Monday, November 18, 2013

A Grindhouse Is Not A Home

Year: 1972
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Sandra Cassell, Lucy Grantham, David Hess
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R*

We're here. Wes Craven's first film! Fresh off of English teaching, the young (well, younger) Mr. Craven set out in the industry the way most New York-based filmmakers tended to do at the time - editing porn. It was there he met Sean S. Cunningham, producer of The Last House on the Left and future director of Friday the 13th

So when these two set out to make a horror film, it should come as no surprise that the end result was perhaps a tad depraved. LHotL was decried by critics left and right, and has still only tentatively received popular acceptance as a horror staple. And, in truth, it is a deliriously sinful half-cocked shock picture filled with obscene sexual violence.

It's a film with little to no moral compass that captivated viewers with its willingness to go where no other film had ever gone before. This resonated with the young nihilistic audiences in the 70's and the film became a hit in the disreputable grindhouse theaters, turning in a huge profit on its relatively meager $90,000 budget.

One must always remember though that one Wes Craven is at the helm. Although he hadn't yet developed his directorial style to the levels of his later slasher masterworks A Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream, his background (a steady religious upbringing and years studying English literature) would indicate that he is more or less incapable of producing a film that is of such utter garbage as all that.

Not that it doesn't come close, but Craven's intellect betrays itself. You see, this film has a lofty pedigree, functioning essentially as a bloodied remake of a film by renowned Swedish director Ingmar Bergman called The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan). That alone would put it firmly in the "maybe not so terrible" camp, but the film also (buried deep but unearthable) carries somewhat of a moral theme.

Stick with me on this.

Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassell) is 17. She lives in a rural idyll with her parents, Dr. John Collingwood (Gaylord St. James and before you ask, yes it is a stage name. Makes you wonder why he picked it though.) and his wife Estelle (Cynthia Carr). They live a typical All-American family life, but Mari wants more. 

For her birthday, she has decided to go with her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) to a Bloodlust concert, much to the outrage of her parents. Against their better judgment, they let her go. She is growing up, after all, and they're planning her surprise party anyway so this will get her out of the way.

She'll never make it to that concert. On the way, she and Phyllis try to score some grass from a shady teen named Junior (Marc Sheffler) on a street corner. He brings them back to his motel, to which his roommates do not react kindly. His roommates being his father Krug (David Hess), an escaped convict, Krug's buddy Weasel (Fred Lincoln, who considers this the worst film he ever worked on, which is a lot coming from a man whose IMDb credits include just upwards of 300 porn videos), and their beastly girlfriend Sadie (Jeramie Rain - and not a single one of these people went on to appear in anything of note; most stopped acting by the end of the 70's.).

They can't exactly have a couple of pretty young witnesses running around, so they do the only sensible thing and take the girls out to the woods, torturing, raping, and killing them in what is only the first of the film's two hyperviolent setpieces.

The 70's were a rough time for everyone.

Through a series of plot contrivances, the villains end up holing up in the Collingwood household after their car breaks down and during the night, Mari's worried parents discover her body and realize to their dismay that they have been harboring the culprits. With the phone lines down and the hopelessly inept police bumbling around town like Keystone Cops (in a hopelessly depressing stab at comic relief), they take matters into their own hands and murder the hell out of Krug and his cronies.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers (a sad but true fact - spoilers in these types of movies more often than not involve how people die as opposed to who dies), anyone who wishes to remain in the dark on a 40-year-old grindhouse movie should skip to picture of the cute bunny and read on from there.

Last House on the Left is a brutal film, there's no skirting around that. With vivid 70's blood (what is it about that creamy concoction that makes me writhe every time?) and an unwavering dedication to extreme violence (although, as always, the more vicious moments take place offscreen - people can invent much greater horrors in their own heads than could ever be shown onscreen, Tobe Hooper can tell you that), it can be extremely hard to watch.

As can any dentist.

There's a lot in here to disdain Craven for, but I like to keep in mind that people go to horror films to be scared, and this film does that. It just does. The scariest parts take place in the smallest moments (another hallmark of Craven's work - he doesn't have to be bombastic to get the job done), like Krug's line of viscous drool that runs down Phyllis' face or him forcing Mari to wet her pants at gunpoint.

These little moments get under your skin and paint the picture of an animal of a man who has absolutely no inhibitions. This is a man who gets his own son hooked on heroin so he could control him, then talked him into blowing his own brains out. He is callous, cruel, mean-spirited, awful, despicable, disgusting, morally bankrupt, depraved, and just plain evil.

But is this really necessary?

And is that makeup really necessary?

My answer is yes. At least within the confines of the film. The orgy of blood that occurs at his hand (and in response to his crimes) is accompanied by a song. At first listen, it just seems like a cheesy, misplaced 70's song (which it is), but there's something deeper there. The recurring motif involves this lyric: "And the road leads to nowhere."

And here is the nugget of good buried deep in the center of the movie. For all its violence and indecency, The Last House on the Left has a clear message. Although audiences are meant to hate the violence inflicted by the villains and adore the violence inflicted by the heroes in that schizophrenic way that makes horror and action films possible, at the end the Collingwoods are left with nothing.

Their innocent lifestyle of the past is lying dead on the living room floor, as is their daughter. They have to forever live with the knowledge of their slaughter without their daughter to comfort them. It's not their fault she was murdered, but their response has rent their world apart in a way that can never be suitably pieced together for the rest of their lives.

Violence begets violence and... the road leads to nowhere.

And that's what horror is about! The consequences of our actions and witnessing the dangers of invoking them vicariously through fictional characters. Even though The Last House on the Left is a slipshod effort at best, it has a kind of brutal purity about it that, along with Romero's Night of the Living Dead, launched horror into a new and improved age.

Also, I didn't know where to mention this, but Mari's mom bites off Weasel's dick and I really don't support that kind of behavior but it's the best and most cathartic scene in the movie.

Welcome back, guys!

Basically, the film is a solid beginning for an illustrious career in the genre. Its flaws nearly outweigh the merits, but Craven was using the grindhouse genre to build a portfolio and slowly prove his viability as a director with something to say. And if it took a Last House on the Left to make that happen, so be it.

A quick word on the poster: Aren't grindhouse posters the best, though? That hyperbolic tagline. The slowly receding "It's only a movie... It's only a movie..." These people really knew how to sell a schlocky gore picture, I'll tell you what.

*Interesting story. The MPAA refused to release the film with anything less than an X rating even after Craven cut out ten minutes, so he just shoved 'em back in, had his friend steal an official "R-Rated" seal of approval, slapped it on the distribution copy, and went on his merry way.

TL;DR: The Last House on the Left is messy in more ways than one, but it's a good foothold for a rising master director.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1495
Reviews In This Series
The Last House on the Left (Craven, 1972)

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