Friday, January 2, 2015


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

Before saying anything about Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, I should note that it's not my intention to credit the writer-director with every creative act that made it to celluloid. The 2009 release of HOUSE, ballyhooed as "uncut," contains copious remarks from actors alleging that they ad-libbed many of their dialogue-lines. Thus, when I credit Craven with this or that aspect of HOUSE, I do so with the sentiment that everything done under Craven's aegis became incorporated into his overall product.

I also class this horror-film as an "irony" rather than a "drama," given that it ends not just in a downbeat manner, but with the sense that all goodness and virtue has departed from the world. David Hess' song "Now You're All Alone" has a rather upbeat conclusion. But in the film there is no promise of recovery, and for Mari the song-- which is played after she's been raped by Krug-- might as well have ended with its eighth line.

Now you're all alone...
Feeling like nobody loves you...
And looking for someone to hold your hand...
Someone who understands...
Now you­'re all by yourself...
And you're feeling the world closing on you. 
And you're asking for someone 
To show they care. 

Even before any of the film's bizarre crimes have transpired onscreen, the first half-hour is crammed with the script's knowing rejections of escapist fantasies.  Sixteen-year-old Mari Collingwood tells her parents that she's meeting with friend Phyllis Stone to see the band Bloodlust, and father John asks, "Aren't you supposed to be the love generation?"  Then Mari's mother Estelle gives her static about going bra-less, and Mari spiritedly defends her choice, as against the deceptiveness of Estelle's generation, which went around in brassieres with "torpedo tits." Mari's parents also criticize her choice in friends, in that Mari belongs to the upper middle class (John is a wealthy doctor) while Phyllis is lower-middle at best, given that for a living she tends to horses, traditionally the property of wealthy people. They clearly find Mari's friend gauche if not outright trashy: John remarks that her name sounds like "Frankenstein," though it's more likely Craven patterned the name on "Philistine." Yet, for all their class-ism, the Collingwoods are essentially a likable family.

Mari, for her part, is just as rooted in her own convenient fantasies. She describes to Phyllis a fantasy of having her first sexual encounter with one of the Bloodlust players, likening the experience to being enfolded in cotton. Phyllis, the lower-class girl, laughs at this naive womb-fantasy (my term). Yet the two of them are both still middle-class girls attempting to walk on the wild side without much wisdom. They never make it to the concert because they get the bright idea to score some marijuana from the first shifty-looking dude they meet on the bad side of town.

Prior to this meeting, the viewer meets another "family," formed of three escaped convicts and the woman who helped them escape. All four-- Krug, Junior, Weasel and Sadie-- are mad dog criminals with a specialty for sexual crimes (hence the film's early title, SEX CRIME OF THE CENTURY). Krug, we are told via a radio update, hooked his own son Junior on heroine in order to better manipulate him. That control is not absolute: in their hideout-- also somewhere in that "bad side of town"--  Junior gets a little handsy with Sadie. Krug views the only woman in the gang as his exclusive property. Was Craven remembering Freud's thesis of the "sex-hoarding father" from TOTEM AND TABOO? Yet judging from the dialogue, Krug has also made some vague promise about sharing the "wealth," because Sadie is adamant that she's not going to be the punch-board for all three of them. She wants more women in the gang to take up the slack, despite Krug's demand that she should take pleasure in being the inferior sex. Strangely, though we know that all four have committed heinous crimes, Craven still gives them dumb little human touches, as when Sadie warbles "Singin' in the Rain."

Enter Mari and Phyllis, who make the mistake of approaching Junior. In no time they've been abducted into a new family, and off go Krug and Company, tooling down the road in their auto, two girls in the trunk, while the soundtrack plays a jaunty "Bonnie and Clyde" style theme.  During that trip Weasel makes it clear to the audience that the new inductees are not going to be family-members for long, as he ponders the historical question: "what the meanest, foulest, rottenest, raunchiest sex crime ever was." Sadie takes a direct shot at the aforementioned father of psychology, Sigmund "Frood," in that Sadie blames him for making everyone sex-crazed. (I'd consider this a verification of a Freudian theme in Craven's work if I didn't think the line sounded like an actor's ad-lib.)

When the criminals' car breaks down, they're forced to foot it through the surrounding forests with their captives-- which makes it more likely for the girls to seek escape and for the scumbags to take bloody vengeance. Weasel's remark makes it sound as if he cherishes some notoriety for becoming the world's greatest sex criminals, but if this does cross his mind, he doesn't really have the capacity to carry out any concerted Sadean crimes. Of the four, Krug usually comes up with the bizarre grotesqueries I mentioned here, the darker crimes that make HOUSE a horror-film rather than a naturalistic thriller. The fact that he carries around a small machete, in contrast to the ordinary knife wielded by Weasel, marks him as a minor ancestor to the later slasher-monsters. Bonus features on the 2009 DVD mention that the original Craven script contained atrocities never committed to film, such as slicing off a piece of one captive's breast.

Phyllis, more defiant than Mari, takes the worst treatment at first, but she's killed after an attempt at escape. Mari does come up with one insightful application of her "summer of love" mentality: she briefly convinces the badly treated Junior to help her escape by giving him a more spiritual name and promising him a methadone treatment. Even this hippie idealism is tainted by irony, for Mari renames Junior "Willow" because he's always shaking from heroine withdrawal.

Mari's death is thematically tied to Craven's reputed inspiration, Bergman's 1960 THE VIRGIN SPRING. The remainder of the film-- in which the killers accidentally stumble into the clutches of Mari's parents-- follows that source faithfully, though Craven makes more use of diabolical traps, much like those used by Freddy Krueger's nemesis Nancy in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
Since Craven doesn't want the parents' vengeance to have an empowering effect, it too has the same ironic cast as the crimes of the Krug family.  Perhaps for that reason, I find the film's climax the least interesting section. It does have some gems, though. As if to keep audiences from taking the film's class distinctions too seriously, Krug take a potshot at their hosts' wealth by rather stupidly observing that "people in China gotta eat with sticks."  And Junior pays a terrible price for rebelling against his unrepentant sire.

Craven states on the DVD that making HOUSE was like unleashing all the nastiness he'd been taught to repress by his Baptist upbringing.  What makes HOUSE most valuable, though, is not just the degree to which he exorcises his demons, but the ways in which he makes those fiends upend shallow beliefs in goodness and beauty-- and not merely those of the "love generation," but of all generations.

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