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The Evolving Influence of Wes Craven's 'Last House on the Left'

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With the arrival of Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders (L'ultimo treno della notte) on Blu-ray January 31, we wanted to take a look at one of the key influences of the Italian exploitation flick: Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. It's no secret that the Italians were notorious for "borrowing" concepts — and often plot and imagery quite literally — from American movies. In Last House's case, if a movie had a revenge plot, rape, and kidnapping, it was deemed worthy enough to wear Craven's crown. 

Night Train Murders doesn't stray from the formula, even being billed as Last House: Part II, New House on the Left, and Second House on the Left. Lado's film distinctly uses plot elements, characters, and other situations taken from Last House — setting his disturbia on a train traveling from Germany to Italy instead of the woods. A trio of psychopaths terrorize and assault two girls during the trip — recalling the Nightmare on Elm Street director's unrelentingly cruel and sleazy 1972 movie debut and the late David Hess' wonderfully detestable thug.

Hess' portrayal of the rapist and murderer Krug was a role that would follow the actor throughout his career. Filmmakers would exploit the link between Hess and Last House whenever they could in the '70s and '80s. Enter Pasquale Festa Campanile's 1977 revenge thriller, Hitch-Hike (Autostop rosso sangue) starring Hess as a traveling maniac who takes an unsuspecting couple hostage. The movie was unabashedly marketed in several areas as Hitchhike: Last House on the Left, milking Hess' characterizing for all they could despite the stories being fairly different.

In most cases though, Hess' name wasn't required as Last House's harrowing reputation was more than enough to bank on. The Last House on the Beach (La settima donna) starring Italian cinema seductress Florinda Bolkan found the starlet playing a revenge-seeking nun, out for the blood of the unhinged rapists who degraded the sister and her students. While Franco Prosperi's movie is a similarly unpleasant affair, it bears little resemblance to Last House

Mario Bava's masterfully gritty Rabid Dogs (1974), William Fruet's backwoods thriller The House By the Lake (1976), the racially confrontational Fight for Your Life (1977), snuff horror The Last House on Dead End Street (1977), and Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park (1980) followed suit, modeling their seedy and violent nasties after Craven's infamous film — several in title and all in spirit. (We'd rather not discuss David De Falco's plagiaristic Chaos. See Roger Ebert's piece on the matter for more information.)

Interestingly enough, Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (Reazione a catena, or Twitch of the Death Nerve) was made and released in Italy prior to Craven's movie, but bore the awkward title The Last House on the Left, Part II for its American release. The blueprint slasher is not a sequel to the exploitation film, nor can it be considered a cheap attempt to cash in on its success. Bava's body count gorefest is perhaps the most influential contribution to slasher cinema. The movie was occasionally screened under the knockoff title while making the American drive-in rounds during the '70s. This was before the time of films opening in dozens of theaters at once. Distributors had few prints to share, would show them for a while, and then ship them off to another region for screening. John Carpenter's Halloween, for example, debuted in October 1978, but many places still didn't have the movie by that summer. Though not nearly as remarkable as Bava's film, Ernesto Gastaldi's The Lonely Violent Beach (La lunga spiaggia fredda) suffered a similar theatrical delay that prompted viewers to simply write it off as another Last House rip-off. The movie saw a 1971 Italian release, but didn't make it to Germany until '74 — two years after Craven's movie — thereby sealing its fate.

Of course, all this talk about Last House being the movie that broke the mold is amusing since the film was inspired by Ingmar Bergman's 1960 Swedish film, The Virgin Spring. The haunting and profoundly moving story shot in dreamlike black and white centers on a wealthy Christian family in 14th century Sweden. After several herdsman rape and murder a young girl, they seek shelter at her family home where a shocking revenge is enacted. Craven's connection to the art house epic in some ways abstractly supported the importance of the director's gruesome meditation on the evil inherent in all humanity. Last House's ability to manipulate our sympathies, portray tension between its victims and villains in an all-out culture war, and the film's hallucinogenic violence are just a few of the similarities it shares with Bergman's movie — concepts often obscured by the film's repute.

Many have argued that several of the Last House-inspired films released in the wake of Craven's vicious movie have been better. Night Train Murders for instance boasts a better script, several stronger actors (Franco Nero for life!), and an Ennio Morricone score. Craven's jarring comedic element can frustratingly tear you away from its intensity. While certainly flawed, Craven's film is still more than deserving of its status. Forty years later we're still discussing the influence Last House on the Left had on horror cinema and its ability to invade our unconscious.

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