Regular readers will know how much I love Wes Craven, the pioneer of horror cinema and birdwatcher who sadly died from brain cancer yesterday at the age of 76. Let’s look back on The Last House on the Left, the very first film written, directed and edited by Wes Craven – or as my mum calls him, Wes Anderson.
The Last House on the Left is based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and produced by Sean S. Cunningham, who’d go on to helm Friday the 13th. Made on the cheap, the film follows two young women (Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham) abducted on their way to a concert by a sadistic gang led by the terrifying Krug (David Hess) – named after the same childhood bully who’d eventually lend his name to Freddy Krueger.
Last House was widely censored upon its release in 1972, and took pride of place on the UK’s “video nasties” list thanks to its shocking publicity material (left). The film’s own claims about being based upon real events are bogus – a technique effectively repeated by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and every horror movie since. It took until 2008 for the BBFC to finally classify the uncut movie, which remains as disturbing now as ever.
But for 35 years, the censors had ignored the film’s political and deeply moral core. Although extremely violent from start to finish, Last House is quite clearly an anti-violence movie. Craven himself called it a “protest film”, rooted in anger towards the Vietnam War. “I spent a lot of time on the streets protesting the war,” Craven said, “and I wanted to show how violence affects people.”
It’s this idea of violence affecting people that makes the film so vital. We see plenty of violent films and news reports, but few have the visceral power of Craven’s debut. His point-blank refusal to cut away from the horror was a conscious reaction to desensitised Hollywood violence. “You do not blink, you do not look away,” said Craven, “because then you become television, then you become American commercial movies.” And the more we ignore violence, the easier it becomes to inflict.
As a side-note, Craven famously walked out of an early screening of Reservoir Dogs. He objected to Tarantino’s use of violence as amusement, “which it isn’t to me.” This might explain why Tarantino recently implied that he could’ve directed Scream better than Craven – which, by the way, he could not. “There is no glory in this violence,” wrote Roger Ebert of The Last House on the Left, cutting to the heart of Craven’s unblinking and compassionate debut.
Anyway, I’m going to stop rambling about this film – there has been a great deal written about its artistic and cultural significance. To me, it’s a classic example of the horror genre being used for extraordinary political expression – a profoundly human film wrapped inside a ferocious exploitation picture. Wes Craven always used horror cinema to exorcise the demons he saw in the world. Without him, we might just be lost.