Wes Cravens Last House Leftchanged Way I View Horror
On Sunday night (August 30), horror auteur Wes Craven died of brain cancer at the age of 76 -- and judging by the outpouring of grief on social media , the man is already very sorely missed, both by those who had the pleasure of working with him, and by the millions of fans who grew up loving 'Scream' and 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.'
My personal relationship with Craven's work is more complicated, however, due to a much lesser-known film -- his first, actually -- ' The Last House on the Left .' Being raised on more standard fare like the aforementioned 'Scream' series, I only came across 'Last House' via a horror-loving employee at Blockbuster, who told my 16-year-old self that I couldn't really be a Craven fan until I'd witnessed his brutal, 1972 beginnings, in this horror twist on the 1960 Swedish film 'The Virgin Spring.'
... And like, man, I hate hyperbole, but 'Last House on the Left' changed the way I watch and think about horror, irrevocably. After sitting through 90 minutes of Mari and Phyllis being tortured, degraded -- and yes, raped -- by a band of escaped criminals, then witnessing those same criminals be physically mutilated by Mari's parents, it became clear that horror was a genre capable of so much more than just jump scares, and cartoonish monsters with big knives.
From the moment Mari and Phyllis were kidnapped on that weed run to their final, awful minutes of life -- Mari giving up before they shot her to death in that lake, you guys -- the camera offered no escape from the criminals' sadism, and the physical wellbeing of these two women was the most important thing on Planet Earth. The gritty realism of the film made every single act of violence done to them hurt like it was happening to me or someone I knew, which was actually a refreshing change of pace after spending a solid decade cheering for Michael and Jason and yep, even Freddy, in the horror movies I'd grown up with. Violence should hurt, and if we let ourselves forget that for too long, well... that's a story for a different day.
Then of course there was the final act of the film, which tested my psyche even further by making me realize that I was capable of cheering for vicious, unrelenting brutality. Films like 'You're Next' and 'I Spit on Your Grave' have sense-numbed me a bit to the weirdness of watching revenge porn, but back when I first rented 'Last House on the Left,' I was quite unfamiliar with the strange sensation that is the happiness one feels when a suburban mother bites off the penis of the man who murdered her daughter. It's all really, really f--ked up, but again, that's just a testament to a film that makes us question the way we view, process, and relate to violence.
This is not saying that 'Last House on the Left' is perfect. The cutaways to the two hillbillies are famously awful, as the weight of the dramatic tension is just a bit too heavy to justify a comedic B-plot, and the music is weird, too. But the 16-year-old burgeoning horror fan in me, the girl who really needed a kick in the teeth when it came to the way she was processing violence, will always be grateful to Craven for taking everything she thought she knew about 'teen girl in peril' flicks -- and everything she thought she knew about her own feelings on the cinematic depiction of rape -- and turning it on its head.
It's definitely not the most pleasant cinematic experience to sit through -- not even in the top 100, actually -- but many thanks to Craven for taking subject matters as awful as the degradation of the female body and the horrible things we can do to other people when we view them as an 'other,' and refusing to turn the camera away. He may have reached greatness via slapstick scares and striped sweaters, but it's truly important to remember Craven as a director who was never afraid to expose the most f--ked up regions of the human psyche, with the full respect of the camera's lens. We'll miss him dearly.