The Last House on the Left (1972)

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)
Article #1203 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 6-30-2004
Posting Date: 11-27-2004
Directed by Wes Craven
Featuring Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham, David Hess

Two teenage girls are kidnapped by a group of sadistic rapist-murderers.

I’ll openly admit to having gone into this movie with a high degree of nervousness; after all, its reputation precedes it. Some people consider it a horror classic; others revile the movie, considering it sickening and repulsive, and with these extreme reactions, I was really wondering what I would ultimately make out of the movie.

One thing I did do out of curiosity before I watched the movie was to check out its user ratings on IMDB. Given the extreme reactions to it, I expected to find that most of the votes would place clearly at the bottom or the top of the rating scale. Instead, I found a fairly even distribution of votes throughout the whole spectrum of ratings. I certainly didn’t expect the grey area between classic and atrocity to be as heavily inhabited as it was. Finally, I sat down and watched the movie.

It’s easy to understand why the movie is disturbing; the characters of the two girls and their captors are unusually well-drawn and fleshed out, and we do get a sense with these characters that we’re seeing real people rather than one-dimensional caricatures. As a result, the violence and brutality has a truly unsettling power to it, and some of the scenes will etch themselves into your memory. If the whole movie had maintained this sense of reality, it would indeed have been a movie to be reckoned with.

However, the movie shoots itself in the foot by the introduction of the comic relief cops. Instead of projecting that same sense of reality that the central characters manage to do, they come off as pure cinematic caricature. Furthermore, the good-timey folk music that pops up on occasion is so jarringly counter to the mood that it’s disconcerting. Though I don’t necessarily think it was intended, both these elements send out a message to the viewer that he’s watching a “fun” horror movie not to be taken seriously, and this implies that the scenes of sadistic torture are just “part of the fun”. With the movie sending out these mixed messages, it’s no surprise to me that some people find the movie vile.

Initially, my reaction to this mix of scenes was one of annoyance; I really began to feel the filmmakers were just jerking me around. As the movie progressed, the damage became greater; any sense that the events in the movie were really happening started to dissipate, and by the time the final credits rolled, the movie had managed to for me what the ad campaign had told me that I’d have to do for myself; it convinced me that it really was “only a movie” and that none of it really happened. And my final reaction to the movie wasn’t one of having been deeply moved or deeply outraged; it was merely one of having been vaguely disappointed.

In the end, I just don’t know what to make of the movie. If it was supposed to be a “fun” horror movie, it went too far. If it was trying to be something more than that, it fumbled the opportunity. Having now seen it, I can understand the reason why the ratings are all over the board on IMDB; when it works, I can see why some consider it a classic, and when it doesn’t, I can see why some people hate it. I can also see how people would be able to perceive both its strengths and its flaws and leave it hanging somewhere in the middle. My own feeling is that as a whole, the movie fails to convince me that the sadistic violence of its central scenes is really artistically justified, even if it came close.

At any rate, I’m certainly not nervous about this movie anymore.

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