The Last House On The Left: Collector's Edition - Unrated [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - MGM Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (17th December 2011).
The Film

It was only a couple of months ago that we lost the infamous star of “The Last House on the Left” (1972), actor David Hess. Though he was known for playing deranged, homicidal, misogynistic psychopaths on film, the man was a genuine talent and extremely accomplished in reality. It had been quite sometime since he’d made a picture audiences will remember for years to come, but his mark was already long since made on the genre when he passed. So, in some ways, it felt fitting to go back and watch his screen debut in director Wes Craven’s controversial, low-budget 70's shocker. There’s a lot that’s been said about this film over the years, and before I’d finally gotten my hands on a copy (the DVD that MGM released almost a decade ago) I had it built up in my mind as something profoundly sinister; a film that could almost be too much to handle. Of course, not only is that not true, but so few films can really live up to a hype like that. You have to remember that back in 1972 seeing something like this was considered shocking and graphic, some might even say obscene. We live in the 21st century, however, and, frankly, gore gags and psychotic villains like Krug Stillo and his gang just don’t instill the same level of terror and fear as they once could. That only makes me wish even more I’d been around in the formative years of the genre, when slasher films and more graphic pictures started to take hold. Then maybe these seminal films would produce the shocks they were intended to provide, but, again, in 2011 it’s damn near impossible to show horror fans something they’ve never seen before. Controversial elements and attempts to shock aside, “The Last House on the Left” is widely considered to be one of the most important films in horror because of its notoriety and the influence it had over numerous productions throughout the ensuing decades.

It’s young Mari Collingwood’s (Sandra Cassel) 17th birthday, and she’s decided to celebrate the occasion by going to a concert with her friend, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham). Everyone knows you can’t attend a concert in the 70's without a bag of grass, so the girls hook up with Junior (Marc Sheffler), a juvenile punk who’s shacking up with his escaped convict father, Krug (David Hess), and his prison mates, Fred (Fred Lincoln) and Sadie (Jeramie Rain). The girls are immediately subjected to acts of humiliation, rape and torture, beginning one of the longest days they’ll ever experience. The foursome decides to ditch the confines of the motel for the open road, but their car breaks down in a forested area, coincidentally not far from Mari’s home. The girls plead to be released, but Krug & co. won’t hear any of it. Instead, the girls are humiliated further, tortured, raped and, finally, killed. The gang change clothing and end up knocking on the door to Mari’s home, where her parents allow them to come inside for food & shelter. A key piece of evidence clues them in to who these men are and, eventually, what they’ve done. Now it’s the parents turn to exact brutal revenge for their daughter’s death.

David Hess truly is a force to be reckoned with here. Krug is a man to fear; someone who won’t hesitate for a moment to shoot a man or rape a woman if they’re unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity. Despite those horrific traits, however, you can tell he’s a thinker – someone who you’d expect to be smart enough to be doing anything other than crime. But he does, and he’s proven to be adept at it. There’s something soulful in Hess’ eyes that make him such an enigmatic personality on screen. You don’t know whether you want to kill the guy or buy him a beer; he’s wildly unpredictable. Of course, leave it up to Hess to give his character a range you aren’t expecting. At one point you might actually find yourself – gasp –sympathizing with these people, though that’s unlikely unless you’re a completely twisted person yourself. While Hess shines with the brightest light, his convict companions aren’t slouches either. Despite proclaiming this to be “a piece of shit”, Fred Lincoln should be grateful he made the picture, because it’s guaranteed him a spot in horror infamy, and horror fans know how to treat their favorite stars right. Besides, this is a man who has directed and/or starred in hundreds of pornographic films. I don’t know how he can argue this is worse than “Edward Penishands 3” (yes, this is a real film he stars in). Jeramie Rain is playfully sadistic as the bisexual female of the group, and lowly Junior is nothing more than a conflicted heroin addict who lives in his father’s shadow, never being able to do right in his eyes. Everyone here is good in their respective roles, but Hess is great.

Most viewers might be surprised to learn that the film is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 Swedish classic, “The Virgin Spring” (aka "Jungfrukällan", itself the film version of a 13th century Swedish ballad). While that black & white film isn’t nearly as graphic or controversial, the basic premise remains the same. (Side note: for those who haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and pick up the Criterion Collection DVD. It’s a wonderful slice of cinema.) Ironically enough (though not these days), this film went on to spawn a 2009 remake of the same name. Revenge plots are always popular with audiences, and this was one of the first films to portray it in such a grisly fashion. We spend a great deal of time with both girls in the film, so they aren’t just a couple of faceless people we don’t care about. Craven exceles at establishing parental relationships with the female teenage characters in his films, allowing the audience to better empathize with them when things turn sour (and they always do). What the trio does to these girls is heinous, but it has to be, that way when the parents turn the tables we’re rooting for them to annihilate the bastards in the worst ways possible. In fact, the film took things so far that Craven was slapped with a ”X’ rating on two different occasions. As legend puts it, he first cut 10 minutes from the film, then 20, and both times the same rating was applied. So, with few other options, he got an official R-rated approval seal from a friend to splice in front of the film and went about striking his prints like it was all kosher. Unfortunately, maybe even ironically, local theater owners made such a habit out of cutting parts of the film out that they found offensive that Craven and Cunningham had to set up an special editing room just to assemble odds & ends when prints came back. For years, they’ve said, it was extremely difficult to obtain a fully uncut print of the film.

One thing that I’ve always found particularly odd about the film has been the score, which was provided by Krug himself, David Hess. Most people might not know this, but Hess was an accomplished musician in addition to being an international actor. The film’s score is a curiosity because it rarely matches the tone of what we’re witnessing on screen. Sequences of horrific violence are typically undercut with soothing acoustic guitar melodies; a tender ballad follows one character’s rape. The most hilariously out-of-place cues come during the scenes featuring the film’s two bumbling cops. As soon as they appear, the track launches into some country bumpkin speed picking guitar that would’ve been more at home in a Burt Reynolds film than a horror movie. The decision to use that might be a little more questionable, but I get that Craven was looking for the juxtaposition between the atrocities taking place being set to such serene music. I’ll say this, Hess writes some good acoustic tunes that perfectly fit the tone & light-hearted moods of the early 70's. I don’t know how a more traditional score would’ve affected my enjoyment of the movie. It’s been said that the score can make or break a film, and they have before, but I feel Craven and Hess knew what the picture needed and they delivered on what they sought to achieve.

Video

You absolutely cannot expect the film’s 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image to look marvelous, even spread out across a 50 GB disc; it simply wouldn’t be possible without enough DNR to turn the cast into walking wax statues. Some people wrongly assume that just because a film is released on Blu-ray means it will look spectacular. What you should expect, and this should not be news to fans of the film, is a transfer that faithfully reproduces the image to the best possible extent. And in that respect, this is a success. Craven and Cunningham shot this film with almost no budget, using what I can only assume were equally cheap lenses, and the resulting image has always been one filled with soft, hazy shots and a heavy amount of grain. Being documentary filmmakers originally, the idea was the produce an aesthetic not unlike those films. Various editions have done what they could to clean up the image, but this Blu-ray is likely going to be the best it has, or will ever, look. This is how it should look, frankly. I did some quick comparisons to my DVD copy, and the appreciable difference in picture afforded by the high-definition picture should make this one a worthy upgrade for fans. There are minor bumps in detail and clarity, but the most beneficial aspect would have to be the improvement in colors. The forest looks a little greener, the flowers look a little brighter, the lake looks a little bluer… minor upticks like this are what you can expect to see. If I had to pick another title to compare it to, I’d say it reminded me of the picture quality for “Black Christmas” (1974), another film that got hammered in reviews for its picture quality, but few took into consideration that it was the best the film had ever looked. This is never going to be something you thrown in for demo material (and even if it was, why the hell would you choose this of all titles to show off?), but fans will enjoy the transition to high definition.

Audio

The only audio offering is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track. There’s not a whole lot to say about it – the dialogue levels are balanced well amongst Hess’ Southern-fried score. The track occasionally suffers from sounding a little muddy and flat, but that’s to be expected given the vintage of the source material. This is a title that I could see benefitting in no way from some fancy newly-mixed 5.1 surround sound track. It may be free of frills, but it perfectly suits the intended tone. Subtitles are included for English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.

Extras

Now, here’s where this Blu-ray really shines. MGM released a features-packed DVD long ago, and then followed it up with a "Collector’s Edition" DVD some years later. This edition combines all of the features from those other versions, giving fans the chance to have all the extras on one disc. There are a lot of them, too, including two audio commentary tracks, multiple featurettes, documentaries, deleted footage, outtakes, theatrical trailers and much more.

The first audio commentary track is with writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean Cunningham. This is the more scholarly of the two, with both participants rattling off a wealth of information about the events leading up to production, influences, reactions, social commentary, shooting locations, casting and more. Craven is a joy to listen to because he sounds so educated and eloquent.

The second audio commentary track is with actors David Hess, Fred Lincoln and Marc Sheffler. This is the party track, with each of the guys telling story after story, often in an attempt to one-up each other it seems. Hess dominates most of it (as he should), but there are plenty of great recollections from the other guys. Even if you’ve heard Hess tell the same stories a hundred times, they never get old.

“Still Standing: The Legacy of The Last House on the Left” (480p) is a featurette that runs for 14 minutes and 54 seconds. Wes Craven sits down to discuss the origins of the film, his reasons for making such a picture and how he feels it holds up today. There’s also some discussion regarding the remake.

“Celluloid Crime of the Century” (480p) is a documentary that runs for 39 minutes and 34 seconds. This extensive piece, produced by Blue Underground, reunites all the cast & crew members possible, with all of the participants giving some wonderful insight into their characters, what it was like working on the set, releasing the film… just about every detail that matters. David Hess in particular has some great stories to share, and he’s got such a wonderfully animated way of telling them. If you watch any of the bonus materials, make sure this is at the top of your list.

“Scoring Last House” (480p) is a featurette that runs for 9 minutes and 44 seconds. David Hess sits down to discuss how he came to be the film’s composer, and he breaks out his acoustic guitar to perform a couple of the tracks (after warming up, where he humorously fumbles a bit with the chords).

“Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out” (480p) is a short film that runs for 11 minutes and 29 seconds. This is the only surviving footage from an unfinished anthology horror film that Craven was working on in the 70's. The footage is presented without sound, and it looks rough, but its inclusion should be welcomed by fans of Craven’s work.

A deleted scene (480p) runs for 57 seconds. It’s titled “Mari Dying at the Lake”, so you can guess what it entails.

"Never before seen" footage (480p) runs for 5 minutes and 36 seconds. This reel contains a number of odds & ends from the production, including some extra graphic footage from the rape scene. This footage is presented without sound.

“It’s Only a Movie” (480p) is a featurette that runs for 29 minutes and 1 second. This is yet another clip full of stories, anecdotes, on-set recollections and humor. By the time you get to this piece, you’ll probably have heard all of these stories told in one way or another. Still, it’s interesting and worth it for those who want to wring every last tidbit of information out of the extra that they can.

Outtakes & dailies (480p) is a reel that runs for 14 minutes and 1 second. More raw production footage from the film; this is also presented without sound.

Forbidden footage (480p) runs for 8 minutes and 11 seconds. Some of the film’s cast & crew sit down to discuss the more explicit scenes from the film and what effect they have had throughout the years.

The film’s theatrical trailer (480p) runs for 2 minutes.

If you’re a total diehard fan for this film, then you should also seek out the editions put out by Anchor Bay in the UK. In addition to featuring a few more featurettes on the film, they also contain the rare alternate work print version of the film back when it was called “Krug & Co.”. For most fans, however, the supplements included here will prove to be exhausting enough.

Packaging

A single disc housed in a Blu-ray keep case. The cover art has foolishly been changed to something contemporary (it’s also generic, uninspired, lazy and totally lackluster), making it easy for fans to possibly confuse this film with the remake. Hell, when I got it I wasn’t sure what version it was.

Overall

Love it or hate it, this is a film that’s part of horror lore and will be remembered for years to come. It’s a film of many colors – at times beautiful, and then almost immediately it can turn to something ugly & bleak. The performances are all better than you might expect, especially David Hess’ shining debut. If you already own all the previous DVD editions, then you’re probably a big enough fan to spend $10 on this Blu-ray. Casual fans might not find the image quality to their liking, especially those hi-def fanatics that abhor anything with grain. I recommend this title simply because it is the best the film is ever going to look and sound, and every available bonus feature produced for the U.S. market is included here.

The Film: B- Video: B- Audio: C+ Extras: A- Overall: B

 


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