Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) is a sweet, pretty middle class teenager living in the Connecticut suburbs. When she and her more outgoing friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) head into New York one night to see a band they make the very bad decision to try to score some grass. This leads them into the clutches of a gang of escaped criminals – vicious leader Krug (David Hess), girlfriend Sadie (Jeramie Rain), razor-wielding friend Weasel (Fred Lincoln) and Krug’s heroin-addicted son Junior (Marc Sheffler) – who take the girls out to the woods and brutally rape and murder them. Later the same day, the quartet come to stay in the home of a nice middle class couple who live nearby – who just happen to be Mari’s parents.
Wes Craven’s notorious debut is as shakily acted, badly structured and ineptly shot as you would expect from a low budget exploitation movie made 30 years ago by a director who by his own admission didn’t really know what he was doing. The soundtrack, composed by musician-turned-actor David Hess, is a variable mix of lilting balladry and largely inappropriate country & western (including a bizarre comedy song about Krug’s gang), while the ‘comic’ relief provided by a pair of bumbling cops is hopelessly unfunny. And yet Last House on the Left still retains moments of shocking power and an atmosphere of dread that frequently makes up for its faults.
Writer/director Craven and producer Sean Cunningham waste little time in getting Mari and Lucy into the hands of their abductors, which is probably just as well since the opening scenes of Mari’s idealic homelife are badly acted and unconvincing, while all Mari and Lucy’s girlie chat reveals is Craven’s youthful interest in breasts. The arrival of the strikingly feral David Hess is where the film gets going – his sense of barely contained rage is terrifyingly believable. The rest of his gang are equally vivid – porn actor Fred Lincoln is quietly menacing, Jeramie Rain (later Mrs Richard Dreyfuss) is vivacious and scary, while if you’ve ever wondered what a young Woody Allen might have been like were he simple-minded junkie with a pyscho for a father, Marc Sheffler provides the answer.
The strongest section is easily the excruciating day the gang spend in the woodland that will serve as a graveyard for their victims. Cassel and Grantham’s problems with dialogue give way to a believable, palpable terror, and the silent moments following the horrific stabbing frenzy and disembowelment of Phyllis, as a blood-splattered Krug, Weasel and Sadie stand confused and scared by the ferocity of their actions, are intensely haunting.
Unfortunately, having reached such an extreme point halfway through, Craven finds it hard to keep the momentum. Like Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the film whose basic structure Last House follows, the killers coincidentally find themselves at the house of their victim’s parents, in this case Mari’s oh-so-sensible parents (very averagely played by TV actors Gaylord St. James and Cynthia Carr), who learn of their crimes and inflict bloody revenge upon them. Craven tries to introduce a class-war theme, with the gang passing damning judgment on the Collingwood’s pampered lifestyle, but this is clumsy and far less effective than in his second film The Hills Have Eyes. When the time for revenge does arrive, St James looks frankly ridiculous waving a chainsaw around, and although Weasel’s castration brings a tear to the eye, the violence is just too cartoonish compared to the brutal realism of the earlier scenes. Last House on the Left nevertheless remains an important film, and one does have to admire the unflinching determination with which Craven and Cunningham have tried to confront the horrors of sexual violence.
[This has now been released completely uncut in the UK for the first time and on a three disc special edition too, which includes a commentary, interviews and a whole other film, the slasher movie documentary Going to Pieces.]