The Last House on the Left
Last House on the Left opens with a mailman delivering birthday cards to the home of Mari Collingwood. He’s an old, gray-haired man who plays with a dog and talks to himself about how popular Mari is. It seems very ‘Andy Griffith,’ like, until the old mailman says of the seventeen year old, ‘ Of course, she is about the prettiest piece I’ve ever seen.’
This scene sets the tone for the whole film; constant, abrupt shifts from light to dark, sometimes mixing elements of the two, ensuring that the audience will never get complacent. The primary story is a horrific journey of escalating violence. Mari and her friend Phyllis are taken by four escaped criminals. They are brought to the woods (coincidentally, right in front of Mari’s house, where the mailman was parked the day before). There, they are forced to to degrade themselves for the entertainment of their abductors. Phyllis is ordered to pee her pants (which, according to an interview on the disc, was real) and then the two are made to have sex with each other (which is done off screen, though the deleted footage on the disc includes several more graphic shots).
Breaking up the torture narrative is a B story about two bumbling cops trying to get to Mari’s house. They had been up there earlier, when Mari’s parents reported their daughter missing, and they saw an abandoned car in front of the house. They ignored it at the time, but rush back when they find out it matches the description of the escaped criminals’ car. Thus begins a slapstick comedy story about a broken down car and failed attempts to hitchhike with wacky people.
The mixed tones of the plot are matched with a wildly irrelevant soundtrack. A peppy folk song plays as the criminals drive down the road with the two girls in their trunk, and a brutal rape is followed by a romantic ballad.
These contrasting tones make for a very unsettling whole. The lighter scenes make the dark ones seem darker, and watching the idiot cops fail to get a ride while the attack is taking place creates a sense of frustrated hopelessness.
The revenge phase of the movie focuses on Mari’s parents. The killers seek refuge for the night at the closest house, which just so happens to be Mari’s. The parents figure out what happened, and quickly plot their retribution, which involves Home Alone style booby-traps. While we understand their motives on a logical level, the parents don’t show much emotion when learning of Mari’s death, or in avenging her; which leaves the climax feeling a little cold.
This was the first film written and directed by Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm St.). It shows a lot of promise and a lot of room to grow. I think he was a better writer than director at this point, as its main drawbacks are its painfully cheap, grind house-looking visuals, and spotty acting.
While not without its faults, the movie does what it sets out to do: make the viewer uncomfortable.