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(Credit: Mubi)

Film

Can a movie go too far? 50 years of 'The Last House on the Left'

Questioning the mere release of such material, the promotional material for Wes Craven’s 1972 controversial debut feature read, “Can a movie go too far?” alongside an iconic message that stated, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating… ‘it’s only a movie!’’. Sitting somewhere between a genuine warning and a self-reflective comment, the poster for The Last House on the Left, one of the original video nasties, is celebrating 50 years of debauchery, and represents the film’s eager desire to tempt and taunt audiences into consuming and questioning its provocative nature. 

Raw in its unrelenting depiction of reality, The Last House on the Left is loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1960 film The Virgin Spring, following two teenage girls heading to a rock concert when they are captured by a brutal gang of psychopaths. Bound, gagged and taken to a nearby forest, the two girls are forced into doing humiliating sexual acts on each other in some genuinely disturbing scenes of mental and physical torture. 

The first film in his career-long symphony of horror, Craven’s contentious debut feature concerned itself with conversations of violence that were pervading American culture at the time. Plaguing the country like an indelible stain, America’s role in Vietnam, along with such significant political events as the Watergate scandal on home soil, had prompted a hotbed of descent across the country, rearing its head in riots, protests throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

As Wes Craven once stated, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it,” with his first feature film dissecting the changing values of contemporary America with close provocative analysis. Taking us into the depths of human depravity, Craven dissects the human spirit and questions the true extent of individual capability, with the film’s true horror coming from the fear of what could happen as opposed to what is currently happening. There is nothing supernatural about the torment on screen; it is truly genuine, depraved horror, evoking an innately human fear of the sadistic capabilities of those around us.

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Prompting many others to also pick apart the result of violent foreign policy in wars across the world, The Last House on the Left helped spark the phenomenon of slasher horror in the 1980s, with its sly, intellectual take on horror exploitation inspiring the iconic 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Flouting and mocking the law and order of America in the wake of the national bruises of the Watergate scandal as well as the ongoing Vietnam war in the ‘70s, director Tobe Hooper questioned the morals of the modern USA under the guise of a brutal, hideous slasher. 

Such horrors, as a result, hold an intrinsic cultural purpose, working to reflect a sociological truth of the ‘70s that saw domestic politics, modern culture, and foreign policy react with volatile results to the ever-changing values of America.

Whilst it was easy at the time, and indeed in modern life, to consider such films as ‘exploitative trash’ or ‘video nasties’, like in the moral panic of the 1970s, the divisive work of Craven and other such pioneers of horror holds a crucial foothold in the culture of the past half-century. Carrying an inherent truth within their material, such horror films act much like the court jester, revealing the truth behind the darkness of contemporary life, indulging in that which others are too afraid to. 

Craven’s Last House on the Left was one such film that dared to spike the mainstream with a dose of self-reflective horror, sparking a cultural firestorm that juggles censorship, violence, sex and much more. Forcing audiences and critics to consider ‘Can a movie go too far?’ Craven inspired crucial conversations and helped birth one of the most fruitful eras of the horror genre.