Cravenous: The Last House on the Left

It’s October, denizens. You know how much I love this month. Even though it’s cold and bound to get colder from this point on in the year, I can’t help it. I love Halloween. I love horror. And while I’m still struggling to find solid footing when it comes to my visits here to the lair, I had this idea this morning while driving to work and I’m going to try to make it so. See, I decided a little while ago that, for this October, I wanted to watch/re-watch every Wes Craven-directed movie that doesn’t include the word Nightmare or Scream in the title. We all know how I feel about those two franchises. But what about all the other films that Craven directed throughout his career?

I’ve already loaded up my Netflix queue with every Craven film they offer (and I’m seriously debating going ahead and buying a couple that aren’t offered but that I love enough to want to add them to my collection anyway). There are enough movies in my list that I know I’m not going to be able to finish watching them all this month, so this new feature will last a hot minute longer than until All Hallow’s Eve. Plus, I’ve got a lot on my plate work-wise and play-wise, so that will slow things down there as well. But, the good news is that I’m here now, and I’m…Cravenous in my horror hunger.

Did you see it? What I did?

So let’s start with the beginning of it all, shall we?

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Admittedly, this is a very difficult place to start, especially for non-horror fans. I can’t recommend Craven’s first film The Last House on the Left. It falls soundly into that category of horror populated by realistically unsettling storytelling. Even if you do like horror but your preferences skew toward the scary yet implausible variety, then this is not the film for you.

Instead, this is Craven exploring the darkest of horror. Not the phantasmagorical. Not the supernatural. Not the paranormal. For Craven, we were the most frightening monsters to examine. Thus, when this film starts out with the warning that this story is based on true events, I view it less as a specific warning and more of a generic caution that what we’re about to see can be as true as we make it. As anyone who pays attention to the news even today (even? especially today), we can make this true…and we can make far worse true.

In horror lingo, you can boil the story down to two words, one genre trope: rape revenge. I don’t like rape revenge stories. I also don’t like this type of realistic horror. Again, I’m aware enough of what we do to each other in real life that when I want to be scared, I want it to come from a horror that cannot actually happen to me. Maybe that’s a cop-out. I don’t know. However, reality is a bludgeon enough even when it isn’t being horrific. A couple hours of escapism is a nice balm to a bludgeoned soul.

However, Craven felt the need to go to these darker depths of humanity, driven by the need to better understand the reality he and his peers were experiencing at that point in history. He said in many interviews regarding this movie that it was spurred into life by our increasingly violent culture. The images broadcast from the Vietnam War in particular brought violence into homes all along Main Street USA in visceral, unsettling ways, leaving all of our society—not just the soldiers—struggling with the reality of war as it had never had to before. Many famous horror makers from this time period have all acknowledged the sobering effect that this imagery had on them. Tom Savini in particular has stated that being assigned the role of documenting what he saw while stationed in-country during the Vietnam War left him struggling to deal with all that he saw and inspired some of the gorier practical effects that he has created through his career.

Craven was no exception. While he did not serve in Vietnam, he saw the effect that the images had on the country. He also said that this shifted cultural expectations of horror to the darker corners that he and his contemporaries sought out through their films. What instantly set Craven apart from others like Raimi, Carpenter, and Cunningham is that their more famous contributions had some kind of barrier between the events happening on screen and the audience. Either it was a supernatural barrier, as with Raimi’s The Evil Dead, or a choppy, sometimes first-person perspective of the murders, as with Carpenter’s Halloween or Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (both of which also had implied supernatural elements either in the first movie or sequels), that were cut in such a way that oftentimes we saw far less than we later thought we did. Only perhaps Tobe Hooper and his The Texas Chain Saw Massacre rivaled Craven for the in-your-face unflinching depiction of realistic violence. Tellingly, neither one of these movies is something I relish revisiting. I also won’t ever own either film, regardless of their standing in the horror pantheon.

Craven’s first movie is unrepentant in its depiction of violence. Shot in a documentary style that not only makes the movie that much more visceral and real but also seemed almost prescient regarding the coming popularity of “found footage” films, Craven shows everything that his antagonists and protagonists do. You get no reprieve from the violence and he offers no succor for any character within this film. There even is a moment when the antagonists experience a sort of group realization of the horrors they have just committed against these two young women—and the remaining horror that they still must do to “take care” of the situation—and you can feel the weight of that moment through their expressions, first of disgust and then of resignation. More upsetting? You almost feel badly for them for what they still feel they must do. That’s possibly the most vile of all feelings for this movie.

Thankfully, however, Craven opted to eliminate some of the more sexually graphic scenes he’d filmed. What some might not know about is the somewhat incestuous relationship that horror and porn shared during the restructuring of the horror genre in the late 70s and early 80s. A lot of the people who would move on to become scions of the horror genre did double duty writing, producing, directing, or otherwise engaging in elements of the porn industry. Craven was no exception, admitting in later interviews that he had his fair share of pr0n experience. Some of the deleted scenes from this film definitely qualify as soft-core porn. Worse, however, is that they depict a…shall we say, Sapphic sexual assault, which debases the other intents of the movie by relying on an increasingly archaic notion of homosexuals as the genre’s villainous scapegoats. While some of these insinuations remain, Craven’s decision not to use the more graphic scenes keeps the tone more in line with the overarching tone of the movie.

Throw in some commentary on class privilege, the survivalist mentality that Craven often gave his characters (think Nancy booby-trapping her house for Freddy Krueger’s arrival), and direct inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and you have a movie that caused some viewers to become physically ill, some to simply walk out, and some to storm the projection room in search of a way to destroy the film print.

Craven’s foray into horror is all the more powerful when you realize that not only had Craven never written or directed a feature-length mainstream film before, but he also was neck-deep in uncharted waters. He’d never really even seen a horror movie before, having grown up in a severely fundamentalist house. Personally, having grown up in a fundamentalist school, I can vouch that such an upbringing is probably more preparatory for a life as a creator of horror than almost anything. Couple those experiences with Craven’s well-read knowledge of mythologies, philosophy, and literature as well as his desire to delve into “forbidden” territories, and you can see the nascence of Craven’s own mythology as one of the progenitors of modern horror.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Debra Hill

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Last call for Ladies, denizens, and just as my first draw this month was perfect (as has been every other draw, quite frankly), so too is this final draw.

In some ways, I guess you could say that I’ve broken my own rules…or at least bent them in twisty-like-a-pretzel ways. See, Debra Hill isn’t a character from a horror movie. Instead she was one of the originators of some of the greatest characters to grace the genre in modern times. While any casual horror fan knows that John Carpenter was behind bringing Michael Myers to the genre, what most people forget (or don’t know) is that Debra Hill both co-wrote Halloween with him and then produced it. And worked behind the scenes, doing everything from setting up equipment to bagging and unbagging leaves to help make a sunny, summery California neighborhood look like Haddonfield, Illinois in late October. Oh, and Haddonfield? That’s where she was born…only it’s really in New Jersey.

Hill went on to work with Carpenter on scripts for Halloween II, The Fog (which is another brilliant film that doesn’t seem to catch quite as much love from genre fans as that babysitter stalker movie does), and Escape From L.A., among other significant writing credits. She also was a proliferate and successful producer, thanks to the totally unexpected success of her first gig (again with that babysitter stalker movie!). Beyond producing a string of fantastic Carpenter movies or Carpenter-inspired movies like The Fog, Halloween II and III, Escape from New York, and Escape from L.A., she also produced The Dead Zone as well as the decidedly non-horror but still important to Loba, Adventures in Babysitting and Clue.

Not bad for a woman whom no one in the business took seriously when she first came to Hollywood a mere four years before hitting the right chord with that…yeah, you guessed it…that babysitter stalker movie. She once even noted, “Back when I started in 1974, there were very few women in the industry, and everybody called me ‘Honey.’ I was assumed to be the makeup and hair person, or the script person. I was never assumed to be the writer or producer. I took a look around and realized there weren’t many women, so I had to carve a niche for myself.”

Not only did she succeed in carving that niche, she carved her name into the very foundation of a genre that is decidedly not known for its overall welcoming nature toward women. True, by helping to co-write Halloween, she did help establish that somewhat patronizing “virginal final girl” trope, but holistically, Hill’s was a career of trailblazing brilliance (plus, I do cut her some slack since she did get Jamie Lee Curtis laid in The Fogand let her survive [spoilers]).

Sadly, Hill died of cancer in 2005, at the horrifyingly young age of 54. Obituaries noted that she was one of Hollywood’s first female producers, that she was a pioneer in the industry, an inspiration to women. Jamie Lee Curtis described her as “the most influential woman in my professional life.” John Carpenter said his relationship with Hill was “one of the greatest experiences of my life – she had a passion for not just movies about women or women’s ideas but films for everybody.”

Therefore, I hope you will forgive me, denizens, for adding her name to the mix this month, but to me, Debra Hill is one of the most important female presences within horror, and a name that deserves to be spoken regularly whenever discussing the genre. She was remarkable in many ways and truly a Lady of Horror May-hem.

And thus concludes my month-long ramblings. I don’t about you all, but I had a blast. Enough of a blast that I do believe I will be revisiting this concept again, either with a month of May-hem in 2015 or possibly even again later this year. I still have names I never drew, just waiting for discussion, including a DJ of Hill’s creation, a woman whose descent into madness was quite claustrophobic, a small medium (ha!), and a couple more that I’m sure would have surprised you that I included them in the running at all. So, of course, if you have any suggestions for characters that you think should be considered for future editions, please let me know.

And, of course, keep watching horror, denizens. It’s not a perfect genre, but it still has lots to offer, including some amazing Ladies of Horror May-hem…

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Laurie Strode

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If ever there was a case for hazard pay for babysitters, then Laurie Strode would be the star witness. She’d also make a great case for why working on holidays warrants at least time and a half.

[Loba Tangent: Do not even remotely think about mentioning any remake to me in this instance. I have written all I need to about that cinematic abortion.]

As I already mentioned, even though Jess Bradford started the slasher movie “final girl” trope, Laurie Strode, as portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis in director John Carpenter’s Halloween, became the standard by starring in the more popular slasher movie…thus confirming the home truth that it’s not about being qualified…it’s about being the most liked.

Life Lesson #345,634,905 From Horror.

That’s not to say that Laurie isn’t qualified as a Lady of Horror May-hem. Quite the opposite. She proves herself repeatedly as a survivor by virtue of many things…including, well, her virtue. Although John Carpenter has repeatedly denied that his intention was ever to present a puritanical notion that only the “good” girls survive while the naughty girls become slasher bait, the fact remains that by becoming the example against whom all following slasher movie heroines would be compared, our virginal, nebbishy Laurie cast a mold from which final girls didn’t break free for almost 20 years.

[Loba Tangent: Oh, but I hope I draw that name before this month is over…]

Focusing on Laurie’s sexual activity (or lack, thereof), regardless of the reasons, always seemed misogynistic to me. What does it matter what uglies she and her friends are bumping? It’s as ridiculous as the 70s/80s horror movie “rule” that demanded at least one gratuitous boob shot. Because titillation.

Thankfully, horror has become a little more sophisticated in some ways (although it has a long way to go to really be more inclusive). Our final girls don’t have to be pure as the driven snow anymore. They just have to be smart under pressure.

That all being said, Laurie definitely does keep her wits through one of the most helacious Halloween nights ever. Even better? Her weapon of choice at one point? Knitting needless. Hard-core, betches. Hard. Core.