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March 20, 2008

DVD Journal: "The Last House on the Left"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've just finished watching a couple of movies recommended to me by the talented and dynamic young dude who directed our own movie.

For the sake of a couple of blogpostings, I'm going to take my young friend's tastes and enthusiasms as 1) interesting in themselves, and 2) indicative of what young guys who are hot to make it in the movies these days enjoy. In other words: As youngdudez like my buddy begin to find actual positions in the filmbiz, moviegoers may well be seeing more of the kind of thing these films represent showing up on their local movie screens.

First up: Wes Craven's 1972 horror film "The Last House on the Left."


This was Wes Craven's first feature, and to call it primitive would understate matters by a ton. For starters: lousy sound, nonexistent production values, amateurish acting, and a script no first-year screenwriting prof would allow to see the light of day.

But -- for all its crudeness and cluelessness -- the film is also powerful and fascinating. Until the early '70s, horror films had tended to be theatrical, super-stylized, artificial contrivances: Think "Frankenstein," think Hammer horror. “Last House on the Left” was one of the early films to break that mold. (Another: George Romero's 1968 "Night of the Living Dead.")

Like Romero, Craven avoided English accents and period settings, put recognizable people onscreen, and let in a lot of the real world. The story and images in "Last House on the Left" bounce off of the violence and slaughters of its time -- Vietnam, Manson, etc.

Craven's distinctive contribution was to humanize both victims and killers; while the bad guys are most definitely bad, they aren't one-dimensional. He also threw in a couple of really big narrative jolts. The result was a film that felt raw and immediate to many people. You knew the characters onscreen; they were like your parents, your friends, and the scary hippies camping out in the park. You recognized the America up there; it looked both like your cozy neighborhood and like the carnage you witnessed on the TV news. And the pain onscreen took you by surprise, and in shocking ways.

All that said ... For any of this to matter much to you, you probably do have to be a horror buff. I'm not one, and I fought sleep through much of the film. As far as morally dicey ’70s cult classics go, I’m more of an “I Spit on Your Grave” kinda guy, I guess.

Here's a bit of what I imagine turns on my young director-buddy: "Last House on the Left" is scrappy, intense, and anything but respectable. It also doesn't fall into either of today's two familiar camps: It's neither a big, hygienic corporate theme park, nor is it an undernourished high-minded indie.

Also, the '70s ... Wowee, what a kooky time. The huge and awful cars, the daffy hairstyles and clothes -- they all have their campy appeal. Plus the film celebrates kicks and non-PC sex. The era was also open to different kinds of beauty than we are today.

Which reminds me of a rant I've been storing up, namely ...

Whatever my gripes about that decade, '70s popular culture was open to a much, much larger variety of types than popular culture is today. While there are certainly more skin-tone shades around today than there were in the '70s, the people wearing these skin tones all seem to fall into a very narrow range of temperamental and physical types. Back in the '70s -- a time that was influenced by Euro attitudes towards sex and art -- all kinds of girls were presented as sexy and desirable, teeth weren't always perfect, flesh wasn't always toned and tweezed to a fare-thee-well, personality counted for a lot, and guys weren't all either studs or buffoons. Unusualness, imperfections, and quirkiness: Don't Photoshop 'em out -- savor them instead. Where looks and physical-temperamental types go, it was a forgiving, even a sophisticated era.

Anyway: Here's my main guess about why "Last House" excites my young buddy: It feels immediate, but not in a calculated-conceptual, "Blair Witch Project" kind of way. It's open to variety and three-dimentionality in a more unfinished and ragged way than today's official multiculturalism allows for. It's also rough, and it's take-no-prisoners. Even the hippest teachers couldn't do anything but disapprove of this film. Upsetting can be good -- and how cool is that? In other words: "The Last House on the Left" is like the most blistering punk rock, only it's a movie.

Semi-related: I wrote a number of pieces about my adventures in no-budget moviemaking. You can get to them all from this posting. In case anybody is curious: Post-production is nearly over, which means that our masterpiece is just about ready for public viewing. In fact, we've been visiting affordable but hip spaces where we might hold premieres and screenings. I wrote about Wes Craven's shrewd and entertaining thriller "Red Eye" here," and about his creepily effective "The Serpent and the Rainbow" here. I wrote about some horror movies, some sexy horror movies, and some sex movies in this posting. Joe Valdez raves about -- and supplies a lot of interesting information about -- the 1981 horror movie "Wolfen." 1981: That's almost the '70s ...



posted by Michael at March 20, 2008


I've gotten an enormous erotic charge out of pics of women from olden times...more or less pre '90, perhaps earlier. The dames of yore, you might say. The women of the seventies in particular still give me a real sexual jolt. The sight of imperfect teeth, maybe a blemish or two, breasts just ever so unpneumatic, and especially, some softness, some roundness, some juice--all the signs of a real woman, alive and warm and breathing, ah, they got me going, those seventies girls, and they still do. (BTW,apparently the cast of LHotL was doing the seventies thing off-camera, what with massive drug use and apparently non-stop you-know-whatting.)

The eighties saw the emergence of the type of female body I found utterly uninteresting, the manufactured hair, the harsh makeup, the growing trend to fake breasts, and above all, the increasing dominance of the hardbody aerobicized ultra-toned look...tense, harsh, unfeminine, and really really unsexy. The nineties and beyond have just made it worse, what with CGI manipulation of images, photoshopping, and yes, the continued dominance of the over-exercised and under-feminine "ideal".

The deadness, the anti-sexiness, the sheer unhumanity of the erotic imagery (of men and women) in today's pornogrified culture is one of its most interesting and troubling aspects. Odd, how America can somehow be so sexually overwrought and yet so utterly unsexy.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 20, 2008 3:55 PM

i still haven't seen "last house on the left" i will get around to it but i think of all the 70s golden era of horror film directors (romero, carpenter, cronenberg etc) wes craven is the least talented and/or interesting, with the possible exception of tobe hooper non-texas chainsaw output. recommend the documentary "american nightmare" about all these kinds of films (with interviews from all the above mentioned directors) and how they were influenced by the 70s. worth a viewing.

i did however see "i spit on your grave" a few months ago and enjoyed parts of it quit a bit. they dont' make dicey movies like that or straw dogs anymore do they? at least not films that get a real threatrical release ie see the light of day. one of the films images that still sticks out in my mind is the girl walking threw the forest, naked and bloody after one of the brutal rapes. it's also one of the most surreal scenes in the film. after i watched the film i read some of the reviews online including roger eberts which apparently, along with "north" and "brown bunny" one of his most infamous pans of any film in his career. i don't have a problem with him not liking the film or anyone for that matter. i don't love or like the film enough to defend it passionately to detracters (not like i would "paint your wagon", "heaven's gate" or roger moore's bond films). i can understand the film not being for everyone but what ebert was saying against it was just indisputably wrong to anyone with saw it with an open mind. i have a friends who reads a lot of film critics who is an ebert fan who i get in arguements with all the time about him. i have another friend who hates his guts. i think the truth is somewhere in the middle. roger ebert has championed some very cool films in his day and he's also "just didn't get it" about just as many and in general is just way too open to liking mediocre drivel that you or i would barely acknowledge the existance off. pauline kael could be so wrong about a film and unfair and biased in general but it was always a lot more interesting with her whatever you thought of her opinions. anyway i don't know how i got from wes craven to kael in this rant so i'll just wrap it up.....

Posted by: t. j. on March 20, 2008 3:59 PM

PatrickH -- That's really nailing it, and eloquently so. Did you read that Paglia Salon piece I linked to a few days ago? She gets off a similar passage -- we're all on the same team, I guess. I wonder how many of us there are.

T.J. -- Fun and smart ramble. That whole "crazy" and "over-impassioned" element is missing from movies today, isn't it? So many '70s flicks really weren't any good, but they were bizarre, or nuts, or represented something about the culture, whether intentionally or not ... Today: Well, what would you be missing if you skipped the new movies?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 20, 2008 4:13 PM

My mom was still making my school lunch for me in the '70s, but my impression of the decade were that if you were a man and couldn't dance, you were pretty much at a loss socially. Maybe this was just the case in the latter part of the decade with the advent of disco.

I completely agree with Patrick about '70s era women. The sexiest actress I've seen lately was Saffron Burrows in The Bank Job. This was because her character's hair, makeup and wardrobe were all 1971. She looked a lot like Jacqueline Bisset.

Nostalgia is a powerful drug though and I'm sure this has a lot to do with what we find desirable.

Terrific article, Michael. Thanks for the link!

Posted by: Joe Valdez on March 20, 2008 5:19 PM

Excellent post.

A lesser known 1970s "take-no-prisoners" gem that I would recommmend is Roger Watkins' bleak and artfully crafted zero-budget film, "Last House on Dead End Street":

Despite the exploitive title, LHoDES has absolutely nothing to do with Craven's earlier film, and it really is a singular piece of work. For some background, check out David Kerekes and David Slater's fascinating book, "Killing for Culture":



Posted by: Chip Smith on March 21, 2008 2:58 PM

Great article, Michael. I agree with you 100% about that appealing 70's wooliness vs. today's calculated slickness. I haven't seen 'Last House' yet, it's still on my list, but I did see 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' recently (in L.A., with live commentary by Tobe Hooper!) and liked it because of some of the characteristics you describe in 'Last House': the weird originality, the naturalness of the characters... However, 'Chainsaw' is also very artfully made film, which achieves great effects through minimal means.

I'm a big 70's film and culture fan and am skeptical of many things coming out today. 'No Country for Old Men' and 'There Will Be Blood' both left me cold, for example. I'd be curious to know your reactions to these films.

Posted by: green mamba on March 21, 2008 7:11 PM

Oh, and I forgot 'Red Eye' was a Wes Craven film. I liked it too: a tight and satisfying B-picture.

Posted by: green mamba on March 21, 2008 7:16 PM

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