Last House on the Left.
I was nine years old when A Nightmare on Elm Street came to theaters and I had no idea who Wes Craven was. I was just beginning to pay attention to the names on the posters and the boxes for the movies I loved, and Wes Craven was one of the first names to really catch my attention.
I didn’t get to see Nightmare in the theaters when it came out, I was only nine after all. When I finally saw it on VHS I already knew every beat of the movie. If I found someone who had seen the film I’d grill them to get every piece of information I could on the movie. I annoyed my sister over it for days and days after she saw it.
I was going to an amusement park with a friend and his brother who was one or two years older than us and had seen the movie. He was bit of a tough guy, on the wrestling team and kind of liked to push the younger kids around a bit, but not too bad. On the car trip to the park I annoyed him asking everything I could think of about the movie, trying to get every last detail.
On the way home, he wouldn’t let me ask him any more questions. Once it was dark, he no longer wanted to talk about A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even at nine, I knew it was because he was scared. Even though he was older and tougher than the rest of us, he was so scared that he couldn’t talk about the movie in the dark.
Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street had that much of an effect on him
It was a long ride home and he kept falling asleep. Whenever he started to go out, me or his brother would whisper “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep”. Each time he sat up yelling and his mom would scold us. Being that kid, I had to do it one more time. I leaned in, and in the lowest voice so that his mother wouldn’t hear, I whispered it into his ear.
He whimpered. I pulled back a little surprised, and he continued to make these whimpering noises. At that moment I realized I made him cry. He was so scared that he was actually sitting in the car crying because I had whispered something in his ear.
That was one of the moments in my life that made me realize I wanted to scare people for a living. I’m still working towards that dream, but maybe someday.
Needless to say, when I finally saw A Nightmare on Elm Street it did not disappoint.
I looked at that name on the box, Wes Craven. I started flipping over box after box and renting anything with his name on it. The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, eventually Shocker, People Under the Stairs, Serpent and the Rainbow…. One thing that all of his films seemed to have in common, the phrase “From the Director of Last House on the Left”.
It’s funny though, you know what I didn’t find on any of those shelfs? Last House on the Left. None of the local mom and pops carried it. I became obsessed with finding it. I couldn’t find the movie anywhere. People would talk about it in hushed town like it was this dark reel of perversion that would corrupt me beyond belief.
The movie was almost mythical when I finally laid my grubby little horror loving fans on it. Worry not though fair reader, I was in my earlier twenties at the time, so not the nine year old that first started the quest.
Just like Nightmare so many years earlier, Last House on the Left did not disappoint.
Now, I do want to warn anyone reading this, that from this point forward I am going to get into some heavy spoilers for the film. If you’ve never seen Last House it is a Rape Revenge of sorts and some of the specific things I wish to talk about are very spoiler heavy. So if you don’t want spoilers, you should stop reading.
The film is shot with a documentary aesthetic that draws the viewer in and makes them feel as if they are watching something real, and not a movie at all. Even though it’s a lie, the movie opens with a warning that the events we are about to see have been changed. It’s a quick and effective way to help us look at our female leads Mari and Phyllis as real people.
The film opens with the mailman pulling up to the house and kibitzing with himself over all the cards young Mari has received for her birthday, he smiles as he playfully remarks that “It’s not like she’s the only girl to ever turn 17”. His voice then turns as he looks up towards the house calls her “About the Prettiest Piece I’ve ever seen”. His comments tear down this young girl we haven’t even met yet and turns her into a piece of meat, foreshadowing the darkness that is to come.
The theme continues as we cut inside and see Mari preparing to leave, talking to her parents. Her dad, who is a doctor, Remarks “No Bra?” And a short conversation is spurred about freedom of the 60’s and 70’s against the uptight generation that came before. I think it’s important to note that while he pointed out she wasn’t wearing a bra, it wasn’t done in an accusing manner. At no point in the conversation does he tell her to go change. He just points out the potential for trouble and sits back and lets her make her own decision.
In the woods before leaving for the city we have a small scene with Phyllis and Mari talking back and forth. Mari mentions that her breasts are filling out and that she finally feels like a women. They play Mari as an innocent, new to the world and unprepared for the darkness it holds. She has always had the support of her parents hasn’t been in any situation like the one that is to come.
Phyllis, her best friend, come from a less open family and it’s obvious she has an edge to her character that Mari does not. She tells Mari’s parents that her parents are in Iron and steel, meaning her mom Irons for a living and her Dad steals. Phyllis admires Mari’s innocence and early on sets out to protect, even putting herself in danger to try and save her later in the film.
Our antagonists are introduced as the girls drive into the city, the radio is playing and it describes each character one by one. The establishing shots of our bad guys is cut between shots of the Girls in the city showing us again how innocent and undeserving of the violence the two girls are.
Our lead is Krug Stillo, an amoral monster who carries himself as if he were a high school bully that just never stopped. His Side Kick Weasel, comes off as sexual deviant who worships Krug. Krugs girlfriend is named Sadie and they establish that she is really just hanging around with Krug for the fun.
The last member of the quartet is Junior, Krugs son. Junior is obviously mentally abused and doesn’t want his father around. In one scene he and Sadie have a conversation about who they would be if they could be anyone in the world, and he comments that he wishes he was a frog so he could just sit on his lily pad and not be bothered. He is not the monster his father is, Junior is just a junkie caught in a bad situation.
It’s Junior though who lures the girls into the house with a promise of weed. When things turn violent it’s also junior that steps in trying to stop his father to no avail. The scene is interesting, Mari is cast to the side almost forgotten as Krug deals with Phyllis first. When things finally break down and Krug, Sadie and Weasel take turns with Phyllis, we don’t see the violence. Instead we focus on Mari’s face as she stands in the corner watching at these horrible things happen to her friend.
In this instance it’s so much more powerful to show Mari’s reaction and mounting horror towards what is about to happen. In scenes that follow this, Phyllis is still shown as a fighter, she bites Weasel two scenes later showing that the act didn’t break her. She’s still strong, and she still wants nothing more than to protect Mari.
This is shown so well a few scenes later, again back in the woods.
After the initial rape sequence Krug and co load Mari and Phyllis into the trunk of their car and ride out into the woods. The driving scene, which includes a sequence with Krug and Sadie having sex as they drive down the street, is played mostly for laughs. This scene doesn’t show us how the group really is. It shows us how they think of themselves. They see themselves as a group of old west outlaw antiheroes. The weird almost bluegrass upbeat music that plays during these sequences help support that illusion.
This is an illusion that will be shattered to great effect later on in the movie.
The group’s car breaks down on a tree covered road seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Instead of going for help, our antagonists decide to take the girls out into the woods to have some more “fun” with them. As they leave the car Mari looks up at sees the Mailbox to the house they broke down in front of. In the movies most improbably moment, we recognize the Mailbox from the establishing shot at the beginning of the movie as belonging to Mari and her family.
She is then taken out to the woods knowing the whole time she is mere feet from the imagined safety of her own home.
Now in the woods, bored with their two hostages they begin humiliating them. They start by forcing Phyllis urinate in her pants while they watch. This leads to an interesting moment where Junior shows that he is not on board with the violence around him when he breaks it up by yelling “stop, you’re going to kill someone”. For just a moment Junior shows his strength as he stands up to his father, but it quickly fades away as he turns and instead suggests that they make the girls make out with each other. The shame of his weakness shows on his face.
The scene is shocking it’s in realism. We watch as the girls are forced to strip. There is nothing sexy about the showing, there is nothing done for titillation. It is a dark act. As this moment, still trying to save her friend, Phyllis looks into Mari’s eyes tells her it’s okay, it’s only the two of them. Even at that moment, even after all that has happened to her Phyllis is still trying to protect her friend. This scene is made even more poignant after listening to the commentary and hearing Wes Craven remark that the line was an adlib. The actress said it to the other girl because she was having such a hard time doing the scene. It was a genuine moment of one person reaching out to another in a dark situation. It’s a moment of beauty in a sea of darkness.
As all this is happening, it’s intercut with scenes alternating between the local police force and the parents. After the car breaks down we get a moment where the local Sherriff and his deputy are in the house trying to calm the concerned parents telling them that every things all right. I think it’s important to note that while he is talking to them the Sherriff is actually eating a piece of the Birthday cake the mother had earlier made for Mari. In my mind this shows a lack of concern from the Sherriff, maybe even a lack of empthy for the girl. He hears their story and much like the rape culture this movie helps to expose through the casual comments of the Mail man earlier in the movie, he just sees another girl run off doing god knows what.
Later though, concern does begin to show on the Sherriff’s face and he does eventually spur to action when a report comes over the radio that the city police are looking for a car that matches the description of the car he saw broke down in front of Mari’s house. Finally our police force is moved to action, but we quickly realize that they will be no help. They are shown to be impotent and buffoons. One moment running out of gas in their police car and another riding attempting to get a ride from a women hauling chickens.
They even play a comedic song over the police to show that they are pointless and will not make it in time. The Sheriff and his Deputy, played by Kobra Kai leader Martin Cove, exist only to show us that help will not come. The destiny of Mari and Phyllis was written in stone as soon as they entered that apartment and the movie makes sure we know it.
After the forced Lesbian scene we see that Krug has grown bored. He tells Weasel to watch the girls while he goes to get something to chop some wood so they can start a fire. A knowing glance is exchanged between the two of them and we see that Phyllis understands the true meaning.
Knowing what is to come, and knowing their only chance of escape hinges on Krugs absence, she commits her last act of self-sacrifice. She whispers to Mari that she is going to run off so the others chase her, thus opening the door for Mari to escape in the other direction. At this point Mari is frantic and shaky, she is barely hanging on but she accepts.
Phyllis runs off to the woods and continues to taunt the pursuing Weasel and Sadie. This ultimately leads to her death. She almost makes it to the road when Krug steps out with a machete, stopping her. We have a little cat and mouse before Weasel first stabs her in the back. As soon as he does it he looks towards Krug, his eyes asking for approval.
At this moment, Sadie looks down at the girl and as Krug finally kills her a horrifying look crosses her face. She takes part in the violence, but for the first time we get the feeling that Sadie may have a line, and that murder may be on the other side. It’s hinted that maybe if she wasn’t with Krug she would be a different person. A better person. This scene shows Krug as more of a Manson or Koresh figure. Holding these people together and turning them to monsters through full force of will.
Soon after this sequence we enter the most shocking and important sequence of the films. The destruction of Mari’s Innocence and her eventual Murder.
When the group returns to Junior and Mari, they’ve changed. The murder they just committed hands silently between them, even though it’s not the first time Weasel and Krug have killed someone, some thing about this one is different, it has shaken them.
Spurred by his violence Krug rapes Mari. We do not cut away, we do not focus on something else. We aren’t shown the details of the rape, but again, we focus on Mari’s face. She looks directly into the camera asking us for help, knowing it isn’t coming. It’s an ugly act made all the more ugly by Krugs facing pressing into the side of her and his saliva dripping from his mouth and sticking to her face. He is finally the unfettered monster that has been hinted at the entire movie. He is nothing more than an animal. It’s a horrifying sequence and it feels like a true sequence.
The direct aftermath of that movie is the reason I love Last House on the Left.
Krug stands up and looks at the people around him. The films three monsters exchange glances among them. As Mari gets up and begins to pull herself together, Krug looks at her, and possibly for the first time in his entire life Krug realizes who he is. All pretense of the old west outlaw falls away as the illusion he has lived his life by shatters. He realizes he is not the good guy in his story. He is the villain and nothing will ever change that.
For the first time in his life Krug is lost.
He is not the only one who shares in this moment. Weasel looks at him, the veneer finally stripped away and he realizes that maybe the person standing in front of him was not worth the hero worship he had putting on his shoulders all these years. He wonders if this is what Krug is, and in a moment of retrospect he wonders what that makes him.
The biggest damage done though is in the eyes of Sadie. They all look at the blood on themselves as they realize who they really are, but Sadie actually tries to wipe the blood off. She starts rubbing the palm of her hands into her pants to try and make herself clean again. She finally realizes once and for all that it’s a monster standing in front of her and he’s turned her into the same thing. The look on her face says that everything has just changed and will never be the same.
The only one of the group to not take part in this scene is Junior. He is separated from the scene because he did not take part in the violence, and because he already knew what Krug was.
The three exchange a glance between each other as Mari walks away in the background. They are at a turning point in their lives, even if they don’t realize it. Realizing who they are for the briefest of moments they have the ability to change, but they don’t. The moment passes and in a moment of self-awareness Krug decides to accept the person he has become and He walks away a now and forever a monster.
When he kills Mari it’s cold and impersonal. We don’t even see the killing blow. Instead of the stabbing her he pulls out a gun and shoots her as she stands in the pond trying to make herself clean again. He shoots her once and she goes down. He lines up to shoots her again, we cut to Mari’s home and her dog. We hear the gunshot in the distance signaling her end.
From this point on, they are the same people, but something is different. There is a tension between them that didn’t exist before. We no longer get the weird comedic banter between them. For what it is, it’s an oddly beautiful sequence that shows humanity in such a stark and real manner.
After this we enter into the final act of the movie.
The group goes to the nearby house, which was Mari’s parents’ house, and seeks refuge for the night since their car is broken down. The parents have shown themselves to be good people throughout the movie and this trend continues. Even though under the circumstances no one could blame them from turning the strangers away, they allow them into the house. Offering them shelter for the night until they can get the car towed in the morning.
They even go as far as giving Krug and Sadie their missing daughter Mari’s bedroom. As the night progresses the parents begin to put two and two together and realize that these people are not what they seem. They go out into the woods and find their daughter dead in the pond. From this point on we watch as the parents civility gets stripped away and they take out vengeance on the group.
It’s fun to point out that we get shades of Elm Street to come as we watch the father foreshadow Nancy preparing the house for Freddy by setting up traps for Krug while the mother seduces Weasel and takes him out into the night.
Weasel is the first to die. The mother literally bites his manhood off. He dies screaming bleeding to death as the mother washes her mouth out in a river. We then cut to Krug and Sadie coming away after hearing the screams from outside. They find the father standing over them, shot gun in hand. Krug kills the lights and the father fires into the darkness. A fight ensues. It is insinuated that Sadie may have been hurt because we don’t see her for several beats.
The fight comes to crescendo with the father chasing down krug with a chainsaw. Krug still thinking he is on top, momentarily regains the upper hand but before he could do anything Junior shows back up, armed with Krugs handgun. The same gun he killed Mari with. Now Junior points the gun at Krug.
Krug shows no fear though. He knows his son won’t shoot him. Instead Krug stands face to face with Junior and begins bullies him into taking his own life. As Junior lays dead a look of disappointment crossed Krugs face. He is losing control and he knows it. It all slips out of his hands as Sadie shows up, alive with a knife in her hand. He turns to her for help against the man coming at him with a Chainsaw, but instead she finally sees her chance for freedom. She cuts at him with the night hoping to run off into the better life she talked about with Junior at the beginning of the film.
Krug faced with emanate death, does what all bullies do. He turns coward and tries to run, but he can’t get away. One of the traps the father set for hum is sprung and Krug goes down. As this happens we see the mother on the outside of the house run up to the Sadie who has fallen into the swimming pool in the dark and ruthlessly slit her throat.
As the father moves in for the kill the police, impotent to stop the violence up to this point, arrive. They try to stop the father, but their attempts are halfhearted at best. Again we don’t see the violence, we see the faces react to the violence as the father proceeds to cut Krug to pieces with the chainsaw.
The movie ends in a scene that mirrors the earlier scene when Krug and Crew look at each other, realizing who they are. The Parents sit in the middle of the room holding each other. Their heads are hung and their hearts are sad over what they have just done. The Deputy steps up and attempts to remove the chainsaw the father is still holding.
He lets it go.
He lets it go because unlike Krug, they are not monsters. They are just two people who found themselves in a horrible situation and didn’t know how to react in anything but violence. They are not violent people, but at the end they found it to be the only solution. The film freeze frames on them showing that they are going to live the rest of their lives haunted by the ghosts of their daughter and the deeds they committed that day.
It also hints at hope. Because while they will never get over it, they are holding each other showing that they will always be there for each other.
And thus ends Last House on the Left. It is not Wes Craven’s most remembered work, but to me I think it’s his most powerful and most meaningful. Its an important work that deserves to be seen.
I met David Hess, the actor who played Krug, once at a convention. I walked up to him and was struck instantly about how nice he was and how different he was from his character. We chatted about Last House and a Christmas horror movie he had done for about twenty minutes. He was very much that guy who pleasant voice who sang the songs in the movie and not the monster he was on the screen. We joked back and forth and afterwards he shook my hand as he handed me the autographed picture I had purchased.
As his hand closed around mine and my hand took the picture, his face changed and he gave me that Krug Stillo smirk and said “Now Blow your Brains Out”. We both laughed, him genuine and friendly, me uncomfortable and shaken. I had to sit down for a moment afterwards it had affected me so strongly. That moment scared me ALMOST as badly as years earlier when I made that boy cry whispering “what ever you do, don’t fall asleep” in his ear.