Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Two girls meet four criminals meet protective parents

This was both ahead of its time in some regard and also a time capsule of the period with hip slangs and dress, not to mention with messages that were a hot debate back in the early '70s. This is an exploitation film that no doubt exploits, though it also softens the blow with randomly queued music and offbeat humor not to desensitize a viewer but to make one lower their guard and think they're safe for the time being. It's filmmaking at its most inappropriate and confrontational: not just with a surprise left hook, but sand thrown in the eyes and then a kick when down. This seminal film has been copied a few times since but there's still nothing quite like the actual experience even if everything doesn't come together quite so perfectly or in a neat little package. Rather than doing everything on purpose, the filmmakers stumbled into a cult item that's crude, blunt and with a final delivery that was also fresh due to how unrestrained it was.

Mari Collingwood and her friend Phyllis Stone are going to an edgy concert in a rough neighborhood in NYC. They're young and wild and life is an open field for them to explore all of its fun and thrilling areas. That is until they test their limits when attempting to buy marijuana at an unknown apartment from a boy their age. The trap is set by three recently escaped criminals of violent crimes and a girlfriend of their leader, Krug, who can hang just as tough. With little planning ahead than just getting away from the police hot on their trail, the sadistic criminals take their pleading captives out to a remote area to give into animal-like impulse that will leave their victims so humiliated they'll want to just end it all. It so happens to be near Mari's house in the woods with her parents and the Sheriff looking into her absence no less due to expecting her back for her next birthday party that she might never see again unless someone can intervene in time.

The tone of the film is truly odd and unorthodox due to how much it experiments: one moment being somewhat easy and whimsical fun, then the next truly sadistic without holding back. It's like it has two extremes of good and bad with little in the middle to grab onto. It's not a subtle film like its predecessor "The Virgin Spring" but one to instead wrack the senses. What better way to do so than to give some breathing room and then suddenly sock it to the stomach. Both the protagonists and antagonists have their pros and cons shown, whether it be mindless partying to giving in to the most darkest primal urges. Or living the quaint life to enacting elaborate revenge. The Sheriff's deputies are knuckleheads rather than heroes. Watching them make one bonehead move after the next is tedious and annoying but rightfully gets a viewer squirming from assumptions made by what they normally represent and should do in films.

"The Last House on the Left" blends sex, drugs and violence and how it relates to just giving in or having control to hold back. It shows women can be just as sadistic with one of the characters joining and egging on the situation. Another character is doped up and has the ability to do something about the predicament but chooses to turn in on himself and act comatose. This carries a message of the times--the promotion of peace and Vietnam protests--to show that violence even for the regular, everyday family member is necessary against heinous individuals who are beyond clean up or reform. It shows how innocence of body and mind can be robbed within the blink of an eye. Also how much a person can build up their family and belongings in life but then have them taken away in an instant. It brings one back to a primitive time when the police weren't so readily available and things have to be taken into a citizen's own hands. It shows how criminals would rather use, use, use than give back to society, while others give, give, give but then there's no one to help them when they need it.

There's no denying this movie has its faults: awkward camera angles, jumpy editing, wooden characters that primarily stick to their archetypes to make it easier to decode and digest. At times the film is much stronger with its messages than its hit and miss filmmaking techniques that are all over the place. Not to mention it's overly exaggerated and noticeably tweaked to go a certain way to get those results than always refining them. Even with its many setbacks "The Last House on the Left" manages to still entertain, disgust, frighten and bring about debate all within a single experience.

Rating: 8/10

Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess
Link: IMDB

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