Friday, March 24, 2006

 

Craven's Beginnings

It was a quick, off-the-cuff reference in Saw II that put me in mind of this film -- As the maniacal serial killer Jigsaw leads a police officer to his den of horrors, he subtly points out, "It's the last house on the left." Lost on many, I'm sure, this clever reference is to the infamous 1972 film, The Last House on the Left, produced by Sean S. Cunningham, and written and directed by Wes Craven. Cunningham, of course, would go on to create and direct Friday the 13th, one of the most popular horror franchises in cinema. Craven -- who now joins fellow horror masters George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead), John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog), and Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) in seeing one of his early efforts remade (in Craven's case, the just released The Hills Have Eyes) -- would go on to direct the films A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Scream franchise, and (perhaps what will, one day, be considered his masterpiece) Red Eye. Having made only one film previously together -- the sex oddity Together, which gave the first screen exposure to porn star Marilyn Chambers -- Cunningham and Craven loosely adapted Ingmar Bergman's Oscar winning The Virgin Spring as the sadistic Last House on the Left. Containing perhaps the most brutal rape/torture and murder scenes ever filmed (rivaled only by the cult favorite I Spit on Your Grave), Last House quickly became the film everyone dared you to see. For some reason, the film's bizarre poster art, and print ad campaign, mistakenly lead viewers to believe the female victims in the film meet their demise in the notorious "house" of the title, when, in fact, it's actually the violent killers who end up being killed there (in an equally violent manner), by one of their victim's parents! Last House, along with I Spit on Your Grave, spawned a new exploitation subgenre of horror film, which would become known as the "revenge film." Last House on the Left was banned in England throughout the 80s and 90s, and only in 2003 was it allowed to be released on DVD there, with minor edits. Film historians are split on whether Last House is a morality play (the victimized girls ultimately meet their end because they are trying to score some dope on the way to a concert) which reflected the growing violence in the media, or simply self-indulgent trash. Still, few films have as much legend built around it as does The Last House on the Left. Part of what makes the film so difficult to watch is the fact that the violence is protracted, but not romanticized, or given to fancy special effects. It's precisely this kind of pseudo-documentary realism, which The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would master the following year, that revolutionized the depiction of violence in the modern horror film. Something about the slapdash manner in which Last House is put together (including a ridiculously inappropriate upbeat soundtrack) makes it seems all the more disturbing. There's nothing polished about this Craven film, but the unrelenting depravity eventually has a cumulative and numbing affect on the viewer.

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