Scalarama 2014: Cigarette Burns and Psychotronic Cinema bring Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left back to UK screens

1972, US, 84 minutes.

Playing as part of Scalarama 2014.

See here for screening details nation-wide.

RATING ★★★★★

Originally banned in the UK and seeing only a limited home video release and the odd public showing in the mid 00s, director Wes Craven’s 1972 debut The Last House on the Left (produced by Sean S. Cunningham) finally returns this month to UK screens in 35mm as part of Scalarama Festival, for what will actually be its longest theatrical run ever in the country.

The recently acquired 35mm print of the film, which played at the Prince Charles Cinema before going on it’s Scalarama tour this month, was procured by Cigarette Burn’s Josh Saco with aid from Scalarama, and the BFI. Saco, who will be presenting the film nationwide in alliance with Psychotronic Cinema, had quite a task on his hands finding a print of the film that was as close as possible to Craven’s original cut, given how often prints had been censoriously altered.

Why does such an aura of controversy surround this film, who’s director would go on to win mainstream fame as the creative mind behind the Elm Street and Scream franchises? The narrative is straightforward enough in that it contains many of what savvy audiences today would now recognise as very familiar horror genre beats: a wrong side of tracks decision by two characters leads them into a torture scenario, which then twists into a reversal-revenge finale. In fact the plot is often compared to Ingmar Bergman’s stark medieval rape drama The Virgin Spring (1960), although it predates another dark horror ‘nasty’ – Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre –  by several years. But the path Craven’s film sets its lead characters on is certainly an unrelentingly grim one even if the shock nature of the content has been dulled by the passing of time, and the execution of the film technically is rough.

Craven’s film sees a pair of teenage middle class girls – Marie and Phyllis – headed to a rock concert for a birthday, fleeing from their washboard-stiff WASP parents. But temptation gets the better of them and they ignore their parents warning to stay out of the ‘bad neighbourhoods’ of New York on their trip to the concert. While trying to score marijuana, the girls are kidnapped by a gang of psychotic convicts who, we learn from earlier radio transmissions that the girls fatefully ignore, are on the run. The convicts are a depraved lot, with ringleader Krug having got his own brother hooked on heroin in order to manipulate him. The girls are raped and tortured – and forced in some cases to torture each other – before the gang kill them and wander over to Marie’s parents house to presumably mete out the same treatment. The tables are turned however, as Marie’s parent’s drop their bourgeoise veneer and slaughter the gang with chainsaws and other improvised traps.

Craven’s film was successful in the US beyond the grindhouse circuit, and well-marketed by Hallmark Releasing Corporation (the tag line was: “keep repeating, it’s only a movie”). Even a few critics like Roger Ebert broke ranks to praise it. But prints of the film were often cut here and there given the extreme content and conservative knee-jerk reactions, resulting decades later in Saco’s troubles in finding a print he felt he could show. The film had a rough landing in the UK in the 1980s when the home video market was causing concern in conservative circles, and by 1983 Last House was on the Department of Public Prosecution list of films to be seized from retailers. This was the ‘video nasties’ era, topped off by the Video Recordings Act of 1984 which saw the film, and others, banned outright.

Watching the film now, it is tempting to think that it wasn’t just the unrelenting brutality that shocked and confused audiences and tastemakers, but the fact that tone of the piece veers from horrific to darkly funny and bizarre often in the same section of film. For example, Craven intercuts the scenes where the girls are suffering their miserable fate with comedic sequences highlighting the ineptitude of local law enforcement, such as when the bumbling, overweight local sheriff and his tactless deputy attempt to haggle with a local chicken farmer to hitch a ride on the roof of her chicken truck to search the woods, as their car broke down miles back.

For Saco, Craven’s film was: “This response to the horrors of the imagery coming out of Vietnam, effectively bringing them home and into the home. It said: ‘We all have this in us, what brings it out might be different, but it is there.’ ”

“It was the end of the 60s, the start of the 70s, the good times in America were coming to an end. I suppose it’s the New Hollywood of the horror genre. There were indeed earlier films – Lady in a Cage springs to mind – that were dealing with realistic brutalities, but that was a studio film. Here is an indie that ended up being a breakaway hit. It predates Texas Chainsaw Massacre by two years, so it is a forerunner of the more modern stuff. Effectively it was the Serbian Film of its time; a time that was still naive, and rooted in the safer pre war days of the 50s and 60s. The comparison is in the extremeness of the films and the response of the public to something they had not seen before.”

Viewers seeing this film are well-advised to pick up the Scalarama newsletter, which contains an excellent piece by Nia Edwards-Behi that not only details the history of Craven’s debut, but also addresses the debate that has never stopped swirling around the film of the extent to which it is misogynistic and exploitative.  Edwards-Behi notes that the film’s portrayal of misogynistic acts led audiences and critics to judge the entire film as being misogynistic itself, and miss the fact that the women in the film were the most interesting characters of all. She also notes the film’s raw power; this is a depiction of violence without reprieve, and without thrill, and without any hope for the flower power generation.

Scalarama 2014: Cigarette Burns and Psychotronic Cinema bring Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left back to UK screens
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