Hoodlums, Junkies, and Droogs: The Ultra-Violent Year of 1972
By Daniel Kraus

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, "Repulsive."

Released not even a year earlier were Stanley Kubrick’s X-rated A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s 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 sense—there 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 filmmaker’s trust that the blood lust of movie audiences would ultimately rule the day.

Of the three, it is Craven’s $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 people—a 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 Mari’s 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 Craven’s statement that the film’s 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 House’s 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 Craven’s novice cast.

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 Mari’s parents, soaked with the gore of the criminals they’ve just massacred, look at themselves in horrified awe, as if to ask, "What have we DONE?"

A Clockwork Orange’s 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 Alex—a funny, intelligent youngster who is more clever and savvy than all of the film’s fat, misguided adults. Craven was not ignorant to the similarities between his film and Kubrick’s; in an early scene of Last House, one of the criminals lounges in a tub, humming "Singing in the Rain", just like Alex.

With 1969’s 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 David’s garage divide their time between leering at Amy and tormenting David. They mock and test David’s 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 wife’s rapists? And is a "civilized" reaction ultimately even unacceptable?

In Straw Dogs, it is only when David physically harms his attackers and brusquely commands his wife to "Do as you’re told" that he truly becomes a man, and his wife can truly love/respect him. In a car, responding to the statement "I don’t know my way home," David smiles and replies with the film’s final lines, "That’s okay. I don’t either." The message is clear: having tasted true manhood—a rite that involves violence, sex, and domination—David has no intention of going back.

Like Mari’s parents in the final act of Last House and the wheelchair-bound writer avenging his wife’s 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 public’s skin in 1971/1972—the 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 mirror—we might not have liked what we saw, but it’s hard to deny that the reflection was ours.