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This is another of those “I knew I was going to have to deal with this movie someday” posts.
Yes, I managed to live through almost a half century without watching The Last House on the Left, despite it being pointed to as a milestone in horror movies. There are two reasons for this. The first, and I suppose major, reason is I don’t like movies like this. Yes, I love horror movies. But I prefer my fright films on the fantastic side; give me literal monsters, not human ones. So the period of my life when nothing but slasher movies were being made was a particularly tough one.
The second reason: a close childhood friend – and we had bonded over the fact that he was the only other person in my small town as obsessed by horror movies as I – had managed to see it despite its R rating, and before much furor had built up over it. He proceeded to describe the movie to me in gleeful detail, editing out every scene that did not include death, humiliation, debauchery, terror or gore.
So I felt like I had already seen it.
As I write this, it’s only been a couple of weeks since we lost director Wes Craven to brain cancer. The outpouring of grief and admiration from his fellows and fans was nice to see; after all, as Ken Lowery pointed out on Twitter, “It’s not everybody who gets to set the zeitgeist for his genre three times.” I liked and respected his movies (Nightmare on Elm Street, after all, put the fantastic into slasher films), but again – I hadn’t seen his first two (Yeah, Hills Have Eyes, also. Psycho hillbillies, Not a favorite subgenre, Texas Chainsaw notwithstanding). Immediately after Craven died, lots of people were watching his movies. Last House on the Left I had slotted into Hubrisween almost a year ago, and it was also in my 100 Films challenge.
So now I’ve seen it.
It’s Mari Collingwood’s 17th birthday, and she is going to a concert with her friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Phyllis (your designated victims are played by Sandra Peabody – under the assumed name of Sandra Cassell – and Lucy Grantham, respectively). Mari’s dad, a doctor, is worried about the concert taking place in the seedy part of town, but it’s okay, because that’s where Phyllis lives, right?
The Collingwoods live out in the country, incidentally. And we are given a preview of the generally sleazy tendencies of the upcoming movie when the grandfatherly rural mailman refers to Mari as “The prettiest piece I’ve ever seen.” And oh, yeah, there’s something wrong with the phone. That might be significant later.
The two girls hit the seedy part of town we’ve heard so much about, and try to score some grass from an equally seedy looking guy. Unfortunately, this guy is Junior (Mark Sheffler), the son of escaped convict Krug Stillo (David Hess), whom Exposition Radio had earlier informed us is so bad he hooked his son on heroin just to further control him. Junior takes them upstairs to where Krug, his moll Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and associate Weasel (Fred Lincoln) are hiding out. And before you can say “fresh meat”, the two girls find themselves the hostages of some pretty bad people.
The gang is going to take the girls in their trunk as they head over the border into Canada, but their car breaks down, and the girls are taken into the woods for what passes for fun and games among creeps. There is an effective moment when the tied and gagged Mari realizes the car broke down next to the mailbox outside her house.
Thereafter follows the portion of the movie that got Last House declared a Video Nasty in England and incurred most of the projection booth censorship by shocked projectionists and nervous theater owners with scissors. We’ll start out with various forms of humiliation, including forced lesbian sex, but it isn’t until Phyllis tries to escape – and almost succeeds – that things turn really bad, She is stabbed, disemboweled, and generally hacked to pieces. Then, blood-soaked and in a frenzy, the killers return to where Mari has been desperately trying to convince Junior to run away with her. Mari is raped, and as she staggers away in shock, is shot in the back.
We are now little more than halfway through the movie.
Krug and company clean up, change clothes, and go to that house across the road to call for someone to fix their car. The Collingwoods feed them dinner and invite them to use the guest room and the missing Mari’s room, until the phone is fixed in the morning. Junior is in withdrawal, and while Mom is checking on him, she notices he is wearing the necklace Dad gave Mari for her birthday. She then finds their bloody clothes, and rousting Dad from bed, they head out into the woods and find Mari’s body.
And then they turn into avenging angels. Rather bloody avenging angels. With a predilection toward booby traps (which would serve the director well in Nightmare on Elm Street).
Wes Craven said he was trying to say something about violence when he made Last House. Given that the movie is still regarded as a non-stop assault, he may have made that point. There are many times where the camera is expected to cut away, and it doesn’t. Some of that is due to the fact that the only filmmaking Craven had done to this point was documentary, and he went with what he knew; scenes are done in long takes, rarely employing a tripod, so the atrocities are presented to the viewer like the evening news, unbroken by edits. It lends an immediacy to the horror that can’t be over-emphasized. The filmmakers also only knew the rough basics of how to make stage blood, and the stuff they came up with looks disturbingly like the real thing.
What my childhood friend didn’t tell me about, though, what he didn’t feel was special enough, can be broken up into two classes. The first is the comic cops, a Sheriff and Deputy (Marshall Anker and Martin Kove, oddly enough), who suddenly realize that the broken-down car they saw outside the Collingwood’s is the Krug getaway car, but they run out of gas while racing back to the scene. Mari and Phyllis’s desecration and murder is intercut with supposedly comic sequences of these two trying to hitch a ride. It’s supposed to add more tension to the girls’ plight, but generally just makes one question the filmmaker’s judgement.
The second thing omitted might have made me more interested in watching Last House, and it’s the Littler Things, things that could get lost in the bloody wash. First, the script is actually pretty clever, and often witty – really. Second, Craven is quite aware that even barbaric tribes are concerned with their own: witness Weasel’s cry of “Sadie! Are you all right?” when the escaping Phyllis smacks her on the head with a rock, abandoning his pursuit to check on her. And finally, after Mari’s rape, as the girl slowly pulls her clothes on and wanders off in shock – Krug, Sadie and Weasel looking everywhere but at her, finally at each other, realizing they have just thrown away the last shreds of humanity they might have harbored, and that is not cause for celebration.
That is what gives Last House on the Left its claim to being an important movie. The ultimate message that violence not only damages the victim, but also the aggressor, in ways beyond blood and bone. Mari’s parents get their revenge, certainly, but at similar violence to their humanity.
Most people don’t want to know about that, though. They want to see rapin’ and killin’.
It eventually came out that the source material for Last House on the Left was an Ingmar Bergman movie, fer cryin’ out loud, The Virgin Spring (Academy Award Winner, Best Foreign Language Film, 1960, no less). So once again I hie myself to The Criterion Collection.
The first difference you’re going to note is the story is set in medieval times; paganism is being supplanted by Christianity. Phyllis, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, is now Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), a pregnant girl adopted by the family of Töve (Max Von Sydow), a successful farmer and ardent Christian, though perhaps not as ardent as his wife, Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), who burns herself with candles on “the day of our Lord’s suffering”.
Ingeri opens the movie by praying to Odin to strike down her foster sister, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is currently oversleeping on the day she is supposed to take candles to the local church for the Virgin Mary. Karin is the opposite of Ingeri in every way: blonde, chaste, spoiled. She puts on her finest garments and heads to the church, with a reluctant and bitter Ingeri in tow.
At a river crossing, Ingeri begins to be fearful of the vengeance she had called down on Karin, and stays behind, only to be freaked out again by a fellow Odin worhipper when he begins showing her the remains of his last sacrifice. So Karin is alone when she runs into three wandering sheepherders, known only as Thin, Mute, and The Boy, which is a good descriptor of them (Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal, and Ove Porath). Beguiled by Thin’s use of a mouth harp, Karin talks with them for a while, then offers to share her lunch with them. They’re not much interested in saying grace with her, though.
As the lunch goes on and Karin brags about her family and their farm, the herdsmen start getting closer and closer, and Karin begins to realize she’s in trouble, but way too late. In fact, one of the most heartbreaking parts of this segment is that she shifts into hyper-nice, trying to distract the two older herdsmen from their obvious intent, but to no avail.
Karin’s rape is, once again, the part that got scissored for years and years. It is not explicit in any way, but it is ugly and horrifying. Bergman argued that it should be ugly and horrifying, that to cover its brutish offensiveness by discreetly cutting away would not only lessen the impact, but would, in effect, let the audience off the hook emotionally. That sigh of relief would diminish the character’s suffering. Honestly, rape needs to be seen for the horrific crime it is, not a mere plot device.
Immediately afterward is the same scene as in Last House, as the two herdsmen realize the monstrousness of what they’ve done (Craven knew what was important, and what was necessary to carry over to his version). Karin wanders first toward the camera, then back, before the mute herdsman beats her to death with a club. There’s another shocked moment, then the two herdsmen strip the clothes off her body and run off, telling The Boy to watch the herd until they come back. Eventually, overcome with horror, The Boy will try to throw some dirt over her body, as snow begins to fall.
That night, Töve receives three visitors to his manor house: it’s the three herdsmen, claiming to be workers travelling south for warmer weather and work. Töve tells them to come in from the cold, and feeds them. The Boy, terrified, is the only one who recognizes the grace they say over their meal is the same said by the girl the two men murdered. Töve, ever the good Christian, tells them there will be work at his farm soon, and goes to bed.
Marta checks in on her guests when she hears the boy cry out; another guest – a beggar – tells her the mute one struck the boy. As she leaves, Thin tries to sell her a silk shift he says belonged to his dead sister. Marta recognizes it as Karin’s, and the absolute stillness of Valberg’s acting in this scene is a gut punch. She takes the shift, saying she’ll have to talk to her husband about a proper reward for it, and leaves, not giving in to emotion until she has left the room. Then she locks the door behind her and wakes Töve.
Töve digs through a chest of clothing and recovers his sword. He goes out to prepare for what he must do, and finds Ingeri hiding under the stairs. The poor girl had witnessed what happened to Karin, and is convinced that her prayers to Odin were the cause. (In the original cut of Last House, when Mari’s body was found, she was still supposed to be clinging to life, long enough to finger Krug and company for the crime. You can still see her moving and breathing in that scene) She begs Töve to kill her for that transgression. He tells her to get up and help him get ready.
He forsakes the sword for the “butcher’s knife” and walks quietly into the main room, where the killers are still sleeping. Marta follows, locking the door silently behind her. Töve opens the men’s bags, finding more and more of Karin’s clothing. Then he wakes them up and kills them, one by one. It’s not the climax of Last House with a chainsaw and a switchblade, but it is cringe-making as the two men try to defend themselves but are no match for a wrathful father. Töve then, in an Old Testament rage, grabs The Boy, who had run to Marta in terror, and smashes him against a wall, killing him instantly.
This is pretty much where Last House ends, with mother and father covered in blood, the comedy cops finally arriving and horrified, and the living protagonists with a thousand yard stare. Bergman, however, gives us Töve’s despair at what he’s done, the search for Karin’s body, Töve’s talk with God about how He allowed this to happen, and his own determination that he must atone for his wrath and murders by building a church of rock and mortar on the spot where Karin was killed. He raises Karin’s body, and a spring begins to flow from the spot, as this is based on an ancient Swedish ballad, and that is how it ends.
In the overall sweepstakes of my favor, The Virgin Spring has the clear edge, technically and presentation-wise. But that’s a mug’s game, really; Bergman had been making movies for fourteen years, and The Virgin Spring was his 26th. It’s not totally an apple-to-oranges comparison, but it’s close. I find in considering and analyzing it, my overall opinion of Last House on the Left has actually improved. That said, I know which movie I would watch again, given a choice.
You’ve probably seen The Last House on the Left, you’re not a general movie layabout like myself. Now watch how one of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century handles that last scene. No subtitles necessary.