“Pretty young thing like you is my only game.”—Danzig
When I was a young boy growing up in Philly, there were many VHS video rental stores close to home. My favorite at the time was a “mom & pop” venture by the name of Shangri-La Video on Frankford Ave in Mayfair. I loved to wander the store it was always neatly categorized by genre and each section was like a treasure trove of obscure and forgotten cinematic gems. The 1980’s VHS cover artwork accompanied by memorable titles, especially for horror, was so lurid and colorful it’s like they were ripped from the pages of the 1950’s EC Comics. I was usually able to rent what I wanted upon, my parents’ approval and keen watchful eye. There were even some titles that I requested that were shot down right away, and deep down I knew it was a NO GO before asking—but hey, it was worth a try. The usual answer of rejection was, “No, wait till you’re older to see this or you’re not old enough yet.” Those dreaded words made me want the video even more. Who cares if it turned out to be utter trash and a letdown…the anticipation was built and I MUST SEE what the VHS covers promised to my young inquisitive spirit. Well one of the titles that I was told no to at the innocent age of 9 was none other than the shocking feature, The Last House on the Left (1972).
Mari, Sandra Peabody of Teenage Hitchhikers (1975) celebrates her seventeenth birthday with friend Phyllis, Lucy Grantham of Loops (1973) by driving to New York City to attend the concert of band Bloodlust (nice foreshadowing). Meanwhile, the sadistic criminals Krug, David Hess of House on the Edge of the Park (1980) and Weasel, Fred Lincoln, his only non-pornographic acting role, are holed up in a hideout after killing guards while escaping from the pen with partners Sadie, of Jeramie Rain of The Abductors (1972) and Krug’s heroin addicted son Junior, Marc Sheffler of TV’s Charles in Charge (1984).
Mari and Phyllis arrive to a dangerous neighborhood of the Big Apple with hopes of scoring some pot before the show and they meet Junior on the way. The naive girls follow Junior to his apartment (the spider’s web) and are abducted and assaulted by the criminals. The concert now a bust and Mari’s birthday a nightmare, Krug and gang stow the girls in the trunk of their stolen car and hit the road in hopes of crossing the border into Canada. Enroute, the car breaks down; unsuspectingly pulls over on the side of the road…stranded, close to Mari’s house. The trunk is opened and Phyllis tries to escape before both girls are humiliated, tortured and murdered in cold blood. Krug’s gang, stranded and fresh from killing, seek shelter in Mari’s home by her welcoming and unbeknownst parents. During the gang’s stay, the parents learn of the details of what happened to Mari and Phyllis. The parents plot a scheme to avenge the death of their daughter and seek Old Bible family redemption with an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
The Last House on the Left is a horror feature that was written/directed by then first time filmmaker, Wes Craven of The Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and unknown producer by Sean S. Cunningham of Friday the 13th (1980). Last House was originally inspired by the 13th-century Swedish ballad Tores dotter i Wange, and Ingmar Berman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) Last House is a very visually disturbing film that will shock you to your core upon its completion due images and intense portrayal of abduction, torture, and rape. Last House was outright banned in Britain and tagged as a video nasty, and was originally slated for an “X” rating before landing an “R.”
Last House’s cinematography is typical for a low budget 70’s production, but that is the last thing typical of this feature to its contemporary peers. The film’s soundtrack was performed by Hess and is very eerie and comical through the 64/82/84/91 min runtime (depends on the cut you watch) making the onscreen violence much more twisted. Last House was a sleeper success due to its word of mouth, intensive, popular marketing plan, and the fact that may authority figures made the film more infamous due to their harsh criticism towards the filmmakers and the film’s content. Some theater owners refused to exhibit the film, cut it up, and sent it back to distributors. The backlash from “old heads” were engrained with 50’s ideology even forced Craven to resign from being a professor due to the harsh criticism and negative mindset towards him and his debut film. Unfortunately, the title alone has warranted other films to sell themselves as the unofficial sequel or the popular interest in recent years encouraged the studios to remake the movie in 2009.
The brutality and violence was staggering, the film spoke volumes of the depravity of the human soul. I remember the first time watching Last House; I was dead silent and fully aware I just learned a valuable lesson about the very REAL evil that lurked outside of my home in the real world. The 70’s horror shied away from the atypical monster movie and showed that monsters were human and always lurking in your town, your neighborhood or right next door.
Last House hit close to home in 1972 and was an artistic response to the real life horrors documented on TV every day from Vietnam, the ongoing lies of the Nixon administration, and the failure of the counterculture movement. Last House, as harsh as it is, is a very historically important and socially significant film which awakens the situational awareness in all of us, that nobody is truly safe and to be on your guard against strangers. For every decision we make, there are very real and at times permanent consequences.
Watch it if you have the guts, but be prepared, this is not for the faint of heart. Overall, this film should be seen at least once, if nothing more than a lesson to be learn about the depravity of the human soul that is out there. Thanks to my parents for telling me no at 9, as I think this would have definitely screwed me up for a bit. So be careful out there and if you do experience The Last House on the Left and get scared, just keep telling yourself, “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…”