L: The Last House on the Left (1972) + The Virgin Spring (1960)

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This is another of those “I knew I was going to have to deal with this movie someday” posts.

last_house_on_the_left_poster_01Yes, 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.

Wes__07-2smaller_cropAs 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.

hqdefaultIt’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.

imagesThe 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.

tumblr_mr5azxK9pX1r4ro7yo1_500Thereafter 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.

MV5BMzEwMTEzNzY3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTM0MDU5NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_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).

20130706-190636Wes 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.

1972_last_houseThe 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’.

VirginSpringThe052013LCIt 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”.

3148928099_9b7d0c54feIngeri 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.

hqdefault (1)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.

MAX VON SYDOW, BIRGITTA PETTERSSON, AXEL DUBERG, TOR ISEDAL, ALLAN EDWALL, OVE PORATH, GUDRUN BROST, TOR BORONG & LEIF FORSTENBERG Film 'THE VIRGIN SPRING' (1960) Directed By JACQUES TOURNEUR 08/02/1960 CTS60903 Allstar/CINETEXT/TARTAN VIDEO **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film or TV programme.

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.

vlcsnap-2015-09-13-23h07m49s320Marta 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.

virginspringHe 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.

Buy Last House on the Left on Amazon
Buy The Virgin Spring on Amazon

Through A Glass Darkly (1961)

100I’ve been told all my life how good Ingmar Bergman movies are. It’s practically a joke; no, it’s more than that, his movies were of such a quality that it was expected jokes about Bergman movies would be understood. I don’t think that, culturally, this is quite so true, anymore.

But that’s beside the point. I’ve just watched Through A Glass Darkly and I am blown away all over again.

b70-16549This is the first movie of a film trilogy which is apparently called, with admirable economy, The Ingmar Bergman Film Trilogy, consisting of this, Winter Light and The Silence. With my usual ass-backwards methodology, I watched Winter Light a year ago, because I was still in the honeymoon phase of my man-crush on Gunnar Björnstrand from The Seventh Seal, and I couldn’t resist the idea of watching him play a priest who had lost his faith. Was this an error? Have I sacrificed an arc that runs through this trilogy? I have no idea, I haven’t watched The Silence yet.

Through-a-Glass-Darkly-1961-movie-Ingmar-Bergman-2-450x315Speaking of admirable economy, Through A Glass Darkly eschews the larger population of most of Bergman’s other films, and rests its story on only four characters: David, a writer (Björnstrand), his adult daughter, Karin (Harriet Andersson) and teenage son, Minus (Lars Passgård), and Karin’s husband, Martin (Max von Sydow). All four are having a bit of a holiday in an old, isolated farmhouse on the coast.

From a very simple beginning, things begins to complexify: David is a very remote father, frequently traveling, ostensibly for his novels, and there is a fair amount of resentment that he’s about to set out again. Minus wishes only that he could speak with his father, but the few opportunities that present themselves fall into the typical, stilted, jokey conversations that any boy growing into manhood will find only too familiar. Martin is a medical doctor, which is a good thing because what will hang over the entire movie is Karin’s “illness”, often alluded to, never named.

through_a_glass_darkly_rgbKarin is schizophrenic. She has just returned from a lengthy stay in a hospital; she refers lightly to electro-shock therapy. While David and Martin are alone, Martin confides to her father that Karin’s situation is incurable; a cure is not totally unheard of, but the best he can hope for is longer stretches of normalcy between episodes. At the beginning of one such episode, Karin finds and reads her father’s diary. In the honesty writers practice with themselves, by themselves, David talks about her incurable state and his temptation – which he rightly feels is horrific – to write about her condition and deterioration.

The attempt to function as a normal family under this stress is heartbreaking. During a boat trip to get supplies, the two men have it out in civil discourse. Martin feels David has failed as a father, and David agrees – he also admits to a suicide attempt just prior to returning to his family, which failed only because the car he was driving seized up inches from a precipice. This incident has driven him back to Karin and Minus, his love for them now drawn in sharp relief, even if it is a love he has no idea how to demonstrate.

ThroughGlass01While they are gone, Karin has another episode, and in the lucidity that follows, reconciles with her father somewhat and decides that she should now return to the hospital forever, tired of pretending or even hoping that normalcy is a possibility. “You can’t live in two worlds. You have to choose one.” But the worst is yet to come, and every man in her family can only witness helplessly her madness.

It takes true master storytellers to relate a compelling story that consists largely of people talking in rooms, and Bergman certainly qualifies. Each of the men is excellent in their roles, but there is no doubt that this movie belongs to Harriet Andersson, with her stunning portrayal of Karin. She plays out the entirety of human emotion in her performance, and her schizophrenic episodes, never overplayed, have the terrible ring of truth. The fact that she not only holds her own against von Sydow and Björnstrand, but carries the whole picture with their able support, cannot be overstated.

tumblr_lb4idlm4Ab1qzzxybo1_500Additional praise must be given for cinematographer Sven Nykvist, in his second outing with Bergman. The black and white palette of Glass is incredibly varied, and the austere landscape and textures of the farmhouse and other settings are so precise, so gorgeously detailed, it is as if Ansel Adams had decided to take up a movie camera, it is that astonishing. I am told that Bergman was truly impressed by Nykvist’s outdoor photography on The Virgin Spring; I’m scheduled to watch that later in the year, I’ll let you know.

To hear me talk about it, one would think that Through A Glass Darkly is depressing – it’s not. It’s frequently harrowing, but as the movie ends – simply, with no Fin or end credits – the feeling is one of exhilaration. The exhilaration that comes of spending an hour and a half in a room with people who are very good at their jobs, and being privileged to see that work.


The Seventh Seal (1957)

7th sealIn my quest to fill the many holes I had in my film education, I don’t think I’d yet approached anything so iconic as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The movie is so well-known that The Simpsons makes jokes about it at leisure, the chess game with death is imitated and riffed upon (at some length in one of my favorite movies, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), the back of the Criterion blu-ray extols it as “…one of the benchmark imports of America’s 1950s art house heyday, pushing cinema’s boundaries and ushering in a new era of moviegoing.”


I think, like a lot of people, I was expecting a grim vista, an allegory of Man’s search for meaning and God in the midst of the Black Death. Well, there is a fair amount of that. What I was not expecting, given the movie’s reputation, was the sweep of emotions, the comedy, the rapid switching of audience allegiances with the characters.

In other words, I was expecting good, but I wasn’t expecting something that would swing in on my Top Ten and start bashing other movies out of the way, like Aragorn and Gimli on the bridge to Helm’s Deep.

(Was that last reference nerdy enough? I worry sometimes.)

Sure, Bergman starts us right off with the chess game with Death. Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is sleeping on a rocky beach, along with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrad). Up crops Death (“I’ve been at your side for a while.” “I know.”) and Block, since his chess board is curiously already out and set up, proposes the chess game.  What I didn’t know, in my filmic ignorance, is that the chess game is ongoing throughout the movie; Block has a reprieve so long as he manages to hold checkmate at bay, or wins.

The-Seventh-SealBlock has just returned from a decade spent in the Crusades, a decade during which his faith has taken a severe beating, and his life’s course has become a quest to qualify if God actually exists, or not. He has been through such horrors that he requires physical proof, even resorting to asking a condemned witch how he, too, could see the Devil, because he has some questions for Old Scratch. These are, of course, questions that will not be answered – even Death is not forthcoming on the subject. The fact that he has returned to his home country to find an ever-spreading plague isn’t helping his demeanor any.

That I had expected. What I was not expecting was to become so involved with the character of the Squire. Jöns has similarly lost whatever faith he had, saying “Our crusade was such madness only a real idealist could have thought it up.” His is not the way of questioning; he has come to believe that all that remains after death is emptiness, and moves through life with more of an air of acceptance, of proactivity, as it were. If there are any examples of what would one consider knightly duties, saving a young woman from a rapist, or putting a scoundrel down, it’s Jöns that does it. It is beneath Block. Jöns has his bad moments – he’s far from perfect or even heroic – but he remains my favorite.

1Then we begin spending some time with a traveling troupe of actors: a family of three, Jof (Nils Poppe), the juggler who sees visions like the Virgin Mary walking the toddler Jesus; Mia his wife (Bibi Andersson) and Mikael, his one year-old son; and Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark), who is more than a bit of a rogue.

Now, I was getting into the travels of Block and Jöns, and found myself a little impatient with the juggler sequences. Was this going to pay off? I should have know better. Of course it was going to pay off.

Block, Jöns, and the girl he rescued (Gunnel Lindblom) wind up at the same village where the jugglers are doing a show – which will be interrupted by the Flagellants, a group of people going about the countryside, singing hymns, carrying lifesized crucifixes, and haranguing everyone that they’re going to die because God thinks they suck and generally killing any hope for the actors passing the tip hat. Also, Jonas runs off with the local blacksmith’s wife, which is going to propel the plot for a while.

There will be a point where Block and Jöns join the jugglers – Jonas is still MIA with the wife – and they share a simple meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk, while Jof plays his lute. It’s a quiet, peaceful setting, and Block speaks of how the memory of that afternoon will sustain him. It’s a beautiful moment, made all the more poignant as one realizes that if Block was truly looking for the existence of God, it was never more obvious in that moment of peace on a sunny hillside.

There is a scene of almost Shakespearean comedy in the local tavern, where the blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell) is sobbing into his ale over his lost wife. He and Jöns have a back-and-forth scene about all the things that are wrong with women, and why he is better off without her, and each one just makes the blacksmith sob harder. Later, when Block, Jöns and Plog are escorting the jugglers through a scary wood, and they find Jonas and the wife walking about, there is another marvelous scene where Plog and the actor trade insults, with only a little help to the slower blacksmith by Jöns.

flagellantsLater, camped in the woods, Jof, with his talent for visions, is the only one that can see who Block is playing chess with, and quietly gathers his family and sneaks out of the camp. Block sees this, and remembering that Death has said some things about the trip through the woods with typical Death-style foreshadowing, knocks over some of the chess pieces to distract Death while the actors escape. It is one of the most knightly things we have seen him do, but it will cost him. Shortly after, Death wins the match.

I hope I haven’t said too much, as I leave you here, still ten minutes before the end of the movie. As with all movies that I like, or love, I want you to experience it for yourself. And probably the greatest recommendation I can make is that, while writing this, I have been urgently seized with the need to watch it again. Fabulous filmmaking, all the more remarkable considering Bergman was using equipment left over from World War II, and filming in a very small studio – apparently it is possible to see apartment lights in the background of one nighttime shot – and still produced a movie, that while epic in subject matter, still manages to feel small, intimate, and wholly believable.

At the very least, I haven’t spilled any plot points the trailer didn’t:

(You might want to hit the YouTube logo and watch it on their site – I couldn’t find one where the burned-in subtitles didn’t turn to mud)