Beloved master of horror Wes Craven directed more than two dozen films over the course of his 40-year career. Some were good, some were bad, some were surprising (remember the 1999 Meryl Streep inspiring-teacher drama Music of the Heart?), but they all trace their roots back to the same doomed location: The Last House on the Left.
Craven's first movie, made at a time when he was just learning the ropes, earned mostly negative and disgusted reviews upon its release (Roger Ebert was a notable exception), but it became a lasting icon in the horror/exploitation genre. Let's take a look back on how the whole notorious project came together.
1. IT WENT THROUGH A BUNCH OF TITLES BEFORE THEY SETTLED ON ONE.
Wes Craven originally called the screenplay Night of Vengeance. Then it was Sex Crime of the Century, quoting a line of dialogue from the movie. Krug & Company, after the villains, was deemed not suitably ominous. Someone eventually came up with The Last House on the Left, which is ominous even though it doesn't make sense. (The house is isolated on a country lane with no other homes nearby.)
2. THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT WAS EVEN SLEAZIER.
Craven, a former English professor who'd dabbled in pornography (hey, who hasn't?), first envisioned Last House as a hardcore film, with real, unsimulated sex and even more graphic violence. It was after shooting had begun that Craven and his cohorts decided to tone it down into something slightly more commercial.
3. CRAVEN SHOT IT LIKE A DOCUMENTARY BECAUSE THAT WAS ALL HE KNEW.
Craven’s experience up to this point had mostly involved post-production work on documentaries and pseudo-docs, so that style—handheld cameras, not much "art" to the way shots are composed, on-location sound recording—was all he knew. It gives Last House an extra layer of realism.
4. THE 1980S HORROR LANDSCAPE WOULD HAVE BEEN VERY DIFFERENT WITHOUT IT.
Besides the imitations and rip-offs it inspired, Last House also launched the careers of its writer-director, Wes Craven, and its producer, Sean Cunningham. Among other things, Craven would go on to make A Nightmare on Elm Street, while Cunningham was the man behind the Friday the 13th franchise.
5. IT WAS MADE FOR ABOUT $100,000, AND EVEN THAT WAS MORE THAN CRAVEN THOUGHT HE'D NEED.
Craven and Cunningham figured they could make the film for $40,000, so they asked their backers (theater owners in the Boston area who'd begun commissioning their own B movies) for $50,000. They got $90,000. "We thought we were just fat and sassy," Craven said. Ultimately, they spent every penny of that $90,000 (and then some), but it was still a remarkably inexpensive production.
6. ONE OF THE ACTORS REGRETS MAKING IT—AND HE USED TO MAKE PORN.
Fred Lincoln, who plays one of the sleazy bad guys, worked in the porn industry before and after this. ("Do you want to get laid in a movie and get paid for it?" is how he explained his reasoning.) But he thought Last House's icky exploitative nature was beyond the pale. "I wish it had been banned in the United States," he said 30 years later. He said it's the one film he regrets making.
7. IT HAD A NEGATIVE EFFECT ON ANOTHER ACTOR, TOO (BUT HE DIDN'T REGRET MAKING IT).
David Hess plays the lead villain, Krug, whose distinctive face appeared prominently on some of the posters and advertisements. Hess reported that when the New York City subways were plastered with these ads, people who had seen the movie would recognize him and move away.
8. HARRY CHAPIN'S BROTHER WROTE THE MUSIC.
You've heard of Harry Chapin, the folk-rock artist whose 1974 song "Cat's in the Cradle" has made dads cry for over 40 years. His brother, Stephen Chapin, had been a student of Craven's when he was a university professor, and Craven tapped him to write the film's incongruously lighthearted music, along with David Hess.
9. THE HORROR WAS ALL TOO REAL FOR THE LEAD ACTRESS.
Poor Sandra Cassell (real name: Sandra Peabody). The film was an uncomfortable and exploitative situation for the 23-year-old actress anyway, but it was made worse when the actors who played her attackers stayed in character as cackling psychopaths throughout the shoot. "She was scared to death of us this entire movie," Lincoln said. "We put her through hell," said Craven. Today, when actors from the film are interviewed about it, Cassell is usually conspicuously absent.
10. IT TOOK 34 YEARS FOR THE FILM TO BE APPROVED IN ENGLAND.
The British Board of Film Classification (the U.K. equivalent of the MPAA) denied the film a certificate when distributors first tried to release it there, in 1974. It was briefly available on home video early in the 1980s, until the BBFC's authority was extended to include videos, too. Not having a BBFC certificate didn't mean it was "banned," exactly, but most exhibitors wouldn't show uncertified movies (especially potentially obscene ones). After many attempts and a few censored releases, the uncut version of Last House was finally approved in March 2008. (The film actually was banned in Australia, but not until 1987. Before that, it was unavailable simply because no Aussie distributor wanted to touch it. After 1987, it remained banned until finally being approved in 2004.)
11. THE MEAN WOMAN IN IT WHO HELPS TORMENT THE GIRLS? SHE WENT ON TO MARRY RICHARD DREYFUSS.
Her name is Jeramie Rain, and she was married to Richard Dreyfuss from 1983 to 1992. They had three children together.
12. THEY DIDN'T GET PERMITS FOR ANYTHING.
This was total guerrilla filmmaking, partly out of necessity and partly because Craven didn't know any better. Everything shot in public was done very quickly, before anyone could come tell them to move along. This is especially noticeable with the cops, who have no designated parking outside of their own police station.
13. IT WAS ENOUGH OF A HIT TO INSPIRE COPYCATS.
The Last House on the Left
was notorious from the minute it was released. Some theaters wouldn't show it at all; others showed it but did their own censoring. (Craven and company would get cut-up prints back from exhibitors and have to restore them before renting them out again.) Nonetheless, it was enough of an underground sensation to make $3 million (about $14.8 million in 2016 ticket prices), and its title was evocative—hence the proliferation of horror movies that borrowed it. Among the low-budget, in-name-only rip-offs: Last House on Hell Street, The Last House on Dead End Street, House on the Edge of the Park, The Last House in the Woods, The Last House on Cemetery Lane, and Last House on Hell Street.
14. THE LADY DRIVING THE CHICKEN TRUCK WAS THE HOUSEKEEPER AT THE SHOOTING LOCATION.
Viewers will probably not be surprised to learn that Ada Washington was not a professional actress, bless her heart.
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