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09 July, 2014

DVD Review: THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT Unrated Collector’s Edition

Title:  THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT Unrated Collector’s Edition

Year of Release—Film:  1972

Year of Release—DVD:  2008

DVD Label:  M-G-M / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Recently, critics have been guilty of overusing the term “Grindhouse”, referencing any film about which they wish to convey a sense of excessive gore or violence.  In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, however, there were films that earned that appellation honestly; indeed films that made the Grindhouse theaters a necessity.  Perhaps the most famous such film was Wes Craven’s 1972 thriller THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.  Filmed on the cheap by Craven and friend Sean Cunningham, their stated goal was to shock the audience with over-the-top gore and violence, as realistically as possible.  They accomplished that goal.

Though not as relentlessly abusive to the viewer as Meir Zarchi’s similar-themed I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978), it’s far from a pleasant film to watch.  The plot is simple:  A group of criminals, led by Krug Stillo, (David Hess) takes two young girls captive and heads out into the woods.  Their car breaks down, and they decide it’s a good spot to finish off their hostages and dump the bodies.  After the girls are tortured, raped and murdered, the killers seek shelter at the home of the Collingwoods, the only house in the area.  What the Stillo gang doesn’t know, to their detriment, is that it’s the home of Mari, one of the young girls they just viciously slaughtered.  When the parents of the murdered girl discover what has happened, and who was responsible, they go on a rampage of violence, one that makes the murder of the two girls pale in comparison.

Given the meager budget Craven was working with, and the absolute lack of name talent associated with the film, the accomplishment is notable.  The story is direct, engaging, and original… at least, it was when Ingmar Bergman filmed THE VIRGIN SPRING in 1959.  Craven lifted the bones of the plot from the far more literate and artistic Swedish film, gave them an update, and tossed in a full measure of ultra-realistic violence and a few quarts of fake blood.  The result was a qualified success.  It certainly met Craven’s goal of a film that would shock audiences, though that task was demonstrably easier in 1972.  Where Craven failed, though perhaps that’s too strong a word, is in creating a film that works as entertainment.  The film is too graphic, too gritty, and has far too much of a Cinema Verite feel to be truly entertaining.  But it is skillfully constructed; even at this early date, Craven’s potential is obvious.  The only note that rings false is the comedy relief Sheriff and Deputy.  Comic relief has no place in a film of this type; either remain true to the darkness of the film’s subject, or lighten it up overall.

It is pleasing to this reviewer that the distributors used a very nice looking print for this release.  Those who are familiar with this film primarily from aging VHS tapes will appreciate the improved quality.  Still, when you begin with what is essentially a no-budget student film, no amount of restoration will transform it into a thing of beauty.  The biggest improvement over the VHS release, at least, the copy in the Unimonster’s collection, is the sound.  Muddy and distorted on VHS, it’s actually understandable on this DVD.

Included on this release are several special features worth noting.  Extra footage has been included in the film itself, which is the reason for the “Unrated” status.  Nothing that really alters the film, just serves to lengthen and intensify the violence… as though it needed that.  Two features that are needed, and are very interesting, are a pair of documentaries featuring director Wes Craven.  Craven, who in the decades following the release of LAST HOUSE… has become the most influential horror director extant, discusses both the making of the original and the 2009 remake, directed by Dennis Iliadis.  Also included is an unfinished short film by Craven, TALES THAT WILL TEAR YOUR HEART OUT.

While this will never be the first film I’ll take off the shelf for a relaxing evening’s viewing, it is an important film that every Horror fan should be familiar with, and every Craven fan should own.  I suggest a definite rental if you’re the former; a buy if the latter.

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