Sunday, June 17, 2018

Recommendations :: Arrow Video Showcases the Celluloid Crime of the Century with a New Deluxe Edition of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972)

On the eve of her 17th birthday, Mari Collingwood and her bestest friend, Phyllis Stone, set off to the big city to attend a rock concert. Attempting to pick up some marijuana on the way, the pair wind up kidnapped by a group of vicious crooks. Gagged and bound, these young women are bundled into a car trunk and driven deep into the woods, where the gang of sadists subject them to a terrifying ordeal of sexual humiliation, torture and their eventual murder. But this is only half the tale, as this pack of degenerates unwittingly seek shelter in the home of Mari’s parents after the deadly deed is done, who manage to piece together who these people are, what they’ve done to their daughter, and embark on a long night of terrible vengeance.

Originally intended to be something a little more akin to one of Herschell Gordon Lewis' gorenographic epics like 2000 Maniacs (1964) or The Wizard of Gore (1970) -- only with a lot more skin, fledgling filmmakers Wes Craven (writer/director) and Sean S. Cunningham (producer) were commissioned by the Boston-based Hallmark Releasing, who regionally distributed films through their own theater chains -- mostly violent foreign fright flicks, softcore porn, and other drive-in fare -- to make them a new tits ‘n’ ass flick. And the only caveat was to make it as violent and as bloody as possible.

Craven and Cunningham took Hallmark’s money (and most likely pocketed some of it) and proved up to the task, deciding if violence is what they wanted then that is what they'd get; unsanitized and unfiltered for the unflinching eye of the camera, 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 that you really don’t want to look into but you kinda have to.

Now, I admit Last House on the Left (1972) isn't particularly all that good as it burps and hiccups along like the first-time film effort it was; 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 shattered, broken, and exposed to the open air to pulse and throb and ache a good long while after young Mari (Peabody) and Phyllis (Grantham) meet their doom and the bad guys get what's coming to them, leaving those who survived to wallow in the aftermath.

Putting the lofty inspirational Bergman and The Virgin Spring (1960) by way of the Tate-Labianca murders to the side, this nasty little exercise in guerrilla and pseudo-documentary filmmaking can be seen or distilled as a metaphor on many levels: as a final, scathing indictment on the failures of the 1960s counterculture movement -- Krug (Hess) and Weasel (Lincoln) are definitely anti-establishment; Junior (Sheffler) dropped out, tuned-in and burnt out; and Sadie (Rain) is "free love" gone horribly, horribly wrong; or, you can read it as bringing the reality of the Vietnam War home (-- the bloody and lingering deaths), and dumping it in the audiences’ lap by way of the Collingwoods; or, the complete and utter destruction of the classic Nuclear Family -- though I think Craven handled that better in The Hills Have Eyes (1977); or, if you're so inclined, you can take it at face value as an unabashed and unrepentant fright flick.

Yeah. Seems as filming progressed, everyone involved from the unknown cast (-- except in Porn circles, that is), to the amateur film crew, realized against all odds they were creating something a little loftier than originally intended; by design or by accident is up for debate, but the film soon changed course as the porn elements were whittled away to concentrate solely on the role-reversal plot and the horrific elements of the film. And though I think Last House on the Left is most effective in the dreadful humiliation scenes, the protracted death of Phyllis -- 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. Equal kudos to Sandra Peabody (billed here as Mari Cassell), who walked off the picture due to the “method acting” of her attackers and had to be convinced to come back, pulling off her own harrowing enough and truly disheartening demise. And while we're handing out compliments, I know everyone points out David Hess' performance as the vile 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. Lincoln was one of those participants who was well versed in the Adult Film Industry of NYC both directing (310), producing (42), and acting (64), and his contributions to the finished film beyond his performance should not be underestimated, providing stunts and staging tips for several gags and murder set-pieces.

Once completed, the MPAA shit a brick and slapped the film with an X-Rating. Hoping for a wider R-rated release, Craven and Cunningham removed ten minutes of footage, and then 20 more minutes, but still no dice. Fed up, as the legend goes, Craven put all the excised footage back in and then, through subterfuge and help from a friend at the MPAA, slapped faux documentation on the finished print, saying it was Rated R and released the film, essentially, unrated. But even in this raw form, upon its initial release under the alternate title Sex Crime of the Century, and later as Krug and Company, the film opened with a dull thud.

But leave it to the Hallmark publicity team to salvage things. Namely Lee Willis, who came up with a catchy, though nonsensical, alternative title and an insidiously infectious advertising campaign, hook, and jingle; and then, soon enough, the film both took off and set off a firestorm of controversy over its content -- the violence, the misogyny, and the perceived misanthropy of the filmmakers, that hasn't settled down even to this day.

In the end, there usually is no gray area with Last House on the Left. 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 unfiltered violence to show our darker selves 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 Craven and Cunningham went on to lucrative careers in the field of legit horror movies but took two different paths to get there (-- though one should note after they both tried and died at more family-friendly genres). And you can see the differences in those styles in their first finished product. Here, 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, profane, and primal instincts and "feed the gators" -- to cop a phrase from Stephen King. Cunningham, on the other hand, was more of a spookshow huckster, content to just set the audience up, tease them along, and then knock them on their can.

And these differences in approach are personified in the climactic duel between Krug and Dr. Collingwood (Towers). Originally, Craven had wanted them to have a scalpel duel, with Collingwood attacking the major veins and arteries, leaving Krug to die a literal biblical death of a thousand cuts; but his producer thought, nah, saying a chainsaw added more bang and buzz for the buck. And I think if you look at the movie as a whole, the first half, where the deaths are unnervingly all too real, up to the point where the killers actually feel ashamed of 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 and the Collingwood's revenge, from the cartoony booby-traps, to Mrs. Collingwood (Carr) taking a bite out of crime, to the chainsaw fight is all Cunningham.

Which brings us to Arrow Video’s latest stellar release in a mounting, nay, staggering line of stellar releases: a 3-Disc limited edition Blu-Ray for Last House On the Left, which includes three different restored cuts of the film on the first two discs: an unrated cut, the Krug and Company cut, and the R-rated home video version. And the third disc features the complete original soundtrack for the film composed by star David Hess.

And like all Arrow releases, this set is packed with buku extras, including a brand new audio commentary by podcasters Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes along with two vintage commentaries; one with Craven and Cunningham, the other with stars Hess, Sheffler and Lincoln. Featurettes include the mini-docs, Still Standing: The Legacy of The Last House on The Left, Celluloid Crime of the Century, Scoring Last House on the Left , It's Only a Movie: The Making of The Last House on the Left, and Forbidden Footage, which focuses on the film’s most notorious scenes. Also included are new interviews with actor Marc Sheffler and makeup artist Anne Paul, and The Road Leads to Terror -- a brand new featurette revisiting the film's original shooting locations; also included are deleted scenes, outtakes and dailies, trailers, TV and radio spots, and the ubiquitous image galleries.

Bonus features on disc two include The Craven Touch -- a brand new featurette bringing together interviews with a number of Wes Craven’s collaborators, including Sean S. Cunningham, composer Charles Bernstein, producer Peter Locke, cinematographer Mark Irwin, and actress Amanda Wyss; Early Days and 'Night of Vengeance' where filmmaker Roy Frumkes remembers Wes Craven and Last House on the Left; Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out, an unfinished Wes Craven short; and Krug Conquers England, which charts the theatrical tour of the first ever uncut screening of the film in the UK. The box-set also features lobby card reproductions, the film’s poster, and a limited edition 60-page booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Stephen Thrower, making this release a near definitive look at this seminal horror film. The boxset streets in a couple weeks on July 3rd. So go. Buy this. NOW!

Other Points of Interest:

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

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