MGM // 1972 // 84 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 14th, 2011
To avoid fainting, keep repeating, "It's only a movie...It's only a movie..."
Wes Craven was such a nice boy. He was raised Baptist, got a master's degree in philosophy and writing, and even had a brief career as a college professor. Then the movies came a-calling, and rather than directing touching dramas or intimate ensemble pieces, Craven needed to direct something that would sell. Along with exploitation entrepreneur Sean Cunningham (best known for the Friday the 13th series), he hit on the idea of adapting Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring for the burgeoning grindhouse audience as The Last House on the Left. The result was a sleaze classic that won Craven fans in two worlds: exploitation fans appreciated his eye for violence, while the arthouse crowd could get into his European roots and edgy stylings. Everybody else was horrified by the violence and depravity, truly earning the film's "To avoid fainting, keep repeating 'It's only a movie...It's only a movie...'" tagline. Almost forty years later, The Last House on the Left (Blu-ray) gives it the hi-def treatment, including all the extras from the previous DVD special edition.
The Last House on the Left begins with the story of two young girls who travel from their comfortable house in the woods to the big, bad city. There, they meet Krug (David Hess, The House on the Edge of the Park) and his band of psychos. Krug and company kidnap the girls, taking them out of the city to torture, rape, and kill them in the woods. With the girls dispatched, the killers are looking for a place to hole up when their car breaks down, and they just happen to stumble on the home of one of the girls. When her family finds out what happened to their little girl, things turn bloody.
Last House on the Left is really three movies in one. The first is the story of the two girls and their abduction. This part includes some of the most unsettling examples of violence and humiliation committed to celluloid, and is still unnerving today. Watching Krug and his companions torture and kill Mari and Phyllis has lost little of its power, and it's easy to see why Last House generated such controversy in 1972 and was specifically highlighted for censorship in countries like Britain. Although perhaps not up to the level of its source (which, after all, is Bergman), these parts of the film have stood up after forty years.
The second part of the film involves an investigation by a local sheriff and a deputy. These two don't take up much screen time, but their presence is really weird, and one of the major reasons Last House on the Left isn't a total success. The pair is a bit bumbling, and the soundtrack and their acting give a comic edge to a film that is otherwise so serious. However, they're not quite weird/funny enough to break the tension of the rest of the film (offering some contrast or relief), so their placement is awkward at best. These sections have stood up the least well, looking like a goofy example of independent filmmaking from the early 1970s rather than a generally timeless tale of terror.
The third section includes the family's revenge on Krug and his pals. This section holds up almost as well as the torture of the two girls, as Mari's mother and father find interesting ways to dispatch their daughter's killers. These scenes seem to owe a little bit to the previous year's Straw Dogs, but for a first-time director, Craven shows a knack for ratcheting up the tension.
This Blu-ray is about as much as fans could hope for. Short of a full-bore restoration this Blu-ray is as good as can be. The film was shot on 16mm, and that means heavy grain. This AVC-encoded transfer handles the grain pretty well, and detail is pretty strong. There is also a decent amount of print damage, including vertical lines and hair on the image. However, color and contrast look good, especially for a film of this budget. The DTS-HD mono is better than I expected. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the film's soundtrack has a surprising amount of presence for feature of this budget. It's not going to blow the doors off, but it's exactly what the film needs.
All the extras from the 2009 special edition are here. That means two commentaries, one with Craven and Cunningham, the other with actors Hess, Marc Sheffler, and Fred Lincoln. Between the two tracks there's a lot of production info, insights into the horrors of low-budget filmmaking in 1972, and how the film has fared since its release. We get two separate featurettes on the making of the film, totaling over an hour of material. We also get a 15-minute interview with Craven about the film's afterlife, especially its reception. There's a lot of overlap, but fans will appreciate the thoroughness of these features. Another feature looks at the making of the film's score (by actor Hess), and the rest of the extras are deleted scenes or outtakes of various kinds. We get official deleted scenes, dailies, outtakes, and 10 minutes of footage from an abandoned Craven project. Finally, the film's trailer is included.
Last House on the Left is not a fun film; it might not even be called "entertaining." It's certainly not a Friday night popcorn flick (at least not for most people). The plot is horrifying, the violence graphic, and the outlook of the film pretty bleak.
Forty years on, it seems that Last House on the Left is still mostly an effective film, but some of its dated styling may make the remake preferable to newer film viewers. For the curious, this Blu-ray is an excellent way to see how the director of classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street andScream got his start. Fans of the film will probably want to replace their older discs (especially if they have the old MGM flipper disc rather than the 2009 Collector's Edition) for the upgraded audio and video.
It's only a movie, and it's not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Bonus Footage