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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October 30, 2013: Symbolic Scares: Last House on the Left

[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Add your spooooooky thoughts, please!]
On the horror film that’s more disturbing in what it makes us cheer for than how it makes us scream.
The Last House on the Left (1972) was Wes Craven’s directorial debut, as well as one of the only films that he wrote and edited as well as directed (although it was at least partly based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring [1960], as Craven has admitted). But despite launching one of the late 20th century’s most significant horror talents, Last House is far less well known than Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series, or even (I would argue) his other prominent early film, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Partly that’s because Last House feels extremely raw in execution, the product of a talent still figuring out much of what he could do; but partly it’s because it also feels raw in another and more troubling way, one that makes us more deeply uncomfortable than horror films generally do.
That rawness is most obviously comprised by the extended and very graphic abduction, rape, and murder sequence that opens the film—a sequence that feels less like horror than like cinema verité of an extremely disturbing kind. But even more raw, both in its emotional brutality and in the places it takes the audience, is the film’s culminating sequence, in which the killers find themselves in the home of the parents of one of the murdered girls—and the audience finds itself rooting for those parents to take the bloodiest and most violent revenge possible on these psychopaths. I suppose it’s possible to argue that we’re not meant to root in that way, or that we’re meant to feel conflicted about these ordinary and good people turning into vengeful monsters—but to be honest, any audience that has watched the film’s opening seems to me to be primed instead to cheer as the killers get their violent comeuppance, even—perhaps especially—if it requires this transformation of grieving parents into their own terrifying kind of killers.
To be clear, if we do find ourselves cheering for the parents, we’re doing so not just because of how Craven’s film has guided us there. We’re also taking the next step in what I called, in this post on the comic book hero The Punisher, the long history of vigilante heroes in American culture; and perhaps at the same time living vicariously the most potent (if extra-legal) arguments for the death penalty. Yet the rawness of Craven’s film, whether intended or simply a result of its stage in his career, serves one additional and crucial symbolic purpose: it reminds us that vigilante justice and executions, however deserved they might feel, are also grotesque and horrifying, as difficult to watch as they are to justify when the heat of the moment has cooled off. Last House is scarier for what it reveals in ourselves than for anything that’s on screen—but what’s on screen can also help us examine that side of ourselves honestly, and that’s a pretty important effect.
Next scary story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?

3 comments:

  1. A short note of potential interest: I Spit on Your Grave is talked about significantly less (and remembered far less as well) as far as rape and revenge horror movies go. Is it the simple matter of its content barring it from being distributed as widely? Or is the lack of a familial reaction to the brutal events of the film the piece that is missing? I've thought about it briefly in the past myself, this triggered it again. Worth a thought.

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  2. Good questions, Dan. I haven't seen *Spit*, so I can't speak to it specifically; but I know it's been called one of the most distasteful films of all time (by Roger Ebert, anyway). So I think the perception is that it's even worse in those ways, but perhaps that fits into the narratives rather than the realities.

    Ben

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  3. Well off of the horror track, but well on the vigilante justice track, this post, and your observations of the film's form remind me of *The Outlaw Josey Wales* or *Hang 'Em High*. Two of Eastwood's finest films, each of them begins with a terrifying sequence in which the protagonist is wronged (family murdered in the former, attempted murder in the latter), and the audience spends the rest of the film rooting for him to have his bloody revenge. How thin is this line between hero and villain? The same actions can elicit polarized responses based on how we culturally read the context. This is why I love Eastwood's work, because he explores these things, delves into those uncomfortable areas. The iconic vision of him in culture, whether as a cowboy or a rogue cop, is an idolization of a murderer.

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