Thursday, March 18, 2010

Last House, Last Chance

I come home just after 9:30, my evening’s rehearsal behind me, and my St. Patty’s Day pint inside. The holiday seems a good excuse to watch a movie. I consider the newly arrived 2001: A Space Odyssey, but at over two-and-a-half hours it is much too long, and such an engagement ill befits the intent to relax. There is Last House on the Left, less than 90 minutes, which had been gathering dust in my room for several weeks now; a better match by far. The jacket describes it as a “cult horror favorite,” which is about right. I had read some disparaging words about it—I think Stephen King may have had some harsh words for it—but I had also gleaned its classic status. Surely the debut of one of horror’s most recognizable names, Wes Craven, should have something to offer.

So I start the disc up on my Playstation 2, in my bedroom instead of the living room. This will save me the trouble of explaining to my mother should she come the story of two parents seeking bloody revenge on the men (and woman, it turns out) who raped and murdered her daughter.

The beginning of the film is a disclaimer, that the events depicted are true, that the names have been changed to protect the survivors. This is almost certainly a lie, but that's immaterial. The point is to plant in the audience's mind the seeds of plausibility, a trick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would put to astonishing use only a couple years later. We move on to the first images of the film, a forest and pond. This is disconcerting, but unintentionally so, the product of ugly film stock. Again we can look to TCM for comparison, for in that film the ugly cinematography--carefully done to maximize the Texan desert's bleakness--enhances the mood of the film. Here the film is ugly by way of a distracting cheapness.

Then there are the titles, portentous: “A Sean S. Cunningham production.” Whatever significance this may have had in 1972, for anyone seeing the movie after Friday the 13th proved you didn’t need talent to make millions of dollars, it serves as a warning for cheap exploitation, one the film quickly proves well-founded.

The first person we meet is a nonentity, a postman who can apparently summon pint-sized dogs into his car at will, and whose only purpose is to inform us that Mari—who is such an important protagonist that her name is the only one that adorns her family’s mailbox—is seventeen. Depending on your scruples, this either enhances or deflates the subsequent shower scene. There is, initially, a tantalizing grasp at artistry; we see Mari from behind the bathtub’s sliding glass door, which is patterned like large fish scales such that it blurs her image to something akin to a Van Gogh painting. But then she steps out in full view, and in front of the mirror, so we can ogle her breasts at different angles without moving the camera, a merciful act. The camerawork that abhors scene-setting and is made doubly bad by the wretched cinematography. At no point is one allowed to forget this is schlock. It even appears as graffiti in the background of a scene. An artistic exercise in ironic self-deprecation, perhaps? No, Wes Craven would not mine that territory for another three decades, but that helps justify the experience, so I’ll pretend it is.

The dialogue is perfunctory. Mari is a hippie that’s into, apparently and inexplicably, some death metal precursor band (it has a gloomy name that eludes me). We know this because her parents tell us, not because we hear the band. Also, Mari’s “tits” came in last summer. Also also, one of the murderers/rapists wishes he was a frog. The woman among them pronounces Freud as ‘Frood.’ Because she’s an uneducated lowlife, ya see?

And so on and so on, and when the girls are ensnared (because how could anything go wrong stepping into a stranger’s apartment in what we are explicitly told is one of the worst neighborhoods in Travis Bickle’s New York City?) it’s hard to really work up much fear, in part because these vessels are so bland and could not command sympathy with a megaphone, in part because this endeavor is so damned chintzy. In an attempt at dramatic irony and tension the film intercuts between the two girls’ plight and Mari’s parents setting up her birthday celebration and feeling the slightest bit randy while doing it. “I’m going to attack you,” her father says. Cue the cut to one of the escaped delinquents pulling open Mari’s (friend’s?) blouse and proceeding to rape her. It’s done offscreen, under the (often true) assumption that what we imagine is more horrible than anything they could show us. But when what we are shown is so much wretchedly inept filmmaking, the viewer feels a decidedly different horror.

The Last House on the Left has a reputation for offensive nastiness that is only half-earned: the subject matter is ugly, but that need not imply the depiction of it ought be as well. Not to say rape and torture and murder are beautiful. But a movie like The Devils Rejects, which seeks to bring back the relentless unpleasantness of 70s horror, commands a certain respect for succeeding so well at being repulsive; Last House on the Left instead botches its attempts to get under your skin, and because rape is so disturbing, the movie’s utter failure to communicate that is insulting to one’s sensibilities. It’s trivializing. It could never hope to lapse into camp, and so instead it just infuriates.

So when the hooligans’ car stalls outside Mari’s parents’ frockin’ house and the police who are well aware of escaped lunatics on the loose ignore it and one of the psychos is telling Mari (or her friend) to piss her pants or her friend gets cut, my mother gets home, and I am faced with a choice to continue a movie that is punishing in ways I did not foresee or salvage what is left of my evening with other matters. I put it on pause. I talk to my mother. I pick up an issue of the New York Review of Books and read a surprisingly positive review of the controversially posthumously-published Nabokov, followed by the beginning of a Stephen Greenblatt review of a Shakespeare biography which reprints an excerpt of Ulysses that makes me want to read Ulysses. Twenty minutes later, the movie is still paused. I decide that the remainder of its running time would be better spent on the writing exercise currently under your perusal.

I can handle bad movies. Jason X and Stay Alive are both ass, but those are, respectively, fun to hate and an education in what not to do in making a horror flick. But Last House on the Left has somewhat of a reputation to live up to. It has its partisans. The last movie in such a position that failed me (almost) just as badly was Scream, also from Wes Craven. Fool me twice, I won’t get fooled again. The Hills Have Eyes has a better reputation than Last House on the Left, was Craven’s follow-up, but were it not for Nightmare on Elm Street I would probably, after tonight, just skip it. As it is I’ll get to it at some point, but I won’t put up with lapses in filmmaking for nearly as long, and I won’t dignify it with a write-up afterward.

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