Over 10 years before the Elm Street series began, Craven was already creating fear, disgust, invention and controversy, particularly with The Last House on the Left, a notoriously banned film which, like most banned films, is graphic more in theme than content. For its time though, it was heavy stuff; rape, murder, mutilation, torture, sadism, revenge, chainsaws…
The film begins calmly enough, with two teenage girls going out together to a rock concert, we watch them getting ready at one of their houses with one set of parents telling them to be careful, have a good time etc. After looking for pot before the concert, the girls are kidnapped by a group of sadistic escaped criminals including Krug (the leader), and his apparent girlfriend Sadie. The girls are raped, tortured, and eventually killed in a number of drawn out, brutal scenes. Craven directs these scenes in a plain, cold manner, so that they are almost unbearable to watch – this is particularly effective due to the lack of gore, close-ups, and other typical techniques overused in totrute porn today – it doesn’t feel exploitative even though we know it is. It helps that the performances of the unknown cast are excellent – to the point that uit doesn’t feel like acting. After the deaths, the killers seem to realise what they have done and there seems to be some sort of confusion in their eyes, if not remorse. In a Bergman-esque twist, the killers’ car breaks down and they look for help at a nearby house which just happens to be the Collingwood home, where the parents of one of their victims live. The Collingwoods have meanwhile called the police as their daughter did not return home, and they unwittingly invite the maniacs in. It isn’t long before each group recognises the other, and the tables are turned with the parents wreaking bloody revenge using a variety of dentistry and DIY tools to full, gripping effect.
Like The Hills Have Eyes, it is fascinating to watch how a middle class family with strong morale values etc can quickly become executers when provoked – to see how any person can become a monster in the ‘right’ circumstances. There are no happy endings here, no moral justification, just revenge pure and simple. The film is set up in every way to disturb – from the infamous trailer, the Texas Chainsaw style ‘based on a true story’ effect, and the scenes of torture and murder themselves. Krug and co. are thoroughly evil and take great joy in the pain of others, but they quickly change face when faced with a gun or chainsaw. The film is almost entirely grim and grainy although there are some funny moments involving the cops and a chicken farmer – these scenes have become infamous amongst fans and critics of the movie. My personal feeling is that it makes the carnage all the more awful, knowing that the usual source of Salvation is a bumbling non-entity – it exemplifies that great Craven message – YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN. There is some average acting of course, aside from the main players, and it is understandable that many will find this, and the scenes involving the cops particularly jarring. Many today will still find it unbearable. This should definitely be seen, but do not expect a bright affair, or even for your blood-lust to be satisfied – you will be uncomfortable throughout.
This double disc edition has since been improved upon by a 3 disc set, but this edition has plenty of extras including intersting docuementaries featuring Craven and cast and some shorts. For fans of the genre, and for fans of Craven this is an important piece documenting the extreme lengths film-makers were willing to go to provoke a reaction, to stir things up, and to horrify. If you want to check out the remake, which ups the gore, budget, and overall quality it is certainly one of the better remakes of recent years, but still pales in my opinion, to the stinking realism of the original.
Let us know what you thought of the movie – does it still retain the power to shock, or is it more tame that a flaccid sock?
*Review originally written in 2004