[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. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on a very scary disease, past and present.]
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 , as Craven has happily admitted). But despite launching one of the late 20th and early 21st 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,
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?