It’s More than Just a Movie: The Legacy of ‘The Last House on the Left’

Dedicated to Wes Craven, weaver of nightmares and spinner of dreams

 

Keep repeating,

It’s only a movie…

It’s only a movie…

It’s only a movie…

 

Fear is assumed in horror. Moreover, fear is an expectation. Fear, by even the most layman filmgoer, is intrinsically tied to the definition of what a horror film is.

To broadcast to your potential audience that your film is ‘only a movie’, is to suggest something more than fear. The unnerving concern, it would seem, is that you’ll walk away… different. Changed, somehow.

That is, unless you can convince yourself that what you witnessed was simply fiction.

But, still… can you?

 

It was the summer of 2004. I was at home from college and fairly isolated as many of my friends had decided to stay at their respective schools. Jobs, girls, partying, frat houses and, frankly, freedom, had won out over the idea of being reunited with the past.

The past few years had been formative ones. For better or for worse, I can’t say, but they were the years where I discovered horror. The genre offered something intangible yet so valuable: a feeling of cathartic escape, a distilled window into the extremities of pain, suffering and fear- but an altogether safe one, hence the catharsis.

My mother had passed away 4 years prior to that summer. I had kept my pain at arm’s length, unaware of the effect it was having on me deep down inside. But with the advent of horror in my life, and the genre’s uncanny ability to make me feel, the grief I had suppressed was surfacing. The wounds were therefore fresh and untended. The grieving process had begun, yes, but I was still fighting it. Tending to it, and yet still feeding it, by way of my new obsession with the genre.

In a way, horror became my addiction. My drug. A method of self medication, which allowed me to delve into my grief and my anger through third party artistic expression.

In short, I couldn’t get enough.

By then, I had seen many of the “basics”. My research was mostly internet based, built around blogs and random online lists with titles like “THE 10 HORROR MOVIES YOU HAVE TO SEE” or “TOP 25 SCARIEST MOMENTS IN HORROR”. What many rolled their eyes at became what I based my horror education upon. I would print off the lists and head to stores, looking for those titles on DVD ($10 or less was my general rule). So it was one particular morning when I headed to CIRCUIT CITY with $25 in my pocket and the determination to see something new.

I flipped through the selection and stopped when I saw his name on the bottom of the cover: WES CRAVEN. Of course I had seen A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and SCREAM by then, but not much else of his work. I had heard of the title I was holding in my hands many times. I knew it had a rather infamous reputation. Until then, I hadn’t sought out anything that was as famously disturbing as this one claimed to be and, if I’m being honest, my stomach dropped a little at the prospect of watching it.

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT stared back at me, the cover tinted blue, an old, haunted looking house looming in the background as a skull peered down from the heavens, as if cosigning the presumed doom of all who fell below its empty gaze. The thing looked more along the lines of a 60s HAMMER film than the hyper realistic, disturbing movie I had heard about, but it was then, holding the movie, that I somehow knew it was time to watch it.

As I drove home, the DVD in a bag in the passenger’s seat beside me, I felt nervous. I couldn’t quite place it at the time, but, looking back, I think it was because I was finally crossing my line.

Before discovering horror, I had always viewed films of a certain ilk to be dangerous things. Wrong, in a way, displaying and therefore glorifying those parts of humanity that are dark and cruel, those acts of depravity and violence that have no merit or place in this world regardless of context.

After my discovery, however, I realized that the art which dares to explore the darkness within the collective souls of humanity is important. Necessary.

Violence and cruelty exist. They exist externally as well as internally. They come from many places, inclusive of both the “random criminal” as well as the ego. Without safe, controlled exploration, how could we pray to ever understand that darkness, that pain which can manifest in so many different ways – that pain which undermines a person’s ability to self preserve and persevere.

That pain which begets pain.

Whether I realized it or not, I was afraid of where the events of this film would carry me. What it would do to my mind.

I was afraid this was not just a movie.

The experience of watching ‘The Last House on the Left’ was an entirely visceral one; raw in its unrelenting reality. Still, this style is often juxtaposed with sequences of over the top humor and what can only be described as the suburban mundane (i.e. shots of bumbling police officers running out of gas and hitching a ride in an old woman’s truck full of chickens).

To some, these sequences would distract from the terror, but to me they heightened the emotion. By highlighting the archetypal situational humor and storytelling one might find across all genres and then flashing to moments of the hyper realistic, humiliating and disturbing, Craven forced us to think about what entertains the collective filmgoing “us” and why. It was not a judgment, but a challenge – entertainment is the embodiment and exploration of the extreme. At times this manifests itself through humor, at times sadness and, at others, the truly horrific.

In its reflection of the audience’s own interests, the film seeks to reinforce its dissection of the human spirit and the capabilities of the individual. In one sequence, the villains force the two teenage girls they’ve kidnapped to, plain and simply, humiliate themselves. What shocks and disturbs the victims of this sequence is not only the outward pain or agony the requests will bring, but the sheer audacity of the requests themselves.

In short, when the villain boorishly tells his captive to “piss yourself,” the deranged request speaks volumes about what he might do, beyond that of what he is doing.

I was struck not only by how utterly unnerving the sequence was, but how criminal it felt to even watch it unfold. Set against the raw style and realistic performances, I felt complicit in the goings on onscreen as opposed to passively aware, regardless of shock and awe.

Eventually, the horrific torture of the two innocent girls comes to end, culminating in rape and murder. Krug, the central antagonist and the primary instigator of these atrocities, is exposed by his inhuman acts. A man who has no identity, no sense of person, who is only capable of robbing others of that which he so desperately craves – purity of self, of spirit.

Never in my life had I witnessed something more disturbing on film. I was struck by the shared, hollowed conclusions reached by every character on screen, be they victim or villain or otherwise: they are empty. Mari because of what has been stolen from her. Krug because of the darkness that has been illuminated within himself.

For, upon completion of the heinous acts, Krug looks neither triumphant nor satisfied. Krug looks lost. The moment is not intense, is not frightening, rather somber. He blinks and surveys his surroundings, the lush and lively woods, as the beautiful girl who he has decimated wanders away from him. He watches the shell of a person enter a nearby lake, observing her with what is unmistakably remorse and yet this drives him to only more violence, more mayhem… because that is all that he is. All that he can presumably achieve.

The sequence serves as a microcosm for the film as a whole, indeed the very genre it is attempting to fit as well as dissect. The violence, the depravity, is plain and simply truth. Nothing more, nothing less. And it is truth that is the hardest to truly face: be it the truth of what actually exists in the world, of what people are ultimately capable of, or the truth of what facing that reality leaves us with inside. It is both the loud, bombastic outbursts and the soft, introspective thoughts that allow the audience to deeply achieve the emotion that Craven is constantly attempting to evoke: fear.

My mind was reeling as the film progressed. My emotions bubbled to the surface. I felt for Mari, for her loss of self, her loss of the lie that was her worldview. I knew that pain, the shock of discovering that the peaceful, quiet landscape which comprised your path through life was but one sharp turn away from utter decimation.

And I hated Krug and his crew for doing that to her.

As my own anger and resentment manifested itself on screen, Mari’s parents transformed into the aggressors I was mere moments before passing judgement against. This time I was rooting for the violence, praying the “victims” would not escape. And, moreover, feeling just and fair in my sought after bloodshed.

 

In the end, all societal walls break down and the very pillars of civilized culture resort to tactics that are no better than those that the villains employ. More than that, these former beacons of modern day goodness (a weathly, philanthropic doctor and his adoring wife) feverishly feast upon the dirty work, showcasing a sick, intense desire to kill, maim and, indeed, exact terrible vengeance. Class distinction no longer matters, neither do the rules, for the nature of mankind is clear, and it is brutal.

Above all, it is frightening.

The world is not true to the definition we’re given as children. It is complex and comprised of the light and the dark. Only when we can view it for what it is, will we be able to navigate it.

I watched the ending of the film, mouth agape and although I rooted for the violence, I was left as hollow as Mari’s parents. As Mari. As Krug. For, the act of sacrificing that part of yourself that’s good and just in the wake of that which isn’t, neither serves to brighten the darkness or preserve the light.

Pain begets pain.

I turned on the lights. I stopped the player and removed the DVD, placing it carefully back into its case. The house was quiet.

I was different.

I didn’t feel better. I didn’t feel worse. I felt… disturbed, yes, but moved toward a stronger sense of self and purpose. I could not let the anger brewing inside me, the resentment of what was taken, overcome the person I had spent my entire life up until that point working to become. I could not let pain eat away at me until I was as hollow as every villain and every victim who had ever succumbed to the awful reality of their situation.

I had to persevere… because look at what happens when you don’t.

Fear is not simply that adrenaline rush you get when someone sneaks up on you.

 

Fear is the thought that you might always be alone.

Fear is the notion that happiness may not be an achievable reality for you.

Fear is facing the reality of a life without the person you love most in the world.

 

Fear is a complex emotion; a feeling shrouded in so many layers of personal boundaries, suppressed desires and carefully constructed defenses that to attempt to provide for it a blanket definition would be futile and underwhelming at best. Still, the horror genre attempts to tackle it with every outing, every frame and every ounce of its existence on some level or another, while the world sits back and judges its success or failure.

We horror fans flock to fear. We seek it out, experience it, again and again, and then we demand more. We criticize when we don’t get it and we celebrate when we do. All of it, because we want to know who we are. We want to remind ourselves what it is we’re fighting for.

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT made a name for itself, early on, by telling audiences: “Keep repeating: it’s only a movie”. The command is a fascinating one as it does not admit itself as fact, simultaneously advising audiences to convince themselves that it is so. People often fear change, especially change of self. When a film offers such a window into the psyche, some may run from it. Criticize it.

Personally, I think that sort of change represents salvation. Emotional evolution. The ability to understand and react to pain, as opposed to being driven by it.

You can tell yourself it’s only a movie. Me, I would advise the opposite.

 

That is, if you think you’re ready. Otherwise… well, you know the mantra.

 

I watched a lot of films that summer. I took in a lot of horror. But my experience with Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT stands out amongst the rest. A disturbing, challenging experience that changed the way I viewed the genre and, indeed, the capability of all people, everywhere.

Sometimes we have to be shrouded in darkness before we’re willing to climb into light. And, if that prospect frightens you or elicits a judgmental response, well, then steer clear.

After all, it’s not just a movie. The great ones never are.

 

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