12
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 16: Last House on the Left (1972)

Director: Wes Craven

Writer: Wes Craven

Cast: Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Gaylord St. James, Cynthia Carr

Plot: Celebrating her 17th birthday, Mari (Sandra Cassel) and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) head out to attend a concert, despite the concern of her parents (Gaylord St. James and Cynthia Carr). On the radio, they hear about the prison escape of a rapist and serial killer named Krug (David A. Hess), who has joined up with his son Junior (Marc Sheffler), a psychopath named Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and a child molester and killer called “Weasel” (Fred Lincoln). After the concert, the girls meet Junior, who they attempt to buy marijuana from. Junior leads them into the clutches of the rest of the gang.

The next morning, the gang stuffs the girls into the trunk of a car to take them to their hideout in the woods. On the way, their car happens to break down in front of Mari’s house. As the police try to convince Mari’s parents that kids sometimes need to just “let off a little steam” and that she’ll come home soon, the gang marches the girls out into the woods. Phyllis makes a run for it, instructing Mari to run in the opposite direction, but she’s left with Junior. She tries to befriend him, even giving him the peace medallion her parents gave her before the concert. The gang finally recaptures Phyllis, killing her in a particularly grotesque fashion.

With Phyllis dead, Krug brutally takes his aggression out on Mari. The gang washes up and changes out of their bloody clothes, while Mari’s corpse drifts away. Pretending to be salesmen whose car broke down, they return to Mari’s parents’ home and ask to spend the night. Estelle, Mari’s mother, realizes they’re lying when she sees Junior wearing Mari’s peace medallion. She listens in as the gang talks, then finds their bloody clothes. She and her husband rush into the woods where they find Mari’s body, then come back for bloody revenge.

Thoughts: Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham – both of whom would go on to father far more memorable American boogeymen – kick things off by immediately embracing the more permissive 70s in this film. Nudity, language, gore – this film absolutely catapults over just about everything we’ve looked at before. In fact, the uncut version of the film was denied an 18 certificate in the United Kingdom until 2002. The exploitation films of the 70s had arrived.

This is where that image of Splatter-Film-as-Morality-Tale really starts to kick in. Why are the girls in town in the first place? They wanted to see a concert by a band that includes the mutilation of animals in their act. Why did they get caught by the criminals? They wanted to buy drugs. It’s debatable whether or not the filmmakers were actually attempting to make a point of some sort, but no doubt it was at least a little easier to convince the censors to accept such a harsh film by convincing them that there was a moral to the story.

Craven worked hard to juxtapose the horror of the story with sweeter scenes and jovial tones. The scenes of Mari’s parents setting up the party could have come from any sitcom of the era, while the music played as the gang transports the girls to their hideout sounds like it belongs in a slapstick comedy, followed by scenes of a babbling brook that belongs in a nature film. All of this just makes what’s really going on all the more horrible by comparison. Then the singing starts… the jolly, cheerful music launches into verses about the gang rambling around, having fun, trying to leave the state, and planning to leave the girls for dead. At this point in the film, the music is the most horrible part. The cops, for the most part, are played for laughs – incompetent, ineffective, and an object of shame.  They neglect to investigate a broken down and abandoned car outside of Mari’s home, then hear a description of Krug’s car. When they come back, their own car breaks down, they’re humiliated by a mob in a truck, and even get made fools by a woman carting a truckload of chickens. Trouble is, their scenes are far more pathetic than funny… which may have been the intent, true, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Even some of the harsher scenes aren’t as effective as they could be, and that comes down to production issues – when Mari’s parents discover her body, she’s clearly moving of her own accord, even though she’s supposed to be dead. As Mari’s father begins to set booby traps for the killers, it doesn’t scare so much as remind me of Home Alone. Her mother’s seduction of Weasel smacks of a sex farce, right up until she strikes. The revenge part of the film, the last 15 minutes or so, delivers a little satisfaction, but it’s come at a hard price, and it’s undermined entirely by the return of the goofy musical number in the end credits. It’s hard to look at this movie and believe this was made by the same director who would so effectively blend horror and comedy in Scream over 20 years later. Clearly, in the interim, he learned the error of his ways.

It’s a graphic film in terms of sexual content, but there’s nothing titillating about those scenes – it’s all presented as terror. The girls are scared for their lives, forced into horrible situations while the gang watches and the audience cringes. Phyllis’s murder scene is particularly horrible, as she’s stabbed over and over until the lunatic Sadie actually gets to start pulling her organs out of her body. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead weren’t this gore-hungry, and for the first time, the color makes the blood more shocking than it would have been in black and white.

The film also uses the time-honored technique of pretending it’s based on a true story to shock the audiences. I don’t know how effective this was in 1972 – today I think most sophisticated filmgoers have become inured against such techniques. Even taking horror as a morality play, even playing into the collective fears of parents and teenagers of the early 70s, the movie is trying terribly hard to shock and horrify. The movie helped to make Wes Craven’s name, but it would be later films that made him a name worth remembering. We’ll see him again before this project is over. But this is the first one of his films – and the first film in this project – that I really didn’t enjoy watching at all.

Tomorrow we’ll more on to something I’m more familiar with and have a bit more respect for – The Exorcist.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

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