Monday, March 29, 2010

Three dead men ride north

Finally hitched up my skirts, poured a nice tall glass of wine and sat down with "The Last House on the Left" this week. I have been avoiding this movie for many years, on the grounds that it just sounded Very Unpleasant. (The NYT's film critic walked out in 1972!) Sure, it's a horror classic, but why put oneself through it?, was my thinking.

Over the past couple years I've gradually worked up to the idea. First I watched "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," which I had avoided on similar grounds, and adored it. Then I saw Bergman's "The Virgin Spring," the basis for "Last House," and was fascinated by the themes of revenge, redemption and female purity; it's black and white and it's Bergman and it's arty, but it's still fairly brutal. Beloved medieval daughter Karin is raped and murdered by a trio of men who then, unknowingly, seek shelter with her parents; when the parents find out, they take revenge. What interested me the most was the contrast between adored town flirt Karin and her resentful foster sister, Ingeri, who is pregnant out of wedlock and is in thorough disgrace with the household. The dynamic between them is the real driving force of "Virgin Spring," I think.

And "Last House" hews closer to those themes than I expected. Beloved daughter Mari is everybody's sweetheart. Her parents adore her, only making a halfhearted attempt to stop her from gadding around braless and going to concerts by bands with names like Bloodlust. They do not at all approve of her relatively new friend Phyllis, who comes from a bad neighborhood and is taking her to the latest Bloodlust concert, but they let her go anyway. Unlike in "Virgin Spring," Mari & Phyllis are friends, but they exhibit a milder version of the Karin & Ingeri contrast: Mari takes this innocent, exultant joy in the world around her, pointing out the beautiful fall leaves and then her own new 17-year-old bod. The worldlier Phyllis watches her with something like bemusement at times, but Mari's joy is infectious: the girls frolic in the woods, go for ice cream, and then decide to score some grass before the concert, approaching a total stranger to ask him about it as if asking directions from a friendly neighborhood cop. This is where they go wrong. The girls are different, but unlike in "VS," they end up in the same boat.

From here the movie becomes a protracted, sadistic exercise in dread. I just tucked up my feet and poured some more wine and bit my nails and waited and waited. It seems to take forever for Mari and Phyllis to meet their hideous end, and the film cuts mercilessly between their torment and Mari's parents, first fixing her a birthday cake, then sitting up anxiously waiting for her to come home. It's the dread rather than the actual violence that made this so agonizing for me, although when the brutality arrives, Craven films it in a straight-on, almost documentary style that somehow enhances the cruelty. The grainy film stock makes it look like a snuff film. Over on Final Girl, Stacie has a great line in her review of "The Evil Dead": it "just feels wrong." And that's how this feels. It's like something you shouldn't even be *allowed* to watch.

Making it extra horrible is how hard the girls fight and how close they come. One of the last things Mari sees is her own mailbox; Phyllis dies within sight of traffic whizzing by on the road. Both of them make perfectly laudable attempts at getting away. Phyllis (who delivers a haunting "oh, shit!" as the thugs slam the door shut behind them) does a really good job of keeping Mari from completely freaking out, and then picks a great chance to make a run for it. Mari uses smart psychology to get one of them to help her. They almost make it; they should make it; they die for no reason at all beyond their killers' sheer viciousness.

At the same time, it's beautiful. The colors in this movie are amazing: the fall leaves, the bright red blood on Sadie's white face, the magnificent mustard-yellow shirt worn by Mari's dad in the climactic scene of chainsaw revenge. I'm such a sucker for anything horror that's shot in the woods... I love the contrast between nasty goings-on and the bucolic setting. Fairy tales are right: Scary things do hide behind trees (no matter how beautiful the leaves are); there is something waiting under the surface of that still lake. We all know this, deep down.

Also, when Mari's parents start rigging their house for revenge, you just want to hug them; not only is it cathartic, but they are so satisfyingly competent! How I admire movie characters who have a clear plan. I wanted to match this couple up against the mewling, puking pair from Ils.... Dr. and Mrs. Collingwood would've had those hooded home invaders up against the wall in no time, bellowing "And tuck your shirts in, you damn kids!"

And then there's the bizarrely incongruous folk soundtrack -- I counted four tracks that were borrowed by Eli Roth for my beloved "Cabin Fever" -- and the deranged slapstick antics from the incompetent local law enforcement, who seem to have wandered in from another movie. It all adds up to a big bizarre gorgeous raw mess of a movie. When it was over I had one more glass of wine just to celebrate. Then I watched it again.

Edited to add: Arbogast has an interesting essay arguing that the movie is an unintentional blood libel. After watching the movie I'm not sure I buy it, but it's still a good read. Happy Passover!


CWL said...

I need to read your blog more often (and less often on rum nights). LAST HOUSE is one of my favorite horror/exploitation films. Nothing else touches it in terms of construction and misanthropy and confusion! More than anything, I adore and amore the "incongruous" elements (to borrow your phrase). There are Hee-Haw-esque comedy scenes wedged between the worst depictions of degradation ever. It's almost like the film TURNS ON the viewer (in the rapid dog sense, not the Shannon Tweed sense). CABIN FEVER also incorporates that sense of safely-corny comedy/AGRESSIVE DISTURBANCE dichotomy. I wish I were sober enough to talk fancily at length about this film. As it stands, I shall have to wrap up with my desire to form a band called Sex Crime of the Century and play horror soundtrack material at horror cons. <3 your blog, as ever!

AE said...

Thanks, babe! Yes, those hairpin twists of mood really made the movie work for me too, somehow. Maybe it requires insanely broad slapstick to relieve such extreme tension. To me the incongruity just underscores the found-object weirdness of the movie... you just think "my God, these people had NO idea what they were doing, and yet this is awesome."

Cabin Fever is one of my favorite horror movies (I was just listening to the soundtrack in my car today!) and yeah, it does have that same horror/comedy thing; so much more polished, though, but it still works.

Thanks for reading! I <3 your blog too. :)