Jason Zinoman begins his incisive 2011 study of the modern horror film – Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror – with a story about the editing of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). Sean Cunningham, the film’s producer and later director of Friday the 13th, didn’t “know what to make of the movie” and “couldn’t believe that Craven had directed it.”

It was Cunningham who came up with the savvy advertising tag – “Just keep telling yourself: It’s Only a Movie. It’s Only a Movie.” According to Zinoman, however, Craven “was not interested in offering such comfort. To him, the point was to make the horrific violence look so real that you might entertain the thought that maybe this isn’t just a movie. Wes Craven was serious.”

Not having seen Craven’s film since its first appearance on video back in the day (the movie never made it into legitimate theaters where I lived), I decided to check out the recent unrated Blu-ray release to see if it was as shocking and disturbing as I remembered.

It was … and still is.

Two teen girls are savagely raped and murdered by three escaped convicts and their female accomplice. By an incredible (and unbelievable) coincidence, the four scumbags seek refuge in the house of the title, where they are dispatched in gruesome fashion by the parents of one of their victims.

Poorly acted (at times) and rather haphazardly filmed, the movie seems almost an exercise in guerrilla filmmaking. Now an accomplished auteur of the genre, Craven has said he didn’t know much about horror films when he started Last House; in fact, he knew little about making movies. Formerly a literature and humanities professor, he came to feature films by way of some experience in porn. He has said repeatedly that the raw violence of his first movie owes much to the Vietnam conflict, but that claim seems somewhat disingenuous to me.

Whatever his motives, Craven did manage to fashion an influential, unforgettable film, justly controversial even today. When it was released in 1972, Roger Ebert was among the very few major critics who found anything positive to say about the movie, remarking that the violence “is just there, brutal and needless and tragic. I still believe Last House on the Left is a movie of worth, of a certain dogged commitment to its unsavory content.”

The Blu-ray includes several interesting features about the film, including extensive interviews with the cast members who played the killers. As they look back on their participation, their reactions are decidedly mixed, one of them going so far as to condemn the film as pornographic trash. (Something I hadn’t known before: Jeramie Rain, who played the sadistic Sadie, was later married to Richard Dreyfuss, of Jaws and Close Encounters fame.)

For the 2009 remake, Craven handed the reins over to Greek director Dennis Iliadis, a young filmmaker with considerably different sensibilities. The new film is still disturbing and violent, but without the excess and rawness of the original. The actors, like the cinematography, are also worlds better, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) as one of the scumbag killers.

Apart from a ridiculous coda highlighting the parents’ ultimate revenge, the new Last House also discards the unrelenting nihilism of the original. It might seem farfetched, but this time, there is some redemption on the horizon.

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