Those of you who are regular readers of my blogs know that I grew up in Westport, Connecticut, which granted me a certain skewed and bleak viewpoint when it comes to Connecticut in general and its southern portion in particular. To outsiders, much of the area appears to be an affluent haven where everything is idyllic and sitcom-perfect but to those of us who grew up there and were forced by certain circumstances to look beyond that rose-colored facade, Connecticut could reveal itself as an ideal locale for horror scenarios. Its quaint and homey atmosphere, old New England architecture (which is now slowly dying out in favor of hideous "McMansions" for those who can afford them), desolate and remote roadways shrouded by carefully-landscaped foliage, and its sometimes deafening quiet all contribute to an undeniable atmosphere that's rife with creep factor. A number of horror films have latched onto that potential and run with it — with wildly varying results — including THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964), LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971), THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975), FRIDAY THE 13th (1980), and even BEETLEJUICE (1988, it being a comedy notwithstanding), but perhaps no other film nails that specific Yankee sense of dread like Wes Craven's shattering THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Especially for those of us who grew up in Westport, where much of it was shot.
Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) has just turned seventeen and is in the full flower of young womanhood. As her parents (Gaylord St. James and Cynthia Carr) prepare a birthday party for her, Mari sets off to Manhattan to attend a rock concert with her best friend, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham). All is right in Mari's world and the perfect accent for the day's fun would be some marijuana scored on the street. Things turn jet black when the girls make the mistake of trying to buy weed from Junior (Mark Sheffler), a pathetic junkie who's part of a gang of vicious escaped criminals, including the "animal-like" Sadie (Jeramie Rain), ultra-sleazy "Weasel" (Fred Lincoln), and the unspeakable Krug (David Hess). This vile quartet's crimes include serial murder, rape, child molestation, and voyeurism, so the kidnapping and subsequent horrific abuse of two innocent girls amounts to just another day's diversion for them.
Faces of death: Krug (David Hess), Sadie (Jeramie Rain), and "Weasel" (Fred Lincoln).
Once the criminals flee NYC with their captives stashed in the trunk of their car, the girls are put through a living hell of beatings, torture, rape, dismemberment, disembowelment, and eventually murder, and the tragic irony is that the end game happens in the woods directly across the street from Mari's home. The degradation of Mari and Phyllis is so physically and psychologically inhumane that even the pack of stone-cold killers is given pause by their own actions, but that moment of all-too-human clarity swiftly passes as they clean themselves up and seek shelter at Mari's house, telling her parents that they're traveling salesmen in need of overnight lodging. Having noted that Mari did not return from her night out and also not being dumb as a sack full of doorknobs, Mari's folks soon figure out what's up and even discover their daughter's ravaged body in the woods. After that, it is ON, and the parents' vengeance is indeed merciless and terrible...
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is one of the most uncomfortable works in the annals of cinema and it is absolutely not for the weak, squeamish, or easily offended. Drawing inspiration from Ingmar Bergman's THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), the film starts off with a frivolous and flippant hippie-era sensibility that gets utterly sideswiped by the outright savagery that ensues once all of the characters are introduced. Though some would classify it as a thriller and it is undeniably riveting, there are no thrills to be had here. Instead the audience bears witness to a shabby tapestry of misogynistic atrocities on an intimate scale, all-too-relateable horrors wrought by monsters who don't even have the excuse of being the undead, lycanthropes, Lovecraftian wigglies, or seemingly-indestructible slashers in hockey masks. Krug and his companions exude a vileness that fairly oozes off the screen and while moviegoers have been exposed to countless rapists and murderers before their advent, this batch of human beasts are truly something special that will never be forgotten once encountered. The ugliness of their abuses offers no titillation for those who may be into that sort of thing and instead is presented with an honesty and sense of helplessness that puts the audience right there with Mari and Phyllis, and that is a place where no one wants to be. It's bad enough that the girls are tormented and raped, but the film reaches new depths in questionable taste when Krug takes the time to sign his cruel handiwork by carving his name into the still-living Mari's chest.
Seriously, do NOT rent this film as a date movie.
As Mari's birthday goes horribly awry, we never lose sight of the fact that she is on the cusp of an adulthood that she — and by association, Phyllis — will not live to experience, and it's a downer of epic proportions. And as her parents sink to the level of their daughter's tormentors, there are no winners here. It's the death of the hopeful peace-and-love hippie era writ in wretched microcosm and as such it's an incredibly powerful work of dreadful art. But with that said, the film does have one major flaw and that's its tonally-jarring attempts to shoehorn comic relief into material of the blackest order. There's a running thread involving two hapless local cops — one of whom is played by a young Martin Kove, who would later gain screen immortality as the assholish sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo in THE KARATE KID (1984) — bumbling their way through the investigation of Mari's disappearance, and the so-called comedy simply does not work. In a film of this sort of unrelenting nature, staying true to its nastiness is in its best interests and all forms of humor are best eschewed. It's like going for yucks in the midst of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Director Wes Craven enriched the horror genre with a number of subsequent efforts, most notably THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), and SCREAM (1996), but none of his other films dared to return to the utter darkness brought by THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and perhaps that's a good thing. Such nastiness is hard to get out of one's head once it's in there. God knows I can't drive around while visiting my mom and not recognize several of the Westport locations where the despoilment of Mari and Phyllis took place...
I'm not sure which release this poster accompanied but it's certainly appropriately bleak.