“Listen to daddy. I want you to take the gun, and I want you to put it in your mouth, and I want you to turn around and blow your brains out. Blow your brains out. Blow your brains out!” yells Krug Stillo to his son Junior.
It never ceases to amaze me how much freedom American filmmakers had in the 1970s. That decade saw the rise of such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, John Carpenter, and Brian DePalma. In 1972, a filmmaker named Wes Craven emerged on the scene with his terrific debut film The Last House On the Left, the first of several horror films he would make. This low budget effort, which was shot on 16mm, would become one of his most famous films as well as the inspiration of a terrible remake more than 35 years later. The producer of the original film, Sean S. Cunningham, would go on to launch the awful Friday the 13th franchise in 1980. I had the opportunity to catch a midnight showing of the original on the big screen last year (its 40th anniversary) at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City, and it was just as shocking as I had remembered when I first saw it in a horror film class I took several years ago. This is also one of the few “video nasties” that I’ve seen on the big screen.
It was certainly a film that reflected the time in which it was made, having been inspired by the Vietnam War. Interestingly, it was also inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 classic The Virgin Spring. Mari Collingwood, who is about to turn 17, goes into the city with her friend Phyllis to attend a concert. They try to score some marijuana before the show from Junior, who brings them back to his apartment. The other occupants of the apartment are his father Krug (a serial killer and rapist), Sadie (a sadist and psychopath), and Fred (a murderer, child molester, and peeping tom). All three had just recently escaped prison, and they prevent Mari and Phyllis from leaving. The gang take Mari and Phyllis into the woods the following morning, where they commit horrible acts on both girls, eventually killing them both. Krug and his gang change clothes and travel to the nearest house to stay for the night, unaware that the couple living there are Mari’s parents. Once Mari’s parents realize that Mari is dead and that the gang was responsible, they try to exact revenge.
The performances of the cast (Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Cynthia Carr, Gaylord St. James, Marshall Anker, and Martin Kove) are quite good. Craven pushes the audience to the limit with the amount of torture the two girls endure before they die: humiliating sexual acts, rape, and violent beatings. Krug and his gang show no restraint and no mercy as they commit these despicable acts. The audience is held captive as well, feeling especially helpless when considering that these acts take place so close to where Mari lives. It also feels worse because of the bumbling sheriff and his deputy, who seem to be a few steps behind. They serve their function as the film’s comic relief, but the laughs generated by their ineptitude aren’t comforting ones. Craven brings out a different set of shocks as he shows what extremes some parents will go to in order to exact revenge. The things Mari’s parents do to Krug and his gang brings out a certain pride and joy (as well as disgust) amongst viewers, in addition to several WTF moments.
During the early 1980s home video boom in the United Kingdom, the film was released uncut on home video. However, the “video nasty” scare that started in 1982 led to the Video Recordings Act of 1984, resulting in the film being banned by the Department of Public Prosecutions list and placed on their list of “video nasties.” The film remained banned in the U.K. for nearly 20 years.