Visiting Uncharted, Yet Familiar Violence in ‘The Last House on the Left’

Wes Craven's debut exploitation horror shocked audiences with the intensity of brutality befalling a typical American family, and it continues to remind us how violence and terror are never far from home.

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The Last House on the Left is about people you know — or the people you think you know. Its grainy verite style gives a look of real life; its idyllic setting somewhere outside the city looks nondescript enough, and in the first scene we are introduced to the charming and conventionally good-looking Collingwood family. Teenager Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) is pretty and popular, leading the kind of effortless life that makes her the envy and object of desire for all of those around her. When she and her friend, Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), head off to a rock concert, it feels like a classic scene of teenage fun. Yet this sense of familiarity and at-homeness is exactly what Wes Craven’s 1972 directorial debut taunts audiences with: the twisting and turning of expectation in a classic work of grindhouse exploitation.

The film begins with a title card to let us know that the “names and locations have been changed to protect those individuals still living.” This gives the tale an air of a true story, or perhaps an urban legend from a friend-of-a-friend, but also seems to acknowledge the film’s history as a reinterpretation of another narrative: Craven drew inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film, The Virgin Spring, a rape-revenge tale set in medieval Sweden. However, The Last House on the Left updates the setting to 1970s America and trades Bergman’s austere aesthetic for B-movie grime. Although, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same — when the family chats about what’s new in the outside world, the parents quip that it’s the same thing as always: “murder and mayhem.”

Craven sets up a clear divide between the generations, contrasting Mari’s free-spirtedness and youthful naivete with her parents’ admonitions for caution. Parents Estelle and John Collingwood (Eleanor Shaw and Richard Towers) worry that she is going to a “bad neighborhood,” and doing so without a bra, and express concern for the fact that the band she is going to see is called “Bloodlust.” Emerging in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Manson Family murders, the film draws attention to the divide between generations and the parental fear of the rebellious counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s, which seemed to forebode danger and the decay of America. The early scenes have the tone of a sitcom, filled with jokes from the parents and eye-rolls from Mari as her mother jests, “I thought you were supposed to be the love generation,” as her father gifts her a peace sign necklace.

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The film plants the seeds of violence early on, suggesting that nobody is as peaceful or innocent as they appear. As the two women drive, they listen to rock music and switch their radio back and forth to a news broadcast informing them of escaped convicts — Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), his drug-addled son, Junior (Marc Sheffler), violent sadist Sadie (Jeramie Rain), and child molester and murderer, Fred “Weasel” Podowski (Fred Lincoln). Yet, the two girls seem unbothered as they drive through the lush nature en route to the concert, stopping to buy ice cream along the way, and then weed, which is how they ultimately cross paths with the gang of criminals.

The violence unfolds quickly. As some groovy music continues to play, the quartet of criminals drive Mari and Phyllis into the woods, tie them up, and torture them physically and mentally before raping and murdering them. There is not much chance for Mari and Phyllis to fully make sense of what is happening to them, or why. The rapes and murders are brutal and unrelenting: Craven spares his characters no mercy and the audience isn’t granted any distance or respite from the torture. We see the victims’ faces in tight frames as they scream and then go vomit, and see similar close-ups of the sadistic grins of the killers as well as inserts of their blood-covered hands. The awful rampage is never glorified or aestheticized, but rough and intense; the grainy film footage feels like it could have been shot by the killers themselves. Its raw realism mirrors a home movie even if its content is decidedly unwelcome in any domestic space.

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Mari’s fate, when summarized bluntly, sounds like something out of an urban legend: a young girl goes out, mixes with the wrong crowd, and ends up paying for it with her life. The gritty realism adds a further feeling that the narrative is proposing a declaration of “it could happen here.” The Collingwood family seems wholesome and well-regarded: Estelle maintains a beautiful household and John is a well-respected doctor. Yet even these parents are prone to desires of their own, and scenes of them drinking and having an erotic evening are intercut with the sexual assaults of the two young women. No one is immune to sexual urges, but no one is safe from dark motivations or spared from unflinching violence either.

The film’s title, The Last House on the Left, has a potential political interpretation that emphasizes the undertones of social criticism — Craven implicates the political left as much as anyone for creating an environment of terror in the contemporary nation. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, an unjustifiable war waged against innocents, no American family was truly “innocent.” The four criminals form a twisted variation on a family, perhaps not unlike the Manson Family, but also maybe even comparable to a sitcom family like the Collingwoods. The soundtrack, written by Stephen Chapin and David A. Hess, has a bluegrass twang that gives the whole tale a backwoods energy and often feels a bit silly and incongruous. The criminals even have their own theme song: a “Baddies Theme,” underscores some of the attacks, and comically upbeat music is paired with dark lyrics about the victims being profoundly alone and with nowhere to hide.

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Craven’s film unearths the violence and darkness lurking within each family unit. Even the family house, the last vestige of hope, is not truly safe — the Collingwood’s house is the titular last house on the left, but its remoteness and seeming security does not allow them to remain uninvolved with the violence. The divide between good and bad starts to break down as the idyllic house becomes a site of aggression. Even though two murders have already taken place, the worst violence is still yet to come. First, the killers start to morph closer to the upright appearance of the Collingwoods — they take on new identities to escape their outlaw status, change their clothes, and clean up their looks. When they arrive at a nice home in the “middle of nowhere,” they look like respectable guests whom the couple gladly put up for the night.

At first, the criminals don’t even realize whose house they have coincidentally stumbled into, only discovering it when they see photographs in Mari’s room. However, Estelle sees Mari’s peace-sign necklace around Junior’s neck and instantly realizes what has happened — and thus initiates the transformation of the Collingwoods into brutal killers themselves. Seething with rage and torn apart by grief, Estelle and John are suddenly not the corny sitcom parents, or the sweet mom and dad, we thought we knew. In a stunning reversal of roles, the parents become vengeful slaughterers: Estelle viciously makes the men pay for their sexual transgressions while John chases them down with a chainsaw, returning the savagery that was enacted upon Mari and Phyllis. The family home is no longer just a place for living out TV-friendly lives: it is a set for vicious events, and the Collingwoods fight against the four killers with unconstrained fervor and fierceness. They are out for blood, and they certainly get plenty of it.

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While the turn to increasingly unprecedented and gruesome events might have shocked some audiences, Craven affirms that such violence is nothing new for American life — after all, there is always more of the same “murder and mayhem.” Whether or not rock music and Hollywood movies are actually to blame for driving people to madness, graphic and explicit images are undeniably regular features of daily life. Carnage is so deeply ingrained in American culture that even class and generational divides can’t separate the victims from the perpetrators so easily. While there are, of course, varying degrees of guilt and gore, nobody is entirely off the hook from participating in the creation of a terrifying atmosphere.

After the Collingwoods have made their true natures known, where do they go from here? Where does America go after recognizing the deep-seated violence embedded within its most apparently wholesome scenes? They already live in the last house on their road, and as one soulful tune on the cinematic soundtrack sings, “the road leads to nowhere…” Americans today may be all the more accustomed to constant barrages of images of brutality and depravity, bombarded on all sides by bad guys and bad news, but the head-on confrontation of evil still comes as a shock.

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Both a cautionary tale for rebellious youth and a satire of wealthy pretenses, an exploitative work of obscenity and a sharp piece of social criticism, The Last House on the Left is a blistering debut feature that introduced the world to Craven’s startling style. It woke audiences up to the idea that potential horror lurks wherever we are and exists within us all. There is no way out of facing the violence America has wrought, and there is no untouched place left to escape to. We are left right back where we began, in the Collingwood house, which is ultimately perhaps the most terrifying place of all.

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