Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A 1970's Halloween: The Last House on the Left (1972)

Writer/director Wes Craven created the incendiary 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, one can trace the Craven 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 erected upon the bloody foundations of rape and revenge. The story also involves the destruction of innocence or purity, and the moral price of vengeance, if there is one.

The Bergman and Craven versions of "Töre's daughter in Vänge" both feature an 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 for the night. After learning of his daughter’s murder, the doctor exacts bloody and righteous vengeance against the murderers.

The celluloid versions of this long-lived story offer starkly different interpretations of the ballad, however. Bergman's take is overtly religious and redemptive, while Craven's "God is Dead," Manson-era film seeks morality in a universe totally absent the Divine.

Craven’s film, in fact, finds no comfort in any of the long-standing pillars of traditional American society.  Faith and family are useless in Last House on the Left, and even legal authority -- represented in the film by two dopey local police officers -- is impotent in the face of real crime.

I’ve reviewed The Last House on the Left several times before (in Wes Craven: The Art of Horror and in Horror Films of the 1970s), but screening the film again for Savage Friday, I was particularly struck by the class warfare aspects of this 1970s "Savage Cinema" tale. 

In The Last House on the Left, the Collingwoods look down their noses at Mari’s friend Phyllis because she’s from Manhattan. And, oppositely, the killers put on their best “suits” to break bread with the upper class doctor’s family.   The Craven film’s point seems to be not merely that violence ultimately solves nothing, but that class stratification also makes no difference in the human animal’s capacity for violence.   

In other words, the Collingwoods -- even boasting the considerable benefits of financial security and a good education -- are just as prone to descend to violence as are Krug and his gang of anti-social, criminal misfits.

For its dramatically anti-violence stance, as well as for its unflinching gaze at the superficial differences between the haves and the have-nots, The Last House on the Left is actually an incredibly moral film, notorious reputation to the contrary.  

Indeed, the film, though roughly made, boasts an authentically artistic approach. In short, Craven attempts to stoke first lust, and then blood lust in the audience.  But finally, he turns around and pulls the carpet out, revealing horrors that repulse audiences and make viewers face their own pre-conceptions about the efficacy and morality of revenge.  The director harnesses cross-cutting brilliantly to forge a comparison between the film's ostensible heroes, The Collingwoods, and its villains, the Stillo gang.  

Film scholar and Wes Craven historian Tony Williams captured perfectly the complex moral nature of The Last House on the Left when he wrote that the film: “begins by depicting opposites, gradually blurring barriers, until the audience’s emotional involvement with the violent action leads not to catharsis but self-disgust and self-awareness…Last House condemns any audience member who complies with excessive violent displays.” (Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film, Associated University Presses, 1996, page 30.)

Thus Last House on the Left is legitimately Roger Ebert’s “tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie” more than it is the “sick, sick, sick gore” film describes by the Medveds (The Golden Turkey Awards, A Perigee Book, 1980, page 215) and other critics who couldn’t see beyond the film’s (admittedly) ultra-violent surface.

Before The Last House on the Left:  Violence and Faith in The Virgin Spring

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

After killing his daughter's murderers, Tore 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…but only if 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" also boasts a darker, more sinister interpretation, especially given the violence of 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 abortion doctors murdered for performing legal operations, terrorists bombing innocent civilians to support their faith, and nations launching into bloody war...all over personally-held beliefs or delusions that “God is on their side.” 

Religious belief thus can become the excuse for ideological and literal warfare. Here, in The Virgin Spring, we see the same thing on a smaller, more intimate scale: bloody vengeance is deemed moral, and forgiven...if the perpetrator is devout.  In my opinion, this makes the Bergman film far less morally sound than Craven's.  Craven's in the final analysis, finds no justification for violence, religious or otherwise.

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 the brilliant and indispensable 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 rather than 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.  God doesn't wash away the blood because someone is on "his" team.

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, presence, or even existence.  

Instead, by freeze-framing on the shattered Collingwoods in the final (close-up) shot of The Last House on the Left, Craven reveals the absolute 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 yet 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, anymore.  Behind them, a tapestry announcing Mari's birthday has fallen, in tatters...like their very lives.

On the soundtrack, a song titled "Wait for the Rain" (composed and performed by the late David Hess) plays, and the title itself (also a lyric featured in the body of the composition) expresses the futility of all the violence depicted 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 simply because the Collingwoods have "won" or are faithful. 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.  The Road Leads to Nowhere.

One message here is not merely that violence resolves nothing, but that all people -- upper class, lower class or middle class -- are susceptible to it. As Last House commences, the Collingwoods are upset that the Mari is going out for the evening with the lower class Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), who describes her parents as being in the “iron and steel” business. “She irons…he steals.” 

Meanwhile, in NYC, Krug’s girlfriend, Sadie (Jeramie Rain) dreams of having a middle-class-sounding name such as “Agatha Greenwood.”  Greenwood, of course, sounds a lot like Collingwood.

The point is that we are witnessing a culture clash.  We expect, perhaps subconsciously, violence from one class, but not the other.

There's a fascinating moment late in Last House on The Left, when Krug, Sadie and Weasel all pause by the lake following the rape and murder of Mari.  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.  Notice that they don’t have such feelings of remorse or regret after the disgusting death of Phyllis; the death of another “have not.”  

No, their regret occurs not because they have committed brutal crimes, but because they have touched, in the words of the Collingwoods (while preparing Mari’s birthday party), “a princess.” They have stepped out of their assigned class roles, and feel that the have destroyed something pure and perfect, something untouchable for people of their status. They buy into the myth of class differences as much as the Collingwoods do.

When they visit the Collingwoods’ house, the Stillos put on their Sunday finest.  But even wearing suits and ties and dinner dresses, the criminals can’t hide their coarse manners and lack of etiquette.  Accordingly, Fred “Weasel Podowski (Fred Lincoln), one of the thugs, later that night has a dream in which he is at the Collingwood’s mercy.  In the nightmare, they are operating on him in a surgical theatre, and he is in the inferior position: acted upon instead of doing the acting.  This is a representation of his feelings of having transgressed beyond the assigned borders of the haves and have-nots.

Then, at the end of the film, the Collingwoods kill with comparative abandon and with almost no debate or discussion. Mrs. Collingwood even savagely bites off Weasel's penis while performing fellatio upon him. The "respectable" Collingwoods thus 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.

We must compare these two important moments.  Krug and the others, after murdering Mari, realize with remorse what they’ve done. They see that they are not truly civilized, and what makes them see that is the death of the “princess.”  After killing the have-not gang, the Collingwoods pause to realize, as well, their bloody acts.  They recognize (courtesy of the soundtrack) not only that they have solved nothing, but that they exist on the same brutish level as the thugs.  Blood lust and violence don’t know class distinctions.

In both these moments in Last House on the Left, violence is not sanctioned or championed, not even in the name of retribution. The opposite is true.  Wouldn’t you expect people who are “better” to also act “better?”

This is the face of innocence.

This is the face of remorse.

This is the face of incompetence.

This is the face of shame.  The road leads to nowhere.
Why is The Last House on the Left so reviled by so many critics, and so despised as a so-called video nasty? 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, seventeen-year old 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 actual physical rape is relatively short (compared to Irreversible [2002] anyway), but the ritual humiliation of Phyllis and Mari goes on and on.  The rape isn't just sexual penetration, but a power play that leverages fear, and so it can be said to go on for an uncomfortably long time.

This feeling that Craven forges -- of total anger and blood-lust against the criminals -- is augmented by the presence of the dumb-ass cops, who fail on every level imaginable to save the day.  Their car runs out of gas, they can’t hitch a ride on a chicken truck and they don’t arrive at the Collingwoods in time to help.  They are absolute fools, and by including these scenes with the dumb cops, Craven offers not comic relief,  but something else.  He adds fire to the flame, making our blood absolutely boil.  None of the terror here would have occurred if the cops were the slightest bit competent or professional.

Again, this is Craven's desired manipulation: he makes us thirst for the blood of Krug, Sadie and Weasel right along with Mari's parents, and he amps up that thirst by focusing on the time-wasting antics of the cops.  We identify with the Collingwoods, both with their loss and with their pain. We want the bad guys to suffer too.

But then, there we are, at the end of the film -- having wallowed in the violence with the Collingwoods -- and, surprise, surprise, we don't feel good about it.   Instead, we feel sick and nauseous.  In other words, we get exactly what we thought we wanted, only to discover it wasn’t what we 
wanted at all.

Instead we feel - like the Collingwood's in that traumatized, valedictory freeze frame -- deeply ashamed. The Collingwoods have stooped to Krug's level and gotten their revenge...and what's left?  What's next?

The road leads to nowhere.

Violence, while perhaps satisfying on first impulse, ultimately solves nothing and rescues no one. Craven makes the audience realize this basic human truth by making us want to see more then, ultimately, wanting to see less.

Show me more.

Show me less.

I don't want to see this...

Or this..

No good came out of this.  Nothing was solved.  No one was saved.  The castle stays the same.
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, white-wash or candy coat 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.

"Blood lust" isn't just the name of a rock group, after all. And it's not a feeling limited merely to black hat bad guys in movies, either. We can find it right here, dwelling in our very own neighborhoods.

Just make a turn by that picturesque lake, and park at the last house on the left.  You might even know the family that lives there…

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