Being a fan of horror films in the early days of video in the UK was a glorious thing, even for people like myself barely out their teens. Before the Video Nasty censorship purge was enshrined in law in 1984 with the Video Recording Act, it was a halcyon time of pre-cert video horror, with some films being considered to be ‘the worst of the worst’. One of these was Wes Craven’s 1972 horror film, The Last House on the Left.
The plot is simple enough (and lifted from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring): Two girls, Mari and Phyllis, go into grubby 1970’s New York to see a band; they want to buy drugs and in doing so run into a group of freakish criminals let by the sadistic Krug, played all too chillingly by the late David Hess. The group abduct the girls, take them both into the woods then proceed to humiliate them, torture them, rape them and then kill them. The gang then come across a house and gain entrance posing as travelling salesmen and pandering to the couple’s sense of kindness, but the older couple are actually Mari’s parents who discover who these people are, and what they’ve done. They then violently and bloodily take their revenge against Krug and his gang.
Last House on the Left is not an easy film to watch more than four decades after it was made. Craven uses a documentary style of shooting which makes everything feel dirty, grubby and filthy. Nobody is glamorous here, there’s no soft lighting or pounding music to make you think this is a piece of (albeit harrowing) entertainment. Compare the style of filming with contemporary news footage, especially that coming from the Vietnam War and its hard to not notice where Craven’s influence lie. What the film does well is in repulsing the viewer so that Krug and his gang’s actions are never seen as fun as after all, they torture, rape and kill two innocent girls just for a laugh which again, set in the context of the still fresh in the mind Charles Manson killings is a reflection of the fears of the time as the hippy dream draws to an end in ashes.
Like many early horror film-makers, there’s some bad to go along with the good. There’s some comic relief in the shape of two useless comedic policemen who whenever they turn up in the film, kill it stone dead and although they do take our mind off the horror, they end up being so annoying that it makes the narrative of the film stunted. I can see why Craven, as well as producer Sean Cunningham (who would later go on to produce the Friday the 13th films) added some sort of humour; without it we’d have a grim, relentlessly violent and oppressive film.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise the film was one of the most infamous of the Video Nasty era. As soon as it could be censored it was, and it’s worth looking at the BBFC’s own somewhat diplomatic telling of their history with the film to see how ideas of censorship change down the decades, because this is a film released in 1972 which didn’t get a legal uncut version in the UK released until 2008; 36 years later.
Last House on the Left deals with violence as brutal reality, hence the lack of violence as a thrill in itself and instead of being just an exercise in exploitation, it’s actually a deeply moral film that shares themes of exploring the effects of violence with John Boorman’s superb Deliverance, another film released in the same year. This is Craven as his brutally raw best, and although he’d go on and carve himself a career as a brilliant director of mainly horror films while becoming more absorbed into the mainstream, he always carried a little bit of Last House on the Left’s raw brutality with him. This is the acorn on which an entire career was grown from.