Thoughts On: The Last House On The Left (1972)
Two girls on their way to a concert are kidnapped, raped, tortured and then killed.
As promised, a disgusting, violent and stupid film to follow up a string of Disney mush. The Last House On The Left is an incredibly mediocre, sometimes terrible, film. It doesn’t really need to be said, but the acting throughout is completely awful. There are a few believable moments, and a handful that are covered up by Wes Craven’s direction, but the acting is fundamentally terrible. However, it’s here where we find the strongest part of the film: the direction. Wes Craven is of course a staple-name in the world of horror with films such as A Nightmare On Elm Street, Scream and The Hills Have Eyes. Despite not being a fan of these films, it is undeniable that Craven captures ridiculous stories poignantly. The Last House On The Left is a great example of this. Despite the dog-shit dialogue and terrible acting plodding along this weak story, Craven, through direction and editing, makes this a watchable film. It’s this that elevates the film from terrible to mediocre. However, under the guise of exploitation, this film takes another jump. Whilst The Last House On The Left isn’t The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night Of The Living Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Foxy Brown, Pink Flamingos or A Serbian Film, it is a significant feature in this class of cinema and a particularly good exploitation film. Before we can get into this though, we have to ask what an exploitation film is. The key definition of ‘exploitation film’ is one linked to pop culture or current events. These kinds of films will capitalise on trends; take a concept to an extreme and bring in a very niche audience. This means exploitation films are, in large part, rather vapid thrill-ride money-grabs. However, I don’t think this definition of the exploitation feature is the most clear and expressive explanation of this kind of cinema. Firstly, the link to current trends isn’t always a strong one. If we take Night Of The Living Dead as an example of this, we see a film some say is linked to capitalist critique, and others the projection of a diseased-based fear. In other words, the zombies can be considered semi-conscious, selfish, flesh-seeking, consumers who want nothing more than more. Moreover, the zombies may be seen as diseased people, our fear of them being a mere fear of infection and so on. However, as we all know, zombie films never stopped with Night Of The Living Dead…
Whilst this is largely because of the money this film and genre of horror can amass, we have to look to audience to see why they want this content. The answer seems to be in the fact that the subtextual themes picked up on in Night Of The Living Dead are still current trends; they still have emotive power behind them. This cites the longevity of many exploitation films. Most pick up on themes of murder, violence, torture, sexuality and so pick up on universal human fears – not just trends zipping through the zeitgeist. This leaves our initial definition of the exploitation feature rather unsatisfying. Because of this I think we can find better definitions. In fact, I believe there are three major tenants of the exploitation picture that aren’t represented by this definition – all of which we’ll pick up on today with The Last House On The Left as our focus.
The first definition I can offer has to be in the design of the exploitation picture. These films first and foremost exploit one concept or theme. As touched on, this is often something violent and/or sexual. With The Last House On The Left, we see a transparent example of this. To an almost ridiculous extent, this film strives to show us intensifying sexual barbarity; from molestation to rape to biting dicks off, this is clearly a film obsessed with driving deep into our most reflexive fears. And such is the purpose of the exploitation film in this respect. They mean to push cinema to places no one has dared to before. The catch 22 of the exploitation under this pushing of bounds is, unfortunately, popularity and attention. The more money these films make, the more will be made. And to stay relevant, each exploitation feature must escalate, must push bounds further, otherwise it’ll be a mere let down. This is exactly why there was a huge decline of these films as we moved out of the 80s and an almost completely loss of them by the 90s. Filmmakers seemed to have ran out of creative resources and audiences turned to something else. A key hallmark of the exploitation period has to be…
… Cannibal Holocaust. This is probably one of the most vulgar film of the class and pretty much bookended it as one of the last popular releases. It’s in the early 80s and with this film that the exploitation picture hit its peak in terms of pushing bounds. You only have to see 20 minutes of Cannibal Holocaust to get what I mean. I myself haven’t got more than 30 minutes in because the film really does go too far with the murder and torture of live animals. But, in my saying that, I’ve probably livened the interest of a few who will, if they haven’t already, try and watch this film. And in such, we see the purpose of pushing boundaries, of taking a concept such as violence to such an extreme. Nonetheless, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the last classic exploitation films and so the last breath of a tired approach to filmmaking.
However, in Wes Craven, we see an interesting character to study in respect to the exploitation genre. The Last House On The Left came somewhat early in this period and was Craven’s first film; the one that popularised him and led onto The Hills Have Eyes. It’s with The Hills Have Eyes, however, that we see Craven moving somewhat away from the exploitation picture. Whilst this film has the all-important elements of gore and sexual violence, it also incorporated heavier action elements and utilised a larger budget. And it’s because of this that The Hills is much more a genre film than The Last House On The Left. Craven’s most popular film, A Nightmare On Elm Street, makes this point over again. A Nightmare On Elm Street is undeniably a horror film – a psychological slasher. It is not thought of as an exploitation film, and neither is The Hills Have Eyes for the most part, because they lack the stark simplicity of The Last House On The Left. That is to say that they have too many cinematic elements to them. The Last House On The Left is a succinctly focused film, one that zeroes in on sexual violence in an almost plotless narrative. A key part of this concentration is of course absurdity – a staple of all exploration films. They are all incredibly absurd, almost laughable at points; this is what we get when Fred’s dick is bitten off. However, the Hills Have Eyes doesn’t really have this absurdity as the design of the film is there to imply some sense of verisimilitude. That is to say that we’re made to believe that a town of insane deformed people may live out in a dessert and prey upon stranded people. But, coming back to the scene where Fred’s dick is bitten off, what we’re seeing here is a huge jump in the narrative. The film is almost a just very gory thriller up until the point where the gang returns to the parent’s house. This is only made all the more clearer when the parents decide deal with the criminals on their own. This makes absolutely no sense for the characters to do – however, this is something we’ll pick up on in a moment. To round off the first defining element to exploitation films, we see that there is a succinct focus in the narratives, one that means to exploit a singular theme or concept, in turn, and audience’s reflexive reaction to this. In such, we see an extremism in the design of exploitation pictures, one that will inevitable destroy all ideas of verisimilitude.
Ok, the second rule or defining aspect of exploitation pictures is their approach to character. To me, this is the essence of the exploitation film and what you really must understand to be able to write/make them. There are no characters in exploitation pictures. At most, you have caricatures, but, you will almost always be dealing with pawns. This speaks to, us, the audience. The exploitation picture only works because there is an inherent contrivance to them; one that leaves them predictable. Filmmakers know this and so step up to the task of not only meeting expectations of extremism when they make their films, but surpassing expectations, giving the audience more than they expected. This is the playful game that belies the exploitation picture, one played between filmmaker and audience. In going to a film of this kind, an audience member is both stepping up to a dare, but also laying down a bet. They’re risking being horrified and offended, possibly scarred for life, secretly hoping that they aren’t – but kind of are. Knowing this, both filmmaker and audience have certain expectations of character. They don’t really want to root for anyone, they don’t really want to empathise, nor do they want to understand. The characters are there as a weak vessel for the audience, one they slightly empathise with, but also one they’re willing to see be put through torture – usually, quite literally. In such, characters as mere pawns is an inevitable element of the exploitation picture. The filmmaker uses them as a mere object subjected to their stature as a creative God or sense of fate.
Pushing deeper into this idea of fate or ultimate power, both audience and filmmaker use exploitation films as an extreme form of voyeurism. This is the crux of the dare and game they play. It’s an almost sadomasochistic push and pull – characters being the rope between the two. Moreover, exploitation films capitalise on fate as a structural element to produce anti-tragedies. The anti-tragedy is a concept of mine that defines the relationship an audience will have with an exploitation character. There is the element of fate; the fact we know they’re probably going to die horribly or do something inhuman, but one that isn’t tragic in the same respect something like Romeo And Juliet is. The Shakespearean tragedy is mostly masochistic, is us being swept away by romance knowing it will all fail in the end. Conversely, the anti-tragedy present in exploitation film yearns for this failure and embraces it. In such, it is much more sadistic as there are no tears to be expected by the end of The Last House On The Left or a contemporary take on this kind of narrative such as A Serbian Film. We are almost made to sneer at the tragedy in these films. A Serbian Film is probably a better example than The Last House On The Left because there is such a brutal dismissal of the family in the end of this film. Without spoiling it, the inevitable tragedy is one used just to continue the horrific cycle that the characters try to escape. There is no poignant gut punch to this ending though, one nothing like you would see in a tragedy such as Bicycle Thieves of Rififi. This ending is just the films final ‘fuck you all’.
This only works, however, because the characters in this film are empty. There is some amount of traditional characterisation put into them, but this is all ridiculous. That is to say that it is not taken seriously by the audience, nor considered the purpose of watching the film. You see this so much more explicitly in The Last House On The Left. The parents aren’t characterised at all – no one is. They say stupid shit about tits in the beginning, act teenagery or like a happy family near the middle, and then they’re all tortured or turn into monsters by the end. With this, there is no sympathy needed from the filmmakers. The attraction is simply the violence, not necessarily the characters it is inflicted upon.
With such a dismissal of character in exploitation films what we are then seeing is a incredibly rebellious form of cinema – one that is often rebellious without a cause, without much perspective or intent. The Last House On The Left is a convoluted example of this. As the title may have already indicated to you, this is a film with something of a political message to it. It takes progressive themes of love and peace and instills them into the victim caricatures – the teens. Their meeting the criminals because of drugs is a commentary on being a hippy, free and all those other cliches. They thus fall into a nasty trap as the world isn’t full of people we should love. Moreover, the sexual sadism inflicted upon the two girls further demonstrates how ‘free love’ isn’t something people really want to embrace. There is only horror in these sequences because we are a culture which will not accept free love, that needs consent, that conserves sex as an act that is not at all free to all. If we were truly a ‘free love’ culture, we firstly would not observe the term ‘free love’, it’d be ‘free pleasure’. Secondly, if sex were free, given away as conversation is, then rape couldn’t be a thing. Just as someone couldn’t rape you with unwanted small talk, they couldn’t rape you with forced penetration. This is what the film means to serve as commentary on. What’s more, the dismissal of cops, the reliance on self-sovereignty and guns make this film seemingly very pro-right (the latter being a much more cohesive example of this) leaving the lasting commentary a somewhat conservative one.
What this says about The Last House On The Left as an exploitation picture is incredibly confounding. It is both conservative in its message, but incredibly liberal with its presentation. What this leaves this film as is a spit in the face of both left and right in a political sense, and ultimately a very rebellious feature. This is what makes this feature a undeniable great exploitation picture, but, character cannot be forgotten at this point. It’s the caricatures of political archetype that fuel this narrative. And in such, we see the duel purpose of ‘characters’ in exploitation films. They are there as pawns of both emotional engagement and intellectual inquiry. They serve the audience and filmmaker as an extreme approach to what are usually much more subtle aspects of cinema. Whilst we usually try to make characters seem like real people as to get across the emotional message of our films, the exploitation picture makes the point that creating them as them pure objects can be emotional impactful, too. Whilst I believe that traditional characters, complex ones we’re made to believe could be real people, are more effective devices in a story, I think exploitation characters are the only way to speak to people in such a directly reflexive way. When characters are real people we can’t see them as mere monsters, as mere sex things, as just a teenager. When characters become more like people, they become less like archetypes and so distinguish themselves from our biases. Staying away from this, exploitation films can be so visceral and troubling to people. Moreover, they allow filmmakers to make much more explicit commentary. Again, real people aren’t archetypes; it’s with archetypes that you can make broad statements. That’s what you see in The Last House On The Left in the parents, teens and killers. They are little more than extreme representations; through and through archetypes.
So, it’s by seeing characters as cinematic pawns that you can both define an exploitation picture and start to know how to write one. Before moving on with the point though, I want to touch on the stigma that must be attached to the term exploitation film, not to mention all of the phrases I’ve been using to describe them. Whilst exploitation films are brutal, are extreme, are sometimes pretty empty, they’re often a class of cinema I can, maybe not fully embrace and enjoy, but certainly accept. This is because they’re a cinematic class of films. Whilst they push things to an extreme like Warhol or von Trier have, they do so for the audience and filmmaker. This is why, despite all that’s fucked up about them, I don’t mind them. In fact, I only have two reasons for not liking exploitation films in general – and they’re pretty subjective. Firstly, the actors and characters are designed terribly. Whilst the characters on the page make some amount of sense and are justified by the intentions of this type of cinema, the way they’re acted out for the screen is often unbearable. Some might like this style of acting, or just not mind it, but I have no yearning to really get into these films, nor re-watch them. The second reason why I’m not a fan of the exploitation genre is their contrived nature. By dismissing all aspects of verisimilitude with the inevitable absurd acts, these films become almost pointless to me. For some, I know this is their purpose – just fun experiences – but, I get frustrated with throwaway films as I just see no point in them. I much rather prefer films with elements of exploitation that manage to sustain verisimilitude, that are believable; film such as:
These films, to me, seem to be the fruits of exploitation. Whilst some filmmakers push the cinematic form to extremes, others slot in behind them and see what they can do with ground covered. So, whilst A Clockwork Orange is incredibly controversial with aspects of exploitation present in its elements of brutality and sexuality, it is a film by Kubrick and so is a serious movie, one that has great depths and doesn’t just mean to just be vulgar as to entertain. That isn’t to say that all exploitation films do is this, be vulgar as to entertain, but, none are in the same class as A Clockwork Orange, none are as good or better. Whilst I could sink deeper with this subject, it is one I want to save for another time. So, moving on…
The final defining attribute of the exploitation film is a somewhat paradoxical one. When I feel exploitation films working, it’s because they’ve managed to suck me in. They do this with a cinematic atmosphere of intimacy. What I mean to imply here is an almost childish fascination. In the same way a teenager may find porn for the first time, just out of interest and intrigue, people usually stumble upon exploitation films. In such, they want to see something that they maybe shouldn’t. For this to work, for it to really speak to the curious viewer, there must be an air of intimacy and so a sense of safety generated. That means that the film won’t condemn the violence or sexuality wherein; it is always played out with a tone of ‘yes, this is fucked up, but it’s ok to be watching it’. You don’t see this in blockbuster action films; In short, anything by Marvel or DC…
Batman is a great example of this anti-exploitation. Violence has to be justified, it has to have conditions. The same can be said when we look to The Avengers. There is a explicit stigma attached to violence in the action elements of these films. This is exactly what exploitation films relinquish.
This is a lesson that these kind of films need to learn from – it’s ok to to have elements of exploitation in your film; it makes things fun and we really don’t need morality nonsense thrown at us so much. It’s here where I have to say I have huge respect for exploitation pictures. Just like they agree to play a game with their audience, they agree to say that we’re adults and can see some fuck up shit if we want. These films are a middle finger in the face of age certificates, in fact they wear them as badges; the gold being what was an X, what later became NC-17 or an 18. The crux of this agreement between audience and filmmaker is, however, one founded on an intimacy. This is generated through the pure explicitness of the films, and so, to know when you’re watching an exploitation picture, all you really have to ask is: am I somewhat comfortable going into this film? Do I feel ok when seeing this fucked up shit?
I can then only compare the experience of seeing a good exploitation picture as to seeking out and finding fucked up YouTube videos. I’m fascinated with people getting jacked, bitten, dismembered and killed by animals. I also like to see them do it to each other. Why? I suppose there is a transcendence when I watch these ‘fucked up’ things. I don’t feel like I’m engaging in something taboo or something I know I shouldn’t be; it’s just interesting. In such, there isn’t really a violence in seeing a person having there arm torn off by a crocodile. There’s just a ridiculous sense of awe. I don’t indulge the fact that the guy is currently experiencing the most horrifying and painful thing he may ever, instead I focus on that consequence as a concept. Yes, this is dehumanising, yes, I’m seeing the man as an exploitation character, but I think this is a very human thing. In the same sense, I have a great interest in hunting videos and MMA. These are things I could never see myself engaging in, but they’re a great interest to me sat on one side of a screen. Whilst there’s a contrived and very fake element to this engagement, it seems to be a watered down expression of the human inclination to learn and experience – everything from the positive to utterly negative. Many centuries ago, you’d be able to see your neighbours die of disease or in battle, centuries before that, you’d likely be seeing those in your village being picked off by predators, daily. This experience has been eradicated in almost all areas of the developed world. We do not see our food killed. We do not know what battle is. We don’t know what it is to die of disease, to fight for your life against the real monsters in the dark. I’m incredibly grateful for this fact and so embrace the byproduct of this societal cushioning: fucked up YouTube videos.
The exploitation picture of course proceeds the fucked up YouTube video though, but nonetheless shares its essence as a piece of intrigue; something that will safely push buttons of horrific experience we don’t really get to play with anymore. It must be said though, again, that these films have a contrived element to them. They are very clearly cinematic; they’re not fucked up YouTube videos as they’re not real and don’t try to be. Because of this, it is difficult to make an exploitation picture – especially nowadays for people like me who consume real messed up video footage. However, I’m sure that you’re shouting bullshit right now. Beforehand, said that I had to turn off Cannibal Holocaust because of the animal torture, and now I’m saying I watch people and animals die on YouTube. The reason why I can consume one media and not the other is that killing animals for a film – and in such a sadistic manner – goes a step too far. This is all to do with the contrived nature of cinema. You can accept real accidents and documentations of animals existing in their natural state; humans hunting, because it is real; it is the state of things. Documentaries of lions having sex and killing things are shown in the middle of the day because there is a consensus of reality in these documentations agreed between all of us. However, you can’t even see a hit of sexuality or heavy violence in cinematic form on most channels at the same time of day. This is because cinema is created, it has a purpose as entertainment and commentary. Documentaries are purely observational, we accept things such as death in them as they are considered to not be contrived. This, again, links into our ape side. We all used to watch our friends die of diseases or in the jaws of animals almost every day centuries/millennia ago. This, whist tragic, must have been something somewhat accepted. That is to say that it would be acceptable in comparison to someone feeding their friend to a lion. Whilst a lion making off with a friend is apart of life, feeding that friend to a lion shouldn’t be acepted – even for art and entertainment. This is because there’s a human control present here. The same can be said for cinema and documentaries; we don’t like to see someone/thing thrown to the lions, but, we will accept the lion taking someone/thing.
This all speaks to exploitation pictures. They have to walk a thin line. They must figt their contrived, human created, nature with cinematics and a sense of intimacy to work. Because Canniabl Holocaust doesn’t manage this well at all, it is an exploitation film that goes too far for me. When we look to The Last House On The Left, we see a film that has some moments of intimacy where the violence is immersive and awe-inspiring in a horrific way. We see this in scenes such as Mari’s murder, but it is lost quite a bit in the final act due to the utter absurdity. Nonetheless, the crux of exploitation films working is undeniably intimacy.
So, those are the three extra defining parameters of exploitation films:
1. It is a concept that the exploitation film exploits, one that is fixated on to an extreme.
2. Characters do not exist in exploitation films; they are caricatures or pawns for audience and filmmaker.
3. The exploitation film, at its best, is intimate.
So, there you go, these are extra elements to exploitation films that further specify and clarify this class of cinema. What are your thoughts?
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