From among the Video Nasties

Any honest accounting of the history of American horror filmmaking has to bow in the direction of the enormous influence of The Last House on the Left, the 1972 debut of writer-director Wes Craven and a solid contender for the title of most controversial movie of the last half-century. It is a film that links elbows with the two-years-younger Texas Chainsaw Massacre to go skipping down a primrose path strewn with body parts and pooled intestines, as the two most viciously nihilistic movies of an entire generation, the two movies that most directly and punishingly place the national psychic trauma of the late years of the Vietnam War into cinematic language, in which violence is shown as a depravity that makes you feel worst about life and yourself for having watched it. In terms of the marketplace, it triggered an enormous wave of knock-offs, and it more or less invented the subgenre "watch as the plot stops so that something absurdly wretched can happen to basically decent people in stomach-churning explicit violence".

Nothing I could say could ever take away the seismic importance of Last House in the development of a newer, burlier, nastier mode of horror, and I wouldn't want to try. That said, alongside its absolute, quintessential status in the genre's history, the film has also generally accrued a reputation as a great horror classic, on top of its evolutionary importance. And that just baffles the ever-living hell out of me. As I watch The Last House on the Left, I don't merely see a film that fails to be as good as it ought to have been - for that, we had better look to its altogether superior 2009 remake - I see a film that's borderline incompetent in all the places that matter the most, constantly sabotaging itself and robbing all of the impact from the handful of scenes that are able to accrue some measure of power. It's amateur-hour indie junk, not to put too fine a point on it, and whatever it manages to achieve as a powerful indictment of the human capacity for hatred and violence is nothing next to its status as a long lost Keystone Kops feature cut together with the world's shittiest folk musical.

Like all of the most grueling exercises in grind house viciousness, The Last House on the Left started life as an Ingmar Bergman film. The film is an uncredited remake of 1960 Cannes competitor The Virgin Spring, in which a medieval Swedish Christian girl is raped and murdered in the woods, her parents accidentally meet her killers and then kill them, and to cut off the cycle of vengeance and violence, her father dedicates her resting place to God and prostrates himself, begging for forgiveness, while the family's pagan maid looks on in wonder. Transfer the setting to 1970s Connecticut, remove the spiritual overtones and burning need for expiation, and hit Sven Nykvist in the head with a baseball bat until he forgets how shoot a movie that doesn't look like somebody dried off their sweaty testicles with the camera negative, and voila! You have Craven's attempt to fuse exploitation and documentary in one intense package.

It's the day before Mari Collingwood's (Sandra Cassel) 17th birthday, and she's got a big night planned: she and her edgy friend Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) are going into New York City to see the band Bloodlust. It's a typical piece of adolescent overcompensation, trying as hard as she possibly can to shock her well-off bourgeois parents Dr. John Collingwood (Richard Towers, appearing under the hilariously ultra-WASP name of "Gaylord St. James") and Estelle (Cynthia Carr), and they respond with exactly the ill-concealed dismay at their daughter's life choices that she was undoubtedly trying to kick up.

Already, by the film's three-minute mark, we've encountered two of the things that will primarily ruin The Last House on the Left: terrible filmmaking and terrible acting. The latter, at least, is explicable: the film was conceived by Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham (who would, eight years later, drop another bomb on the horror landscape when he produced and directed Friday the 13th) as an actual hardcore sexploitation film, deciding only at the very start of shooting that it would be better for their artistic aspirations (which were "indict a culture of violence and rape", not "get men in raincoats to whack off to a rape scene") if they dropped that angle. But they'd already assembled a cast entirely out of pornography veterans. And even though pornography in the early '70s was at its all-time height of sophistication and cultural acceptance, it wasn't a Petri dish of high-end acting talent. That being said, just because we can rationalise on paper why everybody - literally, every individual in the film who speaks lines of dialogue - feels like they learned their line phonetically and has only had enough time to think of one strategy for physical acting (which leads to a lot of fixed snarling expressions, like somebody just had a big whiff of smelly garbage and is pissed about it), it doesn't lessen the deleterious effect that has on the film's second and third acts.

As for the terrible filmmaking, it speaks less to Craven & company's lack of talent, than the apparently undecided approach the film takes to itself. The director's chief intent was, supposedly, to present an supremely artless, unmediated vision of behavior, capturing actions without commenting or looking away, and in the individual shots he and cinematographer Victor Hurwitz put together, you can see that. But the editing, by Craven himself (assisted by future slasher director Steve Miner), is almost comically incompatible with any of that, feeling every bit what an ambitious newbie would make in '72 if he wanted to be "artsy". It feels like someone absorbed the technique of French New Wave editing without paying attention to the narrative and structural importance of that editing, which leaves it choppy and discontinuous to no effect whatsoever. So, the first scene: cross-cutting between the mailman (Ray Edwards) sorting through the Collingwoods' letters and Mari getting ready to shower (so much for indicting exploitative male sexuality), and every time he says "Mari Collingwood" (postmen read the address of every piece of mail out loud, you see), the film cuts to Mari's face. To make sure that we know who she is, and that it's her birthday, since while there were other, more organic ways of doing it, none of them were as easy. It's downright hilarious, or it would be, anyway, if we were watching a parody and not an ostensibly gut-wrenching exercise in agonising terror. The worst thing is, this kind of clumsy stitching together of disparate moments using awkward sound editing and is a fucking strategy in the movie. It shows up many fucking times. And while it's happening here, we're introduced to another of the film's great sins, the music by David Hess; it's soft, elevator-style noodling without a melody, sounding perfect for a 1972 douche advertisement, and not so much a 1972 genre film.

So anyway, Mari goads her parents, and her dog - she says "tits" in reference to her snug top with neckline that goes right to her chin, and Dad gets offended that she says "tits", and there is I swear to God an insert shot of the dog looking up with a cocked-head look of shock, like this is a '90s Disney family comedy. It is possible that Craven's goal was to lull us into a relaxed state, so that he could hammer us all the harder later on. If so, he failed: by this point - and we're still just a few minutes into it - I'm just peevish and irritable. Anyway, Phyllis and Mari leave for the city, cross-cutting merrily along the way, having long conversations about their boobs that sound exactly like a 32-year-old screenwriter's impression of what he wants to imagine nubile teenagers talk like. They hear a radio news report about some escaped murder-rapists at large, including a line of dialogue that should be enshrined in the bad exposition hall of fame: "The daring daylight escape of the two convicted murderers, dope pushers and rapists cost the lives of two prison guards, and surprisingly, the life of a German Shepherd". Surprisingly! We meet those killers pretty quickly: Krug Stillo (our beloved composer Hess, kicking a career that would consist almost entirely of shadings of this same character), "Weasel" Podowski (porn director Fred Lincoln), Krug's son Junior (Marc Sheffler, who looks much too close in age to Hess), and Krug's bisexual girlfriend Sadie (Jeremie Rain). They're reprehensible and animalistic (animal imagery is used fairly heavily in their early scenes, in fact), and the first time the movie even flirts with the idea of having some kind of sickening power, though the music and acting - Rain's in particular - do everything they can to deny that power.

In the city, the girls decided to hunt for pot before they go to the show, and they have the immense misfortune to hit up Junior Stillo on a subway platform. He takes them back to the gang's ratty apartment, and it's all downhill from the moment they realise that they've just been trapped: "Oh shit" says Phyllis with the irritable tones of a woman who has just discovered that her husband didn't do the dishes like he promised, and no the ones of somebody finding herself captured by a pack of almost literally slavering rape-happy ghouls.

The criminals bind their victims and toss them in a car trunk to drive into the country for their awful fun, which of course means it's time to break out the kazoos on the soundtrack, as Hess provides the worst of his many songs, "Sadie and Krug (Baddies' Theme)"; it's a jaunty ballad that earns having the word "baddies" in its title through bubbly jollity and wordplay, and whatever ironic contrast the filmmakers were going for between the knee-slapping fun of the music and the gut-roiling tension of two young women being driven to God knows where to have God knows what done to them is not landing at all. AT ALL.

What follows is the source of all the film's notoreity and most of its actual terror: Mari and Phyllis are released in the woods near Mari's house, and being just barely far enough from safety that it does them no good at all sharpens the sense of nihilism as the two girls are forced to degrade themselves. Phyllis makes a run for it and is caught and killed; Mari tries to trick Junior into letting her go, and for her cunning is raped before she's shot to death. It is serious, grisly stuff, and it needs to be treated with utmost intelligence and dignity. But the movie has already shat that bed. Leading into this harrowing sequence with the worst music cue in a film that is hellbent on showcasing Hess's poor musical judgment is enough to dispel any controlled mood that the film vitally needs at this juncture. And Cassel is unrelentingly terrible in her role that it's difficult to care about the vile things happening to the character: she's no more convincing at being scared and in pain than she was at talking about her boobs or acting casual with her parents. The dead-eyed blankness and lack of self that follows being raped - that's the thing she's good at.

As shot, this sequence at least tries to reach the savage documentary feel that Craven claims to have had in mind. The handheld camera is loose and raw enough to impart a level of queasy potency to anything it lands on, and there are points where the accumulation of dust and dirt on the gate gives the film the look of harried realism, where the filmmakers were too busy capturing footage to stop and make sure that it was pristine and polished. Later on, the same thing happens in a context where it adds nothing of value, so this is probably simple incompetent filmmaking, not an aesthetic choice. None of this is enough to actually elevate the movie: the editing and camera movement still do a lot to pull the film's punches, even beyond how badly the film bungles the lead-up to this sequence. To compare it to the other most controversial of all movie rapes, the six-years-later I Spit on Your Grave blasts it out of the water: it's longer, more detailed, and the victim is someone who has actually come across as a legitimate human being elsewhere in the film, and the resulting sequence is galling and wretched and openly painful, where The Last House on the Left can at best hope to be gross and upsetting.

While all of this has been going on, the Collingwoods have contacted the police, who've responded with a sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his deputy (Martin Kove), and they are the worst. Both at policework, and at being movie characters. They're comic relief of the biggest, loopiest, broadest sort, getting into all manner of slapstick scrapes and making bumbling asses of themselves. That's all I have to say about them, but they take up an enormous portion of the brief running time, and every single frame that includes them is a liability at least as great as Hess's addiction to the most inappropriate music cues in history.

Eventually, the killers find their way to the Collingwood home, little realising where they are, while John and Estelle little realise who their peculiar new guests are. At first. They all figure out the situation, but the killers add morbid stupidity to their list of crimes by not supposing they need to get the hell out as soon as they put 2 and 2 together. That gives Mari's parents a chance to spend the night rigging the house with booby traps, and then arranging a bloody revenge against the four human monsters under their roof. It's a better sequence by far than the rape, since Craven has a surer idea of how to use visuals in concert with content rather than trying to pull his punches; the film is a bit less explicitly bloody than one might think, though that surely has at least as much to do with budget as anything. The inherent dramatic strength of this segment of the narrative compared to the middle - it's the difference between horror as a concrete element that comes to your home and must be exorcised, versus horror as a sort of free-floating state of suffering - was picked up by the creators of the remake, who emphasise that plot and the Collingwoods' mental state far more than Craven & co. ever do (the remake also has much better actors, so it can afford more nuanced psychological study. Here, it mostly feels like a splashy Grand Guignol finale that traffics in bloodlust and a surprisingly robust strain of rightwing class resentment - the killers explicitly detest the Collingwoods for their wealth, and they have been depicted throughout as a parody of hippie culture, which adds a measure of counter-radicalism that's not at all rare in horror, but is a bit surprising from an indie movie in '72. Not that I suspect anybody thought this through that much; like the rest of the film, this is all slapdash and trivial. The aesthetic choices are clumsy as hell, with improperly balanced close-ups and blasted-out sound effects, on top of dirty lenses (an eyelash lazily sashays across a protracted take of Estelle and Weasel chatting, as she prepares to bit his penis off) and the usual cryptic editing - the Collingwoods find Mari after all of five seconds of searching in their backyard, as far as I can tell - and stilted porn actor performance. And then it ends with a freeze frame on the pensive, blood-soaked results of violence without having an iota of the Bergman film's curiosity about the moral cost of vengeance. And then "Sadie and Krug (Baddies' Theme)" plays fucking again, over cheery shots of the cast. Because that's a great way to wrap up your harrowing horror movie.

And from this font springs much of the rest of American horror: exploitative violence and basically entered English-language genre films here, Cunningham's career directly influenced the explosion of slasher movies, and you can draw a straight line from the last scene to the torture porn genre of the 2000s. So basically, all the shitty horror traces back to The Last House on the Left, and that's exactly as it should be: shit begets shit. There's nothing about this film that I'd care to defend as worth keeping

Body Count: 6, not counting the innocence of the American filmgoing public, nor my patience.

Nastiness Rating: 4/5, pretty damn Nasty. That's adding a point, honestly, for the notoriety of the film. There comes a point when even the most visceral rape scene starts to disintegrate from all those pulled punches. Still, there's a solid 7 minutes in the middle where the film really can make it seem like everything in the world is irredeemably awful.