Wes Craven makes an indelible mark on the horror genre with his startlingly violent debut feature
The 70s did not enter gently. The US was still in shock from the back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, which occurred only two months apart in the spring of 1968. The Manson Family murders had turned peace-loving hippies into drug-crazed, homicidal drifters, as unprecedented levels of news coverage brought the carnage of the Vietnam War directly into the living room. Popular cinema reflects the mood of culture, and for the Western world, that mood was cynical, ugly, and harsh.
In 1972, one audacious low-budget movie didn’t just tap into that vein, it bleed it dry. It traumatized theater audiences, becoming one of the top five offenders on Britain’s Video Nasty list. It defined the tone of the drive-in for the next decade. Despite its infamous tag line, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s Only A Movie, It’s Only A Movie…’”, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was anything but.
For anyone unfamiliar with Craven’s explosive debut feature, The Last House on the Left is a classic tale of innocence, brutality and revenge — literally, since the movie is essentially a retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 classic, The Virgin Spring. Bergman himself copped the story from the 13th century Scandinavian ballad, “Töres döttrar i Wänge,” which in turn was inspired by a series of cave paintings. Okay, I might be making up that last part, but what I’m getting at is the basic plot is nothing new. What was new was the level of depravity and violence unflinchingly shown on screen.
In Craven’s version, two innocent young women, Mari and Phyllis, are kidnapped by a vile band of degenerate criminals, led by human monster, Krug (David Hess in a genre-defining performance). The girls are subjected to gruelling and dehumanizing bouts of torture before being murdered. In a completely unbelievable yet poetic twist of fate, Krug’s rambunctious crew wind up unknowingly asking for shelter in the house of their victim’s parents, under the guise of being traveling salesmen (and one saleswoman). The parents learn the truth and take convoluted, but fitting, revenge on the vicious killers. So, it’s a good time at the movies, as long as you consider repeatedly smashing your fingers inside a drawer a good time.
Fred “Weasel” Podowski: How’d we get into the sex-crime business anyway? My brother Saul, a plumber, makes twice as much money as I do and gets three weeks vacation, too.
Even for those who can stomach it, no one can call Last House a flawless movie. Hess aside, the acting can be stilted and uneven, especially during scenes involving the parents. The editing is sloppy at times, and the folk soundtrack (provided, astonishingly, by David Hess himself) seems more suited to something like The Bad News Bears than hyper-violent exploitation. The last act stalls a bit with the parents’ awkward quest for vengeance, indulging in Craven’s weird fascination with booby traps. Most egregiously, it contains a tone-killing cornball comedy subplot following two bumbling cops (one being future Cobra Kai sensei, Martin Kove) that grinds everything to a halt for the duration of their scenes.
Despite all the amateurish flailing of a first-time director, Craven’s evocative skill and philosophical leaning are hard to miss. In one scene, as Krug’s gang silently watch the fatally wounded Mari slowly walk into a lake, the expression on their faces seem to acknowledge that they know the last threads of their humanity are following her to the grave. Of course, somber, poetic moments are not why this movie became famous.
Last House was hardly the first movie to shock with gore. Hershel Gordon Lewis, known as the Godfather of Gore, brought Day-Glo Grande Guignol to the drive-in with 1963’s Blood Feast (although French director Georges Franju arguably beat him to the punch with the face transplant surgery in 1960’s Eyes Without a Face). Lewis’ films were schlocky (cow’s) tongue in cheek affairs. He counted on spectacle to cover up his paper-thin plots, painful acting, and red paint splattered mannequins. Craven used gore effects to emphasize the human impact, shoving the ugliness in the audience’s face. As bold as the gore was, though, it was the depiction of sexual violence that was truly transgressive.
Sex and nudity are the original taboos of cinema, and since the fall of the Hays Code, directors were eager to push the boundaries. H.G. Lewis’ playful and innocent Nudie Cuties of the early 60s led into darker territory with the Roughie. Directors like Russ Meyer, David Friedman (Lewis’ partner), and Dorris Wishman made movies about thick, sweaty men doing unsavory things to misguided young women. They were grim and salacious, but the real rough stuff was mostly implied, off-screen, or focused on the aftermath.
A year before The Last House on the Left, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange truly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on the big screen, but with a more detached, artistic focus. Craven, a former college professor whose only experience with filmmaking came from a short stint in hardcore pornography, had no idea such boundaries even existed. He was convinced no one would see his movie, so there was no point diluting the message with social restraint. The sexual torture of the two girls was raw, unrelenting, and disturbing. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it feels so much more graphic than what you really see because of the focus on the victim’s terror. It hit unsuspecting moviegoers like a punch to the gut.
The critical and public reaction was savage (although Roger Ebert gave it an unexpectedly positive review). Outrage led to notoriety, which, naturally, led to an ever-increasing demand. The surprise success of The Last House on the Left reset the mold for low-budget exploitation horror throughout the 70s. Rape became the go-to ingredient for B-movie shockers such as I Spit on Your Grave, The Hills Have Eyes, I Drink Your Blood. Even when the act was not shown, the threat of sexual violence always lingered in the background. The only thing the audience could be certain of was that anything could happen at any time. This kind of unpredictability is what defined 70s Grindhouse cinema, and what made it exciting. Nothing was off limits, no one was safe, and happy endings were absolutely not guaranteed.
One of the best (and little seen) examples of this style is Guerdon Trueblood’s 1973 exploitation gem, The Candy Snatchers. The plot — three petty criminals kidnap a young woman with the hopes of a ransom in diamonds from her rich parents — sounds like an exact recipe for Last House gruesomeness. Like the kidnappers’ plan, though, things don’t go as expected. As the story meanders along (in the good way), our perceptions of the main characters change from scene to scene. Some mutate from sympathetic to vile to desperate and pathetic. Hidden strengths are revealed, respectable façades crumble. One man begins a deplorable scumbag and ends, well, still a scumbag, but at least a dead one. It’s not a pleasant journey, but a captivating one.
Krug Stillo: Listen to daddy. I want you to take the gun, and I want you to put it in your mouth, and I want you to turn around and blow your brains out. Blow your brains out. BLOW YOUR BRAINS OUT!
The trend wasn’t limited to America. Italy, which already knew its way around a sordid tale thanks to the Giallo, not only adopted the Last House model, but took it further. Even though it is essentially a direct rip-off, 1975’s Night Train Murders (aka Last Stop on the Night Train), is a substantially more professional, deeper, and even more disturbing film than the original. Director Aldo Lado ditches the goofy cop subplot and layers in a wickedly sharp critique of social class divisions. Though the setting is different — an overnight train compartment instead of a vacant stretch of woods — the plot remains largely the same. The biggest difference is with the ringleader. David Hess’ counterpart is not a vicious, animalistic brute, but a seemingly sophisticated, upper class woman. She appears to be the well-dressed, poised image of gentility, but is every bit as sadistic, perverse, and malicious as Krug. Leaving the brutal acts to her witless, easily manipulated male companions, she gets off on the power alone. And when justice is meddled out to the two scumbags at the end, she, a lady beyond suspicion, walks away completely unscathed. For those hardy enough, it would make a harrowing double feature with Ruggero Deodato’s The House on the Edge of the Park, which ups the class struggle theme and even has David Hess (spiritually) reprising Krug as the baddie.
Ironically, the freewheeling, no holds barred days of 70s horror was corralled by an unlikely source, the 80s Slasher. The genre that was routinely demonized by religious groups and parental authorities actually had a more pronounce moral center than the random violence of the previous decade. Although their fate was often excessive, Slasher victims were rarely completely innocent. In early slashers like The House on Sorority Row, Prom Night, and The Burning, the killer was often himself the victim of a prank gone wrong, obsessively delivering comeuppance to his perceived tormentors. Even when his targets were not directly responsible, their deaths were the result of “bad” behavior such as fooling around and doing drugs. The killer was interested in punishment, not thrills, and certainly not sex (deep-seated repression not withstanding). Sure, the filmmakers only took that angle as an excuse to deliver the blood and boobs, but it was less existentially terrifying as simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time, which was often the victim’s only crime in exploitation horror.
Slashers also softened the emotional impact by making the victims less relatable. The naturalistic characters of the 70s were replaced by broader stereotypes, the jock, the slut, the clown, etc., who were often so annoying the audience were eager to see them die. The kills became more like a punch line, a well constructed tease with a quick, showy, and hopefully bloody payoff. It makes sense that the elaborately gruesome makeup effects would become known as in the biz as “gags.” Death was no longer a visceral shock, which absolved the audience of any guilt at having a good time with it. Not one to be idle, Wes Craven adapted to the change brilliantly, with a subversive twist, of course. He gave his now unacceptable Krug a cleansing through fire, added a razor tipped glove, and created a new villain that brought a supernatural edge to a genre that had started to grow stale.
Lastly, Slashers tamed the lawless chaos of the Grindhouse by putting down reliable guideposts. Almost all Slashers were built from a basic toolbox of tropes, from the doomed skinny dipper to the Final Girl. After the first few outings, the audience knew what they were in for, and usually when it would be served up, with a few fake outs and jump scares thrown in to keep you on your toes. Though this limited the creativity of the plot, it allowed the filmmakers to concentrate on ever more outrageous gags, to make characters quirkier, and to elevate the killer to celebrity status. Horror in the 80s may have been less scary, but it was a lot more entertaining, all by following what Randy from Scream would call “The Rules.” Damn it, Wes beat me to the punch again.