Ginger Nuts of Horror
I’d always planned to talk about this movie. Jim can verify this. When I sent him a list of proposed subjects for this column, I’m pretty sure this movie was on the first page. But I’m not going to lie to you, I wasn’t in any hurry. This one profoundly bothered me. Anyhow. I figured there was no hurry. Would that I’d been right about that. Do yourself a favour, I beg ya - if there’s some creative force in your life, some actor or director or writer or singer that means something to you, speak out on it while they’re still drawing breath. Regret being a gushing idiot. It’s better than the alternative.
Guilty confession time - I’m actually kind of a wimp when it comes to horror movies. I like the idea of extreme and exploitation cinema, but actually watching it? Not so much. For some reason, for all that I could watch Die Hard or Robocop from now until the end of time, depictions of violence that seem more realistic turn my stomach. In fact, they turn my mind. Some internal part pulls away, horrified, sickened. Actually, now I think about it, Robocop is the first movie that I can remember making me feel that way - Murphy’s execution is bloody, sustained, and brutal, not to mention cruel and sadistic. It still provokes a physical response from me when I see it now, some 70+ viewings in: increased heart rate, a feeling like my throat has swollen just a little, a prickle of fear sweat. It’s fucking horrible, not to put too fine a point on it.
So given this low tolerance, I’ve basically avoided exploitation horror. I’m glad the form exists, and I really enjoy columns like our own excellent Film Gutter - not least because it means I can gain insight about this genre without having to actually watch the films. But Hostel never appealed, let alone I Spit On Your Grave. In fact, strickly between you and me, I haven’t yet managed to sack up enough to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Even House Of 1000 Corpses took a couple of attempts. By and large, I’ve given the genre a healthy respectful distance.
With one notable exception.
It is the mid 2000’s. I am burning through my 20’s at an alarming rate, the way you do when you’re too young to know any better. For reasons now obscure, I’m staying with a friend in Sacremento, California. We’ve rented a stack of videos from Tower Video - THE Tower Video, as my friend insists on reminding me. To the best of my recollection, the conversation went like this:
“You really liked the Elm Streets as a kid, right?”
“Yeah. Scream, as well. First horror movie I saw at the cinema.”
“Want to see his first movie? The villain is called Freddie Kruge.”
“Yeah. Don’t know if there’s any similarities with Freddie, but…”
“Sure, stick it on the pile.”
And that is how I ended up seeing Last House On The Left. For the first and last time.
And no, we’re no longer friends.
So, that sick sweat I talked about earlier? Oh yeah. In spades. I remember little of the dialogue, to be honest - I had to look up the pull quote I used as the title for this article on IMDB. I do remember the ‘plot’, such as it is. And to jump to the end, the way the villains eventually meet their grisly fate certainly made me wince. There’s also a utterly vicious swipe at the police, the callousness with which they are portrayed as bumbling idiots rings in the memory to this day as being genuinely shocking in its pull-no-punches delivery. So of course, there’s all that and almost certainly much more.
But that’s not what this movie is about to me.
No, what this movie is about to me is two girls being held at gunpoint. Two girls stuck in the woods with a gang of sexual sadists using them as meat puppets. The terror, the constant quiet sobbing as the two are stripped, metaphorically and literally. The utter indifference on the part of their captors, the cold amusement.
There’s a moment, as the girls are being ordered to do things to each other - make out, and later slap each other - when one of them says to the other ‘Please, just.. remember it’s me. It’s me. I love you.’ I can feel a lump rising in my throat just thinking about it. And behind it, a hint of gorge too. It’s fucking horrible, and it feels like it goes on for hours. The orders grow increasingly sadistic, and the girls sobbing compliance more desperate and abject. And there’s no rules, out here - literally - in the woods. We’ve abandoned any pretense at ‘normal’ movie narrative, even normal horror movie tropes. There’s no larger than life monster - just a small pack of dull, vicious sadists. There’s no white knight, no obvious ‘final girl’. The rhythm is also utterly broken - we’re about a third of the way in, is my memory, and suddenly we’re just stuck in real time, in this grotesque yet banal scene of violent coercion. The cops aren't coming. No-one is coming. The girls know it. There’s no way to fight. No higher authority to appeal to. No cunning plan or concealed weapon. None of the things that a trapped heroine always has in a situation like this.
There are no rules. The rules are all broken. And in their absence… cruelty. Debasement. Pain and humiliation, ever increasing by hellish degree. The only promise, the only certainty, that it will continue to escalate, to get worse, more vile, more violent, until the dull sociopaths become bored enough to finish you off for good. No escape from the fear or pain. No way to deflect or disassemble.
No way out.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time coming up with a purer essence of horror than that notion. Certainly when I think about my own list of fears, being utterly at the mercy of a stupid but skilled sadist has to be a serious contender for the top spot. And in this movie, there is no looking away, no escape - as the viewer, you are trapped in the woods with these sociopaths and their victims.
Wes Craven doesn’t look away, and neither can you.
I haven't looked into the making of the film, so I don’t know how much was on the page and how much was improvised or directed. I do remember it feeling raw and naturalistic to an excruciating degree. And of course in a way, it doesn’t matter, does it? Whether it was a brilliantly crafted script, or Mr. Craven simply knew how to get the best out of his cast, the end result is the same - as nasty a slice of cinema as I’m ever likely to see.
You’ll have gathered from the above that this film fucked me up pretty badly. I’ll almost certainly never watch it again. But then, as you’ll also gather from the above, I really don’t need to. The film, or at least, the impression of the film, is etched across my brain, a small but permanent scar.
I don’t know if that makes it great art, but I think it does make it something. Last House On The Left is gratuitously unpleasant and nihilistic, but it is also unarguably possessed of it’s own sick, fevered energy and power. Now 43 years old, it still has a power to shock and disturb that few pictures since can match. Not because it’s a devastatingly intelligent piece of writing (though it’s far, far smarter than it’s reputation).Not because it’s brilliantly shot, or the effects work is eye-popping. Nope, this puppy does it the old fashioned way - by looking long and deep and unblinking at the darkest lights that human beings are capable of carrying. By staring into the abyss, and then daring you to look away.
I couldn’t. I didn’t. And it changed me. And while I’ll never watch the movie again, I wouldn’t unwatch it for the world.
Some things have to be endured. And sometimes, the only way to find the edge is to go over it. Wes Craven went all the way over it, first time out. I love the ferocity and courage that must have taken. I salute it. And I salute him. Whatever else he was or wasn’t, Wes Craven fucking made Last House On The Left. If he’d done nothing else with his life, he deserves celebration and respect for that.
As it happens, he did a lot more. This is far from the last time this column will engage with the work of Mr. Craven. Freddy was THE movie bogyman of my childhood, every bit as much as The Wolfman or Christopher Lee’s Dracula were for previous generations. I am excited about the notion of revisiting Elm Street, and as I noted near the top, Scream also holds a very special place in my own personal rite of passage.
But on the day that Wes Craven passed, it feels fitting to remember one of my last experiences with his work. The first movie he made. A slice of horror so unremittingly bleak, such a pure expression of nihilism, that I just can't face ever watching it again.
You will be missed, Wes. Rest in peace. And thank you for making movies that disturbed my rest.