Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Last House on the Left (1972) Review

The Last House on the Left 1972 posterDirector: Wes Craven
Stars: Sandra Cassel, David Hess, Lucy Grantham
Genre: Horror, Exploitation, Rape and Revenge

Not only is The Last House on the Left the debut of legendary horror director Wes Craven, who went on to create the likes of The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream, but this is also the debut of Sean S. Cunningham, another respected name in horror, who serves as Producer here and later went on to direct Friday the 13th.

The plot concerns two girls who are kidnapped by psychotic rapists and murderers. That's all I will say, because anymore may potentially ruin the charm of that first viewing. It's not like the plot is of much importance here though anyway.

The plot is actually based on, and heavily inspired by, Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film, The Virgin Spring.

All the actors here are unknowns and for many of them this was their only film. That's how I like my gritty horror flicks, especially the exploitation ones. It adds to the realism and makes the characters feel distinct and rare, rather than seeing, oh I don't know, Rock Hudson or Johnny Depp in a film, unknowns make the experience a bit more special, a bit more personal. However, a side effect of unknown actors is the actual quality of the acting, which is pretty mediocre in The Last House on the Left, and can arguably detract from the feel of realism that amateur actors can potentially provide.

The two kidnapped girls in here, Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham, are very foxy, as is Jeramie Rain as the seductive Sadie. David Hess, who went on to have a somewhat respectable career in film, plays a typical goon, accompanied by Fred Lincoln (a producer for pornographic films at the time) and Marc Sheffler. Richard Towers plays the dad and the very beautiful Cynthia Carr plays the mother. None of their acting is really anything special, except for maybe Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham who occasionally manage to convey a believable sense of fear, hopelessness, and terror.

David Hess, Jeramie Rain, Fred Lincoln in The Last House on the Left

The film is known for its disturbing nature, and was really the only thing the film set out to do (see the original trailer here) but I can't say that I was disturbed much. Of course the film won't have the same effect on me as it did to people in 1972, and I've probably become extremely desensitized to many things by way of watching a potentially unhealthy amount of horror films, but The Last House on the Left really didn't do anything for me at all. Night of the Living Dead, which was released four years earlier, managed to disturb me a bit and provided a much better feel of gritty realism. Blood Feast, released nearly a decade before, managed to gross me out more. Hell, even The Virgin Spring from a dozen years earlier, of which The Last House on the Left is supposed to be a hardcore rendition of, managed to affect me in a more emotional way and even disturb me more. So what is it that The Last House failed to do that the others did?

Rape in The Last House on the Left

It doesn't take itself seriously. Which can sometimes be a good things for movies (see: every Troma film ever), but not when you're attempting realism or trying to create a disturbing atmosphere. The whole buddy cop subplot is just so ridiculous and unfitting to the film that it largely detracts from everything else. At times even the music in the film feels completely out of place (though I'll get to the soundtrack shortly). It feels as if The Last House on the Left wasn't sure if it wanted to be a campy B-movie horror comedy or a gritty Night of the Living Dead-esque horror film. So what we're left with is something in between the two...which just doesn't work at all. It doesn't take itself seriously but it pretends to be serious.

It's a shame too, because there are some fine examples of comedy done right in The Last House on the Left. Take for example the bit where the mother asks the girl what her parents do for a living, "They're in the iron and steal business," replies the girl. "Iron and steel both together? How unusual," the mother remarks. "Well, my mother irons and my father steals," says the girl, the punchline to the joke. You see? That was genuinely funny. The joke was set up and led me on, kept me just as ignorant as the mother in the film thinking her parents made metals, and then the punchline made me laugh. That was funny and fit the film well without detracting from the horror and brutality of the film. I even found the frog part to be pretty funny. But the physical comedy parts, that's a fine example of how to not do comedy right in a film of this nature.

The physical comedy bits weren't even done particularly well. I'd even go so far as to say that the 1980 film Mother's Day, which is essentially just a Last House rip-off, actually implemented the slapstick comedy duo much better.

Dinner table in The Last House on the Left

There are some genuinely great scenes in here though. The scene with Mari in the lake is stunning, the scene with Sadie in the pool is great, the graveyard scene was alright, the final showdown in the house is pretty cool, or the dream sequence. And everyone loves some good ole' oral castration, am I right? Unfortunately this isn't frequent enough and left me only wanting more and with a great sense of missed potential.

A lot of people complain about the soundtrack, not that it's bad or poorly produced, just that it doesn't suit the film. (You have songs like this playing half the time). I didn't think it was too bad. Only one or two times did I consciously acknowledge that it felt a bit misplaced. They obviously wanted the soundtrack to contrast the events in the film, with upbeat tunes playing while murderers drive around with kidnapped girls in their trunk, or soothing ballads playing during rape scenes. It's a technique that, though we're fairly familiar with now, wasn't very popular at the time. So for that I do give some credit, though their delivery wasn't all it could have been. The slapstick nature of the two police officers was obviously included to contrast all the torture, but unfortunately that just flat out didn't work well for the film.

For the most part though I thought the soundtrack was really good. Just listen to the song "Road Leads to Nowhere" also known as "Wait for the Rain" which I could hardly believe was actually part of the original score for the film. That is a legitimately awesome song and David Hess (who both starred in and composed the film) should be applauded on his fine composition work. Not only is the song good, but it's implementation into the film is done superbly. It suits the film's theme and is played in all the right parts. Then there's another awesome one, "Now You're All Alone" which plays right after Mari's friend is murdered and right after she is raped. It's pretty effective music if you ask me. That all being said, in retrospect and despite some questionable musical parts, the soundtrack really is superb and one of the best I've heard in such a film. 

Mari in The Last House on the Left

Overall it is an enjoyable film that has its amazing moments, its awful moments, its dull and its exciting moments. Worth the watch. 

3/5 stars
+Has some great scenes
+Awesome soundtrack (though a tad silly at times)
+Can occasionally manage to be genuine
-Unfitting slapstick
-Not very disturbing
-A bad mix of B-movie camp with gritty exploitation horror

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