There are strictly two parts to my life. Life before viewing The Last House on the Left and life AFTER viewing The Last House on the Left. Until that fateful day I had only known the legend of Last House. The tales of it ushering in the first wave of slasher films in the early 70s and that it legendarily paralleled The Texas Chainsaw Massacreas the greatest grindhouse experience ever. I viewed the film anticipating schlock, sex and death run rampant in the vein of Friday the 13th (directed by Last House producer Sean S. Cunningham) or Nightmare on Elm Street (directed by Last House director Wes Craven). What I didn’t anticipate and what I received was a brutal exploration in the horrors and dissoluteness of death.
Originally envisioned by Wes Craven as a sleazy attempt to combine hardcore porn and horror films, The Last House on The Left somewhere (and thankfully) took a turn for the serious. Instead of puncture wounds and penetration we are given an onslaught of violent images and shockingly realistic vulgarity. The nature of the approach to filming in such a guerrilla style and the added dose of reality based, blood soaked revenge in its climax makes The Last House on the Left more in the vein of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs than it does My Bloody Valentine. In fact the movie itself was inspired by and shares many themes with Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.
Mari Collingwood is celebrating her 17th birthday by attending a rock concert with friend Phyllis. Before they reach the concert the two are intercepted by a ruthless gang of prison escapees and all hell is unleashed. In its brief runtime of an hour and 20 minutes I often found myself shying away from the graphic violence (no easy feet, I assure you) and contemplating turning off the film. The poor duo of girls are forced at gun point to have sex with each other and the result is incredibly degrading and leaves a foul taste. What compelled me to keep going with the film are the unexpected consequences to come. Immediately following the graphic slaying of the two teens, we see these disturbing maniacs become human. The trio of hoods look at each other in disgust; appalled themselves at the line into insanity they have crossed. From this moment on I began to see these characters as troubled beings instead of unfeeling homicidal villains.
The change in feeling towards this vile trio comes just as the film itself begins to switch tones. In the 3rd act of the film, the gang unwittingly takes refuge into the home of young Mari Collingwood’s parents. Now it’s the parents turn to counter attack with an equally savage campaign of violence against their daughter’s assailants. By the time you see Mari’s mother (played by Cynthia Carr) rip off the cock of a terrified assailant by the grit of her teeth your not sure just whom to root for.
People love exploitation films because they’re usually fast, gritty and fun. The more over-the-top a situation becomes the more compelled you are to laugh along with the movie. This is why we enjoy modern day homages to exploitation such as Robert Rodriguez’s films, Drive Angry and Hobo with a Shotgun. Yet these will never be true exploitation films because they are treated just as such and rarely taken seriously. What makes 70s exploitation films TRUE exploitation is the fact that these were serious filmmakers attempting to make a semi-serious movie. Low budget producers like Roger Corman and Sean S. Cunningham gave young struggling filmmakers an opportunity to make their dreams come true with little-to-no-budgets and often times it worked. These filmmakers knew the stipulations of what sells (sex and violence) and were totally at ease in finding a way to incorporate these elements with the story and artistic vision they wanted to tell. When Martin Scorsese made Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman he took the opportunity to tell a true crime story set within the world of the railroad union. When James Cameron made Piranha II: The Spawning he set out to make the best possible “flying-killer-fish movie ever made”. This is why, for me, Tarantino will always be true exploitation. This is a man that recognizes what gets asses in the seats and utilizes it without compromising a particular artistic vision and serious tone. There are plenty of exploitation movies that create a feeling of badass go-get-em’ attitude (Switchblade Sisters, Death Race 2000), yet there are also plenty that create a serious reconstitution of values, a “what the hell did I just watch” kind of deposition (Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Maniac). The Last House on The Left definitely falls into the latter category. And it’s bloody brilliant.