Most horror films, regardless of quality or power, manage to lose a little edge as time goes by. It's not the fault of the film, but there are only so many times one can see Linda Blair's head spin around in The Exorcist or John Hurt's chest explode in Alien before the sequence starts to seem a little academic. That's not to say that these don't remain excellent horror films, but something about being thrust into the spotlight so many times helps a horror flick to lose its edge a little bit. Such is not the case with Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left.
It was ugly, brutal, and powerfully effective back in 1972, and it still packs a mean punch some 37 years later. Whether or not the upcoming remake can capture some of the original film's bleak ferocity remains to be seen, but I'm content just knowing that the old-school version still kicks some serious ass. And for a seasoned veteran gorehound to "rediscover" an old classic and find himself rooted to the couch for 93 nasty minutes, well, that says something about the flick that no amount of keystrokes can match.
Basically, this is a horror flick for the big boys (and girls), the ones who've graduated from monsters to slashers to zombies ... and is now looking for something "basic." And by basic I mean there's no exit point: The monsters in this flick are real, and the victims are people you read about in the newspapers every day. Although completely fictional (although loosely based on Bergman's The Virgin Spring), 'Last House' packs a punch not unlike the ones found in Straw Dogs and Deliverance. And if you think those aren't horror films, I suggest you rent them again.
The story is a simple one: Two young women are horribly abused by a gang of thugs, but when the antagonists chance upon the family home of one of their victims, the tables are turned, the moral battleground becomes very hazy, and all sorts of horrific stuff goes down. This is the best sort of horror, in that it taps (quite effortlessly) into the things that horrify us all: death of a loved one, fear of invasion, the repulsive nature of violence, and (of course) the horrible seduction of revenge. What all the early-'70s crybabies and nay-sayers didn't realize was this: By trashing the film and calling it all sorts of harsh names, they were actually complimenting the filmmakers. It seems plainly obvious that collaborators Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham were getting a little sick of boring monsters and zombie retreads, and so they set out to make a horror film that would hit us where we live. (And in the early '70s, the horror genre surely needed a few kicks in the ass.)
Certainly not for all tastes (and that includes horror fans), 'Last House' succeeds mainly to a desperate, gritty realism that was generally unseen outside the sleazier grindhouse flicks, and it seems pretty obvious that Tobe Hooper borrowed the near-doco tone a few years later when he was lensing his (brilliant) Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The indie guys had stolen back the horror genre, which then paved the road for Halloween and all sorts of awesome mayhem. It might not seem as shocking as it did back in '72, but ... actually, I'm wrong. It kinda does.
But yeah: If you're a bit younger than me and all you know of Wes Craven is Scream and Freddy, you should take this as both a recommendation and a warning: Not that the film is too harsh for you, but that it's a full-bore and unpolished indie all the way, so keep that in mind as you discover the flick for yourself. (There's also a subplot involving goofy cops that I simply detest, and I wish it could vanish from the flick. But that's just me.) Old-school horror wizards should note that this new Unrated Special Edition DVD (from MGM) comes packing the 84-minute version, which is as complete a version as has ever been released on DVD.
As far as supplemental features go, there's a solid mix here: Although previous DVDs include a Craven / Cunningham commentary, this disc offers an actor's track: David Hess, Marc Sheffler, and Fred Lincoln offer their thoughts on the shoot, the film, the impact, etc. Fans of the film should have no problem with this chat track. "Still Standing: The Legacy of The Last House on the Left" is a very cool 15-minute interview with writer / director Wes Craven; "Celluloid Crime of the Century" is an excellent 40-minute retrospective documentary from Blue Underground; "Scoring Last House" is a 10-minute visit with David Hess; "Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out" is a 12-minute excerpt of an unfinished film from early in Craven's career; plus there's one deleted scene ("Mari Dying at the Lake"), and six minutes of "never before seen" footage.
Aside from the omission of the previous commentary, this is a damn fine set and a worthy addition to my old-school horror shelf.