FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Last House on the Left (1972)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Estelle and John (Cynthia Carr and Gaylord St. James) are the proud parents of teenager Mari (Sandra Cassei) who is off into the big city to go to a concert with her friend, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham). On their way, they decide to try and get hold of some weed, meeting Junior (Marc Sheffler) who says he can help them out. In actual fact, he leads them to his apartment where his father, Krug (David A. Hess), Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Weasel (Fred Lincoln) trap them. All are recently escaped criminals with nasty rap sheets and take great pleasure in torturing the two girls before killing them. Somehow, the gang end up at Mari's house, seeking shelter with her parents for the night. It's not long until Estelle and John realise what they've done and establish their own plan for revenge.

The Last House on the Left is a film of contrasts, seemingly designed to pull you one way before drastically changing the mood and dragging you another. This is most obvious in the scenes in the woods; at one point, you are uncomfortably positioned as a voyeur, watching on helplessly like Junior as Mari and Phyllis are assaulted and raped. In the very next scene, we're with the bumbling local sheriff and his deputy and watching them get up to all sorts of hijinks, knowing full well there's escaped convicts in the near vicinity. The music is similar, all jaunty and jolly when there's torture happening, contrasting sharply with what is happening on screen. It's deeply unsettling and though I'm sure the effect was intended, the constant shifts in tone are not particularly refined (something which I think Craven gets better at as his career develops).

Some of the other contrasts in the film work much better. The bucolic setting of Mari's idyllic home and her parents preparing the house for her birthday celebrations are cut between the two girls being set upon in the dark and foreboding city. There's another level of horror working here as her parents are blissfully unaware of what their daughter is about to get into. The beauty of that woodland setting is used later for the scenes in which the girls are tortured, clashing the two worlds of the film in a nightmarish fashion. Then of course, there's the contrast between the heroes and the villains, the domestic setting becoming the place in which that distinction becomes horribly muddied as morals start to look very grey indeed.

The film is based on Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, which sets the events in medieval Sweden. The context of a father killing his daughter's tormentors carries the historical element too; it's a paternal act of honour. In The Last House on the Left, both parents are involved in the violence that occurs, the wife actively taking part and not just facilitating the events. Rather than a question of medieval honour, it's a simple act of raw, violent grief. In The Virgin Spring, the father begs for forgiveness from God and pledges to build a church on the site of his daughter's murder. Mari's parents offer no such plea and in fact, aren't given that much of a chance, the film ending as the police arrive too late to stop the killing.

As a debut film, it's a confident effort from Craven, a bizarre mix of humour and horror that would continue to define many of the films of his career. It asks plenty of questions of its audience too, forcing them to keep up with the tonal lurches and presenting them with horrific situations which play out with a doomladen inevitability. It's not a film of jump scares or special effects, but simple, horrible scenes of man's inhumanity that positions its audience as a helpless onlooker, powerless to do anything but watch. 

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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