Continuing Simon Augustine's countdown of the Most Disturbing Movies (Read Part 1 for the first 13). [<< #4]
3. Last House on The Left (1972) 8/10
In the horror genre, Last House on The Left is the seminal modern Disturbing Film; it was to the downer hippie crowd sliding out of the bad trip of Vietnam what Psycho was a decade earlier to audiences covering their eyes during the shower scene. A gang of drugged-out killers, lead by Krug (David Hess, one of the standout exploitation roles of all time; far too convincing) drags a pair of upper class girls to the woods of suburban Connecticut after the teenagers are ensnared going to the big city to see a rock band. They proceed to viciously humiliate, rape, and dismember them in some of the grimmest and unsettling scenes ever put to celluloid.
Based loosely on Bergman's The Virgin Spring, Last House has slapstick “comic-relief” cop scenes (with a young Martin Kove, who would later command “finish him!” in The Karate Kid), some goofy music, and bad production values, but when Krug and his gang and their victims are hidden away in the idyllic woods with nothing but silence and the sadistic glee of humanity at its worst, nothing in film horror had reached that level before.
In Psycho a decade before, the shower scene murder was a marvel of editing, glimpses, suggestion. The year Hitchcock produced his masterpiece, a jump forward for the horror genre, the sixties as we know them--hippies, LSD and blistering rock and roll--had yet to arrive; greasers, preppy a cappella, doo-wop and early Beach Boys ruled the charts.
By the time Last House signified the next leap forward into the future of the genre, innocence was gone; The Stones sang “Sympathy For The Devil” while Hells Angels killed a concertgoer in front of them, JFK, RFK, Martin, Malcolm, and Medgar had been assassinated, and The Manson Family had murdered Sharon Tate. Wes Craven's breakthrough tolls the bell of irreparable change; it is all lingering shots, slow death, gritty desperation, and a vileness emerging from people as if they are caught by surprise in a nightmare of their own making.
Sontag knew it took art to both create and describe the sensibility of “camp.” Craven makes something as intangible and powerful here: artfully artless, and seemingly helter-skelter; an atmosphere of sordid losers who are confused about where they came from and don't know where they are going, the sensibility of an interior apocalypse in which moral vacuity is not only probable but inevitable. It takes the distance and smugness of camp and converts into a terrifying absence of empathy and common humanity. Call it “Cramp.” It would come to define the modern horror film, and be the inspiration for a thousand filmmakers to come.
When Krug commands the girls to “pee your pants' and make out with each other, the allure of sadism is driven home; when we get a glimpse of the gang pulling one of the girls intestines out her stomach and another languishes in a pond and drowns, all hope is lost. Krug and his gang then, unfortunately for them, wind up crashing at the house of the girls' parents. When the suburban pair realize they are harboring their daughters' killers, they drop the façade of privileged suburbanites and attack the gang via chainsaw and oral castration. The ending song by Hess, “The Road Leads To Nowhere,” sums up the proceedings and the significance of the story.
Bonus: Last House features one of the best and commercially effective, “imitated but never duplicated” taglines in horror history: “Just keep repeating: It's only a movie, It's only a movie, It's only a movie...”
(Also, this is a film that holds additional mythic import for me because I grew up in the town next to Wesport, Connecticut, where Craven shot it in the backyard of family friends. It was produced by Sean S. Cunningham, who hung out with my parents the year I was born, and nine years after Last House would bring “Cramp” to a massive mainstream audience for the first time by giving it the blockbuster Friday the 13th. If only the parental units still knew him about eight years later, when I made my own first Disturbing Film in a graveyard with a Super 8 camera, a bottle of ketchup, and a Louisville Slugger…)
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