The problem with The Last House on the Left, despite it being loosely based on the Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring (a fact you can throw around if you feel guilty and need to defend this movie in a conversation), is that it's perhaps too successful in its exploitative intentions. It pushed the envelope of taste to the extreme, particularly for its time, and even today in the age of prime time autopsies and torture-based box office hits, it's the crudest and rudest rape/murder/revenge exploitation movie I've seen. The legend, which is oft told in DVD featurettes, is that it had kids vomiting in their seats when it was in theaters.
Sean Cunningham, who went on (with more than a little influence from Mario Bava's Bay of Blood) to define the slasher genre with Friday the 13th franchise, and Wes Craven, who fairly recently redefined that genre by populating a film with characters well versed in classic horror movie tropes and created the extremely imaginative Nightmare on Elm Street series (probably the most influential thing to me as a kid, and what made me want to grow up to make horror movies) met each other and made this film long before they really knew what they were doing. And it shows.
The tone of the movie is part Lassie, mixed with low budget porn, and there's definitly a health class movie vibe. The DVD transfer is about as good as the wobbly VHS I first saw eight years ago, but then again, a crisp picture and high fidelity audio don't always do a horror movie good. In my some of my favorites, like Martin and Let's Scare Jessica to Death, a sort of amaturish grit and soiled realism only make them more eerie; Last House on the Left benefits from its unskilled hand. When the murderers are sitting around their grimy apartment, you can almost feel the stains and smells. It is indeed the last place two “teens” (the actresses are clearly a good ten years older than their characters, which makes one scene where Mari talks excitedly about how her boobs have filled out since last summer especially odd) would want to be stuck.
The film is all about juxtaposition (another word you can use if someone accuses you of being a total asshole for liking this movie). The music, which seems to have been done by a severe schizophrenic, is goofy and Beverly Hillybillies-esque and feels terribly off on top of a scene where the killers have two young girls in the trunk of their car. When things get violent–and they do, for a long, drawn out squirm-inducing time–scenes of brutality (with I might add include blood that looks too real) are contrasted with hunky dory scenes of Mari's parents making a birthday cake and the local bumbling cops farting around.
After the killers have finished with the girls, in a wicked twist of fate they end up having to stop for the night at Mari's parents house; the revenge portion of the film commences and you get the feeling that they were once contestants on Double Dare with the elaborate shaving cream and electrocution set-ups they stage to enact their vengeance. At the same time, when it's their turn to commit violence, violence that the audience will surely crave after watching the previous two thirds of the film, I feel the parents get short changed and the movie ends without complete satisfaction.
I'm not going to lie, the violence is very snuff-like. It's not fun and mindless like most slasher movies tend to be, a complaint which is itself an odd thing: why is it worse for on-screen violence to be shocking and sickening? Is it better than making murder into an entertainment that no longer phases us? I guess that's an argument that could go on and on, but the truth is that I doubt Craven and Cunningham were really considering either side of it. They created, for better or worse, a highly effective exploitation film that is just too good at being bad.