Forty-six years after its release, The Last House on the Left remains a ferocious work of sadistic cinema. The film is so unnerving for appearing, on the outset, to have been unintentionally achieved—a flakey, dangerous quality that many contemporary filmmakers unconvincingly attempt to emulate. In his feature-film debut, writer-director Wes Craven oscillates between broadly comic and nihilistic tones and between moments of trashy amateurishness and piercing existential poetry, criticizing the very notion of tonality.
It’s consistency of tone in media—a smooth, euphemistic notion of polish known as production values—that renders anything from a carton of milk to a war marketable, and such consistency is also valued in art, which often tells us what we’re getting and telegraphs what we’re supposed to think. Meanwhile, Craven’s film is a direct assault on notions of consistency and control, seeing them as the sort of distancing mechanisms that distract our country and sanitize atrocity. This is horror cinema as punk rock.
There are more violent films than The Last House on the Left, especially in the post-Nightmare on Elm Street era of the serial killer as ironic rock star, though the violence here isn’t palatable or delivered with the ritualized seriousness that flatters our intelligence for consuming a nasty movie. The scenes in which a gang rapes and murders two teenage women are prolonged and disgusting, as the women are never merely elements in an aesthetic, but viscerally terrified, humiliated humans begging for mercy with unmooring rawness.
It’s the little touches that are the most haunting, such as when the gang leader, Krug Stillo (David Hess), forces Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) to piss her pants, or when Phyllis tries in vain to assure her friend, Mari (Sandra Peabody), that they’re the only ones in the forest as they’re stripped of their clothes, hugging her close as the gang taunts them with knives and guns. Such details assert the supreme violation of what we’re seeing, and these moments continue to proliferate throughout The Last House on the Left. When Krug finally rapes Mari, Craven lingers on his face squashed on top of her cheek, saliva dripping out of his mouth as she quivers in shock.
Interspersed with this depravity are scenes in which inept cops try to reach the woods, circling the kill zone while the score (composed by Hess) zips and slides along in a manner that recalls the music of later highway comedies like Smokey and the Bandit. These alternately despairing and flip tones don’t traditionally go together, and this isn’t the first such juxtaposition in the film, as Phyllis and Mari’s capture by the gang in the city is contrasted with a comic moment in which Mari’s parents, Dr. John and Estelle Collingwood (Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr), prepare for their daughter’s birthday party.
Not long afterward, Krug and his gang—knife-wielding Weasel (Fred Lincoln), infantile junkie Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler), and the lone woman, Sadie (Jeramie Rain)—are driving along in the country in a convertible as Sadie fucks Krug in the backseat. Everyone’s joking and laughing while Phyllis and Mari are imprisoned in the vehicle’s trunk. The scene is disturbing for the gang’s callousness and for Craven’s empathy with their cold jocularity. A conventional director would tonally code the scene as “menacing,” divorcing us from the violation by hewing to formal expectation, though Craven renders the gang’s entitlement and bravado without editorializing.
The film’s seemingly misplaced sense of comedy, particularly in the scenes involving the police and the Collingwoods, communicates a powerful aura of ineffectuality—of clueless complacency in the face of sloppy and spitefully pointless evil. At this stage in his career, Craven was a naïf who brilliantly understood how to use his lack of experience to his advantage. (Later, especially in the Scream series, Craven would become a slicker craftsman, serving up the sort of digestible violence that this film abhors.)
Even formally, there’s an impression here of the insane having inherited the asylum. The Last House on the Left has little “coverage” as one normally considers the term, as a hodgepodge of stolen images takes the place of an orderly sequence of master and medium shots and close-ups. Some of these compositions—like Mari’s tranced-out death march into a lake—have a tranquil intensity that’s worthy of Jean Cocteau or Ingmar Bergman. Other scenes are stitched together haphazardly, as in a weirdly beautiful and inexplicable fade from a shot of Phyllis and Mari into a close-up of Weasel’s face. Dialogue is crude, obscene, disreputably funny, and often seemingly pointless—such as continuous riffs about animals that gradually evolve into an examination of how Krug’s gang reduces women to cattle. The film often looks and sounds like the exploitation cheapie that it is, though this lowers the audience’s guard for its vivid sense of social collapse.
Artfulness resides underneath The Last House on the Left’s garishness, and the film has a more intimate relationship with its source of inspiration, The Virgin Spring, than detractors care to acknowledge. Riffing throughout on Bergman’s film, Craven proffers a symmetry that continues to influence the horror genre, contrasting the Collingwoods and the Stillo gang as clans that represent the respective mainstream and fringe of society.
The Collingwoods are a middle-class family that’s marginally aware of the “free love” movement spurred by the Vietnam War and rank government corruption. John and Estelle talk like actors in a public service video, emanating the unearned authority that’s echoed later by the policemen. And the Stillo gang is the roiling underbelly of America—reacting to the privilege of people like John and Estelle, the effects of women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam as well as out of its feral urges to revel in its own filth. When the gang’s members dress up and eat at the Collingwoods’ dinner table, not long after killing their daughter, their resemblance to conventional civilians illustrates the thin line existing between the rough halves of the communal coin. Yet Craven doesn’t baldly wear his intellectualism, tucking it underneath the rough framing and fraught atmosphere.
This symbolic self-consciousness is evident in the rape scenes as well. The Stillo gang’s manipulation of Phyllis and Mari suggests a display of film direction, as the killers revel in their authority over their subjects, bending the women’s wills to suit their own fantasies, fashioning role-playing that blends snuff with melodrama. The Stillo gang offers, perhaps, an immoral funhouse version of the sort of direction that Craven may have given himself, and so the killings suggest a homemade horror film within another homemade horror film—an impression that’s intensified by the unease that the cast still exhibits when discussing The Last House on the Left decades later.
These disenfranchised monsters inadvertently stage a parody of how media spins inhumanity into stimulation, divorcing such stimulation of civil pretenses and indicting those who produce or consume the news and action and horror films with placid disinterest. In the face of such a uniquely self-cannibalizing film, traditional criticism also feels inadequate and part of the problem of bourgeoisie evasion. All reviews, that is, except for the astonishing analysis that Robin Wood offered in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.
John and Estelle aren’t killers until the film’s final act, but they also chafe at revolution and enjoy fruits of suppression. The Stillo gang embodies the Collingwoods’ condescending fear of the “degenerate” element that’s suggested by rock-n’-roll and bra-burning, while acting out the Collingwoods’ subterranean impulses. Violence lurks everywhere in this film, right from the opening, when a nostalgic mailman regards Mari’s birthday cards wistfully only to call her the “finest piece” he’s ever seen. When Ethel rips Weasel’s cock off with her teeth, or when John butchers Krug with a chainsaw, there’s a sense of release—a reckoning with a submerged social obscenity—that doesn’t provide relief. In The Last House on the Left, Craven fashions a cleansing, demoralizing wave of anarchy that he never again matched—that he never wanted to match. By breaching a realm as impregnable as the Collingwood home, Craven renders the American nightmare of class savagery democratic, kick-starting the modern political horror film.
Per the notes about the transfer included in the package’s booklet, a search was undertaken to track down The Last House on the Left’s best materials, as the original 16mm AB negative has been lost. Ultimately, the 35mm dupe negative held by producer Sean S. Cunningham was deemed the "highest quality element," and scanned in 2K resolution, while other elements were sought from MGM and Severin Films to complete the new transfers of the Krug & Company and R-rated versions that are also included in this set.
The result is an unusually lively and robust image, with lurid colors that revitalize the film’s nightmarish trashiness. Skin and other surface textures are densely detailed. Image clarity is variable, as one might expect, though greatly improved from prior editions. Also, The Last House on the Left shouldn’t look too good, as that would negate the point of the project, and there are many blemishes that only add to the seamy atmosphere. Arrow Video has delicately toggled a fine line between clarity and the look that’s most appropriate to the film, and this balance extends to the monaural soundtrack, which is a little flat and soft in places, though greatly improved over the mixes of prior editions, especially in terms of diegetic effects.
This supplements package is comprehensive even by the obsessive standards of Arrow Video, consisting of dozens of featurettes that have appeared on various editions of The Last House on the Left over the years as well as a few choice new additions. Inevitably for a film that’s been repackaged so often, there’s quite a bit of repetition here. Over the course of many archive featurettes and two archive commentaries, writer-director Wes Craven, producer Sean S. Cunningham (of Friday the 13th fame), and the cast and crew discuss working on the film and their subsequent relationship with it.
Fred Lincoln, who worked in adult cinema, says that he’s more ashamed of this film (which he calls a "piece of shit") than any porn in which he appeared. Many of the actors, who used aliases for this project, are visibly uncomfortable discussing their work, and Sandra Peabody, who has The Last House on the Left’s most punishing scenes, is conspicuously absent. Even Craven evinces skittishness, alternating between rationalizing the film as a political statement and admitting that it’s a genre exercise that might have eluded his control, tapping into something primordially of the moment.
The nuts and bolts of the film’s making are fascinating. Craven shot it in New York and Connecticut, after he got a job in Cunningham’s production office, out of which Cunningham produced "white coat" skin flicks—nudie films with a thin pretense of offering medical information to get around censors. The Last House on the Left’s title was made up on the fly when an advertiser combined words—"last," "house," and "left"—that he said would connote unease. The concept worked and made a sensation out of a film that was playing to empty theaters under titles like Krug & Company—a cut of which is included with this disc, as well as the somewhat neutered R-rated version. Helping matters considerably was a canny tag line "it’s only a movie..." which is used in an ad that’s excerpted frequently on these featurettes.
Also included here is an audio commentary with film historians Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes that serves as a terrific one-stop shop for a mammoth package. Ackerman and Reyes dive into the film’s murky politics and observe the convincing and exact character work that’s often ignored. Reyes doesn’t position The Last House on the Left as a feminist work, though she underscores Craven’s often overlooked sensitivity to the female characters.
"Blood and Guts," an interview with make-up artist Anne Paul, is another notably evocative new supplement, in which Paul tells of auditioning for the roles of Mari and Phyllis only to talk her way into the make-up job. This led to a lifelong career working on legendary people such as Jane Fonda and Bill Clinton. Rounding out this package are a seemingly endless stream of odds and ends, including an unfinished short by Craven, a new book with writing by Stephen Thrower, trailers, radio spots, and a deleted scene, as well as a CD with David Hess’s haunting and controversially whimsical soundtrack.
Arrow Video offers a precise and loving restoration of a daring and legendarily unlovable milestone in horror cinema. This set offers an exacting and ambiguous portrait of a pivotal moment in American horror cinema.