The Last House on the Left should probably only be seen by people with a strong stomach—even today, after audiences have been exposed to films like the Saw series. However, despite mixed opinions, it is not your ordinary exploitation film, or, rather, it is a smarter-than-average example of the genre.
The film stars Sandra Peabody as a teenage girl named Mari, and Lucy Grantham as her friend, Phyllis. The two girls are kidnapped, raped, tortured, and eventually killed by an escaped convict named Krug (David Hess) and his gang. Presented with the opportunity for revenge, Mari’s parents (played by Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr) take it upon themselves to punish and kill the criminals themselves.
Wes Craven could have made a typical exploitation film, and for many reasons, The Last House on the Left does fit into that genre. However, several touches place it several cuts above the rest. For instance, there is the portrayal of the characters played by Peabody and Grantham. They could have been written as shallow ditzes, but the story allows them to display courage, strength, and even heroism—particularly in the case of Phyllis. These characters are not at all cardboard cutouts, which makes the depiction of their brutalization all the more appalling.
We should also discuss the revenge carried out by the parents. A key point here is that the parents do not just simply ensure they have evidence, call the police, and let justice take its course. They themselves become the punishers. This implies all sorts of fascinating, disturbing ideas about justice, authority, and personal vengeance. Perhaps this film riffs on situations wherein we lose our trust in authorities that cannot protect us and our loved ones from horrible dangers. Also, while we may believe in legal justice in the abstract, we might not find its proceedings satisfying if they are used to punish the victimization of someone we love. If your son/daughter has been brutally raped and murdered, you might be disappointed to see the culprits “only” jailed or humanely executed. Rather, you might want to use your own hands to make them suffer just as your loved one did. This movie’s plot plays on this understandable but disturbing desire.
We have discussed the film’s ideas about revenge. Now, what about the portrayal of the avengers themselves, i.e. the parents? The revenge of the parents is cathartic (both for the characters and the viewer), but in a way, it is also disturbing to see how these regular, decent people can be driven to just as much violence and cruelty as the insane criminals who are the villains. In other words, what really separates the good and everyday from the evil and bizarre?
The film ends before we can get any sort of satisfactory answer, no matter how crude and exploitative, to that question. This, besides the still-shocking torture and gore, explains the reason why the film continues to elicit such strong reactions, even almost forty years after it was made and released.
Year : 1972
Director : Wes Craven
Writer : Wes Craven
Starring: David Hess, Richard Towers, Cynthia Carr, Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham
Country: United States
Running time: 84 min, but can vary due to cuts (censorship!)