Director: Wes Craven
By Roderick Heath
From among the other talented filmmakers of the early ’70s who began in or gravitated to horror, Wes Craven is one of the few who has managed the impressive feat of surviving. Red Eye was one of the best-made, least pretentious, most pleasurable films of 2005, whilst Cursed was one of the worst, which sums up Craven’s uneven career in a nutshell. Best known for the well-conceived, badly executed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the Scream franchise, Craven’s films often balance a deft realism with a heightened, often high-camp wit, built of cleanly constructed shots, well-filmed action, sleek framing (great in widescreen), and an assured ability to slowly crank up narratives to a frenzied pitch.
Craven, like Hitchcock, deals with the violence and chaos lying just below the surface of normal life. Even more than Hitchcock, he details the capacity of average people not to survive, but to respond to evil with equal violence. The worms turn and prove often to be alligators themselves in ferociously Darwinian narratives that often pointedly satirize their eras. Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes take on the outsider terror of the ’70s-era bourgeoisie. A Nightmare on Elm Street saw the pitch-black side of repression and past evil swallowing up Reagan-era children; The People Under The Stairs portrayed Bush One-era urban life as a prison run by fascist capitalists named Ron and Nancy. Scream exactly described the emotional paranoia and media-obsessing self-distancing of Generation X.
Last House on the Left, Craven’s second film (after a porn film, Together, in 1970) in collaboration with producer Sean S. Cunningham, is one of those fascinating experiences of watching a director learn how to make a film as the work is progressing. In its first half-hour, no amount of auteurist squinting can make out much talent. The plot is acknowledged by all as a modern-day spin on the Swedish myth Ingmar Bergman filmed as The Virgin Spring (1961). Dr. John Collingwood (Gaylord St. James), an affable, greying academic, his wife Estelle (Cynthia Carr), and teenage daughter Mari (Sandra Cassell), live in leafy upstate New York. The Collingwoods are neither insufferably square nor certifiably hip, and are mildly uncomfortable with their daughter’s bursting sexuality, pithy teenaged attitude, and choice of friend in Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), a slightly older girl with a penchant for pot and wayside excitement. Estelle gives her daughter a present—a peace-symbol necklace.
To a soundtrack of awful faux folk/rock (by costar David Hess, a Tin Pan Alley escapee), Mari and Phyllis drive into Manhattan for a concert whilst listening to a radio news report about the recent jail break of sex offenders and low-rent criminal masterminds Krug Stillo (Hess) and Weasel Padowski (Fred J. Lincoln), with the aid of their bisexual moll Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Krug’s drug-addled, browbeaten son Junior (Marc Sheffer). Wouldn’t you know it that what Mari and Phyllis try to score some weed, they approach Junior, who takes them to the apartment where the gang are holed up. Swiftly, Krug, Weasel, and Sadie rape Cynthia, whilst Mari watches in frozen terror (the intended impact of this moment is blunted by its home movie staging).
Hoping to escape to Canada, Krug and his cohort stuff their two prisoners in the boot of their car and drive out of the city; being idiots, and more impressed by TV than real life, they ponder if their actions will make the great list of “sex crimes of the century.”? The Collingwoods, worrying about their daughter’s overlong absence, call the police. Just a few hundred meters away, Krug and company have pulled over into the woods, where they force the two girls to have sex with each other after various acts of torture. It’s here that Craven gains tense control over his grisly material. Aiming for a detached, unremitting approach, the unblinking camera and stark staging makes the scene intensely convincing (even the actors, especially Cassell, were freaking out). Craven stated his desire was to approach violence in a confrontational, entirely unromanticised way, and in this he certainly succeeds.
Craven’s background – a would-be hipster philosophy professor who had gotten bored with academia and moved to Greenwich Village – is evident, at first clumsily, but with increasing precision. The film is culturally engaged to an extent the film’s standard reading – as the ultimate parental cautionary tale – hardly encompasses; amidst the many issues tossed at the screen include such hot-button issues as Vietnam, the generation gap, feminism, and the peculiar violence fascination of the hippie era that made hits out films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and this one. The narrative is driven by a series of essential conflicts: rich/poor, suburban/urban, mainstream/outsider, sex/violence, unmotivated violence/revenge, “good” family vs. “bad” family.
Mari tries to convince Junior, who likes the girl but is too psychologically defeated, to help her escape. The spunkier Phyllis makes a run through the woods, but – in a merciless fright moment – is caught, stabbed, and gutted in a series of flash cuts that make the violence thankfully incoherent but even more sensually violent. Krug rapes Mari after carving his name on her chest. Mari stumbles in a daze down to wash in a pond as Krug and gang stand, uncomfortable, even ashamed, in temporary awareness of their loathsome acts. Krug dutifully shoots Mari in the pond, and she sinks into the slimy water.
This intense drama is cross-cut with very bad comic relief by the sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his deputy (Martin Kove, later of Karate Kid villain fame), while responding to the Collingwoods’ plea for them to find Mari, find themselves desperately trying to get a life after their car breaks down. Krug, Weasel, Junior, and Sadie clean up and head for the nearest house, where they pose as travelers needing a place to stay for the night. Yup, it’s the Collingwood place. The Collingwoods treat their guests to a blackly comic, hospitable dinner as their guests struggle to be convincingly square salespeople. Junior is afflicted with nightmares that Estelle tries to soothe, but then she recognises Mari’s peace necklace around his neck. Estelle wakes John, and they search the woods. They find Mari’s body and howl in agony over it. Rather than calling the police, John and Estelle now plot their own intimate vengeance.
Craven pulls off a thunderous finale, and lays down a blueprint for many of his later films, not just in having his heroes turn tables on their savage nemeses, but also in their method. John, like later Craven heroes, proves that humans became the dominant species on the planet not just by being violent, but by being intelligently so. Estelle lures Weasel outside, pretending to respond to his self-promotion as a super-stud. She convinces him to tie himself up to prove his prowess as Estelle performs fellatio on him, and then she bites off his penis and spits it in the pond. John wakes Krug and tries to shoot him, but Krug, quick and tough, beats John in a straight fistfight. Junior tries to help John, but at goading from his father, the emotionally broken youth shoots himself. Krug’s escape is halted when he grabs an electrified door knob, one of John’s traps. Whilst he struggles to stand, John descends to his basement and returns with his chainsaw, and relentlessly presses toward Krug until he corners him. Sadie flees, but is caught and disemboweled by Estelle. The sheriff and deputy arrive just in time to see John cut Krug in half. The final image is of the distraught John and Estelle clutching each other in the charnel house that was their home.
As this synopsis indicates, Last House on the Left isn’t a cute horror movie, and yet it resists becoming just another gore flick. It is rigorously low-tech and oddly honourable in its purpose. Craven is never tempted to indulge, and he knows when enough is enough. The Collingwoods’ revenge is both atrocious and entirely sympathetic, and Krug and his band, though vicious and crazed, are not blank-faced ciphers of evil. They’re weedy, underclass offspring who rudely destroy the shallow rebellion fantasies of Mari’s generation (she has a Mick Jagger picture on her bedroom wall under which Krug and Sadie later sleep) and the tranquility of bourgeois life. Along with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Last House on the Left was one of a batch of hugely controversial studies in violence released in the 1971-72 season. Unlike Kubrick and Peckinpah, Craven does not blur the morality of the sexual violence with matters of sexual desire, dominance, and aggressor- identification. In Phyllis’ case, there’s a brief, promising flash of modern heroine spunk when she escapes that Craven’s later heroines, like Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott in Scream, display. Krug, well embodied by Hess, commands none of the sly heroism of Alex as a sleazy thug, pathetic in his hollow-souled, deadbeat monstrousness.
Last House on the Left proved enormously profitable as well as controversial. Five years passed before Craven followed it up with The Hills Have Eyes, which, in many ways, is a remake with a more fantastic set-up. Producer Sean S. Cunnigham would, for his own shot at the big time, concoct a Halloween rip-off entitled Friday the 13th (1980) that would invert everything that was worthy about Last House on the Left as the ultimate body-count porn. The best of the Friday the 13th series, Part II, was directed by Steve Miner, a student of Craven’s who was employed as an assistant director and editor on this film. Last House on the Left’s influence was strong on other low-budget beasts like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), knock-offs like Lipstick (1976) and I Spit On Your Grave (1979), through to art films of the ilk of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl. The Hills Have Eyes was remade by a French director, suggesting Craven has become canonical there.