Thursday, 3 September 2015

Reflections on a Craven classic: Last House on the Left

Trigger Warning: The film discussed in this blog contains scenes of graphic violence.

As many in the Gothic community know, horror director Wes Craven died a few days ago of brain cancer. A film legend, Craven established a number of iconic franchises and redefined not only the ‘slasher’ sub-genre but also the horror genre as a whole. This is not meant to be a tribute post – instead, I’m going to try to answer the question posited at the beginning of “Scream”: “what’s your favourite scary movie?”

Or, rather, I’m going to answer the amended version: “What scary movie written and/or directed by late master of horror Wes Craven do you think is particularly Gothic?”

“The Last House on the Left” (1972) was Wes Craven’s first mainstream horror film and one which is probably less familiar to a UK audience. This infamous ‘video nasty’ was refused a cinema release in the UK, and eventually a moral panic and the Video Recordings Act of 1984 lead to an almost 20 year ban of the film in England. Underground copies circulated but the ban was only officially lifted in 2002. To this day UK cinemas will not screen the uncut version.

The story itself is relatively straightforward as far as horror films go, especially compared to some of Craven’s later work (A burn victim who kills you in your dreams? Really?). It is ostensibly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film “The Virgin Spring”, itself lifted from a 13th century Swedish ballad. In "The Last House on the Left" flower-child teenager Mari Collingwood is about to turn 17 – she leaves for a concert with a friend while her doting parents prepare for her birthday party. She is a child becoming a woman, as well as a young adult half-stuck in the cultural disconnect between what her mother terms “the love generation” and the intense violence of a Vietnam-era world. Mari and her friend are kidnapped by a gang of criminals (self-appointed members of "the sex-crime business") and brutally raped and murdered in the woods. By a trick of fate the murderers later seek refuge at the home of Mari’s increasingly frantic parents who, on discovering their daughter’s death and their guests' guilt, enact a gruesome revenge.

Gang leader Krug (a precursor to Craven's Freddy Kruger) and friend in "The Last House on the Left" (1972)

“The Last House on the Left” is a film I always watch with relative optimism,  both because I’m fairly jaded and because I always forget how extreme it is. The rape and murder scenes are extensive and relentless, while many memorable elements that stick out are horrifically un-horrific: a pair of bumbling policemen experience various hi-jinks, scenes of sexual violence juxtapose shots of Mari’s parents laughing and making birthday cake, and the soundtrack echoes the cheerful and mellow folk tunes of the day.

I went to see a local theatrical screening recently - a late night viewing full of rowdy, laughing young adults. After a scant 80 minutes the end credits rolled and everyone in the almost packed theatre marched out in grim, horrified silence. For all of its dated effects and the cheesy 70s vibe the film remains potent enough to shatter anyone’s idea of a fun night at the movies. In a world where torture-porn has developed to outlandish heights, a simple tale of serial killers and revenge still hits us where we live.

This is perhaps because of the troubling catharsis the movie manages to achieve after such exhausting horrors, the kind of release which horror movies and revenge thrillers before and since have long attempted to exploit. The first two acts of the film are agony, a brutal litany of sexual violence and murder jarringly interrupted by grotesquely cheerful scenes of Mayberry-esque domesticity and hippie music. But when Mari’s parents finally realize that the murderers of their beloved child are in their power, all ambiguity disappears – they don’t hesitate.

A revenger's tragedy...

The “would you or wouldn’t you?” revenge question, the “doesn’t this make us no better than them?” problem of reciprocated violence appears with a vague moral gloss in most thrillers, or in horror films is often secondary to the character's desire to simply survive. But in “The Last House on the Left” there is something particularly raw and real about the monstrous yet vulnerable killers sleeping upstairs while Mari’s two middle-aged parents, passive and almost fragile in earlier scenes, rummage through their basement looking for the most intimidating weapons they can find, booby-trap and destroy their own house (a house still decorated for their daughter’s birthday), and go after the murderers with a weird mix of methodical determination and animal viciousness. “Just do it,” a gang member screams as Mari’s father hover’s menacingly over him with a chainsaw. The father doesn’t seem to hear. Mari's parents never question what they are doing or why. There’s nothing behind the Collingwoods’ eyes, not even fear or rage, now that their hope for the future is gone… and when they have exacted revenge they sit together in silence in the wreckage of their home, numbly unapologetic.

The film ends with the Collingwoods’ horrific satisfaction, the wretched relief of a job well-done, a sense of being unmade and remade into something horrible. If Freud’s ‘heimlich’ means a sense of homeliness and “belonging” to the home, than this final act tantalizingly twists concepts of the uncanny. This family’s home is no longer ‘home,’ but because of what was done to the Collingwoods and because of what they, in turn, did in response, Mari’s parents do now truly and inescapably belong in this bloody and shattered space. They are the true uncanny beings. The film is widely accepted as a commentary on the Vietnam War but remains relevant for new generations still preoccupied with violence. I won’t recommend “The Last House on the Left” casually (because, jeesh, you have to draw the line somewhere), but I offer it for consideration as an early reflection of a horror movie master’s preoccupation with monstrosity and identity, as well as a memorable stand-alone piece.

On horror movies: "It's like boot camp for the psyche. In real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers, events like Columbine. But the narrative form puts these fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears."  Wes Craven (1939-2015) directing "Scream 2" (courtesy of Dimension Films)

Kathleen Hudson is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, studying servant narrative in early Gothic literature.  She's probably seen one too many movies...

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