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Low budget, ageing, but still with cult status
on 10 October 2005
The film which brought Wes Craven to the attention of the horror movie world, "Last House on the Left" (originally "Night of Vengeance") is an enigmatically titled reworking of Ingmar Bergman's classic "The Virgin Spring" - for 'reworking' read 'dumbed down'.
In its day (released in 1972, shot earlier), it was seen as a horrific gore fest and was denounced as un-American. As has been frequently pointed out, the visceral images from the film were hardly as disturbing as the daily diet of television news from Vietnam which the American public were then watching. For some reason it was seen as going too far, as being too violent for its time ... and the notoriety meant it sold and sold and earned a cult reputation which can appear a little surprising by contemporary standards.
Originally envisaged as a hard-core porn movie which would push the boundaries, "Last House on the Left" evolved into purist horror during the shooting (or maybe the editing). It presents two young women heading off from rural Connecticut into New York city to watch a band called 'Blood Lust'. It's Mary's 17th birthday, she's lovely and innocent, and this is her first real excursion to the big city. Her friend, and obviously a corrupting influence, leads her astray ... and they find themselves kidnapped by a couple of guys newly escaped from prison ... or rather, by a couple of guys and their two hangers on.
The gang take the girls back to Connecticut, coincidentally parking up outside Mary's home, and take the girls for a walk in the woods. I use 'walk in the woods' euphemistically. Mary's parents will stumble on what has happened and exact their own, gory retribution.
Frankly, it's dreadful. The acting is atrocious - the lassie who played Mary was apparently terrified out of her skull that they really were going to kill her. The actors are completely over the top when they're not actually wooden. They improvise - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It looks like all the best bits were just kept in, edited to fit - so you get incongruous moments of light relief which contrast with the narrative needs of the plot. You sense that, at one point, it was going to be a comic horror ... you sense that this is a film which underwent several incarnations before achieving its final form.
Lighting and direction are amateurish - and there are some comments on the DVD extras which present this as exciting and new, and a lot of comments which admit that no one making the film had any previous experience and that they were making it up as they went along. It shows. Picture and sound quality are poor. The editing can be haphazard and a touch self-conscious - perhaps reflecting an absence of script and narrative control.
There is some coy nudity, some gore, but this is a black and white movie. The images are, quite frankly, tame. The violence is amateurish. Overall, it looks very dated. Craven and company couldn't find a market for it until some advertising executive decided to re-title it "Last House on the Left" - for no obvious reason - and market it with the now infamous "it's only a movie" epithet.
It's interesting, it's worth watching as a piece of history and as a landmark in American horror, but it has a cult reputation which far exceeds both its artistic and its horror quality. And I would seriously recommend buying this as part of "The Wes Craven Collection", where it is packaged with three other films and some interesting extras, and you get a real sense of the development of Craven's style and sophistication compared to this first offering.