Has there ever been a famous horror director as Wes Craven whose work is so continuously epochal despite running the gamut from ridiculously bad shit to total brilliance with such random flucuations? For all the branding foresight John Carpenter had in attaching his name to Halloween he never made another horror picture that changed the way we thought about them (only The Thing comes close.) Tobe Hooper is synonymous with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but his entire subsequent genre career was sabotaged by bad luck and Steven Spielberg. Even George Romero's zombies overshadow his other fine entries, and the
Craven's major horror works are eponymous to the genre even for people who don't watch horror movies. This is largely due to the fact his successful films rode the fuckin' zeitgeist: A Nightmare On Elm Street is the ultimate 80s slasher film for combining the template with the special effects revolution. Scream is one of the most infuriating horror movies I've ever seen, coupling the cynical exploitation of nostalgia (a new thing at the time) with the godawful 1990s-present trend of post-ironic-sarcastic-hipster-speak. The film's box office and cultural impact cannot be denied.
Taking two steps back historically there is 1971's The Last House On The Left. A title that needs no introduction and a film that needs more discussion as seemingly everyone has heard of it yet no one gives Craven his due, save director Jon Keeyes' seminal documentary The American Nightmare. Keeyes puts Last House and every other significant horror film from Craven's aforementioned contemporaries into the context of the social and political turmoil of the 60s and 70s, and if there were ever a horror film whose apocalyptic vision of the times was worn right on the sleeve, this is it. Even more explicitly than Texas Chainsaw a couple years later, which I shall no longer regard as the modern horror film to bring the monsters out of Transylvania, make them human, and drop them into the American backyard armed with sadistic depravity rather than vampire fangs. Even the quasi-verite shaky-cam 16mm photography beats Tobe to the punch.
The reason Texas Chainsaw has already been remade twice before Last House (oh don't worry, it's coming) is Leatherface. For all of Chainsaw's well deserved rep as a progenitor of gritty and down-to-Earth horror films, there is still an iconic monster. So too has Psycho in Norman Bates, another inspiration from the
The Last House On The Left is the most excruciatingly uncomfortable fashioning of low budget, verite style and social commentary in horror films imaginable for the era it was made in. Even Wes shudders to look back on the sheer bleakness he was capable of as a first time filmmaker.
There is no glorification of death here. There is no glorification of the killers. There is no sympathy for the victims, or their avengers. There is risible contempt for the law in the form of country-fried comic relief vignettes about a bumbling sheriff which jarringly occur intermittently throughout the brutal main plot, mocking the distance between the two. The viewing experience is akin to a horror passion play: a mathematical formula for suffering alongside the helpless protagonists until the inevitable conclusion mercifully comes. The lights fade up and you re-enter reality, cleansed by the end of the terror and relief that it was only a movie...only a movie...only a movie...
Despite some trivia to the contrary, the legendary William Castle created that perfect tagline in 1964 with the Joan Crawford trash staple Straight-Jacket. But Last House sure as hell deserves it for making the requisite murders of a "horror movie" so horrifyingly protracted and real. Ironically the film's producer Sean S. Cunningham would go on to produce the most callous franchise of death porn until Saw parts 1-5 and counting, the Friday the 13th series.
The brutality of this film's mind lays in the fact that for all of Craven's sensitivity to the times - he was briefly an English professor before directing, and later produced a documentary about the Kent State shootings in 1981 - the point of this film is to make you understand in no uncertain terms that all that youthful idealism and naivete is going to get you slaughtered. Texas Chainsaw may have had hippies getting bumped off by cannibal rednecks, but Tobe Hooper's interest in that aspect was more or less limited to the victims' choice of transportation (a van,) wardrobe, and the idle readings of an astrological guidebook just prior to when the trouble begins.
Last House doesn't even cast hippies but teen girls who would've dated hippies to anger their parents. The threadbare setup shows a pair of happy-go-lucky naifs on their way to the big city to see the rock band "Bloodlust." Mom and Dad can't believe what their little girl is wearing, and then they're off. Somewhere in the back of Sean S. Cunningham's head, the setup is misinterpreted for the equation that mild infractions against pre-60s social mores = death.
Meanwhile, a gang of four escaped convicts holes up in an apartment in the big city. The leader is named Krug, pronounced as you would "Freddy Krueger." Wes must've really hated that childhood bully to bestow horror movie immortality on his name, twice.
Krug (last one on the left, above) an unforgettable is simultaneously so mean as to pop a child's balloon with a cigarette the first time we see him, and keep his own son, a fellow escapee, hooked on heroin to keep him in line. The cruelty of the entire gang (one man and woman aside from Krug & son) is characterized much the same way: cheesily traditional and yet sadistic beyond the laws of movie tradition, especially for 1972.
The woman is a straight cliche ditzy gun moll. She's crude and dumb. "Aaahhh, shyyaaadapp!" The first we hear of her is on the radio: she kicked a dog to death. For the fact she could be stealing a priceless necklace while Lucy & Ethel solve the mystery, we know she's capable of some real violence later on and doesn't disappoint.
"It's only a movie..." is not only a warning, there is ironic resonance within said movie's tone. This is not really a horror movie. It is a horrific movie.