Last House On The Left – 3 Disc Ultimate Edition review

Wes Craven's seminal slasher gets the full treatment - but has its power to shock faded with the imitators?

In Wes Craven’s 1996 smash-hit Scream, the character of Randy lists the rules one must abide by in order to survive a horror film, one of these rules being that any sexual activity will almost certainly lead to death. You can’t help but feel that Craven was commenting on rules he himself had helped to establish in his early career, with films such as Last House on the Left. One of the very first lines spoken by a character in the film comes from a sheriff, who claims of a local seventeen-year-old girl, “she’s the prettiest piece I’ve ever seen.” This utterance is swiftly followed by a rather unnecessary shot of said girl, Mari, taking a shower, with breasts on full display through rippled glass. Moreover, a lengthy discussion between daughter, mother and father ensues about the evil of bras and the liberties of modern women. The treatment of these messages is so heavy-handed that the initial set-up of the film seems to be to give the impression that whatever is about to happen to this girl will be the reward she reaps for being so liberated. The message is quite clearly that, if you’re a woman – and a sexually enlightened one at that – you are going to pay for it.

The story itself is simple: two girls, the aforementioned Mari and her friend Phyllis, are on their way to a rock concert. On the way, they attempt to score drugs and end up crossing paths with a gang of escaped criminals; among them, a child molester, a rapist, and a woman who is described as being “like an animal.” (The fact that the girls meet their downfall while in the pursuit of drugs leads to discussions of the puritanical nature of some horror films, but that’s probably a whole other debate). The gang torture, rape and eventually murder the girls, before seeking refuge in a house, which turns out to belong to Mari’s parents, Mr and Mrs Collingwood. The parents discover what their dinner guests did to their daughter and Phyllis, and promptly set about exacting their brutal revenge.

The first half of the film is a little too bizarre for words, thanks largely to the musical score. Having already raped and beaten one of the girls, the gang proceed to lock both girls in the trunk of their car and head off into the words to continue the violence. Playing over this scene is something that would not be out of place in an episode of Little House on the Prairie. A sunshine and lollipops-style tune with the lyrics “out for the day for some fresh air and sun,” accompanies proceedings, making it seem as if the kidnap and torture of two girls is a fun-filled day-trip worthy of the Famous Five. Perhaps the intention was to treat these scenes in a light-hearted fashion in order to make the violence that follows seem all the more shocking; the attempt fails, though, and the whole thing is simply rendered ridiculous and really quite jarring. There is a shift in tone, however, and this comes most notably in the scene in which the girls are forced to strip naked, which is genuinely upsetting.

Given that the camera tends to linger rather than completely cut away, there’s a highly unpleasant voyeuristic quality to these scenes, and although the idea is probably to showcase the terrible extremes of human nature, you get the impression that the people behind the camera are enjoying the humiliation of these girls with quite a sadistic hunger. These scenes are given greater provocative power by the inclusion of the character of Sadie.

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We are used to the violence of men in the horror genre, but an unusual element here is that one of the gang overseeing the brutal treatment of these girls is a woman. Craven’s justification for this seems to be to dehumanise Sadie, to somehow make her not like other women. How does he do this? Well, Sadie is revealed to be a lesbian, which is treated as a thing of dubious nature in itself – especially when considering the time in which the film was made. When attempting to escape, Phyllis smacks Sadie with a rock and shouts “dyke!” The thing is that her being a lesbian has absolutely nothing to do with anything – it serves no purpose to the story. And so, Sadie’s sexuality is treated as the root cause for her being a twisted murderess, rather than just being incidental, which is really quite offensive to many people.

Now we come to what I suppose is the real thrust of the film – the revenge of Mari’s parents upon the killers once she and Phyllis have been murdered. In all good fiction, there has to be a strong enough grounding in realism in order for the audience to accept the more far-fetched elements of the story without question. Here, when examining the reaction of Mr and Mrs Collingwood to the news of their daughter’s death, things fall apart quite dramatically. Would they really be able to recover so quickly from their grief, and be both vicious and shrewd enough to begin setting traps all over the house, instead of calling the police?

Supposedly, the events detailed here are based upon a true story, but I’m sceptical as to how much of what transpires here really did happen. There is also the issue of how Mrs Collingwood goes about her revenge. It seems that, being a woman, the only thing she can possibly have at her disposal is her sexuality and feminine guile, both of which she promptly uses on one of the killers, leading him out into the woods and telling him she’s always wanted to be “taken easily” by a man. The dialogue here is cringe-inducing tripe, worthy of the most ill-conceived ramblings on erotic fiction websites. It’s no better than amateur porn talk. And, quite unbelievably, the killer falls for it.

The problem here is that, by the time the blood-spattered, deranged parents have got around to manically cutting up people with chainsaws, it’s really not as satisfying as it should be to see the killer’s get their comeuppance. It is no longer a case of the good people versus the bad people, because now the good people – although not without reason – have become just as crazed, just as filled with bloodlust, and just as corrupted. Their innocence has died, they have shown themselves to be just as capable of maiming and murder as the people we are supposed to hate, and so the line between good and evil is blurred. Herein lies the great downfall of revenge plots. How are we supposed to root for people who, essentially, have become twisted murderers? If however, this very predicament is the whole point of Craven’s film, and the message he wishes to convey is that, in a situation like this, there can be no winners, then he achieves his aim in a spectacularly grim, albeit flawed, fashion.

There is no doubt that, at the time in which it was released, this film was highly progressive, ground-breaking and innovative in the sense that it pushed the boundaries of what people could expect from a horror film, but watching it now in 2008, in a climate almost desensitised to violence, where blood and gore merely wash over most of us, it loses a great deal of its impact. Tarantino in particular, has made ultra-violence into something of cartoonish, slapstick proportions. Ultimately, viewing Last House on the Left has not significantly changed, worsened or improved my life, and is simply something I’d rather forget.

Extras There’s a copious amount of extras included here (over 5 hours), spread across three discs, including commentary by Wes Craven himself. The never before seen footage (none of it accompanied by sound) features Sadie performing oral sex on a distressed Mari lying naked and bound on the forest floor. The fact that it is so graphic and drawn-out really plays into my earlier argument about the voyeuristic nature of this film, and so it was probably wise to cut this. Secondly, there is an alternative version of the film entitled Krug and Company, although it features only very minor changes to the finished version (so minor, in fact, that I was hard-pressed to spot any) and, as you might expect, suffers from poor quality.

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One of the more interesting extras here is the gory documentary “Going to pieces: the rise and fall of the slasher film.” Interesting, mostly, because of the ways in which a number of horror film directors talk about their subject. John Carpenter and Craven in particular speak of human atrocities with a kind of smug matter-of-factness and a fervent light in their eyes so strong you can almost taste the bloodlust. Their explanation for the films they make is essentially, humans are geared towards violence.

A part of me – the part of me that loves the horror genre – accepts this (you only have to turn on the news to see this is true); while another part of me thinks, sure, we may all be capable of violence, but there’s no reason we should succumb to the worst aspects of human nature and revel in it. There is something really quite disturbing in their attitude. When discussing theatres of the past in which audiences would pay to view people being tortured, they speak of it with a kind of fond amusement, rather than disgust or objection, as if they’re merely recalling the time they stole a packet of sweets from the co-op.

Overall, there is no mistaking that with this package, you’re certainly getting value for money.


2 stars

Last House On The Left – 3 Disc Ultimate Edition is released on the 20th of October.


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3 out of 5