Wes Craven’s debut has gone down in infamy as one of the most gruesome films in the horror genre. Last House on The Left pre-dated the modern slasher and set a standard in grindhouse cinema. Intended to be a commentary on the violence in media surrounding the Vietnam War, the outrage sparked almost destroyed Craven’s career before it began. Bizarrely, the controversy was the driving force in ticket sales at theaters and drive-ins.
While the moral value of Last House is still debated to this day, it continues to serve as a grim warning to blossoming youth.
My mother graduated in 1972 and embarked on a life beyond the disapproving gaze of her god-fearing parents. Openly admitting to hitch-hiking to anti-war demonstrations, she recalls meeting a young man in the late summer requesting a date. Slightly older and handsome, she referred to him as a “fly by night” boyfriend. My mom would agree to an evening at the Highway 2 & 65 Drive-In in Corydon, Iowa for a double feature.
Little is recalled of the first movie, due in part to trying marijuana for the first time. The drive-in’s second feature would be a different story. Wes Craven’s Last House on The Left, supposedly based on a true story, would invoke a terror in my mother, too gruesome to look away from the screen. Scenes of torture and humiliation would haunt her dreams for decades, leaving an impact that led her to rethink choices made as a young adult with their first taste of freedom.
The gritty viscera of Last House on The Left — rape, violence and all — follows Mari Collingwood on her 17th birthday. With her gal pal, Phyllis, she travels to the city to attend a rock concert. Trying to score some “grass” before the show, the girls approach a lonely looking hippie, completely unaware that he’s a strung-out errand boy for a gang of serial killers who just escaped from prison. Captured and tortured (to say the least), Mari realizes she is just a short distance from her own front door. There her parents await her return, having planned a surprise birthday party for their daughter.
Wes Craven developed Last House with Sean S. Cunningham, who would later go on to produce Friday the 13th. The film was shot “guerilla-style”, bringing a documentary quality that blurred the lines of reality and fiction. This disorientation for the audience would spawn promotional taglines like “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie’…”.
Craven would play up the shock factor by intercutting the confrontational gore with inappropriate slapstick scenes of bumbling police. Barely skirting by with an R rating after numerous cuts, the film was never released in Australia and outright banned in the U.K. Rumors circulated of projectionists cutting up film reels and even audience members stealing copies to be destroyed. This resulted in many different versions of Last House existing with lost or rare scenes.
A Horror Fan Is Born
The tender buds of my own puberty had blossomed in the mid-90s, and I was devastated. The chrysalis between a feral child rolling in the dirt to a teenage Frankenstein was traumatic.
I found comfort in horror films, observing victims of the supernatural and relating to monsters. Becoming a regular of the horror aisle at the local video store, I’d arrive with parental notes giving permission to rent another R-rated tape. Blessed with folks that took interest in my hobby, dad and I would watch creature features on Saturday. My mom would take me to the movies for some milder horror cinema like The Blair Witch Project or the time we incorrectly assumed Dusk Till Dawn was a heist movie.
During conversations about the genre, she’d reference a film that had traumatized her the most. More than Deliverance or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the flick that had altered her perception of the world was the “true story” of Last House on The Left. Unable to describe the horrors of the real world, mom believed it was best if I viewed this movie myself as a warning of the dangers that lie beyond my rural hometown.
Tracking It Down
Not surprisingly, the family-owned video store did not carry a copy of the rape focused Last House. So we went to the video stores in the city: Blockbuster, Family Video, and even Suncoast at the mall. Who knew the controversial film would be so inaccessible in the Bible Belt?
It would end up being a thrift store outside of Des Moines that would lead us in the right direction. A box of donated magazines would introduce me to the last breaths of underground tape trading. The classifieds of Fangoria, Midnight Video catalogs, and stacks of tattered fanzines gave a brief glimpse into this dying fan system of bootleg circulation. By then most of the heavy weights had moved online, though some still offered PO Boxes to send a few bucks for a list of what was available.
My mom decided to write a letter to Shawn Lewis of Blackest Heart Media, the independent publishing roots of RottenCotten and Eibon Press. While Blackest Heart mostly dealt in comics, soundtracks, and T-shirts, they did still sell tapes. I think we might have paid a $12 money order and waited about 6 weeks before the tape arrived. The VHS cassette had a very plain black label on a white background that read in all capital letters “Last House On The Left.”
There was an ominous seriousness about it. Lewis had sold us one of the more complete versions to exist at the time. A bootleg from Japan with subtitles burned into the bottom. Our private mother-daughter screening was as solemn as a funeral. It was more traumatic than the birds-and-bees talk years prior, and I didn’t sleep well for a while.
As years went on, I would share the VHS with cousins and certain friends. Late night horror-thrills with a full disclaimer before pressing the play button. Those that sat through Craven’s debut in its entirety would become grim and unwilling to discuss scenes after. I recall one male friend asking, “Your mom let you watch that movie?”
Horror Nerds of The Future
There are still specific scenes from Last House on The Left that have stayed with me after all this time. It has been well over 15 years since I’ve watched the original, with no desire to do so in the immediate future.
I can’t say if the film’s message conveyed any kind of natural instinct within me to avoid danger. I still made many stupid decisions that should have left me as a cold case file. Last House was a rite of passage, not one of survival but a precursor to evolving my horror fandom. The World Wide Web connected gore hounds from around the globe and made the rarest video nasties more accessible, but it also sucked a lot of the fun out of collecting. Blogs and news feeds have replaced fanzines and word of mouth. Bootleg VHS trade continues to limp along but only as a nostalgic hobby to preserve the rich history of horror nerds for the next generation.
Last House on The Left celebrates its 50th anniversary August 30th 2022.
Last Updated on April 27, 2022.