Thirty years ago (1972),
director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street,
Scream) debuted his first film, Last House on
the Left. Although immediately celebrated by critics
such as Roger Ebert and Robin Wood and considered today
to be something of a raw, visceral classic, both critics
and audiences initially renounced it. "The sickest
film of 1972," wrote Gene Siskel. "Tawdry, vicious,
and wholly without purpose," said the Pittsburgh
Press. And the Boston Herald-Traveler simply summed up,
Released not even a year
earlier were Stanley Kubricks X-rated A Clockwork
Orange and Sam Peckinpahs brutal Straw Dogs.
Together with Last House, these three movies comprised
a conspicuously terrifying triad of films that did not
go unnoticed by audiences or critics. In late 1972, as
Last House on the Left was enjoying an astonishing
profitable theatrical run, the entertainment magazine
Variety ran a headline dubbing the year 1972 as
"Rated V for Violence".
None of these three movies were "horror films"
in the usual sensethere was nothing supernatural
about any of them. They were instead a new kind of shock
cinema, a disturbing new genre that appeared to revel
in the graphic torture and humiliation of helpless and/or
virginal innocents. Each film featured a gang of giddy
evildoers who raped and beat their victims in then unheard-of
detail. Practically predestined by their filmmakers to
be instantly vilified, the cult success of these three
pictures stemmed almost solely from the filmmakers
trust that the blood lust of movie audiences would ultimately
rule the day.
Of the three, it is Cravens $45,000, 16mm exploitation
flick that is the hardest pill to swallow. It details
the sad fate of two teen girls, Phyllis and Mari, who
innocently try to buy some pot off the wrong peoplea
band of escaped junkie outlaws with a penchant for rape
and sexual torture. After a hearty helping of both, the
girls are murdered, and the criminals, by happenstance,
find themselves spending the evening at Maris parents
house. When the parents find out what the criminals have
done, they viciously murder them.
Last House is such
a grueling experience that it is difficult not to be forced
into either "attacking" or "defending"
the film. Many refuse to swallow Cravens statement
that the films intent was to bring all the horror
and suffering of violence into the light, instead of nimbly
"editing the bad stuff out" as TV news had done
with the Vietnam War. While it is certainly true that
Last House indulges in the same violence it claims
to decry, one has to remember that it was first and foremost
an exploitation film made for hire, and exploitation films
carry their own set of unsavory rules. Creating a serious
and powerful film WITHIN these rules is what is so impressive
and laudable about the film.
While most of Last Houses violence occurs
off-screen, the very delivery of the film is upsetting.
It swings between broad physical comedy and dire sexual
torture, upsetting your equilibrium with its insensitive
juxtapositions. Simply the IDEA that someone would so
nonchalantly splice together such violently dissimilar
tones is vulgar and upsetting. Much like A Clockwork
Orange, the film makes you queasy by jolting around
your expectations and moral alliances. Is violence funny?
Gruesome? Or worse, both?
Next to this terrifying use of film rhetoric, the content
of Last House seems rather tame. One girl is ordered
to pee her pants, which she does. One girl is ordered
to hit the other, which she does. Both girls are ordered
to strip and "make it" with one another. Finally,
each girl is cut with knives and raped. All of this is
executed with unnerving, naturalistic acting from Cravens
More terrible than any of these degradations are the reactions
of the criminals after Mari is stabbed and raped. As she
stumbles off to vomit in the grass, the criminals stand
together awkwardly, self-consciously picking the dirt
and grass from their bloodstained hands and clothes. It
is a guilty, uncomfortable moment that makes the criminals
gut-wrenchingly real. And it is a moment that surely made
viewers hate Craven for including it. This moment is re-created
at the end of the film when Maris parents, soaked
with the gore of the criminals theyve just massacred,
look at themselves in horrified awe, as if to ask, "What
have we DONE?"
A Clockwork Oranges
infamous junior sociopath Alex (Malcolm McDowell) also
won our sympathies, and mostly because he was just so
darn likeable. Kubrick practically dared you NOT to befriend
Alexa funny, intelligent youngster who is more clever
and savvy than all of the films fat, misguided adults.
Craven was not ignorant to the similarities between his
film and Kubricks; in an early scene of Last
House, one of the criminals lounges in a tub, humming
"Singing in the Rain", just like Alex.
With 1969s The
Wild Bunch behind him, Peckinpah had already established
himself as a master of romanticized, masculine violence.
But Straw Dogs featured a different type of barbarity,
one more blunt, personal, and unappealing. It is the story
of a nerdy mathematician named David (Dustin Hoffman)
who is on sabbatical in the tiny English hometown of his
beautiful wife, Amy (Susan George). The roughneck locals
who are working on Davids garage divide their time
between leering at Amy and tormenting David. They mock
and test Davids manhood and eventually rape Amy.
Facing an all-out onslaught by the finale, David must
rise up to defend his home and wife by killing all of
the invading men.
Rarely has a film more succinctly explored a topic that
surely haunts much of the "sophisticated" male
population of America; namely, the fear that all of our
successes, accolades, and awards mean nothing when removed
from the office or academia. If faced with a bully, are
you tough enough to defend your wife? Are you MAN enough?
Furthermore, how does a civilized man confront his wifes
rapists? And is a "civilized" reaction ultimately
In Straw Dogs, it
is only when David physically harms his attackers and
brusquely commands his wife to "Do as youre
told" that he truly becomes a man, and his wife can
truly love/respect him. In a car, responding to the statement
"I dont know my way home," David smiles
and replies with the films final lines, "Thats
okay. I dont either." The message is clear:
having tasted true manhooda rite that involves violence,
sex, and dominationDavid has no intention of going
Like Maris parents in the final act of Last House
and the wheelchair-bound writer avenging his wifes
death in A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs
is about a peaceful person driven to acts of brutal savagery.
This is what lodged these three films so deeply beneath
the publics skin in 1971/1972the possibility
that, when stripped to our desperate, animal core, we
are as elementally barbaric as those we consider to be
"evil," whether it be Charles Manson or some
nameless Viet Cong soldier. Watching these films was like
looking into a dark mirrorwe might not have liked
what we saw, but its hard to deny that the reflection