I have a special love of horror movies. There’s something compelling about vicariously confronting the abyss, however the film in question defines abyss – death, insanity, damnation, exile, the unknown, abandonment, bodily mutilation and desecration…
But for me, it’s one of the trickiest genres to get right. I’m not an expert, or even a geek, but in this genre I don’t need to be – real horror quickly announces itself. My heart beats faster; my sense of reality starts to warp and wane; I no longer feel like I’m safe, psychologically speaking and…uh…wait – why did this seem fun, again?
At any rate, I recently watched cult classic The Last House on the Left, directed by Wes Craven and released in 1972 (itself based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring – now on my list to view in future).
(Spoiler alert: skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how the film ends.)
The story follows two young women, Mari and Phyllis, who venture into the city to see their favourite band. But on the way, they’re captured by three murderous criminals on the lam, assisted by a young junkie. The story intercuts Mari’s worried parents and the incompetent local cops with drawn-out torture and rape of the two young women in the nearby forest. After Phyllis and Mari are finally killed and their corpses abandoned, the criminals manage to talk their way into Mari’s parents’ house for the night, posing as insurance salesmen. Their act is suspicious, however, and Mari’s parents soon realize who they really are – and what has become of poor Mari. Here the film turns the tables on the killers, and Mari’s parents avenge her death by gruesomely murdering each of them, one by one.
The Last House on the Left was met with revulsion and harsh criticism upon its release, and it’s easy to see why: even by today’s standards there remains an impressive raw power to this film.
It veers between tones that don’t always go well together, or even necessarily make sense – for example, there’s a lot of loopy banjo getaway music following the first night of rape and torture of the two young women, which seems oddly out of place to say the least. There’s also a choppiness to the intercutting of the various plotlines – literal choppiness, where sound and music in one scene will instantly stop on the cut; but also tonal choppiness, where we’ll suddenly go from a wacky comedic tone to the starkly realist horror of the torture scenes.
In part, it’s this unpredictability of tone and cutting that lends the film its power. When we cut to apparently comedic scenes with the inept police, I felt a kind of relief – okay, we’re in a safe space now – but when we returned to the forest, all bets were off. There’s an artlessness to these shifts that jarred my viewing experience, yet at the same time that very artlessness intensified the horror by creating a sense of destabilization: moment to moment, I just didn’t know where this film was going to take me. And isn’t that feeling – literally, the fear of the unknown – at the core of any horror film?
That wildness, rawness, messiness is what was most effective about The Last House on the Left. Unpredictable and seemingly out of control, its flaws and bizarre tonal shifts leaves you feeling vulnerable, disoriented and on edge.