It is commonly understood that when Wes Craven embarked on a mission to write and direct his debut feature, he was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Some attach a caveat that he was merely adapting the same Swedish ballad, but it is abundantly clear he was intentionally hitting the same dramatic beats as Bergman. But more often than not – apart from remarking upon the film’s exploitation aesthetic, cultural notoriety and the fact some parts of it have been lost forever owing to widespread censorship – this is where the discourse surrounding The Last House On The Left ends. But there’s much more to be mined in there.
Similarly to Bergman’s opus of revenge, The Last House On The Left functions as a vehicle of social critique. It is undeniable that underneath its period setting The Virgin Spring was intended to reflect the filmmaker’s aggressive stands towards religiosity and the role of the church in society. In fact, the imagery and thematic tools he employed pointed squarely at this fact. In a way, the entire film was an elaborate allegory about the wicked cruelty of the world abusing and killing youthful innocence while God was watching in silence. Even though Max Von Sydow’s character exacted his exhilarating revenge, Bergman made sure his satisfaction – and hence the audience’s – was short-lived. It immediately metamorphosized into an ironic jest when the father, having avenged his daughter’s death, fell to his knees and vowed to God he would build a church to worship the very same God who had let this tragedy happen on his watch.
This is one key difference between Bergman and Craven because the latter commits to his own stinging social critique in a different way, which also happens to be rarely remarked upon. He takes the same basic template involving a group of brutes savaging an innocent young woman before being hunted down by her distraught parents in a cathartic act of retribution. It is a bit of an open secret that the entire film was conceived – consciously or otherwise – as a dismantling of the counterculture of the 1960s. It is an antithesis of Bonnie And Clyde, or better yet, Easy Rider’s evil twin in that the group of wandering vagabonds is the root of all evil, the police are comically inept, and the film reaches its crescendo when the uptight conservative parents exact their revenge. It is as though Craven desired to swing the cultural pendulum and counter-balance the idea of romanticizing the hippie culture as a nebulously freedom-loving movement of people protesting against war, standing up to ‘the man’ and advocating for world peace. In fact, he was openly making fun of the tribal polarization between the conservative old world of parents and teachers and the youthfully naïve worldview of the new generation unaware of the evil lurking outside their homesteads.
Unbeknownst to Craven, this raw and grainy exploitation film would also become a cultural template in its own right. In addition to its own relationship to Bergman’s opus, The Last House On The Left has inspired countless filmmakers and had its hand in creating entire sub-divisions of genre storytelling. It is not exactly a stretch to see Craven’s film (together with Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and a handful of others) as a pioneering example of what we now define as a rape-revenge narrative as well as a prototypical home invasion horror. Interestingly enough, it is also probably correct to see parts of the film’s last act as a distant ancestor of Home Alone thanks to its procedural depiction of the parents setting up inventive (and cruel) traps all around the house. And the anxiety-inducing final showdown between the father and his daughter’s murderer was most assuredly distilled in spirit into Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
However, what The Last House On The Left is exceedingly rarely credited with is its role in laying the necessary foundation for the genre of found footage horror to sprout from. Granted, the film does not aspire to any level of meta storytelling in which the viewer is acutely aware of the camera being a part of the experience as well. As a matter of fact, We Craven frequently breaks the immersion himself by inserting moments of levity into the narrative, as though to undercut the innate morbidity of the story and occasionally reassure the audience that what they are watching is a movie after all. Nevertheless, the idea alone of feeling he has to give the viewer a break every now and again only reinforces the notion that what happens in between these little insert scenes about incompetent police officers racing to intercept the wandering criminals before it’s too late is simply too real to handle in one unbroken session.
Though, it is entirely possible Craven did not exactly engineer this film to work this way. What he apparently wanted The Last House On The Left to be was a ‘hardcore’ exploitation film, which intrinsically carries a parameter of stylization into the equation. He wanted to revel in the gruesome violence and aimed at traumatizing the audience (who were still more or less unprepared for what the 1970s had in store) with his outlandishly brutal approach to what could be shown on screen. Perhaps serendipitously so, he succeeded in grounding his film in very tactile realism, mostly thanks to the way the film was made in the first place. Using tools of rogue filmmaking, shooting on grainy 16mm stock, mostly handheld and editing with an amateurish fervour, Wes Craven created the allure of the found footage aesthetic as we know it today. He made his film look as though it was documented by someone who just happened to have a camera while the thugs were raping and murdering these two innocent girls. He then continued to record how they invaded a house occupied by an unassuming couple and bore witness to how they ended up paying the price for their deeds.
In what could be either a stroke of genius or a miraculous happenstance, Craven would occasionally play with his camera in ways very few filmmakers at the time did. Understandably, he might have wanted to experiment a bit simply because it looked cool and unique for him, but by sweeping, panning and tilting the camera in the most chaotic fashion, and even putting it on the ground for it to capture this harrowing ordeal from a rather unusual perspective, he created an illusion that what the audiences were watching was a documentary or a snuff film. And this is precisely why to this day this film enjoys a fair degree of notoriety. Despite the fact the violence in itself pales in comparison to what horror has become over the years, The Last House On The Left works in such an effective way because it doesn’t feel like a movie at all, but a real life accidentally captured on tape.
This is probably what implicitly added to the well of inspiration for Tarantino’s script for Natural Born Killers or Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects; though it is understandable and well-described these filmmakers did openly cite others as inspiration as well. However, it remains undeniable that the tone and atmosphere Wes Craven’s debut managed to encapsulate in this wild exploitation ride would find a way to trickle into hundreds of films and haunt many souls decades after its auspicious premiere. Thanks to its raw energy and a rogue attitude, The Last House On The Left is not only an ode to Ingmar Bergman and an indictment of the American society of the time, but a pioneering example of genre filmmaking whose influence continues to be felt today. It is a masterpiece.