The Road Leads To Nowhere: 40 Years in The Last House on The Left
By Nia Edwards-Behi
Caution – as with most retrospectives, expect strong spoilers.
The year is 1972, and the ideals of the Summer of Love already feel like a distant memory. It is three years since Woodstock; four years since the assassination of Martin Luther King. Hippies are on the wane and anarchy is on the up. Though the United States military will soon end its involvement in the Vietnam conflict, the country and its citizens have been constantly reminded of this war since the escalation of American intervention started in the 60s. 1972 is also the year that the film which began life as Sex Crime of the Century is released in the USA, beginning its decades-long journey toward becoming a cult classic that is still loved and reviled forty years later.
The film was initially envisioned as a hard-core exploitation picture, but as its production progressed it became a less explicit, though no less effective, film. Partially inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), in the film, soon-to-be 17 year old Mari and her supposedly wayward friend Phyllis head into town to attend a rock concert, while Mari’s parents prepare a surprise birthday party for her at their rural home. While looking to buy some marijuana, Mari and Phyllis are kidnapped by a gang of escaped criminals: Krug, Weasel, Sadie and Junior. The next morning they drive the girls to the woods, where they subject them to physical, psychological and sexual torture. Phyllis runs away, as a distraction, so that Mari can escape. Phyllis is eventually caught by Krug and she is killed and mutilated. Krug rapes Mari, before killing her too. Krug and company’s car breaks down as they attempt to make a getaway, and unbeknownst to them they seek shelter in the house of Mari’s parents. Mari’s mother uncovers the truth about their guests, and the dead girl’s parents exact a violent revenge on the criminals in their home. Last House on the Left is significant in a multitude of ways, but perhaps the two most notable ways are because it launched the career of one Wes Craven (as well as Sean Cunningham), and due to the intense controversy, and in some instances, hysteria, its shocking content caused.
It would be fairly easy for me to rehash these same discussions. We all know that Wes Craven went on to make The Hills Have Eyes, and Nightmare on Elm Street, amongst other films, establishing himself as one of the most notable horror auteurs of recent decades. We all know the film was central to the video nasties debacle in the UK, remaining banned until 2003 and only certified for sale in the UK as uncut in 2008. I don’t want to focus on the things we already know. There are times when the things around a film are remembered and talked about more than the film itself. I think this is the case with Last House on the Left. While indeed most of the video nasties would have sunk into obscurity if not for the controversy attached to them, Last House on the Left deserves attention, appraisal and, for me, plaudits. I think it’s too readily lumped together with pure exploitation flicks that may well be fun, but have a lot less to say and a lot less skill in their making. So, let me tell you why I love The Last House on the Left.
I won’t try to convince anyone that the film is perfect. I am probably a lot more tolerant of the film’s comedy cop duo, but even I will say that it would be a superior film if the ‘Ada’s chickens’ sequence was dropped. Regardless, even in its crudeness and its naivety, it is powerful. It’s easy to forget, I think, that this was Craven’s debut film as director. Given that this project began as a hardcore exploitation-by-numbers piece, at the request of the film’s financiers, it is all the more impressive that the resultant film is so enduringly powerful. There are undeniably tonal issues with the film – I like the contrast between the girls’ kidnap and Mari’s oblivious parents, for example, but the shifts between parallel scenes are indeed heavy-handed and at times jarring. However, I do believe that they are demonstrative of technical inexperience rather than lack of purpose. Those shifts in tone are there for a reason. The cops aren’t there to be comic relief, as such, they’re there to say something, even if inexperience muddies the message somewhat.
What is that message? It’s certainly not my place to ascribe One True Meaning to a film, but there are clear influences behind the violence of Last House, and what that violence is passing comment upon. Absolutely a product of its time, Last House is the result of counter-cultures, war and upheaval. As violence was broadcast daily into the homes of millions from the conflict in Vietnam, and as it spilled on to American streets through clashes of cultures, beliefs, and generations, its depiction in mainstream film became increasingly, obviously, sanitised, safe and unreal. As Craven has stated, Last House does not “play by the rules that had been established for handling violence” (Szulkin, 15). If films from the previous year had already rocked the boat with regard to the cinematic depiction of violence, then Last House went further. A Clockwork Orange is shocking but it is detached, abstract and stylised violence at its core. Straw Dogs portrays violence in a balletic, choreographed way, albeit more subtly than in Kubrick’s film. Utterly conversely, Last House does not offer stylisation, or choreography, or distance. Violence happens and we see it all. A single knife wound does not kill a person, and a fist fight doesn’t end after a couple of punches. Last House grabs you by the neck and rubs your face in violence, tells you it’s real, it exists, and it’s horrible.
I won’t be the first to write of the clear Vietnam commentary that exists in Last House – it suffuses David A. Szulkin’s excellent making-of book, and is fantastically theorised and reasoned by Adam Lowenstein in his book Shocking Representation. Lowenstein notes that not only does the film wear its anti-Vietnam sentiments plainly on its sleeve, but that it equally notes the failure of the flower power movement. Mari and Phyllis are hippies going to see a band called Bloodlust, after all. Most interesting of Lowenstein’s arguments, for me, is his claim that the aesthetic of Last House reflects that of war photography. In particular he notes the striking resemblance between the image of Phyllis used on the original publicity of the film and that of the famous image of Mary Vecchio taken at the Kent State Massacre. As such, Lowenstein notes the use of the frightened, teenaged female body as representative of the film’s reflection of a feminised, vulnerable nation.
Granted, Lowenstein is writing in a specific, academic way. This reflection of Vietnam trauma is clearly visible throughout the film, not only in its aesthetic. Although more direct references to the war were cut from the film in pre-production stages, for me the character of Dr. John Collingwood, the family patriarch, very clearly represents a character deeply militarised, if not directly or specifically associated with Vietnam. Early in the film, as Mari justifies her lack of bra and transparent top, he shouts at her: “Tits? What’s this tits business? It’s like I’m back in the barracks!” Though Mari’s response turns this into a figuring of her father as a dry, medical man (“Okay, mammary glands,” she mocks), Dr. Collingwood’s simple line of dialogue is revealing. He does not want to be back in the barracks. The language of the barracks does not belong in his home nor in the mouth of his daughter. However, that is the position he finds himself in and it’s a position he’s essentially helpless to do anything about. He does not want to be the ‘tits’ man, he wants to respectable, decent Dr. Collingwood. However, this military legacy returns at the film’s close. He silently rigs his home full of traps designed to incapacitate Krug. A wonderful moment occurs on the soundtrack as brief drum rolls undercut the by now familiar music. We see Dr. Collingwood become a tactician, making use of his environment to trap his enemy. He becomes both military man and guerrilla warrior, while Krug, the original guerrilla, finds himself in the position of strength. Facing Krug with fists alone and Dr. Collingwood is helpless, but given tactics and lethal weaponry, he’s unstoppable – the commands of authority, the consistently incompetent police, don’t even make him hesitate in eviscerating Krug at the film’s climax. Is this a subtle comment on military atrocities that took place in Vietnam? Not necessarily, but it certainly could be.
As I mentioned, though, it’s not only military or institutional violence that’s criticised here. The alternatives are equally as futile. In their final confrontation, Krug tells Dr. Collingwood that Mari “was a lot tougher than you, doc.” If Mari represents the flower power generation, and that she was tougher than her father, she still ultimately fails and dies. The military institution and hippy counter-culture are not the only failed ideologies in the film, though. Krug himself represents an aimless underclass of some sort, swaying from anarchist to beatnik, and is – significantly – allowed to air his views despite being the film’s primary, heinous villain.
For me, personally, Sadie represents the most interesting and complex ideological cypher in the film. At several points she attempts to express herself in feminist terms, failing miserably at getting them right – “chauvinist dog!” and “Sigmund Frood” notable examples. These moments are played for laughs in the film, and they are funny, down to some wonderful line-delivery by Jeramie Rain. These moments, though, are more than a few jokes at the expense of a would-be feminist. The character of Sadie isn’t a feminist, naturally, but for me there is significance to the fact that she tries to be – that she wants to be. Her jokes don’t work unless we already know what a ‘puh-hallus’ is, or its significance to Frood’s theories. Sadie is allowed to recognise that she needs “a couple more chicks round here” but she can’t do anything about it, as she’s not ‘her own woman’ as she claims. Sadie is significant as a misuse, or a misappropriation of feminism, either through a lack of education or a lack of support around her. It’s notable that Junior repeatedly states “she’s right, Krug,” but is so controlled by his father that his objections are useless. There’s a brief, brief moment at the film’s end when, confronted by Mari’s parents, Sadie turns on Krug. Junior has done the same, only to be so overwhelmed by his father that he shoots himself. Sadie, in essence, escapes. Although it is again, brief, she turns away from Krug’s control. Yes, she faces her punishment at the hands of Mrs. Collingwood, but for me her brief freedom is significant. It is also in this moment of betrayal that Krug looks his most distraught. Not when he’s talking his son into killing himself, not when he has just raped and murdered two girls, but rather when ‘his woman’ finally turns on him. Subtleties like this are easy to miss in the film, and I’m sure many would dismiss them as coincidental rather than intentional. However, I fully believe that moments like this are down to the talent of Craven and his cast.
Indeed, this talent underscores the film’s notability for me. I can go on about what the film’ is trying to ‘say’ until the little-cows-looking-for-some-grass come home, but film isn’t all about ideology and messages, of course. Even with its flaws, Last House boasts some superb stylistic and narrative moments. The dinner sequence, for example, where Krug and co. feign bland normality to fit in with the Collingwoods, takes place against a completely black backdrop. It’s the film’s most abstract moment, and it deftly underlines the complete artificiality of not only that particular moment, but of forced middle-class domesticity as a whole. Another wonderfully weird moment in the film comes in the form of Weasel’s dental nightmare, which is more than just an effectively cringe-inducing sequence. It provides fantastic foreshadowing for Weasel’s demise at the hands – or rather the teeth – of Mrs. Collingwood. It’s always struck me that the acting is criticised in the film, given as there are some truly fantastic performances. Yes, they’re amateur performances in many instances, but that works within the film’s style and indeed its intent. Bizarrely there are some ‘nice’ moments in the film which boast the actors’ talents – one of my favourite scenes is that between Sadie and Junior early on in the film, as Sadie takes a bath and asks Junior if he’s glad his dad is “finally out of the clink.” It’s a quiet, narratively unnecessary moment, but it’s one of my favourites due to just how bizarrely normal it is.
It’s impossible to talk about the performances in the film without paying homage to the wonderful David Hess. Terrifying throughout, Hess is at his most intense during the ‘blow your brains out’ scene as he remorselessly coaxes his son into shooting himself. Likewise, it’s impossible to talk about David Hess without paying due respect to the film’s soundtrack. A mad combination of comedic songs about criminals (Water Music), abstract sleaze (Phyllis Spills Her Guts), and gorgeous folk songs (Daddy Put Your Coat of Many Colours On) there is something quite special about Hess’ music for the film.
Unlike the film it’s inspired by, there’s no redemptive happy ending to Last House. Unlike the films it spawned, there’s no satisfaction in vengeful carnage. It doesn’t tell us that revenge is good, or forgivable, or conclusive. If there is one thing that bothers me about the film, it’s the lack of acknowledgement, sympathy or vengeance for Phyllis. Phyllis suffers at the hands of Krug and co before Mari, she comforts Mari through her ordeal, and she dies trying to help Mari escape. And yet her death is not remembered, nor avenged. Mari’s parents have already shown their disapproval of Phyllis at the very start of the film, and not once is there an indication that they spend a single second wondering what might have happened to Mari’s friend, and nor does Krug ever mention her. Given how downright heroic Phyllis has been, I find it quite upsetting, and yet, in-keeping with the film’s utterly bleak conclusion, that Phyllis is forgotten almost as soon as she dies. The Collingwoods have taken their vengeance but gained no closure, but somewhere Phyllis’ parents are wondering where is, and with such incompetent police around, will her body be found? Any witnesses to the crimes committed against her are dead – victim and criminals alike. While discussing this point, our own Keri made a wonderful observation that brings me right back to the reflections of Vietnam found in the film. The average age of an American soldier in the conflict was 19. If the deaths of Mari and Phyllis – both 17 – can be criticised as pointless or exploitative, then it’s a harsh and wonderful comment on the countless deaths of drafted teenagers in Vietnam. This view also brings meaning to the fact that the film seems to forget about Phyllis. Not all of those young soldiers were recovered, or mourned, or brought home, no matter how heroic they may have been. Surpassing the broad politics of the conflict itself, Last House on the Left ultimately takes a very human stance on the pointless slaughter of teens (abroad and at home) and the pure horror of violence.
Many might think that speculating so much about a fictional character in a film such as this is pointless or foolish. It’s only a movie…or is it? For me, there’s nothing ‘only’ about the movies, especially not ones as powerful as Last House on the Left. For a film to have started life as a cynical, money-grabbing venture to endure four decades of criticism and censure and to emerge as a powerful testament of its era, and for it to remain as impressive as it does is a huge achievement. I count Last House as not only one of my favourite horror films or genre films, but as one of my favourite films full stop. Happy fortieth, Krug and co.