Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 8, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1972)

After covering John Carpenter earlier in the year, it was only a matter of time before I  inched my way through the filmography of the other great horror director to come out of the 1970s. Wes Craven's career is mostly a collection of several iconic, genre-busting features and a bunch of forgettable stuff in-between. He started out as an auteur before transitioning into a work-for-hire filmmaker, frequently trying to recapture the success of his biggest hits and not always successfully. He has even, sometimes, struggle with the label of "horror filmmaker," trying to break out of the genre once or twice. All of that and more will be covered here so let's get started.

1. The Last House on the Left

A former English teacher and son of a devout Baptist seems like an unlikely candidate to create a shocking, disturbing, and influencal exploitation horror film like “The Last House on the Left.” Or maybe not. After all, Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham (the two men who, separately, would launch the biggest slasher franchises of the eighties.) had previously made a soft-corn porn flick together. Actually watching the movie, Craven’s literary roots become more obvious. Criticize the film for its crude presentation or cruel story turns but “The Last House on the Left” has more on its mind then just rape and revenge.

The movie’s unlikely source material also points towards its deeper goals. The story is directly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring.” The Collingwoods, Mom and Dad, prepare a birthday party for their teenage daughter Mari. Meanwhile, along with her friend Phyllis, Mari heads off to see an Alice Cooper-style shock rock band. The girls’ decision to stop and buy some pot unfortunately puts them in the path of psychopath Krug and his gang of sadistic, violent crooks. They kidnap the girls, take them off into the woods, and spend the day torturing, raping, and murdering them, leaving their parents and a pair of incompetent cops to worry hopelessly. After the killings are done, Krug’s decision to stop at a near-by home sends the two groups on a collision course of violence.

From a technical position, “Last House on the Left” is occasionally clumsy. Craven’s direction is sometimes stiff, like in the early scene where Mari talks with her parents, the camera barely moving. The editing is even worse, scenes stumbling over each other, cutting through music or even dialogue. Some of the acting suffers too. Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham aren’t always believable. Their early girl-talk needed some more polishing and Peabody doesn’t sell the scene of her pleading with her captive. Even Cynthia Carr and Richard Towers as the parents, generally solid actors, seem to underperform their grief upon discovering their dead daughter. The silly, hippy folk soundtrack is frequently distracting, jiving too badly with the events on-screen.

Craven’s script occasionally falters as well. Krug’s crew have their background dropped in an early radio announcement, an example of awkward exposition. The events the entire last act is built around are slightly contrived. Why would a group of vicious murderers stop by the first house they see after killing two girls? Why would two confused, frightened parents let them stay? The criminals having nightmares late in the film, flashbacks to earlier in the movie, just comes off as padding. Of course, none of the movie is more awkward then the comic relief cops. Yeesh, these guys. The movie cuts from brutal rape and murder to a pair of cornball, broad slapstick deputies wandering around the back roads or falling off a chicken truck. Why are these scenes in the movie at all? Craven wanting comic relief is one thing but these moments show either total discomfort with the subject matter or nosy executive meddling.

Watching “Last House on the Left” this time, the movie seems to be about contrast. Early scenes discuss the cultural divide between child and parents. The girls have come of age, sexually, as shown in the waterfall scene, drinking wine and talking about the boys they like. Mari’s father even acknowledges that their little girl is turning into a woman, telling her mother that the girl’s interest in scary rock bands is “The kid’s way of saying she’s grown up.” The movie is almost a coming of age story gone horribly wrong. The parents pin up a birthday party banner as their daughter in trapped in the killer’s apartment. Mom bakes a cake while Krug moves in for the kill. Craven leaves the first rape off-screen, focusing on Mari’s face as she watches her friend get assaulted. Cut to: Mom and Dad canoodling in the living room. Usually, the contrast adds a cruelly ironic touch. Sometimes it is used awkwardly, such as when the violence in the forest cuts back to those stupid comic relief cops. As poorly as it’s used, even the cheesy music plays against the violence and depravity.

There are a handful of other themes bouncing around inside the movie. Krug and his family live in near poverty, while the Collingwoods are well to do suburban folk. The dinner scene is the only time the movie’s awkwardness is probably intentional, two groups of people from very different social classes making clumsy conversation over their meals. This reading makes the criminal’s violence almost an act of social rebellion. How much is this movie about gender? Mother seducing one of the men who raped her daughters seems to suggest it is at least partially. How else can you interpret a woman falsely seducing a man and then castrating him?

It’s about family too, presenting two very different clans. In one, the father is open, allowing his daughter to explore her youthful identity. In another, the dad controls his son with heroin and eventually coerces him into suicide. Craven is also commenting on the futility of vengeance, as the forlorn final moments reveal. The parents’ revenge might be righteous but, in the end, it’s all for naught. They can’t bring their daughter back. Craven was also openly influenced by news reports of Vietnam and the Manson murders. The shattering of sixties ideals those events signaled cast a long shadow over the whole film.

I throw all this out here simply to show that “Last House on the Left” is not just the trashy, sleazy exploitation flick some claim it to be. But an overly analytical approach ignores that Wes Craven made a horror film that lives up to that description. Krug is a truly terrifying villain. David Hess is committed to making the character as despicable a human being as possible. There’s a frightening intensity to his delivery, one where he rarely raises his voice. Exhibit A: The infamous “piss your pants’ sequence, the first sign the film isn’t going to cut away or pussy-foot around. The girls stripping before their captors is uncomfortable and their humiliation is further confounded by the crooks laughing at their suffering. A chase scene is perhaps the film’s only traditional horror moment, especially the way it climaxes with a machete-wielding maniac stepping into frame. A few weird sound effects can’t distract from the grimy, sickening horror of the disemboweling scene. Peabody’s screams make the pain of the name-carving scene brutally evident. The rape scene that follows is almost unbearable. Craven focuses on victim and attacker’s faces, preventing any movie-slick eroticism, drawling the horror of the situation into harsh reflect.

Despite the ghastliness of the crime, Craven still shows that Krug and company are human. After murdering Phyllis, they slowly walk away, heads down, unsure of what they have done. After the rape, everyone looks at Krug with disgust. He seems depressed as well, aware that perhaps they have pushed it too far. In the movie’s most poetic, disquieting moment, their victim descends into the lake, music playing over. Music which cuts out just as the gun fires, the girl’s body sinking beneath the water. Not long after that, the villains have their own cathartic wash in a lake.

Compared to the intensity of the middle section, the carnage of the last act can’t help but feel slightly functionary. Even if we do get to see the first of what would be many improvised booby traps in a Craven film. The chainsaw sequence, loud and lumbering, is probably the best example of the film’s tonal shift. “Last House on the Left” is effective because it is so rooted in gritty, unnerving realism. Though the title was chosen strictly for its catchiness, it winds up representing the film’s aesthetic: The horror happens at the last house on the left. In your neighborhood. In your backyard. Not in some foreign land or distant, gothic manor. This could be your home. After making that point so effectively, a chainsaw murder pushes thing slightly over the top.

The movie spawned controversy, was frequently censored or even outright banned, led to numerous low-budget rip-offs (and an eventual, overly-slick remake), all while transforming Wes Craven into a horror filmmaker. The film is rough, in quality and content, and doesn’t always overcome those flaws. It remains shocking and truly unnerving, earning its reputation as “forbidden cinema.” [Grade: B]

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