banned flick. The film in fact arguably offers an effective exploration and insight into true brutality, providing a deeply unsettling portrayal of sadism and the empty nature of vengeance. Although, you may have to dig a little deeper in order to uncover this insight.
The narrative focuses around 17 year old Mari Collingwood, who with her friend Phyllis, are kidnapped by a group of recent prison escapees, subjecting the pair to sadistic acts of torture and rape, ultimately leading to murder as well. With the gang now on the run, they pose as travelling salesmen and seek shelter in the home of Mari and her parents, with both parties unaware of their connection. As Mari’s parents become aware of the fate of their daughter, they carry out their revenge upon the gang, all in a rather sadistic form of justice. In order to avoid this review becoming a PHD dissertation, I shall largely refrain from exploring the effects of sexual violence within the media, otherwise we could be here for a long, long time. To summarize, sexual violence is an incredibly potent topic, which should be handled with greatest care. Last House thankfully does explore the subject in a somewhat tasteful manner, by presenting it in a way which mitigates any cheap, exploitative intentions.
The scenes of sexual torture are as harrowing as one might expect. The atmosphere is hauntingly thick and disturbing, aided greatly by the clever use of a folk driven soundtrack in order to create a distressing level of contrast. Dread is also another strong emotion that is invoked, building up slowly within you until it finally strikes with a crushing blow to your soul. After the extreme brutality that Mari has endured, she trundles slowly into an appropriately stagnant lake, waiting in acceptance for her inevitable fate: a gunshot. This scene, which is worthy of iconic status, is a true marvel of cinematic tension, slowly progressing through a powerfully tragic crescendo. While the revenge portion of the film may be lacking in such iconic moments (barring a less than pleasurable act of fellatio possibly,) the finale is presented in a suitably sombre fashion. There is no satisfaction to be had from their vengeance or any clear catharsis, just purely a moment of silence and reflection, thus subtracting nothing from the brutality that the viewer has just witnessed. Trust me that empty feeling will linger for at least a few days.
The film also contains a rare presence of great performances from a film of this nature and budget. Sandra Cassell, who plays Mari and Lucy Grantham as Phyllis both provide solid performances that help to effectively carry the film’s disturbing impact, especially Sandra Cassell’s during her slow march into the lake. However, while these performances may be commendable, the standout performance must go to David Hess, who plays the gang’s ringleader. His presence in the film is simply sublime, providing an incredibly gripping portrayal of pure terror and sadism personified. His innate evil is present in every smirk, every stare and every single word that he projects. He is a monster who is abstractly horrific, yet still firmly grounded in reality, thus making him a truly haunting character to watch. The acting talent within this film does unfortunately have its negatives. Mari’s parents are played with minimal conviction, with little emotional intensity breaking through.
While the atmosphere during many scenes is superb, Last House suffers from hugely inappropriate tonal shifts, causing worse whiplash than a car crash. Scenes of a highly disturbing nature are often followed up immediately by scenes featuring wacky music that would be too zany for a Children’s TV show. Perhaps the most inappropriate moment has to be when the two small town Police Officers (who are themselves incredibly campy) attempt to commandeer a chicken truck driven by a stereotypical old black woman…right after Mari is shot in the lake. We go from rape, torture and despair, to zany redneck shenanigans in just three minutes. The effect is disorientating to say the least. These scenes were most likely added purely to liven the mood of an incredibly depressing film, therefore not inflicting the audience to too much agony. However, the tonal clash is just far too jarring and distracting to ignore or forget, leaving you confused and bewildered.
Horror fans have much to thank for with The Last House on the Left, as it effectively launched the career of one of Horror’s most beloved directors. However, it thoroughly deserves to be commended based on its own merit, providing a disturbing exploration of the nature sadism, violence and the darkest essences of humanity. While the bipolar tone of the film can often be disorientating and indeed a nuisance, the atmosphere of its key scenes still manage to leave an incredibly strong and emotionally destructive impact on the viewer.
But please remember, it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie.