4) Last House on the Left
For all that it’s a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Wes Craven’s directorial debut is a really nasty piece of work. And you know what? The Virgin Spring is pretty nasty too. Let’s look at the tale of the nihilistic tape: In Craven’s version, two young girls buy drugs from the wrong people, and wind up getting robbed, raped and murdered. Bergman’s version is pretty much the same, except the girl’s fatal mistake is leaving her house. Advantage Bergman. Next, through a string of wacky coincidences, the killers have to stay overnight at their victim’s parents’ house, and when the parents notice that the killers are carrying a piece of their daughters’ jewelry, they decide to exact a terrible revenge. But first they need to prepare. In The Virgin Spring, this means watching Max Van Sydow singlehandedly tear down a birch tree so that he can penitently whip himself with the twigs.
In Last House on the Left, this means watching Richard Tower set up a series of singularly uneffective deathtraps. (I mean seriously, he soaps up the floor, later causing head killer David Hess to slip, curse, and then stand up and walk out of the room. Totally weak.) Advantage Bergman. Then it comes time for the revenge itself. This is a complex process, but in each case there’s a single act defining act that lets us know that the parents have gone beyond the limits of acceptible retribution. In The Virgin Spring, it’s when Sydow kills a young boy whose only real crime was having an unpleasant group of friends by throwing him into a wall. In Last House on the Left, it’s when the mother, Cynthia Carr, fellates one of the killers almost to climax before biting off his equipment. Advantage (rather definitively), Craven. The making-of featurette has a charming anecdote about this scene. “We were trying to shoot the blowjob scene, and it just didn’t look realistic. So we had him feed the end of his belt through the fly of his pants, so that she’d have something to grab onto with her teeth.” You’ve got to admire their dedication to the craft. Sure enough, the scene is distressingly believable. At the end, Carr jerks her head around like a terrier killing a rat. But this scene is so over the top that it’s pretty easy to shrug off. So what makes Last House on the Left such a punishing film to watch?
At the heart of Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 lies something he calls Snowden’s Secret (named after the most singularly unfortunate of all Heller’s unfortunate airmen). Heller talks around this grim idea for about four hundred-odd pages before he finally puts his cards on the table.
“Yossarian was cold too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowdens secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.”
This is also the secret of Last House on the Left. There are way gorier killings in horror cinema… but few are so callously biological. Before Hess murders his young victims, he forces one of the girls to urinate in her pants (“That wasn’t a special effect! That was… the real article!” she brags in the making-of video). It’s every bit as unpleasant as the killings themselves, and shares their soul-deadening quality, their reduction of the human organism to its basest animal element, and eventually to mere flesh. Incidentally, this is only really true for the deaths of the innocent young girls. The revenge killings at the end of the film are brutal, sure, but they’re also, for want of a better word poetic. They mean something: they are movie deaths. So in a sense, Last House on the Left backs away from the whole victims-of-monstrous-acts-become-the-monsters-themselves schtick that it tries so hard to sell.