Wes Craven’s directorial debut, The Last House on the Left, was promoted in that deliciously schlocky fashion where viewers are to remind themselves that “it’s only a movie.”
Craven’s 1972 picture is based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. While Bergman’s piece certainly features more layers than Craven’s, the similarities are clear. Craven goes directly for the shock and doesn’t allow much time to deal with things like consequences or feelings of grief.
Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) is off to celebrate her 17th birthday. She’s going to attend a concert with a friend (Lucy Grantham). Her folks (Cynthia Carr and Richard Towers) are worried but taking it in stride. They’re trying to let go of their little girl.
As with many horror movies, fears are realized when the girls are set upon by a group of criminals (David A. Hess, Marc Sheffler, Jeramie Rain, Fred Lincoln) and attacked. The catch, along with the perfect opportunity for revenge, comes when the criminals head to Mari’s parents’ house looking for a place to stay.
The Last House on the Left is shot in disquieting fashion. Craven is acrimonious, lining up scenes of sexual torture with lively musical numbers. He shoots a lot of close-ups, leaning on facial expressions as limbs are amputated and throats are cut. He zeroes in on one of the most terrifying aspects of human nature: the straight face.
Craven is laying some serious groundwork here, identifying himself as a truly unflinching and almost vicious filmmaker. He’s not the least bit sympathetic. Whereas Bergman’s vision runs the gamut of the human experience, Craven’s offers nothing of the sort. His is a vision of action and of despair, with most of the longer shots lingering on suffering and desperate begging.
Craven’s movie plants these ludicrous seeds to suggest that perhaps the girls were asking for it. They were in the city for a rock concert and Mari was wearing a provocative shirt. They were looking for pot. If they would have stayed in the ice cream store, maybe the whole ugly mess would’ve been avoided.
No thoughtful or empathetic person considers blaming victims of rape and assault in this fashion, but it must be admitted that much of horror’s more iconic pictures and characters represent a sort of “punishment” for “bad behaviour.” In The Last House on the Left, this is made all the starker by Craven’s juxtaposition of Mari’s parents preparing the cake while she’s being raped in the city.
In generating so much conversation (and disgust), The Last House on the Left is ingenious. It plants the seeds and zeroes in on the concept of morality, but it does so without lingering. There’s no substantial exposition, just revenge in cold, brutal terms.