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It's Only a Movie?: 'Last House on the Left' (Blu-ray)

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Friday, Oct 21, 2011
(F)ew could have anticipated the impact the late David Hess would have. Without him Last House on the Left would not be a horror classic. With him, it definitely is.
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The Last House on the Left: Unrated (Blu-ray)

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: David Hess, Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, Fred J. Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Richard Towers, Cynthia Carr

(MGM; US DVD: 13 Sep 2009; UK DVD: 13 Sep 2009)

On the eight of October, 2011, one of the great horror villains of all time passed away. No, it wasn’t Jason Voorhees or his vengeful mother. It wasn’t Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger. We didn’t lose Leatherface or Pinhead and we still have the newer monsters to be wary of. Though he was probably best known as an accomplished musician and songwriter, David Hess also made a noxious name for himself as the head thug in Wes Craven’s creative take on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, The Last House on the Left. This is not the recent remake or the various films (Straw Dogs, Death Wish) that follow a similar storyline. This is the craven classic of pure exploitation, a sick and twisted tale of terror sold with the brilliant marketing tagline, “Just keep telling yourself…it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie.”


Hess was – and will always be – Krug, a rapist and serial killer who has recently escaped from prison. Along with his son Junior (Marc Scheffler) and his buddies Fred the Weasel (Fred Lincoln) and Sadie (Jeramie Rain), they confront a pair of teenage girls returning from a concert - Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) and her friend, Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham). After a night or torture and sexual torment, the gang grabs their hostages and decides to head out of state. A car malfunction later and Mari and Phyllis are dragged into the woods. The latter is eventually killed and the former shot and left for dead. Looking for a place to hole up, Krug and his cronies find an isolated house, and a middle aged couple preparing a surprise party for their daughter. Turns out, it’s the Collingwood home, and when the parents discover who they are giving hospitality to and what happened to their little girl, it’s payback time.
  
It’s almost impossible not to find Last House on the Left unsettling. Even with its dated qualities and lack of special effects splatter, the core conceit remains every parent’s (or san child, civilized person’s) true social nightmare. Entire pieces of legislation have been built out of the gang of sick predators who snatch kids out of their bedrooms and practice their perversion on them. Even something as contemporary as the Manson Family at the time is name checked to accentuate the awfulness of what is to come. Equally off-putting are the movie’s motives. Craven, a young gun out to prove himself (this was 1972, decades before his Master of Horror title), wanted to make a statement, to show that both the criminals and those victimized can be as brutal and sadistic as the other.


Thanks to the brilliant direction, this film is really two long fuses that are lit one after the other. The audience can only sit back and wait for each volatile circumstance to explode. The first involves Krug and the girls. We know horrible things are going to happen. We recognize how innocence will be destroyed and virtue sullied and stained. We also see how things will eventually turn fatal. When it does happen, when the girls are given up for dead, we have the first, least effective blast. The better, more satisfying bang comes much, much later. As our nauseating villains act like jerks, as their hosts overhear what they’ve done to their family, a vile vigilantism grows. Grabbing whatever they can, including a pre-Texas Massacre chainsaw, The Collingwood’s carve up their guests with a glee that can only come from an abandoned moral compass.


Craven consistently surprises us, pushing the limits of his low budget basics without ever once apologizing for how awful things become. Many times, he uses his camera like a documentarian would, capturing atrocities in a mean, matter of fact approach. In interviews, he has argued that he wanted to capture the qualities of the Vietnam war footage hitting the nightly new each day. He wanted evil to be seen for what it is – mindless, thoughtless, and without any real reason. Then, to trump his take, his puts the same amount of effort into the parent’s revenge. The result is a post-modern meditation on violence that’s as disgusting as any 42nd Street snuff film.


For his part, the late Mr. Hess epitomizes the terror Craven hoped to create. He’s slick and savage, capable of such horrific acts that it’s hard to see him as human. But something about his overall persona – the shaggy hair and hippy demeanor, the smug smile and devious sparkle in his eye – turn him from a monster into a man, and then back again. Indeed, Hess is one of the great fiends in all of fright. He doesn’t appear to have a moment of misgiving, no desire to feel sorry for the pain and suffering he’s inflicting…all of which makes the last act comeuppance at the hands of the Collingwoods so satisfying…and disgusting. When we see common people dragged down to the depths of someone like Krug, the effect is disquieting.


But there is an overall tone of sweaty despair that fills every frame of Last House on the Left, an atmosphere of spending the night in an un-air-conditioned slaughterhouse that you just can’t shake. Craven’s matter of fact presentation may be part of it, and the storyline is indeed disgusting. But there are intangibles that don’t readily appear on the screen, aspects of our own perspective that we bring to the experience and add to what’s already there. It’s not really a “what would you do” mentality. Instead, it’s the suggestion that, no matter the possibilities, we are all doomed to die…perhaps not at the hands of a psychopath, but who knows. While he couldn’t have imagined his career would be constantly defined by a one-off shot at starring as a scary movie, few could have anticipated the impact the late David Hess would have. Without him Last House on the Left would not be a horror classic. With him, it definitely is. 


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