Halloween Horrors 2011 : “The Last House On The Left”

Posted: October 17, 2011 in movies
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You didn’t think I was going to forget, did you? Of course not! October is horror movie month around these parts, and while last year we did the “Halloween 12-Pack” thing, and the year before we did a top-10 countdown that wasn’t really a countdown, this year I’ve abandoned all that (admittedly desperately thin) pretense and I’m just reviewing nothing but horror flicks from here on out until Halloween. So far I’ve got 18 movies picked out to take a look at, from undisputed classics to largely-forgotten cult oddities to homemade backyard ultra-cheapies to underappreciated recent gems to to stuff currently playing in theaters, so without any further ado, let’s jump right in, shall we?

I’m reliably informed that David Hess passed away last week, and that’s a shame because he was one of the most effective complete and total psychos to ever stain the silver screen. For all I know Hess may have been a prince of a man in real life, but I’m sort of hoping he wasn’t, because he oozed such coolly-controlled-yet-definitely-unhinged-menace, and did it so fucking naturally, to find out that he was a devoted family man who loved long walks in nature would just somehow feel wrong. At his best, Hess never really felt like he was acting, he was Hessing, and it’s an altogether different art form if you ask me.

And of course, our guy Dave was never better than in his starring (and I use that term loosely here) turn as the vicious Krug in Wes Craven’s 1972 classic The Last House On The Left.

For those of you who don’t know the story (anyone? Bueller? Bueller?), Craven’s debut feature is a loose re-working of the Bergman classic The Virgin Spring, here Americanized as the story of  a beautiful (and, yes, virginal) youth named Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody, billed here as Sandra Cassel) who’s as pure as her name and the apple of not only her mom and dad’s eye (okay, okay, eyes) but apparently exudes an air of unsullied wholesomeness that permeates throughout (or infects, depending on how you look at things)  the whole small upstate New York township she resides in. One night when Mari and her less-than-wholesome friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) go into town  to see one of those dastardly rock concerts that parents warn their kids about, they decide it would be a kick to score some pot before the show. Unfortunately, the hapless loser they decide to try and make a purchase off is the son of a vicious escaped convict (that Krug fella we’ve been talking about) who has plans for the girls other than hooking them up with some of the devil weed.

What follows is a less-than-leisurely drive out to the country with Krug, his girlfriend, and his grown (but decidedly psychologically infantile) son that culminates in a series of events so unspeakably brutal and frankly still so hard to watch even to this day (as proof of this look no further than the fact that the 2009 remake was actually considerably toned down in comparison to the original — and they say movies are more permissive than ever today? Don’t think so!) that I’ll spare you the full details (as if you don’t know them anyway), and  just say for the sake of synopsis-completeness that it involves an awful lot of rape, an awful lot of cutting, and an awful lot of  torture. And the fact that all this gut-wrenching brutality is interspersed with comic-relief cut-aways to the inept local sheriff and his even more inept deputy doing their best Keystone Kops impersonation (complete with dopey music) in their ultimately fruitless search for Krug, his kid, and his girlfriend before they can finish their grim idea of a good time only makes the whole thing more genuinely unsettling. Craven was a master manipulator of audience emotions form the get-go, no doubt about that.

Anyway, after their unwholesome deeds are done, Krug and company (and yes, I’m aware that Krug And Company was an alternate title this film played under, particularly on the European circuit) suffer some transportation trouble and, improbably enough, end up at the home of the Collingwood family, who even more improbably discover what’s become of their daughter and just who the hell is responsible for it while the miscreants (and that’s putting it mildly) are right under their own roof!

And that’s when we get to the real morality play at the heart of the film — just how far will ordinary people go to avenge an injustice against a person they love, specifically their only child? And at what point do they become no better than the monsters they are seeking to destroy (and believe me, the Collingwoods are every bit as sadistically diabolical in pursuing vengeance as Krug and his cohorts were in pursuing their twisted kicks)? Can two wrongs ever make a right? And are we in any position to say what they ultimately end up doing is even wrong, considering the extreme suffering they’re no doubt going through?

While all these academic questions make for interesting debate (indeed, this movie is still a hot topic of conversation to this day), it’s really Hess who sells this film and makes us believe that Krug is both capable of anything and fully, and richly, deserving of whatever fate happens to befall him as a result of his inhuman actions. If he gave a performance that was in any way what could loosely be called sympathetic, or even that a person could relate to on any level whatsoever, the whole thing wouldn’t work. But given that he’s such a thoroughly convincing bastard with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever, it makes all those uncomfortable moral questions I just posed seem all the more real and all the more relevant. Hess moves the themes this movie is exploring out of the realm of the abstract into the concrete, the immediate, the here, the now, just on the strength of his performance alone. After all, it’s pretty easy to condemn somebody for seeing vengeance on somebody who’s done them wrong, but when that somebody is David fucking Hess, the whole issue becomes quite a bit thornier. It’s Hess who turned a $90,000 ultra-low-budgeter into a worldwide box office phenomenon that earned $10 million on its first run in the domestic market alone, and it’s to his credit every bit as much as Craven’s that this little just-above-student-level-film became one of the, in Craven’s own words, “heritage pieces of modern horror.”

Of course, a big part of the Last House story is what happened after it was made, and all the ratings and censorship struggles Craven and co. endured, both at home and abroad, but it’s worth mentioning that the film has been available complete and uncut on DVD for several years now, with the best release being MGM’s 2009 “special edition” that features the same remastered print as the previous uncensored version, as well as a remastered mono soundtrack, but goes the extra mile by including a brand-new 40-minute documentary called “Celluloid Crime Of The Century” that features on-camera interviews with Craven, Hess, and many others, and an insightful commentary track from Craven and producer Sean Cunningham. It’s a very worthwhile purchase, and if you’re not willing to go that far, it’s a downright essential rental.

Some movies just plain don’t live up to the hype, but The Last House On The Left isn’t one of them. It’s every bit as thoroughly unpleasant and impossible to forget as you’ve heard. It catapulted Craven into superstar-genre-director status and immediately cemented Hess’s standing as the Michael Jordan of exploitation-flick psychos — admittedly a celluloid ghetto from which he never really escaped, but we’ll get to that in our next review. For now it’s enough to say that based on  this one performance alone, the name David Hess would be remembered by horror fans (as well as prudish censors) worldwide forever.

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