Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Road Leads to Nowhere

The Last House On The Left (1972)

Weasel, Sadie and Krug

Is it just me or is political correctness plummeting America further into the downward spiral of dumbness? Rather than protect the rights of others it has turned everyone into a bunch of knee-jerk crybabies who are offended by everything instead of actually bothering to discuss anything. Sure, these people that espouse political correctness say they believe in equal rights for everyone - unless you disagree with them about anything for any reason and then they want to pull your eyes out with fish hooks. These are the same people who cry about HUCKLEBERRY FINN being required reading and protest cruelty to tuna fish.

And glory be, all the hoopla over the Confederate flag! Half are saying it's a symbol of racism and the other half are saying it doesn't just represent the 1% slave-owning elite of the Old Confederacy, but Southern culture and heritage in general. Me, I always associate it with the General Lee on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD and Dixie Beer so I guess it depends on who you ask. But anyway, does pulling down some flags and some statues of old generals really do anything to combat racism in the present? Aren't we just editing out the parts of history that make us uncomfortable so we have an excuse for repeating the same dunderheaded mistakes over and over? There was even a huge uproar here in Dead River over the annual Confederate Heroes Parade. It was originally started to honor the young men who were drafted into the Confederate Army and killed during the Civil War. Also, legend has it Union troops tried to torch this place because they were convinced the locals were refugees from an insane asylum. People from up North and further out West may be perplexed at the reverence Southerners have for their ancestors, but in the South you need to honor your dead relatives because you may very well see them again when the cemetery floods during hurricane season.  However, I think some good ol' boys in city government figured out there was graft to be taken so now it's a full-blown affair with some gomers dressed up like famous Confederate generals and fried shrimp. Opponents say the parade celebrates a deplorable part of American history and others say it's just an excuse for drunken debauchery, but both those things can be said about our Thanksgiving Day Parade. I personally kind of like the parade as fried shrimp is plentiful and it's a chance to see The Hell's Belles in all their glory. For the uninformed, The Hell's Belles is a group of local drag queens with criminal records who dress like the love child of Divine and Blanche DuBois and perform punked out versions of traditional songs like "Dixie's Land" and "Down in Alabama." In the last two years they've incorporated stage blood and decapitated dummies into their act. That's just more fun than the law allows.

Another voice of dissent rose from Lyle Calhoun, disgruntled after being excommunicated from the parade because he lost the pants to the Stonewall Jackson costume. So come parade day you have the PC Thugs trying to block the parade route, then you have the equally annoying defenders of The Lost Cause school who all talk like they have tetanus and spend too much time watching GONE WITH THE WIND and touching themselves. You also have a bunch of drunk people wandering around eating shrimp, but that's every Dead River parade. I'm about to start slapping the first two groups with my copy of C. Vann Woodward's THE NEW SOUTH, but I just can't be violent when there's free shrimp around. Then all of a sudden, Lyle Calhoun blazes up on his motorcycle wearing the now barbecue-and-beer-stained Stonewall Jackson jacket, brandishing a sword and hollering, "Sic semper tyrannus!" He plowed straight into one of the front floats and knocked off Cecil Dawes, the bank president, dressed as Robert E. Lee. Cecil went flying and the float plowed over six PC thugs and a fire hydrant. Ol' Lyle then lost control of his motorcycle and the thing went flying straight through the window of a Winn-Dixie. From then on it was bedlam and anarchy, which pretty much happens every time there's a parade in Dead River. A group of the PC thugs made the mistake of trying to pull the Hell's Belles off their and were rewarded with platform heels to the face and falsie-bludgeonings for their trouble. So, now we've got a packed and understaffed hospital, overflowing jail cells (several of the Hell's Belles had outstanding warrants as well), and a pantsless Lyle Calhoun on the lam with a sword.

And speaking of not giving a damn about offensiveness or political correctness, we're talking about Wes Craven's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972). The horror community lost an imaginative and thoughtful voice with Mr. Craven's recent passing. Though I never met him in person, I was plagued by the feeling people must get when their favorite uncle dies. Good ol' Uncle Wes was a huge influence on me and memories of viewing his movies are forever associated with coping with my parents' WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF-like divorce. Why not pay tribute to him with an ultra-in-depth analysis of my favorite of all his movies, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)? It's funny, if you had asked me what my favorite Wes Craven movie was ten years ago, I would have eagerly replied with THE HILLS HAVE EYES or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. But somehow, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT has kept turning up at important moments in my life. It's invariably become the juvenile delinquent best friend I always wanted. I even remember the epic search I embarked upon to find this movie. As a middle-school girl with a taste for extreme cinema, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was one of those "forbidden movies," the kind that you feel bad about watching, the kind I would scour the internet for details about why it was so outrageous and disturbing. More interesting, though was how much the film divided reviewers. Half insisted it was reprehensible incompetently-made garbage and the other half (Roger Ebert included) insisted it was a rough-edged masterpiece. I couldn't find a video store anywhere around me that had it, and my quest to see THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT became the quest for the holy grail. I finally found it during summer visitation with my dad when he decided the newly blended family should take a trip to the beach. Since I prefer onscreen depravity to the real-life stuff, I naturally preferred to go to the video store. And there, in a video store in Galveston, Texas was THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

Collingwood mailbox

When released in 1972, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was a new kind of American horror film. Made in the wake of George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, these films were apocalyptic, pulled no punches and pushed boundaries for sex and violence. They were not meant to entertain but to assault and they cut deep. They were a product of the cultural storm brewing in America at that time with increasing public dissatisfaction about America's involvement in the Vietnam War, the beginning of an economic recession, social upheaval (civil rights, the sexual revolution, the beginning of women's liberation, the divide between social progressives and The Silent Majority) and increasing violence in American life (race riots, Kent State, political assassinations, the Manson Family murders). Films like LAST HOUSE and Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, were a "counter-cinema" made, as Jeffrey Sconce writes in his article Trashing the Academy, "in opposition to Hollywood cinema and the mainstream US culture it represents...linked to dominant interests as a form of cultural coercion." They were an earlier cinematic equivalent of punk music: raw, outrageously nihilistic, confrontational, anti-establishment and stripped the medium to its bare essentials (as a result of budgetary constraints, inexperience and filmmakers' background in documentary filmmaking). In these films, balance is never restored and at the end the world is left in chaos and violence. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT particularly disturbed viewers for its refusal to present clear lines between heroes and villains: villains become victims and the heroes are equally capable of heinous violence.

Krug carves his name in Mari's chest

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman's THE VIRGIN SPRING, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT introduces us to pretty, rebellious Mari Collingwood (SANDRA PEABODY, here credited as SANDRA CASSELL) who is celebrating her seventeenth birthday. Mari lives in upper-middle-class comfort with her strict mother Estelle (CYNTHIA CARR) and physician father, John (GAYLORD ST. JAMES t/n RICHARD TOWERS) in an isolated home in the Connecticut woods. For her birthday, Mari ventures out of suburbia with her street-smart friend, Phyllis (LUCY GRANTHAM) into New York City to see a concert for an Alice Cooper-style band named Bloodlust. Before she leaves, John gives Mari her birthday gift: a peace-symbol necklace. Unfortunately, the girls are kidnapped by an ad hoc family of escaped criminals comprised of charming psychopath and father-figure/leader, Krug (an unforgettable DAVID HESS), his girlfriend Sadie (JERAMIE RAIN, who I think resembles Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson), sidekick Weasel (FRED LINCOLN, who despite a career in porno movies spanning decades still refers to LAST HOUSE as the film he's the most ashamed of) and Krug's battered junkie son, Junior (MARK SHEFFLER). Krug and Company toss the teens in the trunk of their black Cadillac and head for the Canadian border, but their car breaks down near the woods surrounding Mari's house. Mari is horrified once she realizes she is literally in her own backyard, but she is unable to escape or reach help and the two girls are subjected to an escalation of violence: first humiliation (rape and murder are one thing, but somehow forcing someone to pee their own pants seems so much more degrading and perverse), physical abuse, then when Phyllis attempts to run for help, rape and murder. The criminal "family" unwittingly seeks refuge at the nearby house of Mari's parents. After an overheard conversation, the discovery of bloody clothes and one of the killers sporting Mari's peace-symbol necklace, the Collingwoods realize they are harboring their daughter's murderers and exact a vengeance with a ferocity they didn't even realize they possessed.


THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is infamous for its brutal depiction of violence, but that was writer-director Wes Craven's intention. The film is a protest against sanitized portrayals of violence in film and television, an attempt to re-sensitize Americans to violence in the wake of the Vietnam War and increasing violence in day-to-day American life. Violence in LAST HOUSE is ugly, messy and has a devastating impact on both its victims and perpetrators. After each act of violence, Craven's camera depicts the result, but then lingers on the faces of the people involved. The importance is shifted away from the spectacle of violence to the impact on both the victims and perpetrators. For example, Phyllis's murder may be the toughest scene in the film to watch. Phyllis is stabbed to the point where she is eviscerated. Phyllis's death is drawn out and agonizing the way it would be in real life, and even more devastating for the viewer as we see her continue to struggle and fight for her life. During the murder of Phyllis, Craven's camera lingers on the faces of the attackers, twisted in primal rage, intercut with Phyllis's agonized reaction, then cutting to the aftermath of the destruction. Likewise with the rape of Mari, Craven shoots the action from a medium close-up of attacker and victim placing the importance not on the rape itself, but the reaction of those involved in the action. The murders of the killers at the hands of the Collingwoods are calculated and vicious: Weasel is seduced by Estelle, then orally castrated; even sadistic Krug fights for his life and even begs ("Let's just get it over with, huh?" he pleads) before John slaughters him with a chainsaw. In trying to flee, Sadie stumbles into the family's swimming pool and has her throat slit by Estelle as she attempts to pull herself out. Unlike in other films of this type, the Collingwoods gain no joy or satisfaction from their revenge. Close-ups of the parents turned victimizers reveal only grim, primitive anger. The film ends with a freeze-frame of the Collingwoods, huddled together, broken. The pink "Happy Birthday, Mari!" hangs fallen in the background. John and Estelle have lost their daughter and in their revenge, they have turned their own home into a slaughterhouse.

Final shot of Estelle and John Collingwood

It is important that the first third of the film is devoted to the characters before the mayhem actually begins. I've always thought Craven did an excellent job of depicting teenage female friendship and LAST HOUSE is no different. The violence that is inflicted upon Mari and Phyllis is much worse after seeing the bond they have with one another and spending time with them as they engage in girl-talk, marvel at the changing leaves in the woods, sneak a covert bottle of Boone's Farm and go for ice cream before the concert.  In another film Mari might have been a sheltered brat or an overly precious ingĂ©nue but here is basically a sweet kid who's trying to find her place as an adult in a changing world. Phyllis too may be a "bad girl" from the wrong side of the tracks, but she's also a loyal friend. Phyllis's already harrowing murder is even more brutal to watch after seeing her consistently defend, protect and comfort Mari, even at her own expense.

Mari and Phyllis

Craven spends an equal amount of time with the criminal "family" who joke with one another, bicker, and express hopes and dreams; they are initially sympathetic which only makes their brutality more shocking. Like the girls, they have an alliance to and care for one another.

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT's rough style and strange juxtaposition of different elements is a product of the cultural storm of the early 1970s. Wes Craven's previous experience was in documentary filmmaking and blue movies which lend to the cinema-verite style of the film. This aids Craven's aim in presenting a realistic depiction of violence to re-sensitize the viewer and its technical ignorance actually works in its favor: its lack of polish and lack of adherence to convention throw the viewer further off-balance; there are no Hollywood rules - narratively or stylistically that the audience may rely on as a safety net. Many have criticized the film's juxtaposition of realistic violence with goofy slapstick (scenes featuring two bumbling cops played by MARSHALL ANKER and B-movie maven MARTIN KOVE) and equally goofy folk music (scored by Krug himself, DAVID HESS). It's true, the slapsticky scenes with the two cops Elmer Fudd-ing around don't really work and are nowhere near as compelling as the rest of the film. They can be justified in a narrative sense in that their gomer-ish antics explain why the Collingwoods don't just call the police. Also, the clumsy juxtaposition works in a way as it's something else that throws the audience completely off-balance. Incorporating slapstick comedy relief in a violent drive-in movie was a convention at the time (and is probably the reason it is included here), but in this film the violence is so extreme, the line between hero and villain so ambiguous that its juxtaposition with screwball pratfalls is more unsettling than comforting. It also conveys the contempt for authority that was brewing in America at the time, particularly for the police. And really, I would never argue for their excision as I think ADA WASHINGTON, the chicken lady needs to be in more movies.

Ada Washington

The same criticism is levelled at the folksy soundtrack by DAVID HESS, particularly the banjo-and- kazoo infused "Baddies Theme." However, I am actually a shameless fan of the music and dammit, I proudly own the soundtrack. I think the music actually makes a few scenes even more poignant (the ballad "Now You're All Alone" in particular, but I will talk more about that in a minute). I too, was thrown off by the "Baddies Theme" the first time I watched LAST HOUSE but over time it's grown on me. It may not have been employed this way intentionally but it also serves to disarm the viewer into thinking they are watching a standard drive-in film with depraved but cartoonish bad guys (it recalls a funkier, sillier version of "Foggy Mountain Stomp Down" in BONNIE AND CLYDE) instead of what they ultimately find out they were watching. It is also an example of the cynical dark humor that pervaded early 1970s America. The contrast between the soundtrack and the brutal violence and moral ambiguity in LAST HOUSE may purely be a product of the time as well as radio broadcasts of war and violence (the radio broadcast announcing endless acts of depravity is also utilized in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) were interspersed with popular folk songs.

As a product of its culture and its time, the characters in LAST HOUSE also glibly comment about the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism. Mari's peace-symbol necklace is not only significant in the narrative of the film, but a symbol of '60s idealism, the dreams for the end of War and a utopian America that faded into the cynicism and nihilism of the '70s.

Krug, Sadie and Weasel

While LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT does work primarily because of its rough n' raw anti-Hollywood style, the film also contains some surprisingly lyrical moments. I am still haunted by Mari's Suicide Walk. Following her rape by Krug, Mari says a prayer as the killers experience a brief moment of remorse, trying to wipe the blood off their hands, looking away from each other in shame. Mari, in a trance, walks straight into a nearby lake. The criminals drift behind her and Krug shoots her. The idea that someone could feel so hopeless that they would want to walk into the water and just disappear is still a chilling one to me and this moment in the film is strangely poetic, underscored by the ballad "Now You're All Alone." Also impressive is the uncomfortable dinner scene where the Collingwoods and the criminal anti-family have spaghetti at the table together. Instead of dining room walls, there is only a black back-drop so the scene feels like it takes place in a dream-space and close-ups of the worried parents are cross-cut with close-ups of the awkward lower class criminals their bandaged injuries.

Last House on the Left (1972) dinner sequence

Family and social conflict factor into the horror of  LAST HOUSE. Craven would investigate the American family as a source of horror in nearly all of his films and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT presents an all-American family in conflict with a primitive, violent anti-family. The upper-middle-class Collingwoods are linked to the lower class criminal "family" through crosscutting from the very beginning of the film (this theme would be repeated and expounded upon in Wes Craven's following film, THE HILLS HAVE EYES). Both families are dysfunctional in their own ways, exemplified by Mari's open conflict with her strict mother and Junior's domination by his father. It is also implied that family offers no security or comfort to Phyllis either with her snarky remark that her parents are in the "iron and steel business...My mother irons and my father steals." Both the Collingwood family and Krug's ad hoc criminal anti-family band together to commit heinous acts with the upper-middle-class family proving to be no better than the lower class one.

In some ways, the class conflict presented in the film allows the viewer some sympathy for the killers in the aforementioned uneasy dinner scene. The lower class criminal anti-family is obviously uncomfortable in their burgeois surroundings ("Place like this makes me wish I was a lady," Sadie quips while Krug sneers, "Goddamn tight-ass freakos. Who do they think they are anyway?"), nervous about how to behave at the dinner table around their more sophisticated hosts. Craven stated: "Once Krug and his family were in the parents' house...I felt badly that they realized they could never aspire to that sort of bourgeois life." Mrs. Collingwood's animosity towards Phyllis does not seem to come from Phyllis's rebellious nature but from the fact that she comes from a lower social class ("from that slum"). Unlike the upper class, the middle class may have affluence and security but there is always the fear that it is tenuous and could be lost or taken away. They also incur the wrath of the lower class who feel they are equally deserving but have not been afforded the same opportunities. Many American horror films feature a middle-class family under threat of the lower class who decide to simply take what they believe they are entitled to, whereupon the middle-class family reasserts its dominance through violence and assuages its guilt (the 2009 remake of LAST HOUSE included). In Craven's film, however, the superiority of the American middle class is attacked revealing savagery and hypocrisy underneath.

Krug, Sadie and Weasel in Mari's bedroom
The exploration of the American family in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and other American horror films of the 1970s was perhaps due to re-examination of all cultural institutions following the social upheaval of the 1960s, the suspicion with which many of these "all-American" institutions were regarded, and their changing dynamics to adapt to a rapidly changing society.  It is interesting to note the impact of the Manson Family murders on the subtext of American horror films. The Tate-LaBianca murders and the following sensationalized trial of Charles Manson and his "Family" are often cited by historians as the nail in the coffin of '60s idealism. Subsequent to this, many American horror films, including THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, depicted a homicidal family living outside of civilization. The ad hoc family of criminals in LAST HOUSE does resemble the Manson Family in some aspects, particularly in the fact that they are a group of outsiders bonded together and lead by a charismatic psychopath. Sadie resembles the so-called Manson Girls as well. Her name may be taken from Susan Atkins' alias "Sadie Mae Glutz" (in fact, JERAMIE RAINN was portraying Susan Atkins in an off-Broadway play around this time) but she is also a young woman looking for the comfort and security of a family, finding it in a group of criminals. She is also under the influence of Krug ("He changes your head around...you become someone else all together" she says) and too willing to let him nudge her into violence and depravity. Some of the grisly mayhem perpetrated by Krug and Company recalls the Manson Family Murders as well; the evisceration of Phyllis recalls the brutal stabbings of the Tate-LaBianca victims and Krug carving his name into Mari's chest with a knife recalls the killers carving "WAR" into Leno LaBianca's stomach.

Subtext aside, one thing that reviewers (particularly in its initial run) seem to ignore about LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is the performances. I have always thought the acting in the film was impressive, particularly from the two leading ladies and Krug's anti-family. Both SANDRA PEABODY and LUCY GRANTHAM do an excellent job of portraying the sympathetic bond and teenage rebelliousness of the two girls, then the agony and desperation in the later scenes. I know LAST HOUSE had to be a resume-killer, but I was surprised both young women had not done more film work. Same goes for FRED LINCOLN as Weasel Podowski. He infuses Weasel with a sense of humor and a world-weary coolness that makes him more interesting and sympathetic and it would have been something to see him in more legitimate films. JERAMIE RAIN always stands out to me as well as Sadie. Agile, pretty with an almost feline-like quality, the West Virginia native is equally adept at portraying the character's viciousness as her hardened-but-vulnerable and comic sides (just watch the way she exaggeratedly teases and sprays her hair or listen to her little speech where she talks about Sigmund Freud). But the one we all remember is DAVID HESS as Krug. Darkly handsome with a commanding presence, HESS exudes the charisma, the intense anger and the glib charm of a cold-blooded psychopath. He is so convincing in the role that he would play imperious Krug-like rapist-murderers in THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and HITCH-HIKE, but I think Krug is the one that lingers in the dark corners of our imaginations.

And who can forget the enigmatic Gaylord St. James and his amazing sideburns?

Gaylord St. James

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT has earned its place as my favorite Wes Craven movie (and one of my favorite movies in general) because of the fact that there is always something to discuss about it. No matter how many times I watch it, it still manages to elicit emotion. And I can't say that about THE VIRGIN SPRING.

Thanks for all the nightmares, Uncle Wes. We miss you.

I think there is something about the American Dream, this sort Disney-esque dream if you will of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white picket fence and Mom and Dad and happy children, God-fearing, doing good whenever they can, that expectation and then the flip side of it of anger and sense of outrage that that's not the truth of the matter. I think that gives American horror films in additional sense of rage.

                         - Wes Craven

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