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I’ll never forget the first time I saw Last House on the Left. I was a junior in college and had just started getting really interested in the horror genre. The course offered on the subject soon became my favorite class. Out of all the movies screened, Last House on the Left was by far the most terrifying. Known for its famous tagline, “to avoid fainting, keep repeating: ‘It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…’” Last House on the Left is more than just a scare-fest, arguably one of the most important films of the 1970s, offering a bleak and brutal depiction of the American family during the Vietnam War.
Wes Craven’s debut film starts off with two free-loving girls from the sticks, Mari (Sandra Peabody) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), who are on their way to a rock concert in the city, but stop off to get some weed before the show. They encounter the Stillo family—Junior; his father, Krug; Krug’s girlfriend, Sadie; and Krug’s partner, Weasel—who decide to kidnap, rape, and torture the two girls. After being brutalized for hours, Phyllis decides to make a run for it. The audience roots for Phyllis as she runs towards freedom, leading Weasel and Sadie on a chase through the woods while Mari bargains with the weak-willed Junior to let her go. At this point, the audience has been watching these girls get brutally beaten, sexually abused and tortured for last half hour. Sadie catches Phyllis and Phyllis fights desperately to get away. Set to the score of a heartbeat, Phyllis finally see hope in the form of the graveyard, which lies just in front of the main road. As Phyllis heads for safety, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. We start to relax until…
Out of nowhere and straight into the frame, comes Krug’s forearm, brandishing a machete to stop Phyllis right in her tracks. It’s a “startle” moment right out of an old Val Lewton horror movie. The surprise makes the shot all the more terrifying. The audience is so emotionally invested in Phyllis and Mari’s escape from these monsters; we’re devastated as all the hope is drained out of the movie in a single shot.It’s excruciating to watch the group close on Phyllis. Craven, already showing a mastery of his craft, takes his time with the blocking, letting the cruel Stillos slowly surround her to the chorus of cars whizzing by on the highway. Bleak, violent, disturbing and unrelenting, Last House on the Left is required viewing for any budding horror aficionado or cinephile.