There is no such miracle at the end of The Last House on the Left. In a godless world without redemption, it includes no struggle with faith. Instead, the senseless evil inspires just more senseless evil, adding up to a nihilism that invites no happy endings. The movie contrasts the savage, criminal gang with a bourgeois civilized family and reveals that they have more in common than you think. The marauding criminals begin as a kind of parody of a parent’s worst nightmare, but in these early scenes, Craven makes a point of showing us the dynamics within the gang to humanize them. He generates a sneaky sympathy for the killers.
The movie ends with more of a question mark than an exclamation point. We are left wondering what exactly the director was trying to say. Night of the Living Dead, the singularly influential zombie movie, which opened in 1968, is about a survivor battling hordes of zombies and ends on a note of existential defeat. What made Rosemary’s Baby, which opened the same year, such a radical break from the past was that unlike almost every other film about the battle with the devil, it has no fight to the finish at the end. Who knows what happens to the survivors of the zombie attack or to Rosemary after the movies end? What connects Last House to the terror of Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby is moral ambiguity. That point is made emphatically in the final scene.
Once they discover the terrible crime, the Collingwoods, the victim’s parents, do not do the civilized thing and call the police to arrest the killers. Instead they take the law into their own hands, attacking and killing each member of the gang in increasingly brutal ways. A character is slashed to death by an electric boat fan. One of the most humiliating scenes in The Last House on the Left features the victim’s mother, played by Cynthia Carr, castrating one of the killers while giving him a blow job. (Carr had it written into her contract that she would not actually have to perform fellatio on-screen.)
The movie winds down to the climactic face-off between Krug and the victim’s father, the battle of the patriarchs. Craven imagined Krug would be killed with a scalpel, since the father was a doctor. Cunningham disagreed. With perfect exploitation instincts, he insisted on a chain saw; this was two years before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. After killing Krug, the father slumps to the ground, stunned, shocked at the extent to which he has gone to avenge the death of his daughter. If the movie appears to invite the audience to revel in vigilante justice, this final shot, according to Craven, complicates it. The respectable parents have become what they most despise. The insanity of the criminal family is not so different from that found in the normal one. The original script of Last House starts with this quote from Yoko Ono: “Violence is just one of those feelings that come when you’re unable to communicate. Art is communication.”
Most audiences who first saw this movie thought they were going to see a trashy good time, a few dead bodies to laugh at. But they discovered a movie that was very difficult to enjoy without guilt. To Craven, the revenge at the end of Last House is designed to leave audiences disgusted, not exhilarated. It is the reverse of the morally cleansing conclusion of The Virgin Spring. The revenge is evidence that we all have a savage side and there is nothing to learn from it other than violence begets more violence. Not everyone bought this interpretation.
Most critics saw this violence as merely appealing to the basest dreams of teenage male thrill seekers. Part of the reason for this tension lies in how the movie was made. Cunningham thought it was too angry, disturbing and difficult to enjoy. Horror, to him, is “a roller-coaster ride.” When you design a roller coaster, you want something sturdy, tested and reliable. It has to scare people but not so much that they won’t feel safe. “In Craven’s mind, the parents had become that which they were trying to eradicate,” Cunningham says. “I’m not so sure. I think for most people it was just revenge.”
Cunningham was concerned about exhibitors rejecting the movie. When it started getting picked up by theaters, moving from city to city in short runs, he tried to cut out some of the more disturbing scenes to satisfy local theaters unhappy about the content of the movie. “Sean had very different opinions about the movie in general,” Craven says. “Once it was made, Sean thought it was disgusting and that we shouldn’t have done it.”
Craven stood by the film, defending it among friends. But he wasn’t always sure of himself. “It’s not an easy place to be—to write a horror film,” he says. “It’s hard. You go down the stairs to the dark to find these characters. It’s not a place that anyone can go, and sometimes it’s not a place that you want to go.” More than any other director of the era, Craven returned to this dark basement again and again, not just kicking off his career in horror but building one in it.
In later decades he made movies that challenged and expanded the genre, pushing it further into the mainstream with the help of a self-aware comic sensibility. In large part due to the imagination of Wes Craven, the horror film has become respectable.
But Craven has always maintained his sense of himself as an outsider, even when he no longer is one. He is quick to tell stories about being shouted at during cocktail parties for making detestable films and being derided by family members. And when I ask him about how he revolutionized the genre, he sighs, surrounded by posters of his movies in his spacious office in Studio City, Los Angeles. “All I am doing,” he says, “is rearranging the curtains in the insane asylum.”
From Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, by Jason Zinoman, available from the Penguin Press in July.