Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Last House On the Left. Effective? Yes. Important? No.

By Lars Trodson

I’m not sure where the notion that the original “The Last House On the Left” is an important document. It’s been described that way. I think it’s an effective, grisly piece of cinema, but really, the writing is crappy and the acting is, across the board, not much better. It has no technique. So: important? Why?

We’ve kind of gotten to the point where effective PR has allowed almost anyone, anywhere, describe themselves as a pioneer of whatever field they happened to be in if they happened to do it before 1980.

I suppose “The Last House On the Left” (from 1972) has the courage of its convictions, but that’s really more a function of luck than artistic vision. I am sure that Alfred Hitchcock would have tortured Marion Crane in “Psycho” (1960) longer and more lovingly than he did if the censors had allowed it. But they wouldn’t and so he, and every other filmmaker, had to wait for loosening rules and expanding horizons for the opportunity to bring explicit violence to the screen.

So I think Wes Craven just had an opportunity and being a talented guy he pulled it off. When a critic like Roger Ebert says that the original “Last House” knocked back audiences “on their psychic heels” I think that has more to do with the attenuated scenes of awful violence than it does with any kind of insight as to why human beings can be so dreadful.

But by 1972 audiences also had already seen “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “Get Carter” and “The Wild Bunch.” Sex magazines and movies were moving above-ground, too, and movie-goers in certain neighborhoods could already have seen Andy Warhol’s “Blow Job” and Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising.” This doesn’t even cover the many examples of their counter-cultural counterpart, the drug movie. Witness “The Trip” and “Easy Rider” and your other biker movies and you have the sense that both audiences and filmmakers were ready to take all of this a step further.

So Wes Craven took all the hard-earned controversy of these films and piggy-backed on it. Good for him. But he didn’t pioneer anything. He didn’t invent a genre, and he didn’t change the face of the movies.

Now that “Last House” has been remade -- it was just released on Friday the 13th, there is once again an attempt to elevate its lowly intentions by constantly mentioning that the movie is based on the same 13th century Swedish poem that Ingmar Bergman based “The Virgin Spring” on. I suppose this is supposed to give the movie some sort of pedigree. But what does it mean and what does it matter? Will it make you feel any better?

I was never opposed to slasher movies, or torture porn, or whatever you want to call it. Movie violence doesn’t bother me, but over the course of the past few years I’ve been less and less interested in it. I admired Rob Zombie’s first two films but did not understand his “Halloween” reboot. I thought both “Hostel” movies beyond idiotic, especially the idea of Eli Roth’s parents (in the special features) offering some bubblegum-card reasoning why watching torture has always been part of entertainment. That was pretty comical.

And then I watched a movie called “Wolf Creek”, which, to me, was unrelentingly brutal. There was a scene where the murderer shoots one of the girls by the side of the road. I can hardly remember the circumstances, but it was at that moment I wondered why I, or anyone else, would consider this kind of thing entertainment. I felt repulsed and saddened at the same time -- people really have been taken to the side of a road somewhere and shot, and think for a second about the real horror and senselessness of that. Where is the entertainment in that?

I have seen enough of this kind of violence for one lifetime, and I don’t want to see it any more.


For the record, here’s the old Swedish ballad that Bergman used as his inspiration for “The Virgin Spring.”

In the end, you will see, the avenging parents let one of the murderers live, so he could help the grieving father build a church over the space where the young girls were murdered.

Pehr Tyrsson's daughters in Vänge
Their forest was cold

They slept a sleep too long

While the leaves appear on the trees

The youngest one woke up first

Their forest...

And so she woke up the others.

While the leaves...

- Then they sat up on their beds.
So they braided each other's locks.

So they put on their silken clothes.

So they went to the church.

But when they came to the pastures of Vänge
They met three herdsmen
- Either you will be the wives of herdsmen

Or would you lose your young lives?
- We do not want to be the wives of herdsmen.
We would rather lose our young lives.

They cut off their heads on a log of birch.

And so three wells appeared.

The bodies were buried in the mud.

The clothes were carried to the village.

When they came to the estate of Vänge,
Lady Karin met them outdoors
-And would you buy silken robes

That nine maidens have knitted and stitched?

Untie your sacks and let me see,

Maybe I will know all three of them Lady Karin beat herself on the chest,
She went up to Pehr Tyreson

- There are three herdsmen on our courtyard,

They have slain our daughters.
Pehr Tyrsson grasped his sword,
He slew the two eldest ones.

The third one he let live
Until he could ask him:
- What is your father's name?

What is your mother's name?

- Our father is Pehr Tyrsson in Vänge;

Our mother is Lady Karin in Skränge

Per Tyrson goes to the smithy
He had iron crafted around his waist
- What shall we do for our sins?

- We shall build a church of lime and stone.
- The church will be named Kerna

We are fain to build it.