MGM // 1972 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // March 20th, 2009
To avoid fainting, keep repeating:
It's only a movie...
It's only a movie...
It's only a movie...
It's only a movie...
Wes Craven's debut as a director is widely considered by many to be a seminal entry in the modern horror genre. Essentially a sadistic, no-holds-barred rip-off of Ingmar Bergman's Jungfrukallan (aka The Virgin Spring), The Last House On The Left is not for the faint of heart. With the emergence of a bigger-budgeted remake, MGM has seen fit to release a "collector's edition" containing "new" bonus features. Is it worth an upgrade from the initial 2002 disc, or is it simply a pathetic excuse for a double dip?
In woodsy Connecticut, Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel, The Filthiest Show In Town) is about to celebrate her 17th birthday. As a prelude, the moral Mari decides to hook up with wild friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) to attend a Bloodlust concert in NYC. Hoping to score some grass, the girls approach Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler), a heroin junkie who convinces them to go to his apartment. Once the door is locked, the terror begins as Mari and Phyllis become virtual prisoners to Junior's violent "family," led by demonic father figure Krug (David Hess, Swamp Thing). Along with his bisexual lover Sadie (Jeramie Rain, The Abductors) and conservatively-dressed Weasel (Fred Lincoln, Friday The 13th: A Nude Beginning), they flee the city with the girls in the trunk of their car. When they have a breakdown, they decide to rape, torture, and kill the girls in the woods. However, after committing the crime, they get more than bargained for, when they decide to go to the nearest house to spend the night: the Collingwood residence!!!
The original Last House On The Left remains an enigma to me. On one hand, it's a stomach-churning, disgusting flick which has been labeled by many critics as "violent pornography." (Former Judge Patrick Naugle provides a good argument for how shamelessly violent the thing is, in his review of the original release). It was a major target during the "video nasty" era, as its reputation for being banned in countries all over the world has been documented by many sources. This was a movie no Hollywood studio would have dared make, although A Clockwork Orange and others had already opened the door for realistic screen violence. Made strictly for the drive-in circuit by a tiny crew whose only previous experience was documentaries on budget of $90,000, its release was largely ignored. But before you could say "sex crime," the film created a verbal tsunami of sensational screening stories, the likes of which hasn't been heard of since 1932's Freaks. Vomiting, screams, protests, projection raids, sabotaged prints...pretty much everything you could imagine when it came to a cinematic hot potato infuriating respectable society. Nowadays, it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about, as endless clones and a shoulder-shrugging, anything-goes attitude has dominated our movie-going landscape.
Now that the controversy has cooled, it's easier to take a step back and view the film in a more profound light, without the influence of crackpot censors or ultra-religious critics. The Last House On The Left was filmed rather crudely in 16MM, making it look more like a home movie than anything else. Craven -- who would achieve success with later films The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare On Elm Street, and Scream -- knew hardly anything about filmmaking, let alone directing; and producer Sean S. Cunningham (1980's Friday The 13th) was confident this amateur could pull it off with economic assurance. The house owned by Cunningham's parents served as the primary set, and shooting was just over a month. Yep, this is a prime example of "backyard" movie-making, however it surely paid off, fueling Craven's and Cunningham's wildest dreams. To them, this was an adventurous exercise, with the sole purpose of making enough money to live off for a couple of months. It turned out to be a word-of-mouth phenomenon which still perplexes them to this day.
Hardly anything about Left is revolutionary. The violence is cold and merciless and the film plumbed new depths of showcasing human suffering in an extremely naturalistic fashion. However, I don't really recognize its landmark status, when all it took was a couple of extra steps in raw brutality. It's like watching Regan masturbating with the crucifix in The Exorcist. If we were subjected to actual penetration, it would've been more visually challenging, but we are horrified at the moments leading up to the act and its aftermath, not necessarily the act itself. Maybe it's just me, but I'm always terrified of what is suggested rather than what is graphically presented, and Left just happened to show violence in a more extreme scope and manner. Within a year, another film would speed past the limit, and the cycle would continue. Plus, the only reason Left garnered so much attention is because of its clever promotional campaign, with the infamous "to avoid from fainting" tagline making people curious, whipping out their wallets, and then hurling lung butter into their popcorn upon realizing what they got themselves into.
Notoriety and box-office dollars aside, The Last House On The Left remains a disturbing viewing experience. This isn't exactly a compliment, but the film has a certain power, making it almost impossible not to be affected by it. Our hearts go out to these girls and we want these sick bastards to receive eventual justice, even if it's through totally preposterous circumstances. In fact, the reason why I cannot give the film a high recommendation is because the third act is such a whopper plot-wise and borderline laughable in its details. I refuse to give any more away, for the sake of first-time watchers, but I guarantee you will groan at least once at either a character's stupidity or a line of improvised dialogue more suited for an acid-tripping Dr. Kevorkian. By contrast, the much more maligned I Spit On Your Grave (admittedly, I'm hardly the first to compare both pictures) has a third act which is much more rewarding and audience-pleasing, in terms of its vengeance aesthetics. Roger Ebert may think otherwise, but when you read his reviews for both films you can see he contradicts himself in a number of ways. How could you call Left a brilliant film and Spit the worst film ever made when they share a template, are equally raw, and made on the same scale and budget? Oh well, Spit is currently being updated like Left, so at least both will be rediscovered and re-evaluated.
Refute my words all you want, but The Last House On The Left does boast some qualities amid all the ugliness. Much of the acting is nothing much to speak of, except that Hess gives a chilling performance as the ringleader and his songs are the perfect antidote to the blood and torture on display. Most of the other actors either overact or underact, but Cassel is a special case, as many of those involved in the production submit to her onscreen fear as not acting; she was truly terrified of her fellow actors and left without notice the night before her character was going to be raped and murdered. With this knowledge, it's even more difficult to watch the scenes in the woods play out. The inept cops (the deputy played by none other than Martin Kove, Kreese from the Karate Kid trilogy) are amusing to watch. When you include the relentless realism, it allows me to declare the film as watchable rather than memorable. If only there was a point to the whole damn thing, then its landmark status would be justified.
MGM's second version of The Last House On The Left is truly a hit-or-miss affair. In fact, this is one of the oddest double-dips I've ever come across. Before I get into specifics, let me briefly discuss the initial 2002 disc, which is covered in great detail in Judge Naugle's review. Originally, Left was presented dual-sided, with the full screen version on side A and a 1.85:1 widescreen print on side B. There was a mono soundtrack, subtitles in English, French & Spanish, as well as closed captioning. Special features included an introduction by Craven, a superb commentary with Craven & Cunningham, a 30-minute featurette ("It's Only A Movie") which had plenty of interviews and info about the production. To top it all off, there were some outtakes and "forbidden" footage -- much of it with no sound -- which gave us some rough cuts of scenes you already saw, including extensions which hinted more at the what was in the original 91-minute version of the film (of which no complete print exists with sound). In essence, it was all which could be unearthed of the missing seven minutes which, aside from shots involving intestines, is mingled with the actors relaxing and pleasantly chatting between takes.
All in all, the 2002 disc was a great package, even if the visual and audio elements were shoddy at best, dirt-laden and scratchy at worst. Little did we know what England was getting at around the same time, however: a 3-disc ultimate edition which not only gave fans of the video nasty classic their money's worth, but also gave the BBFC a huge middle finger in the process. (In 2002, The Last House On The Left was still banned, and it would remain so for six more years!) Tech specs were pretty much the same, with the slight difference of a 2.0 mono track instead of 1.0. However, the extras included an additional commentary, a 40-minute documentary ("Celluloid Crime of the Century"), a Craven short film, two featurettes and even an alternate cut of the film under one of the working titles, Krug & Co.. The reason why I mention the existence of this set is because many of those bonus features are now available here in this collector's edition!
The audio commentary this time around features actors David Hess, Marc Sheffler, and Fred Lincoln. This track is much more candid and jokey than the previous Craven-Cunningham repartee; when Lincoln (a long time star and director of porn films) confesses to colleague Grantham "giving great head" the night before the shoot, you know no stone is left unturned in recounting fond memories of the production. Hilarious, uncensored, and incredibly insightful, this track is definitely worth it if you're game. Next comes the documentary, which does cover some of the same ground as "It's Only A Movie," but we get to hear from Rain, who was absent in the latter (although Grantham and associate producer Steve Miner didn't travel across the pond to participate). "Scoring Last House" is self-explanatory, as Hess talks about the songs he wrote and performed for the soundtrack. Craven's short film Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out, which was left unfinished and having no sound, is worth checking out for the director's devotees. One again, there is deleted and never-before-seen footage, some of the same stuff we saw in the 2002 disc, but other stuff which might have only existed in British prints. (Let's face it: the movie has been physically dissected and snipped so many times over the years that there's probably 80 versions out there.) The one brand new exclusive offered here is the featurette "Still Standing: The Legacy of the Last House on the Left," with Craven alone talking more about the film's impact and what led him to produce a remake.
As for the audio and visual qualities, there seems to be a slight improvement in the picture, though not the sound. Don't get me wrong, the picture still sports gallons of grain, scratches, lines, and even those "black claw marks" in the lower left hand corner (those who have seen the film should know what I'm referring to). However, the flesh tones seem a bit more natural this time and the landscape more lush and green. Not exactly a stretch in terms of digital restoration, but I'm sure MGM did all they could.
Do I recommend an upgrade from the 2002 disc? This is really a tough call. On one hand, it's easy to slam MGM for not including other stuff from the Region 2 Ultimate Edition (which is really for die-hard fans), including the features which were available before. If only it had the Craven-Cunningham commentary and "It's Only A Movie," that would have tipped it over for me, but I have no choice but to remain neutral. In other words, it's really your call. At the very least, it would complement your original disc. Also, props to MGM for the exceptional packaging. The original case had the house on the right side of the cover, and the new description on the back is much more clever: "Before horror fans Saw the current wave of shockers featuring fiercely Hostel villains..."
If you haven't seen the original, please do so before the remake. Better yet, make it a double bill with Bergman's Virgin Spring.
The film is free to go. While the double-dipping charge is dropped, MGM is warned not to release the film again, unless it's on Blu-ray and with every single bonus feature available. Court is adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2009 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scene
* Never-Before-Seen Footage
* Short Film