Now, I admit the original film isn't particularly all that good as it burps and hiccups along like the first-time effort it is; but you cannot deny that when it works (and I think it works more often than it does not) the film really strikes at a raw nerve -- you know, like taking a chisel to your front teeth -- CLANG! -- leaving them broken and exposed to the open air to throb and ache a good long while after Mari and Phylis meet their doom and the bad guys get what's coming to them, leaving those who survived to wallow in the aftermath.
Originally intended to be something a little more akin to one of Hershel Gordon Lewis's gorenographic epics, only with a lot more skin, fledgling filmmakers Wes Craven (writer/director) and Sean S. Cunningham (producer) were commissioned by Boston-based Hallmark Releasing -- who regionally distributed films, mostly violent foreign fright flicks, soft-core porn, and other drive-in fare -- to make them a new tits-and-ass flick, and the only caveat was to make it as violent and bloody as possible. Craven and Cunningham took the money and proved up to the task, deciding if violence is what they wanted then that is what they'd get; un-sanitzed and unfiltered for the unflinching eye of the camera; eventually tapping into something on a primordial level where the lines between good and evil, and sadly, what constitutes the difference between actual comedy-relief and insipid buffoonery, blur together like that eye-testing contraption at the DMV, whose viewfinder is totally scummed over with discarded DNA after decades of use and abuse.
Putting the lofty The Virgin Spring origin to the side, their nasty little exercise in guerrilla and pseudo-documentary film-making can be seen or distilled as a metaphor on many levels: as a final, scathing indictment on the failures of the 1960's counter-culture movement (-- Krug and Weasel are definitely anti-establishment, Junior dropped out, tuned-in and burnt out, and Sadie is "free love" gone horribly, horribly wrong); or bringing the reality of the Vietnam War home and dumping it in the audiences lap (the bloody and lingering deaths); or the complete and utter destruction of the classic atomic family (that I think Craven handled better in The Hills Have Eyes); or if you're so inclined you can take it at face value as an unabashed and unrepentant fright flick. But we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. As filming progressed, everyone involved from (the unknown) cast to the amateur film crew realized against the odds they were creating something that was a little loftier than originally intended, by design or by accident is up for debate, and the film soon changed course. The porn elements were whittled away to concentrate solely on the role-reversing plot and the horrific elements of the film. And though I think the film is most effective in the humiliation scenes, the protracted death of Phylis -- from her near escape, to the jump-scare in the cemetery, to her eventual disembowelment -- is one of the nastiest successions of cinematic gut-punches committed to film.
Kudos to actress Lucy Grantham for that tough, tough scene. And while we're handing those out, I know everyone points out David Hess' performance as Krug as being the ultimate cinematic degenerate, but it's the S.B.D. approach of Fred Lincoln's Weasel that really gives me the creeps.
Upon its initial release, under the titles Krug and Co., and later Sex Crime of the Century, the film opened with a dull thud. But leave it to the Hallmark publicity team to come up with a catchy, though nonsensical, alternative title and an insidiously infectious advertising campaign, and soon enough, the film took off and set off a firestorm of controversy over its content -- the violence, the misogyny, and the misanthropy of the filmmakers, that hasn't settled down even to this day. In the end, there was no gray area. You either loved it or at least appreciated the movie for what it tried to do (like me), or you hated and condemned it for what it did. You either bought into the use of violence to show how bad it is or you were completely screwed in the head and got your rocks off watching the rape and slaughter of two nubile young women. Of course, Hallmark took that controversy and added it to their press-kits and the box-office kept on booming.
Both its director and producer went on to lucrative careers in the field of horror movies (-- though one should note after they both tried and failed at more family-friendly genres) but took two different paths to get there and you can see the differences in style in the first finished product. While Craven was more interested in the motivation and abnormal psychology of what scared us, peeling back the onion, layer by layer, to get down to our more basic instincts and "feed the gators" -- to cop a phrase from Stephen King, Cunningham, on the other hand, was more of spook-show huckster, content to just set the audience up, tease them along, and then knock them down. These differences in approach are personified in the climactic duel between Krug and Dr. Collingwood. Originally, Craven had wanted them to have a scalpel duel, with Collingwood attacking the major arteries, leaving Krug to die a biblical death of a thousand cuts, but his producer thought bringing in a chainsaw added more bang for the buck. And I think if you look at the movie, the first half, where the deaths are unnervingly all too real, up to the point where the killers actually feel ashamed with what they've done, and no matter how hard they try, can't wash the blood off their hands, is all Craven, but the second half, the Collingwood's revenge, from the cartoony booby-traps, to Mrs. Collingwood taking a bite out of crime, to the chainsaw fight is all Cunningham.
Both men are listed as producers for the new Last House on the Left. But beyond that, I honestly don't know much about the remake and frankly it kind of snuck up on me out of nowhere -- the first I'd even heard of it was seeing the preview at a screening of the new Friday the 13th (which in my humble opinion was a colossal misfire. Thanks, Platinum Dunes...) And a pretty good trailer it was...
...until that last bit with the microwave. Yeah, ya kinda lost me there when you look to a late entry in the fizzling '80s slasher tsunami like Evil Laugh for some inspiration.
Actually, Evil Laugh isn't all that bad. Sure, it's a big old can of stoopid but it's an extremely entertaining can of stoopid, and it beat the ironic, self-awareness shtick of the Scream franchise by almost a decade. But we're here to talk about the Last House remake, right? Right. And again, I don't know much about the director, Dennis Iliadis, but I have heard of screenwriter Carl Ellsworth and thought Red Eye was pretty good until it fell apart in the third act. And Disturbia was pretty good, too, until it...uhm, until it fell apart in the third act, too. Ah crap, sensing a pattern here ... Still, I hold out hope that there is a little more meat to the movie than just the splatter elements. And I hope the film isn't just interested in the murder set-pieces, and like the original, devotes at least a little time to the why. I mean, There's got to be more to it than just watching some schmuck getting his wiener bitten off, right?
Other Points of Interest:
Newspaper ads for Last House on the Left at the Morgue.
Newspaper ads for Last House on the Left at the Morgue.
Last House on the Left (1972) Lobster Enterprises :: Sean S. Cunningham Films :: The Night Co. :: Hallmark Releasing / P: Sean S. Cunningham / AP: Katherine D’Amato / D: Wes Craven / W: Wes Craven / C: Victor Hurwitz / E: Wes Craven / M: David Hess / S: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Richard Towers, Cynthia Carr