With the recent passing of Wes Craven and having noted numerous times the effect his film Scream had on me as a horror fan, I felt it would be inappropriate to not set aside this month to cover his films. So I decided to start with what I would argue to be his most influential work. Sure, Nightmare on Elm Street spawned more sequels than you can shake a large stick at, but by the time Freddy arrived on the scene the Slasher was already cemented as a sub-genre unto itself. The Last House on the Left on the other hand is, as far as I know one of the founding rape-revenge films with only Straw Dogs (1971) predating it, but as film history is long I may be wrong and if so please leave a comment. The Last House on the Left is often considered a groundbreaking film and talked about in film text books or at least the ones I’ve read. That said, I’m not a fan of this particular sub-genre of horror films. By the time the revenge aspects come into play I’m so thoroughly jaded by events the revenge feels weak and often lacking, with the perpetrators getting off easy when compared to the suffering they inflicted on their victims. The rape-revenge film shares many of the same sentiments I have with the gore-porn, in that revulsion alone does not make for good horror.
The Last House on the Left opens with us being introduced to Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) on her seventeenth birthday. She plans on going to a concert with her friend Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) in a nearby town. Mari’s mother Estelle (Cynthia Carr) disapproves of both band and her friendship with Phyllis, but Mari’s father Dr. John Collingwood (Richard Towers) agrees with his daughter and allows her to go. Mari and Phyllis, head to the concert and on the way a news report plays over the radio announcing the escape of Krug Stillo (David Hess), his son Junior (Marc Sheffler), Fred “Weasel” Podowski (Fred J. Lincoln) and Sadie (Jeramie Rain) a group of rapists, murders, psychopaths, and child molesters. Phyllis and Mari try to find someone to buy some marijuana off of before the concert, meeting Junior who leads them back to his father and other gang members. Once inside their apartment Phyllis tries to escape once she realizes that she and Mari are in danger, but is kept captive and gang raped. The next morning Mari and Phyllis are loaded into the trunk of the gang’s car and transported out into the country. After the car breaks down and the girls realize that they’re near Mari’s home, try to escape again after being once again raped as well as being forced to perform sexual acts upon one another. Phyllis is captured and stabbed to death by Krug, Fred and Sadie, while Junior keeps an eye on Mari. While Krug and others are killing Phyllis, unknown to Mari, Mari tries to reason with Junior giving him her peace sign necklace and renaming him Willow. Before she’s able to convince Junior to let her go, Krug and the others return with Phyllis’s severed hand. Krug then carves his name in Mari’s chest, rapes and then kills her by fatally shooting her, leaving her body in the lake. Krug, Sadie and Fred then wash themselves of the blood, change cloths and end up at the Collingwood’s home pretending to be insurance salesmen. John and Estelle take the group in, afraid for their daughter they’ve called the police who’ve told them to remain calm and that Mari is just being a normal rebellious teenager for not coming home the night before. After dinner Estelle notice Junior wearing Mari’s necklace and learn of her daughter’s fate, when she overhears the gang boasting about it to one another in Mari’s room. She informs John and the pair rush to the lake and find their daughter’s body, they then return home to take their revenge for their murder daughter…
Most of my feelings about this film I already laid out, but one thing I didn’t mention is that over the course of the film a pair of police officers known only as Sheriff (Marshall Anker) and Deputy (Martin Kove) are just bumbling around. They’re looking for Mari, but the use and execution of the characters have a silly and slapstick feel that’s incredibly jarring and out-of-place with the tone of the rest of the film. When the two finally catches wind of what’s happened and arrive too late to stop Estelle and John from murdering the gang, their disapproval come with absolutely no authority and feels incredibly hollow. I often found myself wondering why they were even included as characters beyond their initial and final exchanges with the Collingwood’s, as their absence from the rest of the film would have been a boon. But it would have cut into the films already short run time of 84 minutes, as I watched the Unrated version of the film.
Also the torture of Mari and Phyllis makes up the vast majority of the film, with parents revenge only taking up the last fifteen or so minutes of the film and while we often get to see the violence inflicted on the girls. The parents retribution is often far more down played, with cut-aways or simply happening off-screen. As a viewer I would rather the two be reversed, with the revenge aspects being the focus rather than that of the rape.
Final thoughts, while I don’t like this film, it’s not films fault. I simply have a strong personal bias, one that extends to every film within this sub-genre, be it I Spit On Your Grave, Irreversible, Ms. 45 and even this films later remake. All that said, it is both shocking and unsettling. Two things that a horror film should be, but as the acts of the villains are so, well villainous the eventual revenge feels underplayed and lacking any sense of closure. Which I suppose is the whole point. 7/10