One of the most controversial films of the seventies, Wes Craven's debut horror feature Last House on the Left is a harrowing look at violence from the man who has made such matters his calling card in Hollywood. Although most of his career has been predicated on scaring movie-goers with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, nothing he has made since 1972 has had quite the lasting impact of his very first foray into terror. Those expecting this film to feature goofy chills like Craven's other titles will probably be shocked to discover that he knows more about horror than he has been letting on for the last thirty years. In fact, after seeing the sheer unrelenting violence and terror in this film, most of his other works seem rather watered down in comparison.
What makes this film so horrific and terrifying is the stark reality of it all. Craven chose to shoot the film in a pseudo-documentary style, so it always feels as if we are watching someone's demented 16mm home videos (even in the opening moments, when nothing horrifying is going on at all). With the film's appearance being so gritty and raw, the acts of violence seem all the more realistic (and it certainly doesn't help that Craven filmed them with no cinematic trickery whatsoever). There's no 'style' to the way Krug and his cohorts attack their victims, as there would be in a regular Hollywood film. For example, the sheer brutality of watching Phyllis get stabbed in the back by Krug's pal Weasel (Fred Lincoln) and then trying to crawl away as she is bleeding to death mere meters from Mari's home is disturbing, mainly because it is so frank in its depiction of violence that we can't help but imagine it happening to ourselves.
This terror is really only sustained for the first fifty-five minutes of the film, though, when it suddenly changes gears and becomes a revenge picture (a la I Spit on Your Grave). Using Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring as a launching point, Craven has Mari's parents suddenly become angels of vengeance when the people who tortured and raped their daughter end up seeking refugee in their home. During these scenes, Craven attempts to confuse the audiences' sense of morality by posing the idea that Mari's parents have become no better than the people that they are attacking, but this concept falters simply because we can't wait to see the convicted murderers get their comeuppance for the horrible deeds they have committed. These scenes are also more cartoonish than the scenes that preceded them and don't carry anywhere near the horrifying impact that the first two-thirds of the film does.
I had heard of Wes Craven's controversial horror film since I was a kid. Every movie book I read had something bad to say about it, and most reviews sounded disgusted, like the critic wanted to take a shower after seeing it. I knew that any film which could evoke this kind of response, I had to see. Even after I saw it, rumors of deleted scenes and newly-discovered footage kept me coming back. One company released new versions on video every five minutes (or so it seemed), and I just recently heard of a Canadian version which is apparently even more complete.
For all of its flaws and distasteful elements, Last House on the Left deserves to be called a classic of American horror, but it's definitely for a specialized audience.