THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)
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Classic flick is considered one of the earliest modern slasher films, though, it is more revenge thriller and doesn’t really follow the formula that seems to have become standard with the advent of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas and Halloween. The movie is produced by future Friday The 13th director Sean S. Cunningham and was the first feature film directed by future legend Wes Craven. The film is also one I got to see at a re-release in 1981 at my beloved Oritani Theater in Hackensack, N.J. With Craven’s recent passing, it’s time to revisit this flick that initially disturbed me on first seeing it on the big screen over thirty years ago.
Film tells a violent and vengeful tale of irony both cruel and just. Cruel in that two pretty young girls Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) and Mari (Sandra Cassel) head into the city to see a concert and just happen to run into two escaped convicts Krug (David A. Hess) and Weasel (Fred Lincoln) along with Krug’s son junior (Marc Sheffler) and the sadistic Sadie (Jeramie Rain). They are held against their will in the group’s apartment and suffer torment and rape before being taken bound and gagged up into a rural wooded area. There the torment and rape continues until both girls are brutally murdered. The just irony comes in that the four fiends responsible are not far from Mari’s house. Without knowing who they are, they trick their way into the couple’s home intent on more evil doings. Now inside, though, their identities are discovered and when the Collingwoods (Gaylord St. James, Cynthis Carr) find out who their guests are and what they have done to their daughter…there will be hell to pay!
Written and directed by Craven this is a raw and crude, but very effective flick. Some may see the events as convenient coincidence, but the ironies that brings characters to their fates are certainly effective. As first, it brings the sweet Mari and her more rambunctious friend into a snake pit where they both cruelly meet deaths they don’t deserve and then it delivers those responsible to the very doorstep of Mari’s loving parents. Movie plot device, maybe, but life can deliver such ironies as we all know. The sequences of the girls’ torture, rape and murder are still uncomfortable to watch after all these years as our villains are truly detestable and are enjoying their acts. All the more disturbing as that they are perpetrated on are sweet young girls who have done nothing to deserve it. When Craven’s script brings his four deviates to the Collingwood home, revenge is almost as cruel, but far more deserving…and that’s what makes this work. There is some disturbing violence and ample bloodshed, obviously, and it is an interesting portrayal of how grief and anger can turn good people savage…a theme Craven would explore again in The Hills Have Eyes.
Not everything is perfect. There is a subplot involving the antics of a bumbling sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his incompetent deputy (Karate Kid‘s Martin Cove) that is played for laughs and sticks out in an otherwise serious and brutal film. Also, aside from the perfectly placed ironies, it is a bit of a stretch that the Collingwoods could stay so cool in the presence of the murderers, even after they find Mari’s body. I also thought it a bit of a stretch that they would invite the four strangers into their home, long before they found out who they were, even if this is the early 70s. There are also some songs on the soundtrack…the music is by star David Hess who was also a singer…that don’t seem to fit the mood of what is occurring onscreen.
The cast are all fine for such a low budget flick. Cassel is sweet and portrays a good girl simply wanting to sow a few oats at a concert and Grantham is the more vivacious friend who wants to help her do it and have a good time. Both are very likable and Grantham in particular shows some strength as her Phyllis remains protective of Mari even during their ordeal. Our villains are truly detestable and contemptible. David Hess is an abusive and sadistic monster, plain and simple as Krug. A man who seems to know nothing else but violence and he openly enjoys it. Fred Lincoln is equally disturbing as Weasel a man who enjoys depravity and killing and at times seems more demented than Krug. Equally sadistic and heinous is Jeramie Rain as Sadie. A cruel woman who enjoys the pain of others and appears sexually perverted as well. Rain makes her very disturbing. The only slightly sympathetic characters is Junior, Krug’s son. As portrayed by Marc Sheffler he seems more a young man too afraid to oppose his father than someone who actually wants to be involved in such depravity…though go along with it he does. Rounding out are Gaylord St. James and Cynthis Carr as Mari’s parents, who seem like typical good-natured, all-American parents which is all the more reason their descent into sadistic violence is so shocking when they seek to avenge their daughter’s murder. The two actors fit the bill well as a Norman Rockwell-esque family driven to deplorable acts of revenge.
So, yes this is a cult classic and an auspicious debut for a man who would go on to be recognized as one of the greatest horror directors of all time. It’s a crude film in many ways, but it is still effective, even if not quite as shocking as it was back in it’s day. There are some obtrusive comic elements and it takes a little effort to accept some of the ironies that set things in motion, but they do work. It’s a landmark horror and a solid career starting point for writer/director Craven and producer Sean S.Cunningham. Certainly recommended, but be warned, even after 40 years the flick still has some bite.
3 and 1/2 chainsaws…yup, 2 years before Leatherface, Last House made use of one!