The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The eighteenth entry into this disreputable canon is Wes Craven’s raging, sexually depraved exploitation debut, Last House on the Left…
(To lament the passing of West Craven, the Alamo has been holding several memorial screenings of the horror legend’s more popular titles. Amongst them was a 35mm showing of his horror debut, Last House on the Left. This seemed like a choice opportunity to revisit the hellish slice of exploitation and evaluate how it holds up…)
Alternate Title: Krug and Company
Wes Craven was raised by an alcoholic Baptist mother who considered movies and secular music to be sinful, and thus forbade her son from indulging in both as a youth. So of course Craven, after moving to NYC following a gig teaching humanities at a private university, would end up a pornographer in the Big Apple. Yet repression is not what Last House on the Left is about – not exactly, at least.
Sure, fellow smut peddler Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) urged the novice filmmaker (who didn’t even see his first movie until he was an adult) to utilize his childhood as a well of inspiration for the notorious rape/revenge nasty. Nevertheless, there is so much more going on beneath the picture’s shoddy, stomach-turning vérité veneer. Last House is the work of a man who had just seen an entire generation get shipped off to war, while those who remained at home insulated themselves in societal movements, praying that their number wouldn’t be called next. This ostrich approach to facing global atrocity pissed Craven off and, utilizing what slight cinematic knowledge and resources he had, the writer/director vented his rage via one vile, relentless filmic transmission.
It probably didn’t help that Craven’s personal life was in shambles. After marrying Bonnie Broecker – the nurse who nurtured the eventual auteur back to life following a paralyzing spine infection – he pursued a Master’s in Literature at John’s Hopkins. At JHU, he studied under deacons who encouraged creativity, commenting that his writing had a distinctly “visual” style, and that he may make a good screenwriter one day. During his time teaching on a conservative college campus, he strayed from the straight-laced crowd and made friends with authors, poets and artists – all of who sectioned off and expressed compassion for anti-Vietnam protesters.
Craven’s circle were peace loving beatniks, experimenting with 16mm film to the point of shooting a Bond parody, which inspired the wide-eyed dreamer to relocate his wife and two children (Jonathan and Jessica) to Brooklyn. He quickly went to work on a novel as Bonnie became increasingly distant. Shortly thereafter, Craven moved out of his own home and began couch surfing in the Lower East Side, as debt mounted and he lost even the ability to drive a cab. Dead broke and swallowed by an urban Hellscape, he lost all hope in humanity and the ability to better one’s self by following a fantasy.
Working in porn began as a way to make ends meet, but eventually opened the door for Craven to make his first “legitimate” movie. After meeting Cunningham in the Summer of ’69, the two collaborated on Together, an interracial softcore film featuring Marilyn Chambers (Beyond the Green Door and David Cronenberg’s Rabid) that found itself situated directly beneath Diamonds are Forever on the box office charts upon release. Cunningham wrote, produced and directed while Craven edited, churning out a pre-Deep Throat chunk of obscenity that proved porn had a much wider appeal beyond cum dumpster dives in Times Square. Fresh off the success, Cunningham secured meager financing to make a bloody horror feature and tapped a reluctant Craven to direct.
It’s impossible to discuss Last House on the Left without talking about rape. The basic premise of Craven’s upsetting portrait involves the violation of young Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassell) and her “other side of the tracks” best friend, Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham). Together, the girls head out into the big city (much to the chagrin of Mari’s parents) in order to catch a rock concert. On their way to the show, the duo try to score some grass and end up getting abducted by a gang of recently escaped psychopaths. Much sexual violence ensues.
The sick, Manson-esque clan carts the girls out to the country, takes turns raping and humiliating them before ultimately executing both in cold blood. In a sick twist of fate, the gang ends up seeking refuge at Mari’s parents’ home. The dignified couple eventually discovers that the shaggy maniacs have murdered their little girl and indulge in savage, bloodthirsty revenge. It’s a trashy take on one of Craven’s favorite Ingmar Bergman movies, The Virgin Spring, chock full of enough cruelty that it would fight censors for decades and find itself banned in numerous countries. Craven and Cunningham even had to originally release Last House with a false “Rated R” seal of approval, after the MPAA requested they remove over twenty minutes of footage.
Craven’s original script was even worse than what was filmed, containing multiple rape fantasies and a moment where the killers disembowel one of the girls and begin feeding on her insides. It was the product of a mind that had just seen all he loved crumble and disintegrate. Meanwhile, the death toll in Vietnam continued to rise, despite American involvement being reduced to mostly air strike support (US personnel count had been slashed in South Vietnam from 500,000 in ’68 to 133,000 by Jan. 1 1972). Last House was a storm that had been brewing inside of Craven for nearly half a decade. Access to a movie camera simply allowed the thunder to be unleashed.
What had the peace-extolling period Craven spent on that Upstate NY campus meant at all? Had he and his colleagues’ sympathies fallen on deaf ears completely? Were they all naïve children, blind to a world that could easily chew them up and spit them out without a moment’s notice? Even if you dodged the draft bullet, that didn’t mean your number wasn’t going to be called in life’s daily game of Russian Roulette. Though these themes were channeled in the crudest, most repulsive way possible, Craven’s brain was locked on the loss of innocence; the absolute impossibility of keeping your purity intact in an insular world. Harsh brutality could still find its way to your home, no matter what path was chosen for you.
The intrusive, discordant visual sensibility of a porn director is pervasive from the first time we view Mari’s naked body, distorted through the dimpled glass of a shower door. When Mari’s father, Dr. John Collingwood (Richard Towers), later comments on her lack of a bra, Craven ensures we see her nipples poking through her skin tight blouse. The seventeen-year-old is out to prove that she’s all grown up, embracing the “filled out” areas of her form. It isn’t until she’s later cornered by Krug (David Hess) and his gang of predators in a grungy apartment that we realize Craven has placed us squarely in the rapists’ shoes. He wants us to see her as a sexual object, the peace sign necklace her parents gift to her before she heads into the city no match for the angry, depraved, aggressors who tear her and Phyllis’ clothes off. In this way, Craven has molded Mari to be something of an avatar for how he views the “Love Generation”; inexperienced balls of flesh who think their hippie posturing will save them from society’s wolves.
Drawing parallels between Krug’s insane “family” and the Manson clan isn’t going to be difficult for anyone with any sense of mass murderer history. Partnered with his brother, Junior (Marc Sheffler), the two share a bi-sexual wife in Sadie (Jeramie Rain), whose name is directly drawn from Charlie’s favorite daughter. Their “son” is Weasel, whom Krug controls by withholding the frog-faced kid’s smack. There’s no defined code amongst the roaming band of fugitives, outside of making sure each girl is passed around, so that no one member maintains a monopoly on the “fun”. This nuclear unit is only threatened whenever Weasel’s moral hackles are raised, but those are easily calmed with a quick “fix”. And though they operate as a tribe, Krug is clearly the leader, exerting his will and coming up with new ways for the young women to humiliate themselves. No wonder the cut English version of the picture is titled Krug and Company.
David Hess was so good at playing a predator that he practically made an entire career out of it (see also: Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park and Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Hitch-Hike). Good looking in a hard, disheveled way, Hess nevertheless radiates pure menaces, hissing “piss your pants” at his captives for the sole sake of his amusement. He’s an animal; a wild, feral beast who, at one point, dons a suit with the ease of a trained bear. He has no need for these civilized shackles. He wants to roam and take what he wants from whomever he fancies. No polite questions. No second guessing. Even his followers become expendable once they challenge his authority. Krug is evil incarnate, the fires of Hell existing in the depths of his dark, brown eyes.
Strangely enough, Hess also provides the original music for the film, adding another bit of Manson mystique to his character without the audience ever consciously realizing it. ”Wait for the Rain” is a haunting, thematic guidebook, gently intoning that the road we’re currently on dead ends at a hole in the ground. Every character we meet is doomed, as fate was put into motion to bring them to this point long before we arrived on the scene. At the same time, the inappropriately bouncy pop theme written for the baddies feels like a B-Side to some lost screwball comedy soundtrack, jokingly asking us to come along and watch these zany murderers molest and mutilate their hapless victims. It’s a sick joke, as if the monster replaced Craven behind the camera and was allowed to document his own journey as a playful romp. Like the bumbling, comic relief cops that show up at the most awkward moments (no one wants to laugh at a guy marrying his pig immediately after a rape scene, Wes), these tunes immediately feel like the product of an inexperienced artist, cobbling together a picture with limited knowledge of its working parts. However, even if the music is sometimes poorly placed, it still feels purposeful, unlike the flabby, chucklehead Barney Fifes.
Once their newfound toys prove to be too much trouble for what they’re worth, they’re disposed of in the most heinous ways possible. Phyllis is bled and gutted before Mari is raped and executed by Krug. During Mari’s death, Craven stages shots like Vietnam news broadcasts of public killings, Krug extending the barrel of his revolver toward the edge of the frame. It’s a shockingly deft composition, subconsciously evoking reels of heinous footage that were piped into houses via black and white television sets. All of the sudden, Craven’s intent with the picture becomes crystal clear: violence has found its way to the doorstep of the peace-loving working class. No longer could atrocity be viewed from afar; they had to endure it along with the countless men and women who suffered and died overseas. The Summer of Love was over.
The explosion of violence that ensues following the Collingwoods’ discovery of their daughter’s body is a cacophonous nightmare, and the moment when all of Craven’s repression rushes to the surface. These civilized people are transformed into barbarians, ironically due to Mari’s mother spotting the silver peace charm dangling around the junkie’s neck. A switch is flipped and the animals that took their daughter away aren’t just castigated, but decimated with zero remorse. Cocks are bitten off, chainsaw are wielded and throats are slit, yet there’s very little catharsis to be found. Unlike the rape/revenge subgenre that rose in the wake of Last House’ssuccess (filth masterworks like I Spit on Your Grave), the mayhem the Collingwoods engage in is a form of debasement, bringing them down to the level of those they’re “punishing”. This is perhaps Craven’s most unpleasant trick on the audience: his denial of any kind of positive emotional release. In the end, we are all beasts, thinking that a good face and enough distance from evil will trick the rest of the world into thinking we’re minding our manners.
At the end of The Virgin Spring, the patriarch of the traumatized family returns to the scene of his daughter’s violation and vows to build a church, thus spiritually redeeming him. Craven’s reality provides no such recovery; it is Godless – a precursor to Tobe Hooper’s similar Vietnam howl of anguish, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. We are left wondering what it all means, and if the blunt nihilism we just witnessed amounts to anything more than a cycle of hate lost in an ocean of merciless time. But this was the first glimpse of Craven’s genius. Beyond channeling broken pieces of himself into Last House on the Left, he was able to also make a movie that spoke for an entire generation, regardless of whether certain members of his class would actually admit to their human shortcomings. Horror was no longer a means of escape, but instead held a mirror to those in the audience, daring them to gaze into the abyss. To Wes Craven, all humanity was infected and diseased, and he was the only one brave enough to peel the scab back and let the wound breathe.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Female Trouble
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces
*Primary Source for Biographical Material: Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value