“Hey, what’s the news from the outside world?”. “The usual: murders and mayhem. What’s for dinner today?”. In one of the first scenes of ‘The Last House on the Left’, two parents are shown to be desensitized to the violence, which they feel is distant and alien. By the end of the film, the violence will have entered the house and they themselves will be dismembering and murdering a group of strangers who have tortured, raped and killed their teenage daughter.
It is not a spoiler, and not only because we are talking about a film released in 1972: we have only described the synopsis. For his first film, Wes Craven was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Maiden’s Spring’, which in turn was based on a Swedish ballad that basically told the same story. The attraction of ‘The last house on the left’, if it has it (many consider that it does not), is not the unexpected twists but to see how a voice was born that would shape terror for decades.
Although for a time after the premiere it seemed that Wes Craven was not going to make a movie anymore. His debut film was so controversial, so hated by not a few, that the director who years later would create sagas such as ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ or ‘Scream’ could not make a film until five years later.
A terrifying assignment
‘The Last House on the Left’ was produced by Sean Cunningham, who would later direct ‘Friday the 13th’. Following the success of his previous film, ‘Together’, Cunningham received an offer from a group of distributors to make a film full of gore, blood, violence and nudity (like these 24 Indecently Violent But Very Good Movies). The entrepreneurs owned drive-ins and were looking for a cheap option to do double bills with other films, so they turned to Cunningham and Wes Craven, who, despite having no film experience, had helped with the editing on ‘Together’.
Craven thought: “But I don’t know anything about horror movies, and I grew up in a family and a church where movies were forbidden”. As she told A.V. Club, his mother wouldn’t even let him read DC comics. Then Cunningham said to him: “You grew up in a fundamentalist environment, so get the skeletons out of your closet”. It is no coincidence that the parents of ‘The Last House on the Left’ are very religious, upright, they make bad language ugly to their daughter… and end up becoming unscrupulous murderers. “I guess there’s a certain amount of rage and anger when you’re brought up to be told that half of the great sources of inspiration and joy in life are sins and that you’re going to burn in hell forever.”, the director would argue.
‘The Last House on the Left’ tells the story of two girls from well-off families, Mari and Phyllis, who, on a city break to see a concert, meet a quartet of psychopaths who will torture them in unimaginable ways for hours until kill them. Then, by an ironic twist of fate, they end up resting at Mari’s house, where her parents pretend to innocently welcome them while plotting her revenge. The thing ends in a hellish orgy of blood and dismemberment.
A home shoot and an actress mistreated, harassed and abused
It is said that the script was directly pornographic, and much more violent and graphic than what ended up being shot (it is not available to the public). Recording it cost about $90,000, a figure that Craven himself has described as “tiny.”. Filming lasted seven days and took place on location in New York, Long Island and rural Connecticut. In addition to having very few resources, inexperienced actors and a very limited crew, they went everywhere without permits and had to flee when the police showed up. Everything had a homemade element, including the special effects: did they need to create some intestines? They did it based on condoms filled with fake blood and sand. Did Phyllis have to pee on herself? The actress, Lucy Grantham, really did it.
Although without giving it the importance it deserves, it has been said that the filming was hell for the actress who played the young Mari, Sandra Peabody. Especially because of David Hess, the one in charge of giving life to Krug, the most sadistic and terrifying of the assailants. He approached his character with the famous method and acted like a psychopath even when the cameras weren’t rolling. “He used to chase us with a knife at night, trying to scare us”recalled the actress. “We used to say: ‘Close the doors and windows at sunset, you don’t want him to catch you.’ I was scared and I came to think that this guy had been a murderer in his past “. Peabody was harassed and assaulted not only by Hess, but by the rest of the cast, who treated her differently. Hess has admitted that when they recorded the rape she overdid it, taking advantage of the fact that she could not defend herself against it while the cameras were recording. Marc Sheffler, who played Junior, held her partner on the side of a cliff and threatened to pull her off her, according to him, to help her get into the panic she had to play in a scene.
Craven was aware of the energy on set, and has gone so far as to say that much of the violent scenes against Peabody did not require much acting. The director used to encourage and comfort her throughout the shoot, an attitude that today would be considered at least insufficient, since it did not prevent the actress from suffering. Years later, the director admitted that it was difficult for him to see ‘The Last House on the Left’ because of the harshness of its images, and it is said that he created a strong protagonist in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ to compensate for what happened to the poor Mari and Phillies. (Check out the 10 most overlooked “scream queens” in horror movies.)
Riots in theaters
The film was released in theaters on August 30, 1972 already surrounded by controversy that bad reviews helped inflate. “When I left the room after 50 minutes (there were 35 left), a girl had just been dismembered with a machete”described Howard Thompson in the New York Times. “The person who wrote this sick story and also directed the inept actors is called Wes Craven”. And the public did not receive it with open arms either. There were riots in the movie theaters, fights, medical emergencies, people trying to get into the projector room to destroy the reels. Theater owners and projectionists cut scenes they found offensive, so the producers had to set up an editing room dedicated to redoing and fixing the reels that were returned to them. Others simply burned the film.
“I don’t think any of us expected it to have a big impact. We didn’t think it would have a large audience.”the director has admitted. “We literally did it for a group of theater owners in Boston who had 30, 40, 50 drive-ins. It was made specifically for those theaters, not anywhere else.”. The wave of scandal reached Craven’s circles and he tarnished his name to the point of damaging his personal relationships. “I lived in an apartment on the Lower East Side [de Nueva York], surrounded by an amalgamation of very curious people. Academics, hipsters, dealers, musicians… and they all came to see my movie when it came out, and almost everyone was horrified. There were literally people who no longer wanted to leave their children alone with me. Or people who, when they found out I directed the film, said, ‘That was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,’ and left the room. So there was a very strong and very real revulsion to the point where I almost didn’t want to talk about my work, about what I had created.”.
A blockbuster with some defenders
On the other hand, ‘The Last House on the Left’ was a box office success, taking into account the tiny budget: it ended up grossing around 3 million dollars (another case of a cheap and profitable horror film, one of the keys behind the empire that Blumhouse has built in recent decades). The truth is that they were very smart selling it. The slogan that accompanied the poster read: “To keep from passing out, think, ‘It’s just a movie…it’s just a movie…’”. A debate was organized, also in the media, around the ethics behind such an explicitly violent film. “Can a movie go too far?”, they asked themselves. The producers defended it with statements and assured that they did not recommend its viewing for people under 30 years of age. All this and the bad reviews, as usually happens in these cases, helped to multiply the interest in the film.
And not all were detractors. The critic Roger Ebert gave it a very positive review, giving it three and a half stars and applauding Craven’s direction and reflection on violence. A Massachusetts movie theater responded to those calling for the film to be removed from the showing: “After carefully considering all the circumstances, the management has decided to proceed with the screening of the film. The difficult decision has been made based on these considerations. The film tells of a problem that virtually all teenage girls and their parents can understand, but it doesn’t dwell on the subject. History does not glorify violence, nor the degenerates who perpetrate it. We believe this film is morally redemptive and has a very important social message.”. The film continued to be shown in different cinemas in the country until the following year.
Despite those who did understand his intent, Craven went years without making a horror movie again. Nor of any other genre, much to his chagrin. “We tried to get away from that for a while. She wrote for Sean. I think I wrote a dozen movies that weren’t horror. Comedies, love stories, even a serious film about Vietnam, and we could never find financing.”. For three years they only received offers to make horror movies, something they didn’t feel like doing after screwing it up so hard. Finally both would give in to the pleas: Cunningham made ‘Friday the 13th’ and Craven made his second film, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’.
In it Craven again showed a wealthy family entering a situation of violence. Which showed that the director did not want to indulge in gore for fun, but rather that he was reflecting on class problems and the dark background of a society that was supporting a bloody war. “I wanted to do something that would make you think”Craven explained decades later, referring to ‘The Last House on the Left’. “I wanted to show the humanity of the characters, and the complexity of what seems like a simple plot, but to see the bad guys horrified by their own behavior, and in the end, the parents horrified by theirs too…”. Violence only brings violence.