From among the Video Nasties

Along the sliding scale of cinematic viciousness, there are certain projects which have the tang of notoriety about them from an entirely conceptual perspective. You do not need to see a Nazi sexploitation flick, for example, to know that "Nazi sexploitation" probably describes a pretty sleazy, trashy affair (you would not be entirely correct). Nor is it strictly a matter of genre or storyline that gives a movie that aura, that promise of soul-scarring wickedness. I mention this because, prior to watching it, the only thing I knew about the 1980 Italian film The House on the Edge of the Park was its lineage, and that alone was enough to all but guarantee that the resultant film would be one of the most grueling objects on the Video Nasties list: the director of Cannibal Holocaust making a Last House on the Left knock-off. Two of the most black-hearted & notorious films of their age, combined in one body? Hard not to expect something truly brutal and shocking.

I am not here to play the "alas, it is not so" card. The House on the Edge of the Park, bless it, does not come across, like so many of the other Nasties, as a sensational title and the promise of luridness married to incompetence and dead-eyed dullness. It is, without doubt, an incredibly mean-spirited, brutal way to spend an hour and a half, fully deserving its reputation, fully living up to the promise of savagery inherent in "Ruggero Deodato's version of Last House on the Left". More than living up to that promise, in fact; for despite the infamous reputation of The Last House on the Left as one of the nastiest, most violent, cruelest of all exploitation films it actually does quite a bit throughout to pull its punches at the worst possible moments - "worst" in the sense that the deprive the film of its effectiveness as a piece of audience-punishing depravity, which is the stated aim whether one finds it a worthwhile pursuit or no - while The House on the Edge of the Park, up till a wrongheaded twist ending, is massively unrelenting.

At any rate, the film is not very much of a Last House knock-off, when you come right down to it (though its title, obviously, deliberately echoes the earlier film -and it is a rare example of an Italian exploitation flick being exported to an anglophone audience with its native title, La casa sperduta nel parco, translated intact). That 1972 movie, Wes Craven's filmmaking debut, is the story of a gang of psychos who brutally rape and murder two teen girls, and then end up sheltering overnight at the home of one of the girls' parents, who quickly find the killers out and exact bloody revenge. Deodato's film is a great deal simpler: one psycho, and his mentally fragile hanger-on, crash a small party and torment the people there in increasingly depraved ways until the partygoers are able to turn the tables. While watching it, I found it myself thinking, more than anything else of Michael Haneke's much later Funny Games, which is a thought that I'm sure would make Haneke incredibly angry with me. But why not? Both films have an incredibly similar central conflict; both present eroticised violence stripped of eroticism; both do very little else than throw horrifyingly violent imagery at the audience; both, in their own very different ways, attempt to call into question the bloodthirstiness implied by their generic trappings (Deodato implicitly, Haneke very overtly). The biggest difference in theme and tone, rather than in narrative specificity, is that Deodato would never think of using Haneke's post-modern distancing techniques, which is just as well given that those techniques are the most smugly self-congratulatory and off-putting element of Funny Games.

The notion that The House on the Edge of the Park calls into question its own bloodiness is certainly not obvious, nor an inevitable reading of the film, and it requires some delicate explanation. For that, I must hop over to the story of the film, which opens on the streets of New York, as a man we'll learn is named Alex (David Hess) in one car, and a woman (Karoline Mardeck, which may or may not be a pseudonym, but she is Hess's wife) in another push through some horrible traffic. Eventually, the woman manages to get onto a free patch of road near a park, at which point Alex cuts her off. Jumping out of his car and into hers, he babbles about how he saw her earlier that night and knew they made a connection, and in hardly any time he is raping her and strangling her at the same moment, leaving her either dead or unconscious - it's hard to say for sure, but the incredible brutality of the moment leads one to assume the former.

The next day, apparently, Alex is at his regular job, as mechanic at a parking garage. His buddy at work is Ricky (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, an Italian horror icon of the early '80s in his first acting gig, though not his first released movie), a man of some apparent mental handicap, the precise nature of which we're never entirely made privy to. As if we didn't already know that Alex was all kinds of bad news, we learn that he's a habitual car thief as well, with a straight razor in his work locker next to a discomfiting poster of naked women framed as a collection of disembodied parts. Which is all enough to make us feel rather horrible for Tom (Christian Borromeo) and Lisa (Annie Belle), a couple traveling to a small party - a "gathering", they insist fatuously - in the suburbs. Tom's car is broken, and Alex is mostly unwilling to take a look at it, even for some ready cash; but he does conclude it might be fun to join the party, and when Ricky takes hardly any time to fix the loose wire causing all the problems, the two men manage to hitch a ride with somewhat less resistance from Tom and Lisa than we might expect.

At the home of Gloria (Lorraine De Selle) and Howard (Gabriel Di Giulio) - the only other guest is Glenda (Marie Claude Joseph) - Alex and Ricky make quite a hit, but it doesn't take Alex more than a few minutes to pick up on the ugly undercurrent of the party. Frankly, Ricky's behavior is so ludicrously boorish that it seems impossible for the other partygoers to put up with his disco striptease, let alone cheer it on, and that's merely the first inkling that something is fucked up: the second is that Lisa keeps goading Alex to seduce her in the most unambiguous way imaginable, then rebuffs him icily every time he makes a move; the third is when Alex comes down from some deeply confusing not-sex in the shower, he finds the others are having a gay old time cheating Ricky out of all his money at poker. It becomes instantly clear that everybody is up for a fine old game of bear-baiting, with the two poor mechanics as the bears, and as should not surprise us - who know that Alex is prone to, let us say, antisocial behavior - that his reaction to this realisation is violent and swift. Whipping out his razor, he takes the party hostage and then launches on a parade of vile, degrading, and brutal psychological tortures, with a particular emphasis on the sexual humiliation of the three women.

The, I hesitate to use the word, but "genius" of The House on the Edge of the Park lies in its muddying of the traditional POV games of a scenario like this one. A scolding moralist would have it that the film means to put the audience in the position of Alex, indulging in all his hyper-sexualised psychotic behavior - this is, at any rate, the belief held by the DPP in placing the film on the Nasties list at all. That simply isn't the way things work in practice, largely thanks to the casting of Hess; as with his similar character in, yes, The Last House on the Left, the actor has such a thuggish, unpleasant person even when he's not actively raping women, it's impossibly hard to view him as charismatic or appealing or anything of the sort.

On the other hand, Alex is hardly the only unsympathetic character in the movie. The five victims of his rage are all presented as... well, not culpable. Nobody deserves what happens to those people. But, by God, they're an awfully unlikable bunch. As supercilious a collection of haute bourgeoisie snobs as you could hope to find, they really are a pack of assholes, and while Alex's rage is certainly disproportionate, it's hardly misdirected. Ricky comes the closest out of any of them to being even a little sympathetic; he mimics Alex out of what is plainly a need for someone to watch out for his well-being in a hard world, and tellingly, he stops his attempted rape of Gloria the moment it enters his slow brain that she's not enjoying it. Still, though, the awareness that he's on the wrong side keeps flickering around the edges of Radice's performance, easily the best in the movie - and it's never obvious whether that awareness bothers him all that much.

The only innocent in the whole mess, really, is Cindy (Brigitte Petronio), a young girl with spectacularly bad timing who drops by for a visit and ends up the recipient of the film's only out-and-out violent scene, as punishment for her blamelessness. It speaks volumes to how carefully Deodato has controlled the emotional tenor up to that point that Alex's attack on Cindy is so monumentally upsetting, far more than the fates befalling any of the other characters.

It's worth re-emphasising the point: Deodato's control over the movie is incredibly precise, the sign of a much better filmmaker than the material arguably deserves. When all is said and done, the movie is nothing but an extended torture sequence - setting aside any aesthetic or moral considerations, that sort of thing could easily slide into horrible tedium, and often has (that's another of the flaws of Craven's Last House). But Deodato keeps the tension unbearably tight, and paces out each individual slice of the movie with surgical precision (editor Vincenzo Tomassi, a veteran of Italian exploitation, was invaluable to this film - the editing is unflagging and awe-inspiring). Amazingly, The House on the Edge of the Park never stops being nasty; long after most movies just in it for a quick jolt and some easy money would have inured us to the onscreen depravity, this one is still queasy-making like nobody's business.

It's the combination of a whole host of morally grey characters and a non-stop flow of joyless violence that lends the film its unsettling relationship with the audience; an exploitation film this undoubtedly is, but exploitation is usually meant to be titillating in some way, and The House on the Edge of the Park is much more gross and ugly than it is titillating. Untethered to any particular perspective relative to the characters, the audience is a passive, helpless observer, and we can't feel any visceral rush at witnessing the acts; we can barely feel revulsion. Deodato takes some kind of private delight in forcing nastiness upon the audience without offering any kind of release; the greatest torture inflicted in the film is arguably that upon the audience, who are having a pretty bad time by the end credits.

It's kind of brilliant, if impossible to recommend to anyone; "man, I saw this movie that you should totally check out, it will make you so disgusted and depressed!" But the way in which The House on the Edge of the Park is disgusting and depressing is something amazing to behold: the mere act of watching it involves a certain level of probing and considering, reflecting upon the way that we as a culture fetishise violence, and how the individual viewer feels about that fetishisation. It's so joyless because it's so uncomfortable, and discomfort is a fine thing for an artist to create.

Or, at least, that's how it ought to be. In practice, the film runs aground on a twist ending that invalidates so much of the preceding 80 minutes so thoroughly, that it's only my respect for the disquieting mood created by Deodato's excellent filmmaking skills that keeps me from writing it off entirely. I'm about to spoil it, so avert your eyes: Tom, we find, is the brother of that girl who was raped and probably murdered in the opening scene. The editing sleight-of-hand that made it look the party was the next day actually covered a jump of weeks or months, and he and Lisa - and perhaps the three others, though probably not Cindy - planned this whole thing out. All they had to do was survive Alex's brutality long enough to shoot him and call it all a sad act of self-defense. And now, perhaps, you can see why everyone persists in calling this a Last House on the Left clone.

Though it fulfills the mercenary role of all twists - I knew it was coming, but it was still a kick in the pants - it fulfills the self-defeating role as well of too many mercenary twists. What, in light of this information, do we make of everything that went before? Of the suffering endured by the five victims, of Gloria' weird psychosexual bond with Ricky, of the potent way that Deodato presents Alex's violence as a sort of element force of humanity? How do you reconcile all that with the knowledge that Tom and Lisa were letting themselves be slashed and tied up and nearly raped, their smug superiority a deliberate act to trick Alex into attacking them? Who the fuck does that? I don't usually let a single narrative misstep ruin a movie for me, but there are missteps and there are MISSTEPS, and everything about the last ten minutes of The House on the Edge of the Park does so much to cheapen the rest of the movie, that I can't help myself. It could have been a masterpiece of audience punishment, but instead it becomes a typically shoddy Italian shocker made with an unusual degree of craftsmanship.

Body Count: 2, and I am possibly cheating on the first one of those. The Netflix envelope, incidentally, boasts the following copy: "a gore-fest with a huge body count." Huge compared to what? Dumbo?

Nastiness Rating: 4/5, pretty damn Nasty. Really, nastiness is the only card the film has to play, so it's not terribly surprising that it manages to put some truly harrowing, unpleasant imagery onscreen - especially the matter of poor Cindy. In a more indulgent mood, I might have even bumped it all the way up to 5/5, except that the ending really does manage to retroactively turn the whole thing into 91 minutes of pulled punches. And frankly, a couple more deaths and a lot more stage blood couldn't have hurt the film's Nasty reputation.