Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of Men, Morality and Microwaves: A Trip Back to The Last House on the Left

Writer/director Wes Craven created The Last House on The Left (1972) as a "Generation Gap" Era re-interpretation of the 1960 Ingmar Bergman film, Jungfrukallan (or The Virgin Spring), an Academy Award winner for best foreign film. Going back further, you can trace the film’s violent tale to a twelfth-century Swedish ballad sometimes known as “Töre's daughter in Vänge."

There are some two-dozen variations of this particular ballad, but all versions are built upon the bloody pillars of rape and revenge. The story also involves the destruction of innocence or purity, and the moral price of vengeance.

The filmed versions of "Töre's daughter in Vänge" all feature a relatively affluent doctor, his innocent young daughter, and the violent, unwashed “herdsmen” who -- after raping and murdering the girl -- arrive at the doctor’s home to stay the night. In the end, after learning of his daughter’s death or suffering, the doctor exacts bloody and righteous vengeance against the murderers.

The three celluloid versions of this long-lived story offer starkly different interpretations of the ballad. Bergman's take is overtly religious and redemptive. Craven's "God is Dead," Manson-era take seeks morality in a universe totally absent the Divine. And the post-Bush/Obama era version of Last House on the Left offers a sort of "let's turn the page" approach to morality; leaving us to draw conclusions for ourselves after we have witnessed horrific, cruel, pre-meditated violence.

"You See It and You Allow It:" Violence and Faith in The Virgin Spring

Bergman’s The Virgin Spring explicitly concerns faith. Indeed, the tragic incident from start to finish may even be interpreted as a "test of faith" for Dr. Tore, played by Max Von Sydow.

He wonders why God permits such atrocities in the world of man. “You see it and you allow it! The innocent child’s death and my revenge…you allowed it! I don’t understand you!” he laments near the film’s conclusion.

Tore searches for meaning in the death of his beloved child, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson); but also in his own blood-thirsty, violent actions. He is a faithful servant…so why was he punished in this cruel fashion? Why was his dignity -- his sense of civilization -- stripped from him? Was he right to act so barbarously?

Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), Tore’s wife, believes that the innocent child was taken from the family because the parents loved and adored the beautiful Karin more than they worshipped and honored Christ. In other words, the parents were punished for not putting their love of God first. A shaken Dr. Tore swears to erect a church in the very spot in the forest that his daughter died; a kind of testament to the Mystery of Faith.

God rewards the tortured, doubting Tore. The Supreme Being miraculously creates a bubbling spring at the very idyllic location where Karin died; a sign that Tore’s continued faith is justified; and that his violent actions were justified too. Tore sees his faith restored by this miracle. A rapturous, high-angle shot reveals the creation of the virgin spring, and Tore’s awe at God’s wisdom and power.

An affirmation of religion (specifically Christianity), The Virgin Spring suggests that God forgives even the most atrocious acts of violence…if only the perpetrator is faithful. Tore may never have all his answers (God moves in mysterious ways), but the doctor can satisfy himself that God exists...and that God has heard him; and that he remains the Lord's servant.

Brilliantly and artfully crafted, Bergman’s version of "Tore’s Daughter" may boast a darker, more sinister interpretation too, especially given our times. The film seems to suggest that after committing heinous violence, the self-righteous will be rewarded with a miracle, and more than that, even be granted certainty of the existence of the Divine...something most human beings are denied on this mortal coil.

Today, we see doctors murdered for performing legal operations, terrorists bombing innocent civilians, and nations launching into bloody war...all over personally-held beliefs or delusions that “God is on their side.” Religion thus becomes the excuse for ideological and literal warfare. Here we see the same thing on a smaller, more intimate scale: bloody vengeance is deemed okay, and forgiven...if one is devout.

The Road Leads To Nowhere And the Castle Stays the Same: The Last House on The Left (1972)

Wes Craven re-interpreted The Virgin Spring and "Tore’s Daughter in Vange" for The Last House on The Left, his widely-despised debut film.

The New York Times
reviewer walked out of the film (with an hour still to go) and called it “sickening tripe,” (December 22, 1972). Even Danny Peary, author of Cult Movies decried the film as a “sick sexual fantasy” and “an incitement to violence.” (Delacorte Press, 1981, page 348).

In The Last House on The Left, young Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) -- the equivalent of the Karin character -- is raped and killed by the sociopath Krug (David Hess). Her path intersected with Krug's while she was trying to score some weed on the way to a rock concert performance (by a popular group called "Bloodlust.") In The Virgin Spring, Karin had been on her way to "lighting candles" for Christ, to honor his suffering, when attacked. The distinction, of course, is critical. Mari is a self-involved modern teen of the Peace Generation; not a devout supplicant like Karin. Craven has thus stripped the religious veneer from the tale. But importantly, he has not stripped the moral underpinnings of the ballad. On the contrary, he has actually augmented them.

Although Mari prays to (an absent) God before she is murdered -- in a harrowing scene staged in almost identical fashion to Karin’s rape and murder in The Virgin Spring -- there is no salvation for her or redemption for her fallen parents here. Unlike the Tores in The Virgin Spring, Dr. Collingwood (Gaylord St James) and his wife in the 1972 Last House on the Left are not enlightened in the finale by the existence of God, or by a comforting awareness of Divine Method. Rather, they are left totally isolated in their shattered, middle-class living room, surrounded by the blood of villains. The camera does not majestically swoop heavenward to give the impression of God’s support; or even presence.

Instead, by freeze-framing on the shattered Collingwoods in the final (close-up) shot of The Last House on the Left, Craven reveals the futility of bloodshed and retribution in a way that the spiritually uplifting finale of The Virgin Spring does not. Very simply, the film ends on the face of two shattered people. They have been as violent and brutal as Krug and his fellow attackers (Sadie and Weasel)...and their daughter is still dead. They have achieved nothing...except the lowering of themselves to barbarism; to the level of the criminals who were so monstrous. They have survived; they have prevailed...but now they don't even know who -- or what -- they are.

On the soundtrack, a song entitled "The Road Leads to Nowhere" (composed and performed by David Hess) plays, and the title itself (also a lyric featured in the body of the pieces) expresses the futility of all the violence portrayed in the film. Despite the brutality, despite the revenge completed, "the castle stays the same," meaning that nothing changes. Mari remains dead and God does not right that wrong because the Collingwoods have "won." The subtext of the film is simple: as bad as the low class Krug and his compatriots are...the affluent, middle-class Collingwoods are really no better.

There's a fascinating moment in Last House on The Left, when Krug, Sadie and Weasel all pause by the lake, following the rape and murder of Mari (and her friend, here named Phyllis). For a brief instant, the criminals are silent. And they actually appear chastened. As if, for one fleeting instant...they have awareness of what they are; what they have done. At the end of the film, the Collingwoods kill with comparative abandon and glee. Mrs. Collingwood even bites off Weasel's penis while giving him head (a macabre touch not retained in the remake). The "respectable" Collingwoods seem to have no recognition of what they've done...not until that "freeze frame" captures them in the hell of their own making; in the aftermath of a bloodbath. In both these moments, violence is not championed, not even in the name of retribution. The opposite is true.

Why is The Last House on the Left so reviled by so many, so despised? In part because it accomplishes the unthinkable and the totally unsavory: it treats violence as real...and horrible. Most films, even great horror films, treat violence in a "tolerable" way, meaning that we may be frightened by the scary images...but we're not, ultimately, undone or debauched by them. Movie decorum keeps "the horror of violence" at an acceptable distance from our psyches..

Not so Last House on the Left. After titillating the audience with early glimpses of the comely Mari in the shower, arousing lascivious interest, Craven turns the table on his audience and stages a brutal, affecting, prolonged, utterly monstrous rape. He lingers there. The scene goes on and on until you feel sick to your stomach watching. Again, this is Craven's desired manipulation: he makes you thirst for the blood of Krug, Sadie and Weasel right along with Mari's parents. Your anger is justified and righteous. We identify with the Collingwoods. With their loss, with their pain. We want the bad guys to suffer too.

But then, there you are, at the end of the film -- having wallowed in the violence with the Collingwoods. And you don't feel good about it. You feel - like the Collingwood's in that traumatized, valedictory freeze frame -- ashamed . The Collingwoods have stooped to Krug's level and gotten their revenge...but what's left? The road leads to nowhere. Violence, while perhaps satisfying on first impulse, ultimately solves nothing. Forged during the time of the Vietnam War, Craven's Last House on the Left is perhaps the ultimate anti-violence, anti-war film. It doesn't romanticize violence, and furthermore, decries violence even when the situation is an archetypal Biblical "Eye-for-an-Eye" setting. It's ironic that Last House on the Left is constantly attacked as being an incitement to violence, when nothing could be further from the truth. It's just that -- as movie goers and perhaps even as critics -- we prefer our violence palatable...not authentically disturbing.

"Are You Ready to Be A Man?" The Last House on the Left (2009)

The remake of Last House on the Left (2009) makes a number of interesting and telling modifications to the Swedish ballad and original story of "Tore's Daughter."

In this cinematic version alone, for instance, the doctor's daughter -- again named Mari (Sara Paxton) -- survives the attack. Her survival removes some of "anger" that, theoretically, Dr. Collingwood should feel. His victimization, in other words, is not as severe.

Also, the leader of the "herdsmen" or thugs, Krug (Garret Dillahunt) is defined more in the terms of being one of Craven's "Bad Fathers," than in the original film. This Krug is almost constantly seen goading his son into violent action; telling him to cowboy up and be a man. Even the rape of Mari here seems to stem more from Krug's cruelty to his son than his own feelings of sexual desire. The point, I believe, is the cycle of violence: the passing of "abuse" from one generation to another.

Also, alone among the filmed versions of the tale, Dr. Collingwood in this film (Tony Goldwyn) gets to utilize his skills as a physician.

Some of these changes in the "Tore's Daughter" template are just superficial; and some run far, far deeper. For instance, in the last act of the remake, Dr. Collingwood stabilizes his badly-wounded daughter and plans to escape in a boat (and get her to a hospital alongside his wife). With the aid of Mrs. Collingwood (Monica Potter) and Krug's son, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), Dr. Collingwood also incapacitates Krug, eliminating any and all immediate danger..

But instead of simply escaping -- or killing Krug in the heat of a kill-or-be-killed moment (as was the case in the Craven version) -- this Dr. Collingwood takes his time and, with extensive pre-meditation, plans for the torture and death of Krug utilizing a malfunctioning microwave oven. In other words, this is no longer a case of flight or fight. Mari is safe. Krug is down for the count. But Collingwood -- a man sworn to protect life -- nonetheless breaks his oath and engineers a complex plan (involving a delicate surgery...) to kill Krug. Here's how I see this: Were my loved ones attacked and in jeopardy, I would certainly respond violently in the moment...perhaps even murderously...to protect them. But, were my wife and daughter attacked, and the situation safely ameliorated, I can't imagine I would respond by engineering -- over a sustained period of time -- a brutal surgery and torture scheme. That goes beyond preservation of self and family. That's...extreme sadism.

There are two ways to read this alteration in the tale. Either this is a pander-fest to the modern audience, ostensibly a bread-and-circuses demographic, who demand Krug's blood and want him to suffer in a horrifying way. Or, as I believe, this is a comment on our post-9/11 age, just as Craven's version commented on the 1970s. Yes, we were brutally attacked in September 2001 and three thousand Americans died horrible deaths and the terrorists were EVIL. But The Iraq War occurred in 2003, the torture at Abu Ghraib happened in 2004, and over 101,000 Iraqis are now dead in the year 2009. Exactly when, you might rightly ask, do we get to stop avenging 9/11 with a free conscience? Exactly when does the "heat of the moment" of 9/11 fade away, and reason...and restraint...and LAW set in? We were right to strike back against those who hurt us and killed our loved ones...but how long do we continue striking back against enemies with moral impunity before we are the ones provoking a new cycle of violence?

In the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left, Dr. Collingwood expresses not one recrimination about his actions; and that's also the official take of our government, even today. President Obama wants to "turn the page" on American moral abuses of the Bush Years...thus leaving them unaddressed and unpunished. That's also the state in which we leave Dr. Collingwood. Mari (like America) is safe and sound, but he (like our nation) hasn't yet looked in the mirror and faced the consequences of his bloody actions. That needs to happen. For him and for us.

This is a fascinating change in the enduring Swedish original. In the past, Dr. Tore and Dr. Collingwood responded to violence with savagery, but it was always in the passion of the moment. And they had motives we sympathized with: the death of the daughter. Here, this Dr. Collingwood has time for reflection, time for pause, and his daughter yet lives. And despite time, despite the survival of his daughter, Collingwood still knowingly and mercilessly fries Krug's brain in a microwave.

He doesn't feel bad about it...and in this case -- I hate to say it -- that makes the Tore character worse than the despicable Krug. Because this Krug, like his previous incarnation, at least experiences that moment of humanity by the lake in which he realizes that he's a monster. This Dr. Collingwood still thinks he's a doctor and an upright citizen. He marches on...but his violence is left unaddressed. And Krug, for all his brutal crimes, clearly didn't set out one morning to hurt Mari or Page...he happened upon them...and his brutal nature asserted itself. That assertion doesn't take him off the hook for his crimes in any way, but they were crimes of opportunity. By contrast, Collingwood is the only character in the movie who plots out and executes -- in detail -- a torturous death for another human being.

In some ways, this newest Last House on the Left is the most disturbing version of the tale yet produced. It doesn't find answers in God, like Bergman's version. Nor does it find answers in man's nature, like Craven's tale. Instead, it just punts moral judgment down the line. The 2009 Dr. Collingwood feels he was justified in the pre-meditated torture and murder of another human being because he was attacked first....and I suspect many modern viewers feel the same way.

"Bloodlust" isn't just the name of a rock group. And it's not a feeling limited merely to black hat bad guys, either. We can find it right here, dwelling in our very own neighborhoods. Just turn by the lake, and stop at the last house on the left...

3 comments:

  1. Bravo! You know, previously I have never read a review that has actually bothered to compare Last House and The Virgin Spring. Craven was a philosophy professor; these themes are consciously designed. And your take on the new version is spot on; whether geared to modern tastes or deliberately planned, the effect is the same; it comments on the cold calculations that led America down the path to torture.

    BTW, there is another version of the story that came out in 2005 called "Chaos". I haven't (will not) seen it but it seems like an unwitting extension of some of themes you've mentioned, and may be a (unwittingly) more direct accusation of the Abu Gharib mmentality. But you couldn;t pay me to watch it. The original Last House is the greatest film I will never watch again.

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  2. Hey DLR:

    Glad you enjoyed reading the comparison between Virgin Spring and Last House.

    I began writing a sort of comparison of the two productions back in my 1998 book, Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, but it is interesting (and a little strange...) to return to the material ten years later; especially in light of the remake.

    The greatest movie you'll never watch again! -- I very much like how you put that; a good turn of phrase. I couldn't agree more.

    I've now seen the original Last House far too many times. I think the remake is actually quite powerful too and very, very interesting but -- again -- I have no desire to relive it anytime soon.

    I must say, I do think the new film is one of the more intriguing of recent remakes. It's a hard film to "enjoy" for sure, but a fascinating one to discuss and debate. You can't make the same claim about remakes like F13 or My Bloody Valentine.

    Those films have nothing to say, and seem to fade away while you're still watching...

    Not so Last House...which transgresses in some pretty powerful ways. By positioning that microwave death AFTER the kill-or-be-killed moment, the movie really makes us consider the line separating self-defense from sadism. Since that's part of our national discussion these days, all the better...

    best,
    JKM

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  3. JKM, you've provided some real thought-provoking analysis with this spot-on review. I recall the talk among my peers at the time on how disturbing the movie was (for those that actually saw it) upon its initial release. I wouldn't take it in for a couple of decades based upon those conversations. And those conversations, not surprisingly, were almost along the same tones and gravity as those about Vietnam.

    For the teens coming of draft age in high school, those exchanges were never a joking matter. So I found your connections with violence, Nam, and 1972's TLHotL to have good insight for a generation that grew up watching the daily evening news war reports and body counts. And this year's version (I'm with DLR where it comes to the Chaos version) I'll spin up soon enough. But, I wonder if the religious angle is not also in play here, too.

    I mean, the continuing argument (by some) that the ends are justified (even if our daughter/country survived and will recover from the attack). And that the (continuing) punishment of the enemy has a preemptive morality to it. Having a man of science, the physician, become the smiter seems very apropos as commentary of intelligent people reacting in the worst way.

    A great examination of these films, JKM. Thanks.

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