The Last House on the Left is the first, and probably most, controversial entry on this list.
This film – directed by a then-young guy who went on making flicks sank by obscurity (sarcasm alert) such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988), The People Under the Stairs (1991) and the four Scream (1996-2011) movies – is an exploitation horror that received humongous criticism when it came out and have been rehabilitated only in recent times.
Written, directed and edited by a young Wes Craven – one of, if not the best horror filmmaker of all time – The Last House on the Left tells the story of two naïve teenage girls who, in search of drugs, end up kidnapped by a band of maniacs who just escaped from prison.
It’s a 40-something year old movie, so I imagine nobody will complain if I insert some spoiler every here and there. I need to, in order to explain where the controversy lies.
Once kidnapped and taken into the woods, the two girls get raped, tortured and, eventually, killed.
As a consequence of its themes, the film was censored in many countries, and was particularly controversial in the United Kingdom, where The Last House was refused a certificate for cinema release by the British Board of Film Censors in 1974 due to scenes of sadism and violence.
I wonder what would have happened if A Serbian Film came out back then…
Anyway, Craven’s debut motion picture was inserted among the ‘video nasty’ list in 1984. In summary, ‘video nasty’ is the colloquial definition ascribed to a list of films that were criticised for their violent content by the press, social commentators and various religious organisations.
Due to the consequent implementation of the Video Recording Act, a stricter code of censorship has been imposed on videos than was required for cinema release. Several major studio productions were banned on video, as they fell within the scope of legislation designed to control the distribution of video nasty.
Despite many reviewers (among which Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode stood out) praised The Last House and used it as a symbol against the censorship of ideas and free art, the film had been presented to the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) for theatrical certification throughout the years and it’d constantly been refused. Until 2008 when, upon numerous investigations by the BBFC itself, it was classified uncut for video release.
At this point, you might wonder if the movie is worth its reputation.
To begin with, the violence is quite in your face, although some weird editing choices and poor practical effects (Craven had only some $87.000 budget available) make it looks dated and less effective.
However, The Last House came out in 1972, a time when audiences’ maximum level of gore was represented by the slow-ass zombies of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the hints to violence in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Due to its themes and implications, the film had an impact on me in terms of uneasiness (I must admit I consider rape as the worst crime, sin and cruelty a person could ever commit, alongside with paedophilia). So, I can just imagine how people perceived it back in the 70s.
Besides the controversy, Craven’s debut feature is an iconic rape-and-revenge exploitation that inspired an entire sub-genre with an endless list of titles and made room for a horror field that has little to do with the paranormal or supernatural.
Its grounded and down-to-hearth nature is what I appreciate the most about this film.
On the contrary, an aspect I didn’t like about it is the comic relief. In all fairness, to my knowledge, The Last House was one of the first horror flicks to introduce comedic features, a revolution that still influences horror cinema nowadays.
Unfortunately, in Craven’s film the comic relief – provided by two clumsy policemen – falls short and distracts the viewer from an otherwise dark and depressing story.
The sound design fails as well in creating a suspenseful atmosphere, being filled with tracks more suitable for a hash house than a dramatic situation as the one our teenagers are experiencing.
In terms of characters, the criminals are depicted very well and their traits emerge through dialogues and actions more than exposition. The girls and the other protagonists, instead, are flat and victims of the events, therefore not very interesting.
All in all, The Last House of the Left is worth a watch, especially if you are looking for some 80 minutes of ‘twisted’ entertainment. Craven’s debut will not be the only director’s entrance on this list and, perhaps, the next ones will justify his title of Master of Horror. Cheers!