Monday Movie: The Last House on the Left, by David Bax
Okay, hear me out, I swear this will be about movies. I love to put hot sauce on my food. My spice tolerance is probably a little higher than the average person’s. But I do this because it tastes better to me, not as some personal challenge. In fact, I’ve always been a little annoyed by people whose only criterion for a hot sauce is its Scoville rating, the kind of people who buy those bottles with vulgar drawings advertising the unspeakable things the contents will do to your digestive system. Food ought to be both nourishing and tasty, not a trial (for what it’s worth, I also enjoy a drink but have never once participated in any sort of drinking game). I think of those people and those bottles when I think of movies like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. It’s a truly upsetting and disturbing movie and the talent and skill required to make something so undeniably powerful in those respects is not lost on me. But forcing myself to sit through it feels like eating a ghost pepper. It didn’t kill me, I guess, but was it worth it?
Five years later, Craven would follow up this debut film with the much more accomplished The Hills Have Eyes. The two films are stylistically similar, if not geographically so. In The Last House on the Left, two teenage girls are tortured, raped and murdered by a band of lunatics in the Connecticut exurbs, as opposed to the family tortured, raped and murdered by a band of lunatics in the Southwestern desert in The Hills Have Eyes. In both cases—but especially in the former—Craven’s intrusive, vérité style of close-ups and long takes makes the violence visceral and terrifying. Even the amateurish performances add a certain unvarnished verisimilitude.
This all makes The Last House on the Left a tough sit but it’s not what makes it a bad film. What tilts the movie toward empty callousness is the broad comic relief to which Craven keeps returning in between bouts of brutality. The plucky, twangy guitar music; the bumbling sheriff and his deputy; the frothy, goofy montage of parents baking a cake for the daughter they are unaware is currently being raped. These touches, which appear cheap, cynical and mean-spirited alongside the movie’s savagery, derail any artistic or moralistic arguments in favor of depicting violence unflinchingly. Craven went on to greatness and his talents here are already obvious. But it still feels like anyone who goes around praising this movie is just kinda showing off.