David A. Hess
1 Hr., 24 Mins.
The Last House on the Left / The Hills Have Eyes
picture could be something more than a sleazy descent. Although the feature would continue to use violence as an aesthetic device, it would do away with the hardcore sex and instead hyperbolize the nastier elements of the Bergman film.
The latter picture, itself based on a 13th-century ballad and among the aforementioned Swedish auteur’s most notable, was narratively simple but ethically complex. It watched, mutedly, as a teenage girl was raped and murdered by two men. Then, it saw the duo, accompanied by a younger, guilt-ridden accomplice, seek shelter that night. Which, happenstantially, came in the form of their victim’s country home. Famously, the girl’s parents figured out who these men were, and, without blinking, enacted swift revenge. Was this eye-for-an-eye spectacle simply lurid and depraved, or was it deserved?
Night of Vengeance, whose name would be changed, after much discussion, to the hair-raising The Last House on the Left, works off an identical premise, with some changes. There are two girls (Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham) rather than one; the trio of criminals becomes a quartet, one member a complicit girlfriend (Jeramie Rain); and only one set of parents (Cynthia Carr and Gaylord St. James) are looking to get even. The setting, originally medieval Sweden, shifts to 1970s America; the circumstances involve the victims attempting to buy discounted marijuana before a rock concert. (The antagonists trick them into coming inside their spotted apartment, which leads to a country-bound kidnapping.)
Craven and Cunningham’s decision to transmute the narrative, given their relative inexperience, was bold but ultimately astute. Despite the nanoscaled budget, and an almost-derailatory subplot circling about two detectives trying to track down the girls after they’ve been reported missing, The Last House on the Left is a grimy, captivating horror movie.
Like many of the films comprising the oeuvre of the brutality-attracted Sam Peckinpah — this particular movie especially reminded me of his kaleidoscopically ethic-questioning domestic thriller Straw Dogs, from 1971 — The Last House on the Left presents us with a moral plight that makes its horrors more than just chimerically spine-tingling. If someone, or multiple someones, has essentially destroyed your life, should you grieve in a collected, legal way, or is it admissible to destroy the lives of the aggressors in a comparatively barbaric manner?
The Last House on the Left is disinterested in coming up with philosophically minded, unconditional answers — a narrative decision that supplements the movie’s visceral power. It subjects us to everyday, insidious evils with a naturalist insouciance that disallows us from unthinkingly lapping up its "thrills." In the film, the ostensible “good guys” are, technically, just as callous as the antagonists, but only because their capacity for violence has been unchained.
The explosive ending cannot quite satisfy: the film’s cerebral scrutinization of violence never allows us to be conventionally entertained. The hurt and the animalistic anger fuse together to make a miasma. And it drains.
hen the fledgling filmmaker Wes Craven wrote Night of Vengeance, a B-movie based on Ingmar Bergman’s revenge drama The Virgin Spring (1960), in 1971, it was intended to be an ambitious porno featuring thriller elements. When production actually began, though, Craven, along with the film’s producer, the exploitation-genre heavyweight Sean S. Cunningham, switched gears after figuring the
1 Hr., 29 Mins.
more often considered the canonical sophomore effort.
Though the movie, a pulp misadventure, has become something of a minor classic in itself, it is, in my eyes, a slump — an over-elaborate cinematic night terror that links The Last House on the Left’s verisimilitude with there-but-kind-of-not comedy. The film follows two traveling families — the Woods and the Carters — who are terrorized by a pack of Cimeter-toothed cannibals after their vehicles break down in the center of a formerly radioactive region in middle-of-nowhere Nevada.
While The Last House on the Left’s indwelling show-everything style suited the unsettling naturalism, The Hills Have Eyes suffers as a result of its explicitness. The movie, befit with a scary — albeit absurd — premise, would have benefitted, I think, from more Polanski-style mystery. Rather than uncovering the visages of the villains from the get-go, additional suspense would be generated if faces, and motives, were not disclosed until climax time. Or, in a more provocative The Blair Witch Project (1999) twist, never revealed at all. The promotional presentation, which makes it obvious that this is a people-being-terrorized-by-inbreeding-cannibals sort of movie — impedes organic terror.
Craven’s whim for The Hill Have Eyes’ brand of theatricality would both last and be improved on. His best-known movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1985) and Scream (1996), are renowned for more seamlessly mucilaging comedy (or, at the very least, surrealism) with horror-movie bonafides. It is worth a look if only for Craven’s typically inventive scene-setting and special-effects innovations. But the overall conceit is as uneasy as the character who’s the first to find out that his family might be in danger.
The Last House on the Left: B+
The Hills Have Eyes: C+
raven, today revered as one of the horror genre’s top-ranking talents — he was responsible, after all, for kicking off two zeitgeist-defining franchises — followed up the early success of The Last House on the Left with a pornographic feature-length called The Fireworks Woman, which was made on the cheap for a quick buck in 1975. Because the film was made under a pseudonym — Abe Snake was the chosen nom de plume — 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, a respectably budgeted survival pic, is