The Last House on the Left (1972) is many things: the launchpad for legendary director Wes Craven, an important touchstone in the history of horror cinema, and a deeply disturbing tale of pointless sexual violence. More than 30 years before audiences were being grossed out by Eli Roth’s Hostel or the Saw franchise, there was this film — a celluloid measuring stick used to determine just how much gore and sexual violence you, the viewer, could stomach. Watching this film is like gazing into the abyss, but to eke out any substance, (red or otherwise,) we first need to understand what this film is and how it works.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the essence of The Last House on the Left is violence and revenge. Teenage birthday-girl Mari Collingwood and her friend Phyllis are off to a Black Sabbath-esque concert when they are abducted by escaped criminal psychopaths. They are raped, humiliated, tortured, raped again, and eventually killed in the woods near Mari’s titular home. Having car trouble, the sadists stop by Mari’s home for help. Upon learning what they have done, Mari’s parents murder the murderers. Roll credits. The 84-minute film spends most of its time in the woods, graphically depicting Mari and Phyllis’s plight. Craven’s aim isn’t to startle — there is only one jump-scare and precious little dramatic tension. We get the sense that Mari and Phyllis are doomed as soon as they set foot in the antagonists’ apartment to buy weed. Nor is Craven’s goal to provoke thought; Bergman’s themes of divine indifference, redemption and morality are gone. Ultimately, what we’re left with is a grotesque power fantasy in which young women are assaulted, butchered, forced to have sex with each other, and piss themselves on command. The impetus of this film is to appall, to put the grisliest, nastiest acts on film in the name of a visceral audience reaction. Unfortunately, the film does not shock so much as depress.
Despite being originally envisioned as pornography, the film’s construction and soundtrack seem to imply something deeper. In between scenes of brutality, we are treated to the slapstick antics of two police officers. Having disregarded the psychopaths’ car stalled near Mari’s house, the officers hurry back after receiving an all points bulletin with a description of the car and its occupants. Their car runs out of gas. They have bad luck with hitchhikers. On two occasions the frustrated elder officer throws his hat in the dirt, only to promptly pick it up again and dust it off. The soundtrack is equally beguiling. The score is a mix of soothing ballads and upbeat banjo tunes, contrasting sharply with all but the film’s first fifteen innocent minutes. Heightening the audience’s depression and alienation, these touches add a dash of the bleakest nihilism to a film about killing either for revenge or for fun.
So what is the point of any of this? What is this movie trying to say? These questions scream to be answered after the credits have rolled. Perhaps we’re all capable of the brutality the parents visit on their daughter’s killers? Closure demands that the killers are punished; the audience (whether they admit it or not) demands restitution after sitting through the film’s first eighty torturous minutes. Craven does not disappoint. One killer is seduced, bound, fellated and… ahem… dismembered by Mari’s mother. The father chases and kills alpha-rapist Krug (one syllable away from Craven’s most famous character) with a chainsaw, two years before that became the M.O. of slasher villains in Texas. However, the visual restitution is all we get. Law-Tweedles Dee and Dumb finally arrive on the scene, only to wordlessly take the chainsaw from Mari’s bereaved father. As mentioned previously, the thematic heft of Bergman’s film is absent. Sexual abuse and revenge are both about exerting power over someone, but the nature and implications of this remain unexplored. The “why” of the film remains unanswered; its nihilistic undertones suggest this is intentional. Nothing matters, humans are scum, innocence only lasts until you try to see your favorite band with a friend.
Does the emptiness of this film preclude any value? Its bleakly unprovocative worldview (if one can even use that term) and shallow subject matter say yes. However, the point of art — horror films in particular, and this film specifically — is to elicit a response from the audience. Here The Last House on the Left succeeds: This film is a lot of bad things, but boring isn’t one of them. Ultimately, however, this is not enough. Horror films have the capacity to do so much more than settle for an instinctive reaction. It Follows, for instance, challenges our romanticization of sex. The Babadook is really about how society handles mental illness. Sinister indicts fans of horror films for viewing murder as entertainment. Even the slasher films of the ’80s have a moral (don’t do drugs, kids!). Trying to shock audiences just for shock’s sake is a waste of potential and, worse, the audience’s time.
Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham both went on to have huge impacts on the horror genre. Cunningham would create the Friday the 13th franchise, which takes itself much less seriously than this film. Craven would solidify the tropes of the slasher sub-genre with the far more effective (and superior) Nightmare on Elm Street before subverting them all with the Scream series. This film does not impress or provoke or scare; it dispirits and jades. Despite its massive box office success, (due in part to its milk-money budget and cast of nobodies) this film produced no sequels and one remake 37 years later. Whether shock-motivated exploitation film has died out or simply moved to the internet, we as paying audiences should be grateful that this house on the left is the last one.