I am not normally a fan of the horror genre. My favorite works in the genre tend to come from the silent era, and from the filmmaking school of German Expressionism in particular. I admire the stylistic boldness of the Universal horror films that came out of Hollywood in the 1930s, and of course the atmospheric brilliance of the Val Lewton pictures.
Perhaps because I am so hard to please when it comes to horror films, I feel a certain heightened appreciation for those that do move me. George Romero's work, particularly "Night of the Living Dead", is one such film, as is Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chain Saw Massacre". While I hardly make a case for these films as much more than well-made entertainment, they at least hold up as that.
I recently sought out Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left", after hearing that it was inspired by one of my favorite films, "The Virgin Spring" by Ingmar Bergman. I found this fascinating, not just to see what a master of the horror genre such as Craven would do with the story, but also because it serves as a great reminder how in the early 70s, directors like Craven weren't ripping off Hollywood hits in an attempt to imitate what sold at the mall cinemas. Instead, they turned to the exciting work coming out of Europe, and applied it to uniquely American genres such as the slasher film (a term which, while it didn't exist at the time as a genre label, could certainly describe the early films of Craven, Hooper, etc.)
I didn't quite know what to expect, but I was quite affected by the horrific images in this film. The plot involves two girls on their way to a concert in Manhattan, and get kidnapped by a gang of truly vicious and sick killers. They torture, rape and murder the girls, and fleeing the scene of their crime, just happen to come across the home where the parents of one of the girls live. When the parents realize who their house guests are, they go about seeking the most brutal revenge possible.
What automatically struck me about the film was its grainy, documentary look. This adds tremendously to the sense of genuine panic which sets in quite early on in this film. There are numerous scenes that cross all boundaries of what one would expect to be the limit of graphic violence, even in a film like this. It's difficult to imagine a film even remotely like this being made today. Sure, there would be a few moments of gruesomeness like we see here, but it would contain nowhere near the sheer pervasiveness of grotesqueness through the entire film.
Like many independent films of this period, the filmmaking style is naturally quite rough. It's important to remember just how much money a film like this cost to make in 1972. With digital equipment, it would be quite easy, in the purely technical sense, today. But it was the vision of directors like Craven, Carpenter, Hooper, Romero and Cronenberg (in Canada) that led to huge strides made in genre throughout the next decade. The rough filmmaking technique works to the advantage of this film.
Interestingly, the film was financed by the distributor who needed a second feature to play with the more expensive "A" picture in Manhattan grindhouses. When you think of the opportunity that directors like Craven had to get their films made and distributed, it's really quite remarkable.