What’s the deal? Rape and then vengeful violence.
Still banned? No
WARNING: Spoilers and NSFW imagery included below.
NB: I have not seen the remake; this is not a comparative review.
Several backgrounds for this one.
First, in the 13th century, someone decided to write a ballad that would eventually become this story. In the ballad, a girl and her friend wander into the woods, where they are set upon by bandits. The bandits rape and murder the girl, before seeking shelter at her parent’s house. The bandits die, and where the girl was murdered, a spring of holy water emerges. There’s a fair bit lost in translation in all of this, but it’s a religiously significant text.
In 1960, Ingmar Bergman made a film in his native Sweden entitled The Virgin Spring. It’s an adaptation of the ballad – Karin and Ingeri go into the words to take offerings to a church. Karin is blond and angelic, Ingeri is brunette and pregnant therefore kinda evil. Well not evil, but sort of expendable. The bandits come along, rape and kill Karin, and kill Ingeri and take shelter in Karin’s parent’s house. They offer the same offerings Karin had been carrying as payment for food and shelter.
Karin’s dad decides to wreak some holy revenge on them. He kills them all (including a little brother bandit who is remorseful and not as implicit in the crime as his brothers) before going into the woods and praying. He tells God that as penance for his crimes he will build a church, and when he finds Karin’s body, the same spring of holy water emerges, hence the film’s title. The film is one of Bergman’s better ones, and the rape is significant; the father’s actions are horrific and sinful, but it suggests that this does not make him a man who’s straying from God in his actions – he is revenging the brutal murder of his daughter and the violation of her by the bandits. It deals a lot with the nature of faith, especially when bad things happen to good people. It’s worth noting that the film is beloved by critics.
In 1972, Wes Craven made his film debut with Last House on the Left, a retelling of The Virgin Spring, updated to a contemporary American setting, but incorporating political undertones of the Vietnam War. Craven’s film is brutal and bloody, and many regarded it as just another exploitation film. His intention was to make people react to violence again. He thought that with the Vietnam War streaming horrific war-related violence into people’s homes, that the public was being desensitised to it. He also felt that there was no catharsis in it. Despite the multitudes of protests from the American People, the footage seemed like it was a perpetual war, with no release. So he made Last House on the Left, which was made on a shoestring budget but with a great knack for horror. Now the violence was real and unsettling again, and in a way, people got to have a release.
Last House on the Left
The film was deemed too violent by the Australian censors, and it was banned in 1973. It remained as such until 2004, when it was re-released on DVD. It was re-allowed just two days after I Spit on Your Grave.What is odd about this is that Last House on the Left was never re-submitted by anybody, and attracted very little attention, as opposed to I Spit on Your Grave.
We open the movie with a postman driving down a road where he stops at the letter box of the Collingwood family (and I’d like to point out here that from the orientation of the car, we can easily learn that this house, though it may be the last, is clearly on the right). The postman talks of Mari Collingwood, how it is her birthday, and how everyone is writing to her and how beautiful she is. Mari is the updated Karin from The Virgin Spring, and this scene, although very 1970s acted is letting us know just how great Mari must be – it’s the modern take on the purity of virginity – popularity.
We then meet Mari as she is talking to her parents, John and Estelle. John is questioning her lack of a bra, while Mari states that it is just for her freedom as a woman, while Estelle raves at the notion – “if God had meant for women’s breasts to be exposed, he wouldn’t have given us clothes!” (she’s clearly ignoring the fact that God made Adam and Eve naked, and that realising they were nude was part of their punishment, but anyway…) Mari is clearly a nice girl but an independent one.
I know how often I talk to my parents whilst fondling myself.
The scene is a little hokey, but it does a good job of showing us that John and Estelle are, despite being a little wound-up, very loving parents. And despite her relative ease with flaunting her lovely lady lumps at him, John gives her a birthday present – a peace symbol necklace.
Mari is off to a concert in New York (in an ominously “bad neighbourhood” as per Estelle’s description) with local bad-girl Phyllis Stone (the updated version of Ingeri, however, not pregnant). Phyllis tells Estelle that her parents are in the Iron and Steel industries, meaning that her mother irons and her father steals. There’s no real reason for Phyllis to be a bad-girl, other than gaining Estelle’s initial disapproval. They set off to the concert, but not before some frolicking in the woods. I don’t mean that in a lesbian-porn innuendo way, they literally spend about ten minutes frolicking in the woods. It does, however, establish that Mari is a bit more adventurous then her parents let on – the two are on the hunt for some weed.
In the meantime, we get introduced to the bandits, Krug (pronounced so the ‘u’ rhymes with crude), Sadie, Weasel and Junior. A radio-report on these “escaped murderers and degenerates” suggests that Junior is Sadie and Krug’s son. They’re actually reasonably well-defined characters. Krug is the complete-monster, Sadie is the psychopath, Weasel is the smart-guy-sadist, and Junior is the reluctant participant, also a junkie. In fact, a very reasonable analogy would be Harry Potter – Krug is Voldemort, Sadie is Bellatrix Lestrange, Weasel is Lucius Malfoy, and Junior is a bit like Draco. The first hint that we get that these cats are evil is this: they pop a kid’s balloon.
Ridiculous though that may seem at first, they do later turn out to be pretty evil monsters. When Junior is hanging around on the streets, he is greeted by Phyllis and Mari, looking to find some whacky-tobaccy. Junior is strung-out, and takes them back to his apartment, as offerings to Krug and Company (which was, incidentally, one of the film’s working titles) so that he can get his fix of heroin. Krug, Sadie and Weasel set about menacing the two girls, at first being domineering and intimidating. Things turn decidedly nastier when they punch Phyllis very hard in the gut, and she drops to the ground. It is implied that they then rape her, but if it happens, it happens off screen. The scene is intercut with John and Estelle back home, preparing for Mari’s birthday party. It’s an effective series of juxtapositions, as we don’t just experience the horror of the scene, we understand that these actions affect a wider range of people. We then see John and Estelle, at first waiting for Mari to come home, then getting a little edgy when she still doesn’t turn up. Then they ring the police, who turn out to be useless. These scenes happen over the course of the film, but it’ll be easier to just get them out of the way now.
L-R: Weasel, Krug, Sadie
The next day, the four bandits load Phyllis and Mari into the boot of their car, and go for a little drive. Junior drives, while Weasel sits next to Krug, who is in the process of shagging Sadie, and the background music sings about them. No joke here people – the song goes:
“Weasel and Junior, Sadie and Krug/ out for a day with the Collingwood crew/ Out for the day for some fresh air and sun/ Let’s have some fun with those/ two lovely children then/ off with the tune and we’re done!”
There’s even a second verse. They take Mari and Phyllis into the woods, and menace them some more. As they drag her out of the boot, Mari recognises her letterbox, realising she is close to home. First, they make Phyllis wet herself while they watch, leering and jeering, and then they make Phyllis and Mari get naked and fool around with each other. Mari is particularly distraught at this, and Phyllis, though shaken up, takes care of her as much as she can. Junior tries to stop this as much as he can, but without actually interfering per se.
Krug decides to go up to the car to get his gun, leaving Weasel in charge. Phyllis asks if she can put on her clothes, as she’s cold. She then whispers to Mari that when she makes a break for it, Mari should run for help. Phyllis runs, pursued by Sadie and Weasel. Mari then tries to convince Junior to let her go (even renaming him Willow in the process. …it was the 70s, people) even offering him methadone from her nearby home. She, significantly, even gives him her peace-symbol necklace.
Sadie and Weasel catch up with Phyllis, except she gets away once more when she brains Sadie with a rock. She runs away again, through a cemetery (never exactly a good sign) even coming across a road with passing cars. As she heads towards it, she is stopped by Krug, now with accompanying machete, blocking her path. He joins Sadie and Weasel in tormenting her. Then Weasel stabs her in the back (literally – I’m not being metaphorical) and all she can do is try and crawl away, while they kick her back down. The scene is kind of heartbreaking, because Phyllis has been really strong up until now, and she’s just defeated. It’s sad, but it’s also commendable for letting the film exist in reality – she is knifed in the back and crippled by it.
She finds her way to a tree and slumps against it (the image in the film poster, even though the poster says this is Mari…) and he three sadists decide to finish her off. Weak as she is, she still manages to spit in Krug’s face. They all have a go at stabbing her, and she dies.
Meanwhile, Mari, who is now seemingly in a bit of a better mental state, cries out for Phyllis, and persuades Junior to run with her. They run, but are stopped by Krug, Sadie and Weasel. Needless to say, Junior doesn’t exactly stand up for her. Mari drops to the ground, held at machete-point, and asks if Phyllis got away. Krug shakes his head “no”, incredulous, and it must be said the moment is a bleakly funny one. The humour vanishes as quickly as it appears, as Mari then sees Sadie and Weasel covered in blood, and they throw Phyllis’s now-dismembered hand at her. Then Krug carves his name into her chest and rapes her. When he’s done, she gets up, walks away, vomits, prays the 23rd Psalm, before walking into a nearby lake. Krug then shoots her in the shoulder, and they leave her to die. They clean themselves up and leave the woods
We then cut to John in his study, as Estelle enters and mentions they have guests. Who do you think it could be?
The four have made it to the Collingwood house, and are seeking shelter for the night. Ever hospitable, the Collingwoods put them up, despite their misgivings. They leave Junior (who is jonesing for a fix bad time) up stairs and then go to dinner. Junior has a pretty creepy nightmare, in which Mari is calling out to him, and he relives the three sadists’ actions, crying out “SORRY!” in his delirium. They also discover that they’re staying in Mari’s home, much to their amusement.
He is later throwing up when Estelle comes into check on him, and she sees Mari’s peace-symbol necklace around his neck. Horrified, she sneaks into their room and checks their luggage, only to find blood-stained clothes. She and John race down to the lake where they find Mari’s body. They carry it up to the house, and swear revenge on the killers.
First to go is Weasel. Weasel, who has been pretty focussed on sex all the film, has bragged about how he could make love to a woman with his hands tied behind his back. Estelle takes a walk with him, comes on to him, and lets him think his fantasy is about to come true. In a true show of idiocy, he even ties his own hands behind his back, despite knowing that he’s in the house of his rape and murder victim, and even though he already had a dream of John and Estelle chiselling his teeth. He tells her to unzip him, and that that’s all he needs her for. So she proceeds to do so, actually catching his cock in the zip, leading to some genuinely hilarious dialogue. Her: “Poor little fella!” Him: “It’s not little, you just scared it!” Once he recovers, he persuades her to blow him for a moment, which she does before BITING HIS PENIS OFF. This is a pretty horrible thing for men to watch (regardless of the character) but even worse – she is shaking her head and TEARING AT IT!
Meanwhile, John, who has been rigging the house with traps, confronts Krug and Sadie, who wake up at the sound of Weasel’s screams. When Krug kills the lights, John fires off a round, and in the confusion, both escape to the lounge room, where they have a bit of a fist fight, in which Krug bests the good Doctor Collingwood, but is interrupted by a guilt-conflicted Junior with a gun. Junior points the gun at Krug, and tries to kill him, but Krug manipulates him into killing himself instead. This happens off screen, and importantly robs the film of the moral conflict of killing Junior as in The Virgin Spring. Anyhow, while Krug is distracted, John nips down to the basement and gets his chainsaw, then threatens to kill Krug with it.
Badass, thy name is John Collingwood.
Krug turns around to find Sadie, who has turned against him for killing their son, and tells him to get away from her. Krug tries to run, and grabs a door handle which John has electrified, whilst Sadie runs outside, only to be confronted with Estelle – the two have a tussle and Sadie dies in the pool, mirroring Mari’s death, while John finally wins and kills Krug with the chainsaw, just as the police emerge into the scene.
Oh yeah, the police. There are two characters who I would excise form the film entirely if I had the chance – the bumbling police detectives. They have a few scenes in the film that are ridiculous and slapstick-comedy – for instance, their car breaks down, and the old grizzled detective thumps the young dumb detective for it. Then later, they try to hitch a ride, only to first be taunted by a bunch of hippies, then later they climb on (and fall off, once they move) the roof of a car loaded with chicken coops (and incidentally chickens).
How the police often hunt down murderers and rapists.
Anyhow, they get there just as the parents finally kill the sadists. Estelle goes to John, and the two grieve quietly, while the film ends with the hillbilly-deluxe theme song about the sadists we heard before.
This is, above all, a smart film. It’s not some cheap exploitation film, nor is it a rape-revenge movie, nor is it just brutal horror violence. It was misconceived as such from the get-go, which I’m sure added to the horror experienced by its initial audiences.
What probably didn’t help the film was the marketing. Firstly, that poster up above, and the film’s tagline are a little over the top – “To avoid fainting, keep repeating – It’s only a movie, It’s only a movie, It’s only a movie…” and boasts the exaggerated claims of exploitation films: “It lies on thirteen acres over the very centre of hell!” It’s making it seem like a haunted house movie, or an uber-violent film, when it’s actually a much more serious piece than it gives itself credit for.
I think what sets it apart is the acting and characters. Firstly, although it is very obviously 1970s, with somevery 1970s dialogue, it is a well acted (except for Junior) and well-written movie. We don’t necessarily care too much for our victims, but we do understand that they are realistic people. Personally, I thought Mari was a bit of an airy-fairy drip, and, let’s face it, a bit of an idiot. She’s not an angelic victim a la Karin. I thought Phyllis was a strong, fierce character whose death goes unfairly unnoticed in the second half of the film, and I found her death scene much more affecting than Mari’s.
The bandits are also much more fleshed-out characters then they would be in lesser films. This doesn’t mean we like them at all, but it makes for more compelling viewing to have a bit of a grasp on the monsters of the movie.
The film is very violent, and its rape scenes are unpleasant (although surprisingly subtle given the films notoriety). What is amazing is the realism of the blood in this film. Their budget was so low they couldn’t afford fake blood, so they mixed caramel syrup and food dye, which accidentally turned out looking a bit more real than they expected:
It isn’t quite as thematic as The Virgin Spring; it’s more about the actual plot than the ramifications and implications of the character’s actions, but it isn’t a bad movie. I don’t think it revels in its victims’ pain, I think it shows that violence is indeed horrible, but without forcing it on you (pun not intended), as they did in I Spit on Your Grave. I can see where Wes Craven was coming from in his Vietnam theory – it’s not a film that makes you feel like you’ve witnessed something you shouldn’t have (again, like I Spit on Your Grave manages to do) but it’s not easy viewing.
I also feel the need to mention the music. It’s rare in Last House on the Left for the music to match the action – there’s very few sudden sting chords when something jumps out at the camera, there’s little ominous dread violins and all the like. Instead, the music is folk music, which either reflects the mood of the scene, or is in fact the polar opposite – when the hillbilly-deluxe theme song kicks in, it’s particularly jarring given the violence you’ve seen, and it’s jarring – but to great effect.
No. Even though it is marketed as a horror film of brutally-shocking-brutal-shocks, it is a film with a lot more artistic merit than any of the previously reviewed Infamovies. I can see why they might ban it in terms of it being very violent, and the blood looking quite real, but there are several movies of the same era that I can think of that are worse in content than Last House on the Left, and they were allowed in.
What really strikes me as odd is the lack of re-appraisal by the distributors. The ban wasn’t contested, nor did edited versions of the film get submitted. It was banned in 1972, and stayed that way until 2004, simple as that. It’s a lot better than I Spit on Your Grave and I don’t see why someone didn’t try as often as they tried with that film.
I must also say, I think on paper this film is worse than it actually is. It’s not exactly something you’d let your kids watch, but I think many people would be able to stomach the film, even though it is pretty visceral.
A good film, which deserves more credit than it gets. Not exactly pleasant viewing, but still a good movie nonetheless.
Copied over from my Facebook on inception of the blog. Originally written 6/9/2010