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THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  David Hess, Lucy Grantham, Sandra Cassel, Marc Sheffler, Fred J. Lincoln, Jeramie Rain
Director:  Wes Craven
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  84 Minutes
Release Date:  August 27, 2002

“Mari, I want you to be careful tonight.  Your mother tells me this place you’re going is in a bad neighborhood…”

Film ***

Wes Craven is a director who has managed to rejuvenate the horror genre in each of the last three decades.  He did it with Scream in the 90s, and with Nightmare on Elm Street in the 80s.  Though both of those films went on to become successful franchises, one could argue that neither were as influential as his first film, the 1972 release The Last House on the Left.  Modestly budgeted and crafted, it was a picture in which Craven stated he wanted to take himself and his audience to the darkest, most horrible place imaginable.  After it was over, he admitted that he never wanted to go there again.

Last House is as celebrated and as reviled a horror picture that has ever graced the screen…revolutionary at the time of its release for going further than any picture had before, it spawned many mimickers who would take it even farther.  Looking at Craven’s original film today, it doesn’t seem quite so strong in terms of what it shows…yet he had audiences losing their popcorn and candy as they sat in the theatre and watched! 

The film plods along at the beginning with a cheesy song soundtrack (with tunes co-written and sung by star David Hess) and even evidence of twisted humor.  But when it turns, it turns quickly.  And strongly.  Craven merely coaxed his viewers to let their guards down before he unleashed his fury.

It’s a simple story of two young ‘liberated’ girls, Mari (Cassel) and Phyllis (Grantham) on their way to the seedy part of town for a rock show.  They never make it, as their paths cross with a group of violent escaped convicts led by the maniacal Krug (Hess).  They humiliate the girls, force them into atrocious acts, and torture them…and it gets even worse.

Murder in horror films was nothing new, to be sure, but Craven was interested in completely exploring how horrible it really was.  He creates this not just with bloodletting, but with the intensity of the performances and willingness to push his cast into the dark corners of their psyches.  The result is a horrific emotional overload that create images both memorable and haunting.

But Craven has more up his sleeve with his screenplay.  The murderous troupe ironically end up as guests in the house owned by Mari’s parents.  And when they figure out what these monsters have done to their little girl…well, let’s just say the first act of the movie was only a warm up.  The second half includes every man’s worst nightmare, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you need to see the film for yourself.  I don’t envy your enlightenment.

The humor plays against the grit almost sadistically…after driving you to the point where the last thing you want to do is laugh, the sudden shifts in tone seem almost irresponsible and evil.  Two bungling cops would be amusing in another movie…here, their antics and ineptness fail to prevent the bloodbath we have to sit uncomfortably through…kind of hard to chuckle at that point.

Whatever demons Craven wanted to get out of his system and onto the screen, he seems to have done it with this picture.  He relaxed into making a string of frightening, bloody, but considerably more fun films that helped establish him as a legend.  But The Last House on the Left remains a movie that doesn’t fit into that category, and proves that Craven’s devilish imagination can be downright dangerous, too.

Video **

This DVD marks the best presentation of Last House I’ve ever seen, but given its age, budget, and notorious handling over the years, there are inherent problems that might be too big to completely overcome.  MGM’s anamorphic offering does much to improve the overall imagery with better clarity and color, but there wasn’t much they could do about the state of the print, which is occasionally grainy, scratchy, and dingy.  Horror fans needn’t look away from this disc, by any means…they should simply understand that this could never and won’t ever be a reference quality visual product.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is pretty standard fare, with minimal noise for its age and lack of expense.  Dialogue is clear, the music sounds fine, the shrieks and screams cut through with efficient power…overall, about what you would expect; nothing more or less.

Features ****

The extras are where this disc really shines…it begins with Wes Craven’s personal introduction and his assurance that the version of the film you are about to see is as complete as can be (the original running time was 91 minutes, but prints over the years have been carelessly cut down by projectionists and theatre owners, and Craven himself has admitted that version is gone forever).  Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham, a horror legend in his own right, team up for a fun commentary that’s not quite as informative as I would have hoped, but both gents seem to be having a good time going through the film again after so many years.

The “It’s Only a Movie” featurette is better with information…plenty of interviews with Craven, Cunningham and select cast members, who all discuss their reactions to the material and their lives after having been part of it!  There is also a collection of outtakes and dailies, an original trailer, and an extra featurette on “forbidden footage”, which address the parts of the film that were most often censored.  Interestingly enough, there is an extended take of the “intestine” sequence that Craven himself excised, believing he had gone too far with it.  This is a solid package of features that horror fans will really devour!

Summary:

The Last House on the Left is a landmark horror picture that forever altered the face of the genre…whether that was for better or worse will forever be debated.  It’s a dark, uncompromising vision by a first time filmmaker in Wes Craven finally presented in the most complete form possible.  To say it’s not a movie for everyone is quite an understatement.