1972 was the turning point of the modern horror film. Following PSYCHO and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, both milestones in their own right, Wes Craven's debut feature, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, has raged in controversy for exactly 30 years. Some label it a misogynistic piece of garbage that ought to be banned; others praise its stark realistic tone and claim it as a masterpiece. There is little room for decision between the two camps, as with the similar rape-revenge flick I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. But either way you look at it, the attention the film received and its phenomenal box office returns have earned it a place in horror film history. After passing hands between several different companies over the years, the film fell into the clutches of MGM, a company that a mere two years ago would never dream of releasing the film, let alone uncut. But for the film's 30th anniversary, and with the participation of LAST HOUSE expert David Szulkin (author of the magnificent LAST HOUSE companion), this is a disc that was worth the wait.
The storyline of the film has been well-documented over the years, sometimes incorrectly adding descriptions of scenes that never appear in the movie. Mari Collingwood and Phyllis Stone are two high school girlfriends who venture into the Big Apple to attend a concert for Mari's 17th birthday. They are ensnared by three escaped convicts, Krug, Weasel, their bisexual companion Sadie, and their unwilling accomplice Junior. A series of beatings, humiliation, degradation, and torture ensues, leaving both girls worse than dead. When Mari's parents discover the crimes committed against their daughter, they take matters into their own blood-thirsty hands.
Craven's directorial debut is an unpolished, gritty introduction to the oeuvre of the man who later gave us A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and SCREAM. But it could be said that THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is a more important and better film than either of those. The film addresses modern politics, the dark side of humanity, and social mores that few other horror films have tackled so well. Handheld camerawork shot on grainy 16mm only adds immeasurably to the sadistic goings-on, and performances ranging from shockingly realistic to painfully amateurish aid the effectiveness of the film. For those who have never seen THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT before, it comes strongly recommended by me. Well worth seeing at least once to see what the commotion is about and to sum up your own conclusions regarding the worth of the finished product. It's been topped since in terms of shock value and disturbing images, but the film still yields a fascinating, yet repellent atmosphere that could not be duplicated in its many imitators. LAST HOUSE still packs a punch.
LAST HOUSE has never looked that good in any of its previous video incarnations. Vestron Video released two versions: an R-rated cut and an unrated (but still incomplete) cut with some extra violence. Canadian, Dutch, and Japanese videos (and a recent French DVD) have all been of the same length and offer the longest cut of the movie possible. The print on the MGM DVD is the same as the above four versions, but has been considerably cleaned up. Needless to say, this is the best the film will ever look. Some sequences will always feature tons of grain, but other outdoor scenes look simply gorgeous, with balanced color and sharp detail. The audio is a weak mono, but isn't anything to complain about. Viewers can choose between a letterboxed presentation (a seemingly accurate 1.85:1, as the film was shot hard-matted) or a fullframe presentation which crops out information and is extremely grainy. The widescreen is preferable.
Where the MGM disc really excels is in the extras department, which spread out over the two sides of the platter. Of course the infamous theatrical trailer is present, with the popular "It's only a movie, it's only a movie...." tagline featured prominently and very effectively. Wes Craven contributes not only a darkly humorous introduction to the film, but also a feature-length commentary accompanied by producer Sean Cunningham. The commentary is a hit-and-miss affair. The two men hit on many interesting points during the more controversial sequences, but still neglect to tell some interesting stories that turned up in Szulkin's LAST HOUSE book. Craven also displays a wise sense of humor during some of the cheesier sections of the film. A 30-minute featurette produced and directed by David Szulkin includes interviews with Craven, Cunningham, David Hess, Marc Sheffler, Steve Miner, Martin Kove, Lucy Grantham, and Fred Lincoln (you'll barely recognize the latter two; Grantham's gone blonde!). While the featurette touches basically all the bases, it still feels like it's only telling half the story. Perhaps that's because I'm such a fan of Szulkin's book, which gives painstaking detail to everything about the film. The closing credits of the featurettes show some pretty funny interview outtakes. A second documentary, "Forbidden Footage", discusses the more infamous segments of the film. I wonder why this wasn't included in the featurette? Instead of documenting why the scenes were cut, the history of various edits, which footage ended up in CONFESSIONS OF A BLUE MOVIE STAR, etc., "Forbidden Footage" has a misleading title and doesn't really know what it wants to document.
And then there's what everyone's been waiting for: outtakes and dailies. While the infamous lesbian sex scenes will probably forever remain unseen by the masses (two words: talent releases), here is virtually every piece of footage shot of the disturbing Phyllis murder sequence. It's a lot worse than what ended up in the final film, obviously, and I can't imagine there being any other footage left of this scene that isn't already here. Alternate takes of Mari and Junior escaping, and dailies of various scenes involving the parents comprise the rest of these rarities. All the scenes are shown without audio, which apparently has been lost to the ages. Pity. I have a feeling there is more footage from the cutting room floor in the possession of collector Roy Frumkes (who contributed all the missing material for the DVD), but it's probably nothing of the violent nature that fans of the film would want to see. Still.... Several caveats with the disc: the deleted pieces of dialogue present in the KRUG AND COMPANY alternate version of the film are nowhere to be seen here. The dialogue includes a reference by Krug to Sadie's lesbianism and an extended dialogue sequence where Mari is found alive (!) by her parents. Will this footage ever be seen? For diehard fans of the film, the upcoming UK DVD may include these lost fragments of film (but the film will most definitely be cut). There are no radio spots included, despite the audio advertisements garnering many a viewer. And for a film that has been so popular and reviled over the years, that has spawned thousands of publicity stills, posters, foreign retitlings, there's no stills gallery? For shame, considering Szulkin's book is overflowing with valuable material, including frames of deleted scenes that, yes, don't appear on the DVD, either.
As with the film it documents, MGM's 30th anniversary special edition of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT has already developed plenty of controversy among fans, but it's a disc well worth purchasing. For the cheap price it's fetching, this DVD delivers and then some. (Casey Scott)
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