Starring: Sandra Cassell, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Gaylord St. James, Cynthia Carr, Marshall Anker, Martin Kove
The version being reviewed is unrated. For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R (probably for Brutal Violence including Rape and Torture, Grisly Images, Drug Content and Language)
"The Last House on the Left" is a brutal horror film that is a reimagining of a film by Ingmar Bergman. I'm not kidding. This is a new version of a movie from the guy who made "The Seventh Seal" (that movie where Max von Sydow plays a game of chess with Death himself...you'll know the famous image if you see it). I haven't seen "The Virgin Spring" (or "The Seventh Seal"...actually, I haven't seen any of Bergman's films), but I'm willing to go out on a limb and call this a totally different movie. It's hard to imagine anything in this movie getting past the Hays Code. This is an extremely violent and often graphic horror film that will turn off a sizable portion of the audience. Unfortunately, its violence is really the only thing the film has going for it.
Mari (Cassell) and her friend Phyllis (Grantham) are going to a rock concert in rural New York. While looking for some weed to smoke beforehand, they run into a shifty guy named Junior Stillo (Sheffler). He invites them into his apartment to sell them some. What Mari and Phyllis don't know is that also in the apartment is his psychopathic father Krug (Hess), an escaped con who was serving a life sentence for three murders, Krug's equally evil girlfriend Sadie (Rain) and his vile uncle Weasel (Lincoln). Now they're trapped, and at the hands of these four lunatics, they undergo gruesome pain and suffering. Mari's parents are worried sick, and when the four psychos turn up on their doorstep seeking help from a broken down car, it doesn't take long for the couple to put two and two together...and to plan a nasty act of revenge.
It's not the premise that's the problem. It's a little contrived, but for the purposes of a horror movie it's easy to accept. It's the tone. Writer/director Wes Craven, in his first film, doesn't know if he's making a sleazy exploitation flick or genuinely trying to scare his audience. There's nothing wrong with either, but mixing the two creates a disconnect. The torture of Mari and Phyllis is so violent, so vicious, that it's a little uncomfortable to see it in a movie with comic relief supplied by cops dumb enough to rival Barney Fife or a set-up that (I think) satirizes 1950's values.
The performances are adequate, but not stand-out. The girls are fresh and lively, the parents are even-handed, and the villains are vile enough that the term "creature" is a better descriptor than person. Especially Krug, who is established at the beginning as having gotten his son hooked on heroin just so he could control him. And believe me, that's the tasteful stuff.
Except for rare cases, I don't object to a film's content on moral grounds. While the rape scene is vile and hard to watch, it's not exploitative (although it comes close) and it serves its purpose. But the pacing is so erratic and the film's goals are so confused that it just doesn't work.
Maybe the remake will be better.