31 Screams in October, #7: The Last House on the Left (1972)

Posted: October 7, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Last House on the Left (1972)

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: David Hess, Lucy Grantham, Sandra Cassel, Marc Sheffler, Ada Washington

There are horror movies you watch to sit back and have fun for 90-120 minutes, and then there are those which make you feel like taking a shower afterwards. 1972’s “The Last House on the Left” could easily fall under the latter category, but certainly never the former. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” (which, in turn was based on a 13th Century Swedish ballad entitled “Töres dotter i Wänge”), “The Last House on the Left” is the product of a collaboration between writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham, the creators of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th,” respectively. As he would five years later with The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven delivers a story that preys upon the worst fears of any parent.

Right away, the film uses the “this film is based on actual events” ploy. Come on, we’re not falling for it. 17-year old Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) is off to a concert featuring a band called “Bloodlust” with her friend, Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham). Mari’s parents are setting things up for their daughter’s birthday celebration, and although they object to Mari’s choice of not wearing a bra and have obvious misgivings about Phyllis coming from a bad neighborhood, they’re “hip” enough to let their daughter make her own decisions.

Along the way to New York City for the concert, Mari and Phyllis hear a news bulletin on the car radio about a group of escaped convicts who killed two prison guards and one German Shepherd. There’s the leader, Krug Stillo (David Hess, who also provides the songs for the movie), his son Junior (Marc Sheffler), Fred “Weasel” Podowski, and Sadie (whose last name is never mentioned). Junior is only the getaway driver, and doesn’t appear to be in on the more gruesome aspects of the groups activites. His only reason for tagging along is that his father has him hooked on heroine in order to control him. Seemingly forgetting the part of the bulletin that listed “dope-pushing” in addition to murder and rape among the list of offenses committed by Krug & Co., the girls happen upon Junior standing outside the apartment being used for a hideout, and ask if they can score some grass. This mistake leads to their kidnapping and rape, which continues into the next day.

One thing that always strikes me about the first half of “The Last House on the Left” is how the events play out so strikingly similar to events that too often appear as news reports on television. As with many real-life kidnapping/murder cases, the location of the movie’s most disturbing scenes is none other than the woods across the street from Mari’s house! Because so much time has passed since the previous night’s concert, Mari’s parents have called the local sheriff and his deputy. The sheriff’s deputy is played by Martin Kove (known to fans of the original “The Karate Kid” as John Kreese). It is the inclusion of these two characters that brings about one of my biggest complaints about this movie. They are obviously there for little more than comic relief, which I find highly inappropriate and detrimental to the overall mood of the picture. The two find the escaped cons’ broken down getaway vehicle abandoned close by the Collingwood’s home.

Meanwhile in the woods, the group takes turns humiliating Mari and Phyllis. With Mari on the verge of a total breakdown, Phyllis devises a plan that involves her running off to distract Krug and the others while Mari is supposed to run for help. Mari, who recognizes where she is, attempts to gain Junior’s trust, giving him her necklace and trying to encourage him to run away with her along with the false promise of his next fix. Phyllis almost makes it to the street before being cornered. Stabbed in the back, the only thing Phyllis can do is spit blood in the face of her attackers before being stabbed again. Over and over again, to the point where her insides are on the outside! Having wasted time, both trying to convince Junior to join her and calling out to Phyllis, Mari is caught before she can run home across the street to safety. Instead, she is raped by Krug. Then, an odd thing happens. As Mari collapses to her knees, vomits and begins to pray, the audience is given reaction shots from Krug and the others. They look as though they’re actually feeling remorseful for the things they’ve just done to these two young women! But they also recognize they can’t leave any witnesses if they expect to get away, so they follow Mari down to the lake where Krug shoots her three times, killing her.

Thus begins the second half of the film, which suffers some in its inability to live up to the intensity of the first half. Krug & Co. wash off the blood, change clothes and go looking for a house where they can get a free meal and some rest. The choice they make reminds me of something Krug made a point of insisting to Phyllis back at the apartment: “We ain’t stupid!” If that were truly the case, why then would these four choose to stick around after learning that they’d picked the house belonging to the parents of one of their victims? But that’s exactly what they do! Mrs. Collingwood is the one who figures it all out, spotting Mari’s necklace around Junior’s neck and then overhearing the location of her daughter’s body while looking through the suitcase full of the group’s bloody clothing.

Another problem I found with this film, besides the unnecessary comic relief, is the editing. In particular, I was dissatisfied with the way the scene where Mari’s parents discover her body is pieced together. Firstly, Mari can clearly be seen moving around while her father is declaring her to be dead (quite a feat in itself, since he never moves his mouth). Secondly, it is immediately followed by a dream sequence that Weasel is having that involves the Collingwoods laughably dressing in medical garb and the father chiseling away at Weasel’s teeth. Until the quick shot of Mari on the living room couch, it’s hard to tell whether they’d actually gone out and found her, or if Weasel dreamed it.

Finally, the Collingwoods decide turn the tables on their daughter’s killers. This is where the movie’s true message comes into play: Is any one form of violence better than another? There is a degree of ambiguity, but the suggestion is that the answer would be no. The movie allows us to get caught up in the revenge and then stand back to choose whether or not it goes too far.

A remake was released in 2009. The overall plot more closely represents what Wes Craven originally had in mind for his version, especially in regards to the fate of Mari. To be honest, I think the more effective approach in terms of storytelling is to have both girls die. Furthermore, although I’ve spent time listing certain flaws of the original (while leaving out a few others), my overall impression is that this is a well made horror film by men who still had yet to leave their biggest marks on the genre. Flawed, strangely edited, and often too silly for its own good, but undeniably memorable in the very best sense.

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