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Saturday, March 14, 2009

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) -- DVD Review by Porfle

Up till now, I'd only seen Wes Craven's 1972 horror-movie debut LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT once, when I rented the VHS tape back in the 80s, and for the life of me I couldn't remember a damn thing about it. Which I found somewhat strange considering its reputation as a ghastly, hardcore horror ordeal that so many found hard to watch and even harder to forget. Now that I've seen it again, I can understand why I originally found it unmemorable, but I'm still at a loss to explain its profound effect on others. To me, it's just a fairly decent cheapo murder flick, despite whatever perceived historical significance it may have. Have I really become that desensitized, or what?

Sweet young Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel), who just turned 17, is on her way to a rock concert with her more worldly friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), when they're kidnapped by sadistic escaped convicts Krug (David Hess) and Weasel (Fred Lincoln), their wretched moll Sadie (Jeramie Rain), and Krug's junkie son Junior (Marc Sheffler), who'll do whatever his pop tells him to in order to get his next fix. The bad guys dump their captives into the trunk and head for the hills, but their car soon breaks down on a secluded road. They take Mari and Phyllis into the woods, where the girls are humiliated, raped, tortured, and murdered.

Posing as stranded travelers on a business trip, they're taken in by a friendly couple who offer them food and accomodations for the night. As it turns out, however, John (Richard Towers) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr) are Mari's parents, the Collingwoods. And when they discover that their houseguests have just murdered their daughter, the mild-mannered mom and dad find their own killer instincts fiercely kicking in. Naturally, more bloody violence and mayhem ensue.

Visually, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is pretty artless, bringing to mind the likes of BLOOD FEAST and early John Waters films such as PINK FLAMINGOS. Wes Craven attributes this to a deliberate attempt at a documentary, cinema-verite' style, and claims that this makes the film's events seem more realistic. Marc Sheffler's assessment, as stated in one of the DVD's bonus featurettes, is that "in its professional ignorance, its stylistic ignorance, it has created its own style." I think it's just crummy camerawork. Plus, it's hard to be fooled into thinking "Hey, this is real!" when the characters are so borderline farcical and the acting, for the most part, is on a porn-movie level. (The script, in fact, started as a sick hardcore porn project, which is how adult actor Fred Lincoln became involved, before most of those dubious elements were wisely jettisoned.)

Hess, who would later appear in Wes Craven's SWAMP THING, comes off fairly well in a brutish way, while Lincoln isn't very convincing as a psycho killer. Sheffler's "Junior" is more of a comic doofus than the pathetic heroin slave he's intended to be. Jeramie Rain (who later became Mrs. Richard Dreyfuss and is surprisingly beautiful in her recent interview footage) comes off pretty well as the feral Sadie. As Mari's parents, Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr are superficial at best, although Carr comes to life in the final scenes. I like the two girls, Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham, who are unpolished yet appealing and who manage to express genuine terror during key moments, although in Cassel's case there's more to this than acting skills (more on that later). Her sad death scene provides one of the film's genuinely affecting moments.

As far as the violence and gore are concerned, there's nothing more extreme than George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD from four years earlier, or even 1963's BLOOD FEAST. And I can never take these characters seriously enough for their acts to be truly shocking or difficult to endure. The only thing I find hard to watch--the rape scene--comes not from what's happening in the story but from what went on during the filming of it. As David Hess relates during the commentary, he had the already nervous Sandra Cassel so distraught and fearful of him that much of her humiliation and distress during the scene are real. Marc Sheffler also tells of actually grabbing her and threatening to push her over a precipice if she didn't stop fouling up take after take of their main scene together. For me, these two accounts are the creepiest thing about the movie.

Meanwhile, awkward attempts at comedy relief keep inexplicably popping up at the darndest times. These come mainly in the form of a fat, bumbling sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his moronic deputy (Martin Kove, the most recognizable actor in the film), who run out of gas on their way to the Collingwood home and try to hitch a ride on a chicken truck. In an early scene, the world-weary sheriff laments, "Sometimes I wish I was something else" and his deputy asks, "You mean, like a duck?"

This, we're told, was meant to counterpoint the (already humor-laced) serious scenes just as David Hess' irreverent soundtrack songs serve as a jarring contrast to onscreen events. But as Fred Lincoln, who still refers to the film as "a piece of sh**", states in the commentary, "to cut back to them was to cut back to a different movie." It's like switching channels between a slasher flick and "The Dukes of Hazzard." The cartoonish Ozzie and Harriet-ness of Mari's parents is similarly overstated in their early scenes.

The blood-splattered finale, which takes place in and around the titular house, has its moments but is pretty much a mess. Reacting to the death of their daughter not with crippling grief but with a strangely industrious fervor, Mrs. Collingwood becomes a deadly seductress while Mr. Collingwood turns into a vengeful cross between Tim Allen and MacGyver. I won't give away too much of what happens, but aside from a few cool images, it's not all that shocking or suspenseful. A curiously tame chainsaw showdown does result in the destruction of some nice furniture, though. And one character's swimming pool demise is quite satisfying.

Fans of the film will no doubt enjoy the yakky, argumentative, and funny commentary track featuring Hess, Lincoln, and Sheffler (but not Craven or Cunningham, who did a commentary for the 2002 DVD release), as well as the behind-the-scenes featurette "Still Standing: The Legacy of The Last House on the Left" and the 40-minute documentary "Celluloid Crime of the Century", both of which contain much interview material with Craven, producer Sean S. Cunningham, and members of the cast. Along with some interesting inside info, the personable Craven also dishes up a little after-the-fact hooey about the script (based on Ingmar Bergman's THE VIRGIN SPRING) that he banged out with no deep intentions besides making a simple horror flick, "but I think what was going on subconsciously was a pretty complex matrix of the fundamentalists being alive in America at that time, and...uh, the Viet Nam war..." He also opines that some scenes evoked a perverse sympathy for the villains which resulted in a "trememdous turmoil of emotions in the audiences that created a lot of anger." I guess you had to be there--at no time while watching the film do I feel any sympathy for them whatsoever.

In "Scoring Last House", David Hess tells of how he wrote the music for the film and performs snippets from some of the songs. "Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out" is about eleven minutes of silent Wes Craven-directed footage from an unfinished 1976 film. There are also some silent never-before-seen LAST HOUSE outtakes, a minute of deleted dialogue from Mari's death scene, and some trailers for other films. This unrated "collector's edition" DVD, released on 2/24/09, is in 1.85:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital mono sound and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. Picture and sound quality are about as good as can be expected considering the age and low budget of the film.

According to Roger Ebert, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT "never lets us out from under almost unbearable dramatic tension." I was really hoping it would have the same effect on me, and was genuinely surprised when it didn't even come close. For the most part, I found it lively and reasonably fun to watch, though much of the fun was of the "so bad it's good" variety with very little of it being just plain good. And it was nowhere near the grueling cinematic ordeal that I've come to expect over the years. I wonder if I've become desensitized, or if the film just isn't as sensitizing as it's cracked up to be.



Anonymous said...

Well... there is no reason for anyone else to ever write anything on this film. You summed it up. :)
--Ted Newsom

porfle said...

Needless to say, Ted, your comment is very much appreciated!