The Fruit Cellar: "Why Don't You Lay Back and Enjoy Being Inferior?"
Some years ago (before I became fully entrenched in the horror world), my father mentioned The Last House of the Left (1972). He didn't tell me what it was about or whether or not he even liked it. He just told me I should see it. Naturally, Best Friend and I went to the video store post haste. (It is a fervent belief of mine that watching a film like this on VHS is better than watching it on DVD.) We pulled the tape out of its translucent plastic case and popped it into the VCR. And it was an experience unlike any I'd had up to that point.
My initial reaction to Last House was something like early critical reaction to the film. I thought it was awful and abusive and misogynistic and cruel. And I was pretty sure my brain was permanently broken. Yes, the film scared me. Of course, it did. But more than that, I felt guilty for watching it. I felt as if these were scenes no one should witness without calling the police. (Hello, Kitty Genovese, how are you today?)
After such an experience, I certainly thought I would never watch the damn thing again. But as years went by and I watched much more shocking films, I softened a bit on old Wes Craven. People seemed to love the film, so maybe I was wrong. Maybe there was something to it. Of course, being the nerd that I am, I went into research mode.
Critical reactions to this film from its release year are tough to find in their entirety, but when you come across them, they say things like "garbage," "exploitative," and "offensive." Like most genre fans, I don't find this to be a problematic series of adjectives. A number of the movies I love are all of these things, but they are usually something more as well. So I was surprised to discover that the Sage himself, one Mr. Roger Ebert, actually thought the movie was quite good.
Well, who needs more of an endorsement than that? It was time to see the film again. And I did watch it again, alone in my bedroom in New York. And I can't say that I suddenly loved it. But Last House is a film the demands a response. My reaction on this occasion, however, was tinted like an academic's rose-colored glasses. I was pretty sure this film was quite an accomplishment. What Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham had done was craft a film wherein they provide a rather detailed analysis of male group dynamics.
But let's rewind a bit first. The Last House on the Left is loosely based on the utterly brilliant and shocking film by Ingmar Bergman, The Virgin Spring (1960). A medieval family suffers the rape and murder of their only daughter by three shepherds. When those shepherds appear at the family's estate seeking aid, they are discovered to be the abusers of their beloved daughter. What follows is a father's mighty and righteous revenge on the perpetrators.
Upon a closer glance, it becomes clear that the two films are similar in story only. Bergman's film is a meditation on faith. Bergman, a very staunch agnostic, made several films in which characters debate the nature of faith, but perhaps none quite so poignantly as The Virgin Spring. (I'm sure many people will disagree with that last statement.)
Wes Craven's film, on the other hand, practically presupposes that there is no God, and if there is, he does not govern the world in which the film takes place. This is a film devoid of any hope, and as such, it lives only in the dark — where God cannot reach it.
The film's existence in a completely hopeless universe is likely related to its intended commentary. In 1972, the U.S. was nearing the end of the war in Vietnam. We'd already discovered atrocities like My Lai and witnessed the failure of the Tet Offensive. Craven himself suggests that the film was meant to comment on the ongoing war, but it seems to never create a cohesive statement about the war and the state of the nation at the time. Sure, Mari is a hippie, but what happens to her is no more a statement on all peace-loving individuals than her parents are a representation of all parents who've lost a child. While the film might reference those events, it never does more than sing short tune on the sidelines.
In addition to packing the wallop of a protest anthem, Last House does something much simpler. It shows us a world we rarely get to see in such a pure form. It's an experiment in what happens when a group is run by and filled with male influence. The film is populated with characters submitting to the will of — to be clichéd about it — an alpha male. But more specifically, the film showcases evil as it can only exist in a male-controlled world. As such, the film can be viewed as a study in male heterosexual homosociality.
Our baddies are, respectively, Krug (the ringleader), Weasel (second in command), Junior (guilt-ridden junkie), and Sadie (possession of the men). Each member of the group has his or her function. Krug, as ringleader, keeps tight control over everything that happens — even going so far as manipulating Junior into taking his own life at the end. Weasel is the ever-dutiful servant to Krug. He never questions Krug's instructions or pretends to have more power. He follows in line. As such, he is often saddled with the task of keeping the status quo.
Junior is the moral center of the group — a
center they've learned to ignore. As a rule, each group (whether
it be criminals, aging widows, or even anthropomorphized dogs) in
film and literature will have roles for each of its characters.
There will often be one who is the moral center of the group. In a
slasher film, it is inevitably the final girl. She's the one who
tries to talk the group out of the prank that eventually leads to the
film's violent acts. She's the one who doesn't have sex during
the film's run time or do drugs or drink beer.
But in a world like Craven's, the formulas are a little less restrictive, and the group is far less open. Because we have a world in which women have no power, Krug casts Junior as the moral center. He's a flawed man. He has a severe addiction to junk, and he is unable to stand up for himself. He tries to persuade his father (Krug) and his cronies to stop what they are doing in the woods because — as he says — they're going to "kill someone," but when faced with the questioning of Krug, he simply pretends to desire a different violent act and tells Krug he should force them to "make it with each other."
In other words, allowing the weakest member of the group to be the moral center allows the hypermasculine to take control of each situation. Morals and wisdom have no place in the hypermasculine world. It is about aggression, who ends up on top, who can take physical control of a situation. When that control is threatened, violence is the natural reaction. When Phyllis spits blood in the face of Weasel, the group stabs her multiple times and plays with her entrails. The scene escalates to such a degree because the group has no moral center to control it, to pull it back, to limit its violence to acts of subjective necessity as opposed to acts of vicious humiliation.
This hypermasculine world (called such because it does not represent what one would consider the usual state of maleness, but rather an extreme and abnormal version of maleness) is responsible for the most depraved acts of the group. It finds its greatest strength in not just violence but in sexual violence. The acts the group engages in against Mari and Phyllis are, without a doubt, the most vicious in the film. Ultimately, the goal of these acts is not just to humiliate and take control, but also to relegate the women to subordinate status. By ordering Phyllis to "piss" herself, Krug infantilizes her and guarantees his place above her.
The same can be said of the group's relationship to and with Sadie. As Sadie is a woman, it would seem she could corrupt the powerful hypermasculine dynamic. But instead, we can see Sadie as a mere object possessed by Krug and Weasel. It's made clear early on that she provides a sexual release for her male counterparts.
It is when we discover this that we also see Sadie as the potential voice of women's liberation. She states early on that she's "not putting out" until there is equal representation. But her bumbling nature deflates any argument she might have for her freedom. When she quotes Sigmund Freud, she refers to him as "Sigmund Frood." Her attempts at feminist ideology fail miserably in the face of such dominance.
Having said this, Sadie's efforts to be treated equally would likely be futile in any case because she herself has been corrupted by the all-male dynamic before her. She herself can be seen, in certain scenes, as male. She engages in the sexual violation of Phyllis and gleefully watches as Mari is violated by Krug. Later, when the crew destroys Phyllis's body, it is Sadie who holds her intestines in her hands.
As Sadie is the voice of hope, it becomes clear that the film will never have a fully satisfying ending. While our bloodlust might be satiated, our worries that our corrupt world cannot be righted are never dispelled. Even in the revenge the Collingwoods take, darkness looms. Both parents engage in acts that debase not only their victims, but themselves as well.
The hopelessness of Craven's film is possibly its greatest strength. While we wait for morning to come, we hope for an ending that will satisfy our vengeance and our apprehension. But one never comes. In the end, all lives are destroyed, and we wonder to what degree Craven intended to create a world in which there is no answer for such depravity. It merely exists and destroys everything in its path. And this might be the most frightening thing of all.