I’ve made no secret of my love of Wes Craven – in particular, his Nightmare on Elm Street films. It’s worth remembering two important life lessons when considering the canonization of Craven, however: first, that where an artist begins is not necessarily an indicator of where they’ll end up, artistically, and second, that even our creative heroes have their bad days, off moments, and plain, good old-fashioned failures. Both of these lessons came to mind recently when I re-watched (for the first time in a long time) Wes Craven’s 1972 debut as writer-director: a financially lucrative but artistically utterly bankrupt little pile of excrement called The Last House on the Left.
Now, Last House is widely regarded as a “classic” of modern horror, a precursor to slasher films and a flawed but gutsy debut from Craven. I leave it to admirers of the emperor’s new clothes like Roger Ebert to make that case: frankly, I found no redeeming value in Last House, but my objections are only based in part on its graphic sexual violence and treatment of women.
People often think of Wes Craven as a figure from the 1980s, but Craven was already over 30 years old when he made Last House in 1972 – and it shows, in everything from the film’s all-permeating paternalistic moralism to its portrayal of the criminal family at its center. Just as the mere existence of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first film role (Hercules in New York) begs the question of how the hell he ever landed a second one, so too does Craven’s first foray as writer-director make me wonder what sort of Faustian bargain he struck to ever be handed a film again. That last is a half-truth, actually: I have a fairly good idea of how Craven continued. Last House made millions of dollars on a budget of less than a hundred thousand smackers. That’s not a bad return on investment, lack of artistic merit notwithstanding.
The truly jarring thing about Last House is not its violence nor its misogyny. It’s the jaw-dropping tonal shifts, often signaled by an original song from the soundtrack, provided by one of the films’ actors, David Hess. Kidnappings are accompanied by a truly inexcusable and wacky ragtime tune, a brutal rape is set to a soothing ballad, and scenes of menace are routinely intercut with scenes of slapstick humor or incongruous, cheery cheesiness. Craven edited the film in addition to writing and directing it, which removes any doubt as to whom we can really pin this obscene juxtaposition on. By the way, my favorite detail of the making of Last House? Wes Craven hated that title. He wanted to call the project The Sex Crime of the Century. I’m not making that up.
What innovations does Last House offer to compensate for this gross, clumsy nonsense? None that I could spot. It has neither the raw, punk rock intensity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, nor even the gritty, nightmarish feel of Craven’s far superior 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes. Craven’s later films would more than make up for his inauspicious beginning, and he reinvented horror cinema not once but multiple times (with Nightmare on Elm Street, with Scream, etc.). Where he started was certainly no indicator of where he wound up; but loving Wes Craven’s later work does not mean making excuses for something as god awful as Last House on the Left. Sometimes a sacred cow badly needs a mercy killing.