Noteworthy as the directorial debut of Wes Craven, The Last House on the Left is one of those grungy ’70s artifacts with a certain degree of forbidden-fruit allure. Marketed as a cinematic ordeal that only the bravest viewers can endure, the picture is indeed quite gruesome, with plentiful gore decorating a sordid story about kidnapping, murder, rape, and revenge. Adding to the mystique of the picture is Craven’s signature dry wit, since many scenes in The Last House on the Left feature comical dialogue that borders on being sophisticated. When combined with the utterly nihilistic nature of the narrative, all of these factors could lead sensible people to mistake The Last House on the Left for a real movie. As a matter of fact, The Last House on the Left once was a real movie, at least in its original form—improbable though it may seem, Craven’s sleazefest is a loose and unauthorized remake of an Ingmar Berman film, The Virgin Spring (1960). Yet while Bergman used revenge as a springboard for expressing existential angst, Craven mostly opts for cheap thrills.
The movie begins by establishing parallel storylines. In one, pretty 17-year-old Mari (Sandra Cassel) and her pal, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), depart from the suburbs of New York to downtown Manhattan for a concert. In the other storyline, three escaped convicts—each of them depraved and psychotic—hole up in a Manhatten hotel room. When Mari and Phyllis unluckily try to score grass from one of the criminals, the women get drawn into a horrific ordeal. They are dragged from the city to the woods, raped, tortured, and murdered. Then, by way of a ridiculous coincidence, the killers invade the next home they encounter, which happens to belong to Mari’s parents. When the parents learn what’s happened, methodical payback ensues.
Had Craven played this material straight, The Last House on the Left could have been genuinely horrifying. Alas, he makes bizarre tonal choices at every turn. The plentiful jokes feel distasteful, especially the broad-as-a-barn running gag of inept cops who keep driving right past the scenes of crimes. The film’s upbeat musical score (which seems more suitable for a children’s puppet show) further implies that Craven and his collaborators find carnage amusing. Finally, the over-the-top gore—including a shot of entrails being yanked from a corpse—adds another layer of unpleasant absurdity. So, even though Craven evinces some skill in terms of pacing and unexpected nuance, The Last House on the Left ultimately feels inconsistent, mean-spirited, and vulgar. Nonetheless, the picture became a cult favorite, even inspiring a 2009 remake, which Craven co-produced. And, of course, The Last House on the Left launched Craven’s career, which subsequently grew to include the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises.
The Last House on the Left: LAME