Sep 12, 2015

The Last House on the Left (1972)

While A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is and almost always has been one of my favorite horror films of all time, I cannot say I was too sad to learn its director Wes Craven recently died in late August 2015 because I am not that big of a fan of his mainstream left-wing politics, dubious philosophies, and completely capitalist approach to filmmaking despite having some discernible talent as a filmmaker and fairly decent taste in cinema (for example, the random lamb featured at the very beginning of A Nightmare on Elm Street is an homage to Luis Buñuel), not to mention the fact that he is largely responsible for turning mainstream horror into a sad, overly self-conscious and masturbatory pseudo-intellectual joke as is especially apparent in the Scream franchise. Indeed, whether it be portraying whites as racist inbred psychopaths who enslave poor nonwhites like in The People Under the Stairs (1991), culturally schizophrenic postcolonial white guilt like in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), or the decidedly disgusting negrofication of classic European myths like in Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) where colored comedian Eddie Murphy portrays what is arguably the lamest vampire in cinema history, Craven demonstrated that he was not all that different from his horror compatriot George A. Romero in that he was a slave-morality-oriented leftist ideologue who seemed to care more about disseminating dumbed down quasi-Marcusian and crypto-feminist propaganda and making quirky references to his previous films than directing truly innovative films that take horror cinema out of the genre ghetto that they have been confined to ever since the rise of slasher films.  In other words, whereas German Expressionist filmmakers like F.W. Murnau contributed to an artistic movement with their ‘horror’ films that evolved aesthetically over the years, Craven merely contributed to creating a cinematic product model that he would later play around with in postmodern metacinematic works like Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), as if the creative potential of the genre had already been extinguished and the only thing left was to direct playful pomo films where autistic fanboys could feel special about getting all the various cinephile references to the soulless slasher flicks of yesteryear.  Arguably Craven’s greatest cinematic crime as a filmmaker was remaking Swedish master auteur Ingmar Bergman’s Jungfrukällan (1960) aka The Virgin Spring into an ineptly directed and exceedingly aesthetically grating exploitation piece known as The Last House on the Left (1972) aka Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left aka Krug and Company aka Grim Company aka Night of Vengeance aka Sex Crime of the Century starring various porn stars, pornographers, and sleazy Hebraic musicians. 

 Of course, I would be lying if I did not admit that it was one of my favorite Craven flicks, as a genuinely mean and brutal as well as superlatively sleazy piece of nihilistic celluloid that demonstrates that the auteur must have undergone some serious sort of spiritual and philosophical transformation as a highly educated man that was raised in a strict Baptist home and briefly taught as both an English and humanities professor yet would go on to direct some of the most infamous and ugly films of his era. Breaking into the film world by working on “many hardcore X-rated films” (or so he states in the doc Inside Deep Throat (2005) in various capacities under various pseudonyms) after quitting teaching, Craven received his first ‘official’ film credit as the producer of the sexploitation flick Together (1971) starring porn diva Marilyn Chambers (of the Mitchell brother’s Behind the Green Door (1972) and David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977)) and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who would reverse roles with his comrade by producing his debut feature The Last House on the Left, which was more or less intended as a means for both men to learn how to make a proper film.  Indeed, as Craven once stated as revealed in the book Wes Craven's Last House On The Left: The Making of a Cult Classic (2000) by David Szulkin, “When Sean Cunningham and I made LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, our attitude was that we were going to do this tiny little film for a company in Boston, and it was only going to be shown in two or three theaters up there. Nobody was ever going to see it, and nobody was ever going to know that we did it. So we essentially said,’ Let’s be as bad boys as we can. We’re going to show things that people have never seen before on a movie screen; we’ll pull out all the stops, and just do whatever the hell we want.’ And by doing this, we were basically going to teach ourselves how to make a feature film.” Needless to say, neither Craven nor Cunningham realized that the exploitation film would pave the way for two of the most popular and monetarily successful slasher franchises ever created: Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Of course, what separates The Last House on the Left from the two horror franchises is that it deals with gritty visceral horror of the almost cinéma-vérité-like sort as opposed to fanciful entertainment featuring some iconic slasher monster with a goofy costume, thus making for an undeniably unforgettable cinematic work that takes the filmgoer well out of their comfort zone and figuratively holds them at gunpoint for about 90-minutes or so.

 Featuring one of the most authentically scummy and degenerate gangs of lowclass gutter grade criminals ever captured on cheap 16mm celluloid, especially Jewish Elvis Presley songwriter turned exploitation actor David Hess (who composed a grating folk soundtrack for the film that makes it all the more disturbing), The Last House on the Left is an ugly film about ugly people doing ugly things that is plagued by awkward scenes of comic relief (including various contrived pseudo-intellectual references to so-called women's liberation, the war of the sexes, Sigmund Freud, and Marxist class warfare), a ludicrous subplot featuring an oddball couple of buffoonish bungling country cops, and some rather bizarre casting choices (for example, a fellow Hebrew named Marc Sheffler portrays Hess’ son despite looking about the same age as him), yet it remains an undeniably potent film that permanently burns its ugly essence into one's memory like a traumatic event.  Personally, the film certainly gave me the impression that Craven derived a sort of sadistic glee out of beating the viewer over the head with long extended scenes of violence and torture under the pretense of ‘enlightening’ the filmgoer and making them feel culpable for enjoying Hollywood violence.  Of course, the irony is that Craven only ended up debasing himself more than any filmgoer by personally directing such a seemingly misanthropic work (apparently, actress Sandra Peabody was so terrified while shooting the film that she once even walked off the set).  While the generic label ‘torture porn’ is oftentimes used to describe moronically gratuitously violent films like those directed by uniquely talentless Zionist psychopath Eli Roth, Craven’s film is certainly the real deal as a work that would probably make a nice little masturbation aid for a budding serial killer, so-called ‘Syrian migrant,’ or Gaza stationed IDF thug. In other words, The Last House on the Left is not exactly an ‘enjoyable’ film as a work that takes the label ‘horror’ quite literally and features realistic figurative ‘human monsters’ as opposed to literal movie monsters of the fantastic sort. 

 Indubitably, one of the most effective aspects of The Last House on the Left is that it takes full advantage of the fact that it was made a couple years after the counterculture movement and so-called ‘sexual revolution’ reared their ugly heads and helped to transform America into the nihilistically hedonistic and culturally pre-apocalyptic multicultural sewer that it is today. Indeed, in the film, two bourgeois-bred teenage girls from sheltered backgrounds who have clearly been brainwashed by the three-headed counterculture scam of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll decide to go to the big city to procure themselves some premium dope, thereupon encountering some uniquely unsavory criminal elements that make the Manson family seem like a merry tribe of hippie folk musicians. While I can only speculate regarding Craven’s intentions with certain aspects of the film, The Last House on the Left certainly makes it seem that the auteur has dubious thoughts regarding the counterculture movement and its rotten fruits in a bitingly ironic scene where three of the killers lie in the bed of the would-be-hippie teenage girl they have just murdered while sipping whiskey and bitching about the fancy silverware of their upper-middle class hosts while a silly peace sign featuring a white dove hangs over their heads. Part social criticism of middle class naivety and part commentary on the atavistic murderous impulses lying dormant in even the most deracinated of oh-so proper bourgeois pussies in a work that depicts class warfare via a mundane middleclass microcosm where both the proletariat and bourgeoisie are completely destroyed in the end, the film is certainly indicative of Craven’s lifelong cynicism towards man and human nature in general, hence his appreciation of Bergman. Considering that Craven was an intellectual and ex-academic, the nihilistic message he sends in The Last House on the Left becomes all the more chilling as it reflects the pathetic dead-end path that Judaized American intellectuals had taken at that time.  Surely, as his first feature clearly reflects, there is no beauty, spirituality, ideals, or redemption in the hopelessly forsaken world of Wes Craven.

 All-too-American teen Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel, who previously appeared in softcore porn and sexploitation flicks, including Chuck Vincent’s Voices of Desire (1972) and Gerri Sedley’s Teenage Hitchhikers (1975)) is celebrating her 17th birthday and her rather respectable caring parents, Dr. John Collingwood (Richard Towers aka Gaylord St. James of Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973) and Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons (1974)) and Estelle Collingwood (Cynthia Carr), are worried about the fact that she will be heading to the big city with a questionable friend named Phyllis Stone (porn star Lucy Grantham, who appeared in Shaun Costello’s Loops (1973)) to see some degenerate rock band play. Of course, Mari and her friend also plan to use their trip to the city as an excuse to score some good dope. Needless to say, Mari’s parents are also not too happy with the fact that she proudly refuses to wear a bra and that her hard nipples are plainly noticeable to her fairly old fashioned father’s eyes. Before leaving, Mari’s parents give her a special peace symbol necklace for her birthday that will later play an important role in the film’s story line. On the way to the concert, Mari and Phyllis hear an emergency broadcast on the radio about a prison escape involving a blood-lusting sadist named Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), his dopey dopesick bastard junky son Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler), a suave child-molesting pollack sex criminal named Fred ‘Weasel’ Podowski (prolific porn star turned pornographer Fred J. Lincoln, who also appeared in Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street), and a savage ‘animal-like’ bull-dyke named Sadie (Jeramie Rain, who was married to Hollywood star Richard Dreyfuss), though it clearly never crosses the girls' minds that they might actually encounter the fugitives. 

 While Mari and Phyllis do not think anything of the radio broadcast, they are ultimately kidnapped upon randomly encountering Junior Stillo by happenstance while walking around the seedy side of town, assuming he is a dope dealer due to his sloppy appearance and peculiar heroin-induced mannerisms, and foolishly attempting to buy drugs from him. While Junior is nowhere near as depraved as his father Krug and his misfit minions, he decides to take advantage of the situation because he knows that his father will reward him with heroin for his efforts, so he leads the two unwitting teens back to the gang’s apartment by declaring he has “an extra ounce of good stuff” from the exotic South American hellhole of Colombia. Needless to say, the two girls are instantly kidnapped after Junior leads them into the apartment and immediately locks the deadbolt on the door. While Phyllis attempts to reason with the big mean ugly career criminals after making a failed attempt to bolt out of the apartment door, she fails to realize that her contrived middleclass morality and weak and unrealistic hippie Weltanschauung is totally irrelevant to decidedly debauched souls who long ago disposed of any inkling of morality that they might have had left. Ultimately, Phyllis’ naive rant results in her being the victim of a bisexual gang-rape that is perpetrated by Krug, Weasel, and Sadie. After the non-consensual orgy, Krug and crew lock their victims in their car trunk and begin driving to the countryside where they unwittingly choose a route that will ultimately get them all killed in the end. Meanwhile, at the wholesome Collingwood home, Mari’s mom and dad decorate the house with items in tribute to the teen’s birthday.

 After Krug and company open the car trunk, Mari soon notices that she is right next to her family home when she sees her mailbox with her name written on the side in tribute to her birthday. A born fighter, Phyllis foolishly bites Krug on the hand when he opens the trunk. When Krug makes the deranged demand to Phyllis, “Piss your pants. I said, piss your pants!,” and she fails to comply, they coerce her into soiling herself by stabbing Mari until she does it. At this point, Junior becomes somewhat upset by what he sees and self-righteously states in an unintentionally humorous way while slurring his words like a dime store dope fiend, “You’re gonna kill someone if you’re not careful! You guys got to be crazy, man!” and then recommends to Krug, “Make them make it with each other.” Indeed, following the age old hippie motto “make love, not war” in a somewhat ironic way, the degenerate criminals force Phyllis and Mari to engage in forced dyke degeneracy in what is arguably the most awkward, anti-erotic, and unnerving sex scene ever filmed, which is accented by a grating ballad by Mr. Hess. Naturally, at this point, Mari begins losing her mind, so Phyllis attempts to comfort her while fondling her unclad body by stating, “It’s just you and me here; nobody else.” After the forced Sapphic sex, Krug leaves Weasel to watch the girls, so Phyllis comes up with the idea to run away so as to create a diversion so that Mari can get to safety and call the police. After Phyllis begins running through the woods while Weasel and Sadie are chasing after her, Mari attempts to ply Junior by giving him her new peace necklace, rechristening him the hippie ‘Willow,’ and promising to give him methadone that her doctor father supposedly has. Meanwhile, Phyllis manages to evade Sadie by hitting her in the head with a rock and calling her a “stupid dyke,” but Krug eventually catches up with her in the fitting location of a graveyard where he and his crazed criminals cut her up with a machete and even go so far as to pull her innards out in a zombie-esque fashion. While Junior aka ‘Willow’ eventually reluctantly agrees to help Mari escape, Krug and company soon catch up with them. After Krug gleefully informs her that Phyllis did not manage to escape, Mari more or less gives up and accepts her deplorable fate. On top of torturing her by carving up her body and writing his name in her chest, Krug rapes Mari for no more than a minute before pathetically shooting his load. Knowing that she is about to die, Mari proceeds to say a prayer while Krug and his comrades seem genuinely ashamed of the abhorrent crimes that they have just committed together. In what is indubitably one of the most strikingly melancholic murder scenes in horror history, Mari slowly and meekly walks into a lake where Krug proceeds to put a couple bullets in her brain once she is almost fully submerged in the water.

 In what is one of the most psychologically satisfying, if not all too convenient and somewhat unlikely, twists of horror cinema history, Krug and his friends unwittingly decide to seek sanctuary in the home of Mari’s parents while pretending to be respectable ‘plumbing insurance’ salesmen whose car broke down. Of course, any moron can see that their cheap suits cannot hide the fact that Krug and his friends are uncultivated lowlifes who seem like they slithered out of some slimy cesspool in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, in a fairly inappropriate and unequally mundane subplot that provides ridiculously cheesy comic relief intermediately throughout the film, a morbidly obese Sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his much younger and dumber Deputy (Martin Kove of Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975) and The Karate Kid (1984)) try in vain to locate Phyllis and Mari while attempting to hitchhike after they run out of gas while driving their patrol car. While hanging out in Mari’s room after being placed there by her parents, Krug soon realizes whose home he is at after finding a couple photos of Mari and jovially remarks to Weasel while seemingly delighted by the revelation that he is exploiting the kindness and generosity of the parents of the girl he has just killed, “I wonder what the odds are on that.” Of course, it does not take Mari’s parents too long to figure out who they are really harboring in their home. Indeed, when Junior begins vomiting in a bathroom toilet because Krug refuses to give him any dope to cure his drug withdrawal, Mari’s mother notices that the absent-minded junky is wearing the same exact peace necklace that she and her husband gave their daughter the day before. To confirm her worst worries, Mari’s mother decides to go through her guests’ suitcases and discovers soiled clothing with her daughter’s blood on it. After discovering the bloody clothing, Dr. Collingwood and his wife run outside and soon find the freshly killed corpse of their daughter near a lake next to their house. 

 At this point, the devastated parents decide to dispose of their bourgeois moralities and exact revenge on the killers of their daughter. Indeed, after setting up various booby-traps around their house, Estelle manages to easily seduce blatant pervert Weasel while her hubby decides to corner Krug and Sadie in the dark in the room where they're sleeping. After luring Weasel outside under the pretense of fulfilling an ostensible sex fantasy involving giving him a blowjob while his hands are tied behind his back, Estelle first pretends to accidentally get the sex criminal’s penis caught in his zipper and then proceeds to suck on his cock, but the oral pleasure does not last long. Indeed, pernicious pervert Weasel, who just previously had a premonition of his own demise in a nightmare where Dr. Collingwood and his wife hammer out his teeth with a chisel, gets his just deserts in the form of fatal fellatio where Estelle bites off his boner and then leaves him to bleed out while he still has his hands tied around his back. Meanwhile, Dr. Collingwood and Krug get in a brawl where the latter eventually begins overpowering the former. When Junior attempts to put a stop to everything by pulling a gun on his father, Krug hatefully states to his son, “I want you to take the gun and put it in your mouth and BLOW YOUR BRAINS OUT.” Apparently, father knows best as Krug does indeed convince his son to blow his brains out. Luckily, after a long extended fight scene between the two similarly swarthy dudes, Dr. Collingwood manages to murder Krug with a chainsaw just as the local sheriff arrives. At about the same time her husband slaughters Krug, Estelle manages to slit Sadie’s throat with her own knife after she accidentally falls in the family pool. Unlike in Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, there is no real sense of redemption at the conclusion of The Last House on the Left as a work where the bad guys might perish in the end, but also where the good guys succumb to savagery and are assumedly ultimately emotionally and spiritually destroyed by their uncharacteristic behavior.

 Admittedly, although a lot of the horror films that I cherished as a child and teenager, especially those directed by Craven and his contemporary George A. Romero, really do not do much for me anymore aside from providing a little bit of worthless nostalgia, I have to confess that The Last House on the Left proved to be just as brutal and unpleasant to me on a recent viewing as it did when I first saw it about fifteen years ago. Indeed, I would argue that, for better or worse, Craven’s first feature is unequivocally one of the greatest and most important exploitation films ever made, as a work that exposed the inept silliness of a kosher clown like Herschell Gordon Lewis and ultimately proved that films could assault and implicate audience filmgoers by forcing them to wallow in the ugliness of violence, rape, and murder. In fact, this was Craven’s intention with the film, or as the auteur stated in his audio commentary track for the 2009 MGM DVD release of The Last House on the Left, “My justification was that I wanted to show something about violence that was…quite nasty and ugly and protracted…That, you know, if you were in an ugly situation of violence in real-life you did not have the benefit of a cutaway or fading to black or anything like that…So these scenes were really designed or approached in a way that you would not cutaway, you would not stop, you would not cut to ten minutes later, you would just have to be there…And, in that sense, the audience was kind of suckered in. They came in thinking they’re going to see a scary movie that was entertainment and ended up, in a way, being implicated by being there.” While I Spit on Your Grave (1978) feels like a sort of proto-torture-porn flick without a soul where Israeli director Meir Zarchi seemed to derive some sort of sadistic pleasure from the degeneracy he depicted, Craven’s film is equipped with a kind of suffocating (anti)humanism where the viewer is forced to feel the pain of both the victim and victimizer, which is not something the average Hollywood-spoon-fed filmgoer was prepared to deal with, hence the outrage the film caused upon its release (on top of being banned several times in the UK and being completely banned in Australia for 32 years, prints of the film were oftentimes sent back to the distributor in pieces as a result of angry outraged theater owners chopping them up). 

 On top of being one of the greatest exploitation films ever made as a work that truly tested the bounds of cinematic brutality, The Last House on the Left inspired a lot of great, similarly sleazy celluloid due to its unexpected commercial and even critical success (somewhat shockingly, Roger Ebert, who was deeply offended by David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), gave Craven's film three and a half stars out of four and described it as a “tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie that's about four times as good as you'd expect”). Indeed, Roger Watkins’ Last House on Dead End Street (1977), Guerdon Trueblood’s The Candy Snatchers (1973), Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Hitch-Hike (1977) aka Autostop rosso sangue starring David Hess, and Ruggero Deodato’s The House on the Edge of the Park (1980) aka La casa sperduta nel parco (also starring Hess) are just a couple of the worthwhile exploitation films that would probably not exist were it not for Craven’s little pseudo-snuff horror-melodrama, which feels like what might have happened if a more hardcore John Cassavetes attempted to rework Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) using truly grizzled and debauched porn stars for an audience of prison inmates who were being trained to be a special secret Dirlewanger Brigade-esque military unit for the U.S. government. While patently pointless, the 2009 The Last House on the Left remake, which was shamelessly co-produced by Craven and Cunningham, is at least superior to most horror remakes, though it is far too polished and superficial to capture even a tiny inkling of the aesthetically pernicious essence of the original film. As a longtime fan of both Craven’s film and its inspiration The Virgin Spring, I like to think each film is symbolic of their respective nation’s culture, with The Last House on the Left reflecting the boorish brutality and deracinated post-Faustian cultural retardation of the mongrelized United States and Bergman’s film reflecting the height of Swedish (and, in turn, Nordic) high cinema and culture at that particular time (of course, with its influx of barbaric Muslim untermensch third worlders over the past couple decades, Sweden has become the rape capital of Europe and is thus becoming more in tune with Craven's film, albeit even worse due to the culturally apocalyptic racial dynamic). While The Virgin Spring portrays a somewhat spiritually schizophrenic world where post-viking pagan Europe was beginning to embrace Christianity, Craven’s film portrays a nihilistic era of self-destructive collective hedonism where sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll had replaced Christianity. As a lapsed Southern Baptist that was brought up in a strict religious family (apparently, he based ‘Krug’ on his own father, who he deeply feared and resented, hence his loathing of all things ‘patriarchy’ and special affinity for creating absurdly strong female characters) who eventually became a left-wing academic and self-loathing pornographer (notably, he refused to ever reveal all the fuck flicks he worked on), Craven seemed to realize the precarious place the world was heading as most obviously reflected in The Last House on the Left and, somewhat curiously, his porn flicks like The Fireworks Woman (1975) aka Angela Is the Fireworks, which he directed under the pseudonym ‘Abe Snake’ and which features various forms of surreal and allegorical nihilistic (anti)religious iconography.  Of course, considering the visceral nihilistic spirit of his debut feature and the later hyper materialism of his filmmaking career as reflected in all the horrendous corporate horror flicks that he directed and/or produced during the last couple decades of his life, I think it is safe to say that Craven never found solace when he died, thereupon making him, at least in some metaphysical ways, not unlike the forsaken villains of The Last House on the Left who went to the grave plagued with guilt and sin.

-Ty E


Debbie Rochon said...

Superb reveiw and a great tribute to Craven, cheers.

Tony Brubaker said...

Apparently quite a lot of filming took place on November 5th 1971, that British slag Tilda Swintons 11th birthday, i`d have loved to have got a blow-job from her around that time ! ! !.

Debbie Rochon said...

Ty E, i know you haven`t got any time for Eli Roth but dont you think you should see "The Green Inferno" on the big screen, who knows, it might be a classic!.

Debbie Rochon said...

Maybe you should see "Crim-daughter Peak" in a movie house as well, Guiller-het Del Toro usually doesn`t disappoint his audiences!.

Tony Brubaker said...

Ty E, why did you refer to the bad bird as a "savage 'animal like' bull dyke" ?. she was, in fact, quite a tasty slag!.

teddy crescendo said...

On the poster the bird looks like that bird from Fulci's "City of the Living Dead" who pukes up her intestines.

Anonymous said...

Ty E, isn`t it about time you reveiwed Night, Dawn, and Day on here!, they are Romero's masterworks.