Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Last House on the Left (1972)

There was an H-E-B grocery store on old Highway 83 that we used to frequent in Weslaco,Texas back in the late 80's. As all these little places did at the time, they had a small video rental section at the front of the store and it seemed like all of them silently competed to see who had the latest in horror films. Some titles were at specific stores and not others and every store you walked into had it's own little variety of what to offer. I remember picking up the box - which had the alternate art than what you see on the left, the picture of the dead girl lying in the palm of a giant hand with a house lit up behind it - and didn't know what to think of it. I don't remember feeling frightened or uneasy and I found that strange, even back then. I guess it didn't appear to me to be all that interesting. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

Flash forward to the winter of 1997, the Spice Girls were still trying to hold on to the U.S. chart, Good Will Hunting had been a smash in theatres, and my kid brother had taken up the notion to date a girl significantly older than he was. Though I scowled at that idea, I got to know her and we became good friends. Around the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we all decided to go out and rent some movies and hang out and as we looked through the store shelves, my brother pointed this one out to me. I wasn't keen on the idea of taking that one home and reluctantly, I motioned him to go ahead and take it. I mean, I may as well give it a looksie, since at this time, I was still naive of many the horror classics. We got home popped it in the player. One hour and thirty minutes later, my life as a horror fan was changed forever. I was sickened, repulsed, and outright shocked.

I bought this DVD when it was released uncut by MGM in 2002 (or was it 2003?) when I was living in Missouri and showed it to a friend of mine. She, too, was completely appalled. It went back on the shelf and was never heard from again. Last night, this precious piece of horror cinema was playing on Fear Net and my cousin, her husband, and I decided to give it a play. Why not? It was a cold Monday night and we didn't have to be at work the next day. They had never seen it before so I didn't say a word about anything that was about to appear on the screen. When the last bit of the credits disappeared from the screen, I sat there with my eyes closed. I had completely forgotten how powerful this film really is and how in this modern day and age, it still packs a wallop that many of the Hollywood remake trash being churned out recently wish they had. I will expand on that later.

Horror buffs know the premise: Two young girls, Mari and Phyllis are on their way to see their current favorite band, Bloodlust, in concert. While on their way, Phyllis gives the idea of scoring a bit of weed to make the whole night all that much better. They approach a young mentally challenged young man who takes them upstairs into an unknown building that is harboring a group of recently-escaped vigilantes led by horror villain, and fan favorite, Krug (David Hess). The two girls are taken out into the woods and humiliated and tortured on camera in ways never before seen on film. When I first saw this film, I was shocked. I'd never seen anything so brutal before, so unredeeming of itself. The scenes are so realistic in many ways and you have to actually tell yourself that you're watching that was created by someone else. The scene where Phyllis is disemboweled remains one of the most horrific I've ever seen in a film from that period of time. Most people who watch the film now argue about it's potency but always compare it to the films that were produced years after this was first shown. Nothing had ever been shown on the big screen like this back in the early 1970's. It was so controversial and yet groundbreaking at the time and you have to really imagine what it would have been like to sit in a theater in those days and watch the atrocities that were given to you here in a very visceral, full-force way. You actually feel sympathy for the girls - although it was their hunt for grass that got them into the predicament in the first place - and you could actually feel every cut, every drop of blood, every scream, every cry for help.

The filmmakers give the film a sense of doom that you don't find in motion pictures these days. Take for instance the scene where Phyllis appears to have outwitted Krug and his gang and comes up to the road at the end of the woods. Within yourself you feel a sense of relief and you really think the poor girl is going to make it. But when it all comes around and the gang of ghouls mount their violence on her with all they have, there is a sickening sense of dread that you feel within the pit of your stomach. And not many films have ever gotten me to feel that way. The scene where Mari is shot in the lake gives you that same sense of dread, like something or someone could have come to rescue them from an awful demise. But, keeping that in mind, let's move on to Act II.

The gang make their way to a house up the road from where Mari's body was left behind. They meet a husband and wife who, after playing on their sympathies, allow them to stay in their house. Little do they know they are the parents of poor Mari, and soon enough, Mom and Dad put two and two together and figure out just who these people are. The second half of the film is perhaps darker than the first act in many ways, seeing that now Mari's parents have vowed to take revenge. Everything leads up to the parents offing each of their daughter's assailants one by one in really surprising - and horrific - ways. It all comes down to the moral being that you never know what you're capable of in this life unless you're really put to the test. So many people have their opinions about this film and I've spoken with horror fans each with their own perspective on this one. There is a sheer brilliance behind everything seen on the screen if you really think about it. Craven himself knew that he was pushing buttons that people back in that day and age and hitting subject people probably weren't going to swallow very easily. You have to commend the man, though, for showing us real life and risking his own name - and the names of future horror-icons like Sean S. Cunningham and Steve Miner - and staying true to the message in the film.

What did it for me, though, was the brilliance and panache that David Hess brought to the picture. This man didn't play the part of Krug, he was Krug! There has never been a horror villain so brutal, so macabre, so fucking evil as this character and there hasn't been one ever since. This man is amazing in this movie and it makes you wonder how he prepared for the role of horror's most beloved and enduring villain. I've seen him in The House on the Edge of the Park, where he echoes Krug in a thousand and one ways, but this one will remain his magnum opus, the pinnacle of shallow, senseless, over the top brutality and hostility. If you get the MGM DVD, watch his on-camera interview and listen to him how he talks about not being able to go out into the streets for people pointing at him and actually thinking he was the real-life Krug. There was a realism and a frankness to his character and when he evil reaches the point to where he has his own son kill himself on camera, you can't help but love the bastard and loathe him at the same time. Others have tried to mimic the nuances of this character, but nobody has ever come close.

Did I enjoy this film? Absolutely not. Was this a good film? Positively, without a doubt, this is one of the most powerful films ever released. It is one of those films that drains the life out of you and causes you to have a sigh of relief once the end credits roll. It's overwhelming in some areas and it isn't for the faint of heart. Many films in this genre try to pass themselves off as 'the real deal', where in this case, this film can. There is a realism and a truth to it that you can't shy from. It's almost like watching a snuff film. You watch the screen and just can't believe what's going on. This is a true piece of horror history. I honestly feel that if this film hadn't been made and released, horror films as we know them just wouldn't exist. Someone had to push that envelope. Someone had to get the message across that life can be terrifying and horrific and I'm glad that Wes Craven and his pals had the gumption and the audacity to release this. I remember being deeply disturbed by this film when I first saw it. It stayed in my head for weeks and weeks and it was really hard to get it out of my brain. Now, tell me the last horror piece you saw that had that kind of effect on you?

I didn't think so.

Every horror connoisseur should already have this in their collection. The only version I own is the MGM DVD, but I'd really like to find the VHS version with the woman's body in that great big hand. If you haven't seen this, please see it before you go and watch the upcoming remake. Yes, there is going to be a remake. With that said, take a gander at this. You won't be sorry.

"Blow your brains out!"