The Last House on the Left (1972)

6 Feb

last house 72 01

Smith’s Verdict: **
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning: This review contains many spoilers (but it is an older movie).

“The Last House on the Left” was the feature debut for director Wes Craven, who would go on to be best known for horror films such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (and its sixth sequel, “New Nightmare”), the “Scream” movies, and “Red Eye.” I know he’s a smart filmmaker with a lot of interesting ideas to put into the mix of his films, and to be fair to “The Last House on the Left,” I think I kind of understand the reasoning behind most of the choices made for it. Let me explain…

There are many strange elements to this film, all of which are very distracting in comparison to some disturbing, brutal scenes of sex and violence. The soundtrack contains a lot of cheesy, upbeat music, including a theme song for the film’s antagonists and a melancholy (“foreboding”) theme song for their victims that features the central lyric “and the road leads to nowhere.” The unnerving scenes of uncomfortable flirtation and upcoming torture are constantly intercut with quirky scenes in which parents prepare a surprise birthday party for their daughter who happens to be in danger during all this. And even more distracting is the central rape-and-murder sequence interlaced with scenes involving two bumbling police officers who look and act like they belong in a completely different movie.

I suppose the reasoning for this choice in music is what was going on at the time, when you would tune in to TV and radio and hear stories about Vietnam and then switch the dial to chirpy folk music to calm yourself down. I think Craven was trying to satirize that probability through this film. But to me, it didn’t work at all and it kept losing my attention. Maybe back then, it worked. But now, it’s extremely dated.

The film’s tone constantly shifts in the first hour of the film, from horrifying terror to quirky comedy. I know we need some comic relief after some of the scariest of moments, but this is just too much. It’s sloppily handled and has no clever way of seguing from one to the other. Am I being too harsh? Probably, but I never got a laugh from these clowns.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. “The Last House on the Left” is about two young women, Mari and Phyllis, who go out for a night on the town and meet a strange young man their age who might supply them with pot. But quickly, they’re trapped in a motel room with the young man, two escaped convicts, and their whorish girlfriend, who torture them and kidnap them. (This happens along with Mari’s parents preparing the birthday party.)

The following morning, the brutes stash the girls in the trunk of the car, which breaks down during their “pleasant” drive in the middle of the woods. From that point on, they take the girls further into the woods and go on to violently rape and murder them. It’s extremely violent and very depraved in its execution. The visceral thrills are well deserved, especially since the scene is well acted, very disturbing, and quite scary in that you don’t know what these people will do to these poor young women. What’s especially heartbreaking is that all of this is happening just across the street from Mari’s house and she tries to find a way to escape that far, even trying to talk the weakest of the killers (the young man) into helping her, but it just won’t happen. And when Phyllis tries to escape, you root for her to escape and are saddened to find out what happens to her when the killers catch up to her, just as she almost makes it to the highway. It’s crude and startling, but it’s very effective.

But the big problem here is that it constantly loses its horror; this whole sequence is intercut along with a lot of the material involving the two cops.

One of the most interesting and refreshing things about the film is that the young man, one of the killers, is as unsettled about his companions’ crimes as we are. He has nightmares that night about what they’ve done (with Mari tauntingly chanting his name) and even in the beginning, he believed things were going too far. But the kid is also mentally unstable and is constantly convinced by the two older men to go along with the plan. When the kid finally steps up and tries to put a stop to all the mayhem, it’s especially tragic that he can’t allow himself to. One of the best scenes in the film is when the ringleader of the group, Krug (David Hess), is held at gunpoint by the kid and Krug manages to talk him into pointing the gun at himself and “blowing his brains out.”

Only the last twenty minutes remain consistently unnerving and violent. The killers find themselves spending the night in the home of Mari’s parents. The parents find out who these strange people are when they discover blood stains on their clothing and one of the men wearing Mari’s locket. They decide to take revenge and singlehandedly kill them all in ways that are shockingly more dangerous and violent than the killers’ previous actions. The father attacks with a chainsaw and sets traps around the house (one of which involves electrocution), while the mother does something to one of them that I’m not even going to describe here. A psychologically disturbing scene that gets into the minds of the parents before they carry out their revenge is a dream sequence in which they smash one of the killers’ front teeth out with a hammer and chisel. This climax is horrific but it’s fascinating in that you can see the lengths that the parents are willing to go through to avenge their daughter’s death.

But need I also mention that the curtain-call ending credits feature the same cheesy, upbeat music as well? That’s right; just when we’re supposed to feel something after a gruesome series of murders and ask ourselves questions of how we as people would handle a similar situation, it’s immediately ruined. Something else I should bring up is the advertising for this film—it originally released a trailer with a reassurance, “To Avoid Fainting, Keep Repeating, It’s Only a Movie…Only a Movie…Only a Movie…” I can’t imagine anyone, even back when the film was released, mistaking this for anything else, especially if you show them the scenes involving the two cops.

NOTE: Okay fine, I laughed once, at a scene in which the bumbling cops encounter a woman driving a chicken truck and try to hitch a ride. I might as well admit it.

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