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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.")
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The point is that we are witnessing a culture clash. We expect, perhaps subconsciously, violence from one class, but not the other.
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.
|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.|
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.
|Show me more.|
|Show me less.|
|I don't want to see this...|
|No good came out of this. Nothing was solved. No one was saved. The castle stays the same.|
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.