Last House on the Left: Old-Fashioned Eyefuls

My course “The American Horror Film Since 1960” was cancelled today for a university function, so the two-class discussion of Last House on the Left (1972) has to be whittled down. I tend to come to class with a list of talking points and then follow the students’ interests anyway, so I don’t know if even two full classes would get us where I intend to go with this blog, which is a fairly uncomfortable place.

The bottom line: on rewatching Last House on the Left, potentially one of the most offensive titles on my syllabus, I was again disappointed because it isn’t violent enough. Don’t get me wrong–the rapes and murders of two girls at the hands of Krug and his gang are even more graphic than I remembered, and as I get older, I tend to feel more rather than less sick to my stomach as I see such things on screen. What left me wanting more was the third act, the revenge that marks Wes Craven’s opus as a remake and Americanization of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). The killers wind up at the home of one of their victims, and the girl’s parents serve up bloody justice that includes toothy castration and a prescient chainsaw (Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre appeared two years later).

Having just read a partial synopsis of the extreme violence that plays as just deserts, you might be wondering what more I could want. It’s a fair question. The seemingly safe answer is that I want to see the criminals suffer just as much as their victims, meaning that as a spectator I buy into the eye-for-an-eye justice that critics typically read as debasing the vengeful parents, making them mirror images of the people who have destroyed their daughter. And thus I would seem to be caught up in the film’s exposition of the violence at the heart of American culture, the violence sustaining the Vietnam War contemporary with Craven’s film. To recognize that the film works on me simultaneously justifies my decision to teach it (it really is more than exploitative garbage!) and exculpates my private bloodlust as a symptom of culture, which I can enjoy from a cozy and distant intellectual plane.

If only the answer were that easy. As the film sifts through various brain cells, I realize that the way it makes me feel raises questions about my political opposition to capital punishment. At least since I saw a certain movie released in the year 2000 (SPOILER ALERT–click only if you don’t mind knowing), my position has been that although in abstract principle I don’t object to state-sanctioned murder, I don’t see a way for any state to administer such punishment fairly, so I cannot will my abstract principle to be concrete law (and yes, friends of Kant, the preceding sentence is full of deep inconsistencies). And yet in Last House on the Left, I want the killers to die horribly, and I want the police who arrive at the end to approve.

Last House avoids some ethical messiness by not showing any real legal response to the vengeful parents, Dr. and Mrs. Collingwood. It even spares the Collingwoods the worst moral ambiguity by having Krug’s heroin-addicted accomplice-son, who doesn’t participate directly in the crimes and even tries to stop them, commit suicide at his father’s urging rather than fall victim to the Collingwoods’ wrath. Bergman’s version of the scenario doesn’t let wronged-parent bloodlust off so easily, but then again, it’s set safely in the distant past and thus lacks Last House‘s overt cultural correspondences. But the trouble is that I think I’d like Last House more if it went all the way, eschewing both Bergman and Craven’s ethical escape hatches by having the Collingwoods be even nastier.

So what does that say about me?

I don’t think it means I have to start supporting the death penalty. My own house may be on the political left, but I don’t really think this film places it far enough down the street to change its zip code. While Last House does raise the issues of class found in Virgin Spring–the Collingwoods are accustomed to wealth and education far beyond “animal” Krug and his friends, so their imposition of the death penalty mirrors a bias of the state’s–it also leaves no doubt about the criminals’ guilt. If the state could ever be as doubtless on this point as the film’s spectators, if the state could be as total a witness as Last House‘s camera, which sees all facts that are see-able because it constitutes the film’s entire visible world, I’d have to re-evaluate my political platform. It can’t, though, so I don’t.

It does mean that my investment in extreme aesthetics, in art that goes places I’d never want to get anywhere near in real life, potentially runs deeper than the “gore does political and philosophical work” position I’ve articulated in Gothic Realities and Dario Argento. For me, violence’s onscreen absence is potentially more of a problem than its presence, however much its presence may turn my aging stomach. Since I see so much of the violence against Last House‘s murdered girls, I feel a need to see a comparable amount of violence against their murderers, which is an aesthetic if not a political endorsement of eyeful-for-an-eyeful, which is uncannily similar to and yet significantly different from eye-for-an-eye. What I want to see is not coextensive with, and even opposes, what I want to be (both in the sense of who “I” is and what “I” thinks should exist). But what I want to see reveals an aesthetic conservatism even as it resists political conservatism. Gosh darn it, I demand symmetry and proportion, which means that while on the surface I champion cinema that seems profoundly messy, deep down, I share the biases that have defined Western art for millennia. I pose at being edgy, but really I’m an old-fashioned guy.

Granted, the students in “The American Horror Film Since 1960” probably don’t see me as particularly edgy or particularly anything other than professorial. Last House on the Left celebrates its 40th this year, so how could it really be on the edge of anything other than senility? This is one of those cases where I’d strongly prefer not to listen to my gut.

Talking to you is way more interesting than talking to myself. What do you think?