Spoiler and Trigger Warning for Sexual Assault
One of the most infamous entries in the “video nasty” era, Wes Craven’s debut feature continues to shock to this day. Kim Morrison examines the method behind the madness…
Even though the video nasties list was something that popped up in the ‘80s, films that were once on that list are still regarded as examples of the more extreme side of horror, and perhaps seen as taboo for enjoying. One such film which had an incredibly complicated relationship with censorship, and is still viewed as dark and nihilistic, is Wes Cravens’ directorial debut The Last House on the Left (1972).
In the UK Last House was only passed uncut by the BBFC in 2008, meaning earlier releases – such as the 2002 Anchor Bay DVD I watched for research – were still missing some scenes. But what is it about this film that makes it so controversial, and saw the BBFC still trying to shield us from it for 36 years?
Plenty of horror movies came before, but through this tonally confusing tale of criminals on the run Craven wanted to make a film that would bring the horror into the real world. Movies like Psycho (1960) are set in the middle of nowhere, showing the dangers of leaving civilization and wandering into the territory of something terrifying; in Night of the Living Dead (1968), while the monsters look human, they are supernatural in origin, and therefore not something we’re likely to encounter; and more classic horror movies such as Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) are set in faraway times or locations, with the addition of a supernatural monster, meaning the plausibility of it making you feel unsafe in your own home is quite slim.
However, from the opening screen of The Last House on the Left, Craven is here to make you feel uncomfortable, the opening title card warning that “The following is based on a true story. The names have been changed to protect those still living”. This isn’t true, and it’s a tactic a lot of horror movies have utilised since because it makes things seem that little bit creepier. And yet, even knowing this, there’s every chance that most of the brutal acts of violence in the film could be real, and that’s what makes this movie stick out so hard in people’s minds. There are no monsters here. Nothing supernatural. Not even a setting of a distant land or a long-forgotten time. The violence in The Last House on the Left feels as plausible today as it did in 1972.
The story focuses on Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody), a teenager on the eve of her birthday who leaves the safety of her parents’ remote house to attend a Blood Lust concert in the bad part of town with her friend, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham). Mari’s parents, Estelle (Cynthia Carr) and John (Richard Towers), are wary of Phyllis, who likes to hide bottles of alcohol in the lake, but Mari says they will be safe together. They plan to try and find someone they can score some grass from before the concert begins.
The other characters in our story are the bad guys – Krug (David Hess), Junior (Marc Sheffler), Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Weasel (Fred J. Lincoln). A group of criminals on the run from the law, Krug and his friends just so happen to end up in the same town as Mari and Phyllis, with Junior luring the two women back to their hideout with the promise of drugs.
We spend quite a lot of time with Krug and the gang in comparison to a lot of other horror villains. And while there’s no denying that they are deplorable people, there’s really nothing special about them. They’re evil for the sake of it. They worry about escaping town without getting caught by the police, and yet they decide to spend most of a day terrorising Mari and Phyllis, even choosing to take the women with them. There’s no logic to their actions, with Krug acting like a bored toddler who flits from one fascination to the next in seconds, never showing an inch of remorse.
This is an important decision made by Craven to show that sometimes the bad guys look like the rest of us, and don’t necessarily present as something we should be scared of. There’s no hockey mask or knifed glove here: these are just normal looking people who you could walk past on the street and never be aware of the threat they pose to you and those you love.
In this, Last House was designed to reflect very real fears, which still exist even now: Mari’s parents worry about her going into town by herself; Mari and Phyllis worry about approaching people they don’t know for drugs; and in both cases, they know the risks they could be facing, but neither parties really believe that anything bad will happen. The odds of encountering someone like Krug’s gang are very slim, but threats are out there lurking all the time.
Later films like Halloween (1978) took horror and threw it into suburbia, and while the location is a little more remote here, Last House took the first step in this direction by bringing the threat to Mari’s doorstep. While the women are first attacked in town, they end up on the outskirts of the Collingwood property when Krug’s car breaks down. It’s here, in the woods near her house, where the worst violence against Mari and Phyllis takes place.
Whilst the attack starts in the grimy hideout apartment where Krug and the others are planning their next steps, this type of setting is typical of horror, and much like the dark woods or the spooky castle on the hill it’s a place women are punished since entering a scary place is asking for trouble in horror movies. However, Craven turns things on their head by having the prolonged violence and rape scenes take place outside, in broad daylight, and in the vicinity of Mari’s home. All these things usually indicate safety, but Craven wants the audience to know that threats are everywhere, and can strike at any time. Mari is so near to the safety of her parents that the family dog hears the gunshots that end her life. Children are told to stay close to home and they will be safe, but Mari was snatched away from her parents only mere metres away.
The Last House on the Left is often criticized not just for its depiction of sexual assault, but also for the extreme violence. The horror genre has never been shy when it comes to violence, and plenty of films were released containing more blood and gore whilst Last House was still being denied an uncut release. However, it’s not the level of violence in the film that makes it a difficult watch, but more the realistic depiction which causes the viewer squirm, and means it stands out from other entries in the genre.
When Phyllis is murdered, the violence is different to what we’re used to in the slasher genre, for example. There’s no over the top gore or copious amounts of blood: instead, it is slow and brutal. The camera zooms in on Phyllis’ face, frozen in a silent scream as she’s stabbed in the back. As she dies, the criminal gang stands over her with blank faces, unsure what to do with themselves. For them, the thrill was the chase, but now it’s over the whole endeavour seems incredibly pointless. The fact that the killers don’t even revel in Phyllis’ death or seem to enjoy themselves makes the whole thing somehow worse. Many slasher killers have complicated backstories or a twisted logic as to why they kill, but Krug and his friends just do what takes their fancy at the time. Craven wanted to show that people are murdered all over the world, every day, and often for no reason at all. The people you love can be taken away in an instant, and you’ll never get a good explanation as to why.
The final thing which makes The Last House on the Left such a shocking movie is the third act, which sees Krug and his gang seek shelter in the Collingwood house. While Mari’s parents are initially welcoming to the group, Estelle sees Junior wearing Mari’s necklace and overhears the group talking about the murders. After finding Mari’s body, Estelle and John decide to take revenge into their own hands and murder Krug’s entire gang.
If the violence that Krug dishes out is hard to watch, then seeing a mild-mannered doctor – whose biggest worry the day before was his daughter not wearing a bra – decide to chop a man up with a chainsaw is quite a shock. Craven shows that violence can explode anywhere, as well as the fact that the potential for extreme violence lurks inside anyone.
However, while we watched Krug and his friends violently attack Mari and Phyllis in horror, we’re delighted to see justice be served by Mari’s parents. And even though the audience is on their side in the moment, when the credits roll, the whole thing can leave you a little conflicted. The levels of violence were on the same scale, so why did our brain decide half of it was fine, and the rest of it wasn’t?
The Last House on the Left hits you right where you live, showing that you can fall prey to attackers in any situation, that your home isn’t always a safe place to be, and slightly confusing our morals when it comes to brutally murdering people. Most people would probably say they would never condone murder, and yet, the audience is very much on the Collingwoods’ side.
It’s for all these reasons that The Last House on the Left still continues to be such a controversial piece of cinema: it takes everything you thought you knew about the world and turns it on its head, a brutal reminder that violence like this doesn’t just exist in horror movies but that it’s ever-present in the real world as well. Craven isn’t exaggerating when he shows the actions of Krug and his gang, but perhaps people don’t like to be reminded that this sort of evil is living alongside the rest of us.