Last House on the Left (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits one of the most important not good movies in horror film history...
Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left is an extremely important film, one that had similar cinematic influence to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. And just like those films, and so many more artistically and thematically thematic films, it isn’t, objectively speaking, a very good movie. Viewers with less film experience will likely find themselves confused as to why such a jittery, unkempt, inconsistent movie is considered a ‘classic’ in so many circles (Roger Ebert’s love for the film never fails to amaze me, especially considering his utter disdain for I Spit on Your Grave). As in the cases of Blood Feast and Easy Rider the period context must be taken into account, along with the lack of similar productions before the film’s release, unless, of course, you account for the fact that Craven’s script is a rather unimaginative re-imagining of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. In The Virgin Spring a good Christian man’s secretly Pagan daughter goes innocently out into the world, where she is raped and murdered by three strangers. Later those strangers coincidentally end up at the man’s house, where he enacts bloody revenge. In Last House on the Left a good American family girl, Mari (Sandra Cassel), leaves home to celebrates her 17th Birthday with her friend Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham). The friends end up in the psychotic hands of Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), Sadie (Jeramie Rain), Fred "Weasel" Podowski (Fred Lincoln) and Krug’s son Junior (Marc Sheffler), are dragged into the woods where they are raped and murdered. Later Krug and his gang coincidentally find themselves at Mari’s house, where her parents (Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr) enact bloody revenge.
Craven was raised in a strict Baptist household that didn’t allow for film entertainment, and didn’t really discover motion pictures until he was working as a college professor in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s no coincidence that such an otherwise docile man would make his feature directorial debut in such a vicious fashion, as this era was a time of turbulent change. The change was first reflected in horror films when George Romero released Night of the Living Dead on unsuspecting drive-in audiences the nation over, but in terms of popular American cinema the next film to really cut to the quick of the angst terrorizing the nation was Last House on the Left. Along with his next film, The Hills Have Eyes, Craven exploited fears of violation, and turned the late ‘60s peace and love ideals back on a generation by posing rough questions pertaining to the deep seeded subject of raw, visceral revenge. At the same time, his ‘eye for an eye’ nose rubbing featured subversive reminders of the death of the Baby Boomer’s American dream—namely the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Manson Family murders (clearly represented by Krug’s gang). Tobe Hooper and George Romero came out of the box with expertly crafted terror tales, and created original nightmare worlds with perfectly aped documentarian’s reality. Craven also manages a too real for comfort cinéma vérité style, but his rank amateurism plays an important role in his achievement. The slapdash production serves the film’s more unnerving elements well, and the rape and torture sequences are genuinely chilling to this day, more so than most features from the era.
On the other hand, the misplaced comedy, weak characterizations, and ugly photography damage the rest of the film’s overall effectiveness. The rape/torture/murder sequences are really the only cinematically notable parts of the film. The themes do have resonance, but the third act doesn’t feature the same unrelenting realism. When Mari finally dies it’s almost a relief. The clumsy movie surrounding this found footage snuff film returns, and the audience is relieved to re-enter the realms of more mainstream entertainment. At the same time the audience is exhausted, and everything after the climactic murder feels like an extended coda. The last 30-plus minutes drag, cutting between scenes of Mari’s parents taking too long to piece together what happened to their daughter, Krug’s gang bickering, and an idiotic Keystone cop subplot. The bloody vengeance bits turn the film back in the right direction, but never ascend to the same levels of brutal realism. During the forest scenes David Hess, Fred J. Lincoln and Jeramie Rain inspire an almost unbearable degree of disturbance, as if Craven just pulled two real sadistic murderers off the streets. But later, when trying to establish post-murder tension and drama, even the best intensions are flattened by heavy-handed histrionics, and decidedly unrealistic performances. Setting Hess’ wildly inappropriate music beneath some of the horror is effective, but otherwise every break in tone or clumsy juxtaposition falls flat on its face, specifically the out of place, and painfully unfunny comic relief.
Many of you are probably asking why the hell anyone would bother updating their already plenty adequate DVD of Last House on the Left with a 1080p Blu-ray release. Frankly speaking, I don’t have an answer for that question, but can verify that this release is a slight upgrade in terms of colour quality, vibrancy, and detail levels. The best thing I can say for this transfer is that it’s consistent, a little more consistent that the DVD release, which features more obvious print damage at some points. The most obvious damage here appears on the gutting scene that has been commonly cut over the years. Last House was shot on Super 16mm, which doesn’t survive the HD blow-up any better than it survived the 35mm blow-up when it was first released, so details are never going to be particularly sharp, no matter how many times you run it through state of the art computers. This is, of course, part of the film’s ‘charm’. The heavy grain inherit in nearly 40 year old 16mm film is generally finer here than the more mushy DVD versions, but fine textures are still soft, and background details are still a wash. There are very few signs of DNR tinkering, but the more vibrant colours and lack of details do produce similar smoothing artefacts, and attempts at sharpening produce some edge doubling. The biggest difference between this and the previous DVD releases is an overall redder tint (both DVD releases are more yellow and orange tinted), which helps create some poppy bright red elements, and lush forest greens, but don’t do the skin tones any favours.
Last House on the Left is a low-fidelity, simplistic, and rough sounding film, and it always will be. The producers of this Blu-ray release decided not to mess with, uh, ‘perfection’, and do little more than clean up the masters a bit. The sound is presented in the form of an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono (there have been awkward 5.1 tracks released on DVD in the past), and is about as clear as I’ve ever heard the film, which still isn’t saying much. The problems here have always been problems, at least since I first saw the film on VHS tape. Quite often the dialogue doesn’t match the mouths speaking it, the musical elements overwhelm the dialogue, sound effects slide into shots they aren’t meant for, but there aren’t many noticeable pops or cracks, and only the highest volume levels feature much in the way of distortion. David Hess’ music is basically CD quality, and features some decent roundness in the bassiest elements.
This new Blu-ray release features most of the extras available on various DVD releases over the years, starting with an audio commentary from director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham, which was featured on the first US DVD release, but not the more recent collector’s edition release. This track is full of awkward attempts at levity from two very uncomfortable participants, both of whom have all but disowned the film over the years. Craven does manage a few stabs at intelligent discussion, but the track mostly works thanks to the bare facts. The disc also includes a commentary with actors David Hess, Marc Sheffler and Fred Lincoln, which was featured on the later collector’s edition release, along with the early R2 UK release. This track is all over the place, but entertaining in that none of these guys care about offending anyone on the production, and are actually quite critical of the film. Well, they’re the most critical when they’re not on screen, but they make plenty of good points about pacing and tonal shifts, between shifts of laying claim everything good about the movie. Informative, but also quite obnoxious.
‘Still Standing: The Legacy of Last House on the Left’ (15:00, SD) is a retrospective interview with Craven, which was originally available on the CE DVD. Craven discusses the inspiration behind the film, his original intensions for the film, the original reaction to the film, his thoughts on the violence of human nature, and the remake (which was new news at the time). ‘Celluloid Crime of the Century’ (39:40, SD) is a brief, but well-rounded retrospective featurette that was first seen on the UK DVD release. It features interviews with Craven, Cunningham, actors Fred Lincoln (who gets more chance to lay claim to the good stuff in the film), Jeramie Rain (who married Richard Dreyfuss!), Marc Sheffler, Martin Kove, and David Hess, and includes footage from Craven and Cunningham’s first production together, period photos, stills from The Virgin Spring, pages from the original script, and plenty of behind the scenes stills. ‘It’s Only a Movie’ (29:00, SD) covers much of the same ground, including the same interview subjects, plus actress Lucy Grantand was found on the original US DVD release. ‘Scoring Last House’(9:40, SD), another piece originally found on the UK release, is a discussion with David Hess on his work on the film’s musical soundtrack.
The disc also features footage from an unfinished short Craven directed for a horror anthology called Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out (11:30, SD, no audio), a deleted scene featuring Mari naming her killers as she dies (1:00, HD), a reel of unused footage, included some of the deleted sex and violence from the rumoured longer cut of the film (5:40, SD, no audio), outtakes and dailies with more deleted gore (14:00, SD, no audio), ‘Forbidden Footage’ interview featurette about censorship (8:20, SD), and the original trailer.
So once again, Last House on the Left isn’t an objectively good movie, but it’s an important movie, and a movie that still holds some genuine power in its bleak violence. Folks that already own the film on DVD aren’t going to get too much out of this Blu-ray presentation, but the video quality is a bit better and more vibrant, the sound is fine, and almost all previously available special features from three different releases are present in one place.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 13th September 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director and Producer Commentary, Actors Commentary, Still Standing: The Legacy of Last House on the Left, Celluloid Crime of the Century, Scoring Last House on the Left, Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out Unfinished Short, Deleted Scene, Never Before Seen Footage, It's Only a Movie Featurette, Outtakes and Dailies, Forbidden Footage, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred J. Lincoln, Jeramie Rain
Length: 84 minutes
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