Friday, 19 April 2013

The Last House on the Beach (1978) - Past The Last House on the Left and at the End of The House on the Edge of the Park

Past The Last House on the Left and at the End of The House on the Edge of the Park

Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on the Left’ really started something in 1972. The Golden Age of cinema in the '70s was the transition of the horror genre from the gothic to the modern. No longer were the villains primarily monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolf Man and The Mummy. It was now the dark side of humanity; human characters that were the real monsters showing what true evil people are capable of doing.

An uncredited remake of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Virgin Spring’ (1960) Craven’s film is a very important piece of work that helped to kick start this evolution. Its potent brutal stark realism of its grim subject matter with its nasty graphic depictions of rape and murder and the repercussions of it encapsulated the then fledgling filmmaker’s frustrations of the Vietnam War and his haunted mind due to witnessing the horrible images from TV news footage of the South East Asia conflict that burned into his psyche. The writer and director used this disturbing imagery as inspiration for many of the harrowing scenes and hauntingly memorable shots.

Not only was the movie a early forerunner to the slasher sub-genre of horror but it was also the main template innovator of the rape and revenge films a sub-genre of the thriller more associated with exploitation cinema. Slashers to an extent can be categorized as exploitation due to the slew of them that opened almost every weekend in the wake of the phenomenal success of 1980’s ‘Friday the 13th’ directed by Sean S. Cunningham (producer of ‘The Last House on the Left’). These were almost entirely geek shows with their gory teen murdering set-pieces and nudity of attractive young women their showcase selling points. They were shot on low budgets by production companies brought in by major Hollywood studios that would distribute the movies and advertise them as such as bait for the teenage crowds that were clamouring for this stuff cueing around the blocks for it weekend and weekend out.

However, while ‘The Last House on the Left’ is indeed an early influence on the slasher film with its main antagonist of Krug (David Hess) embodying the darkest depths of humanity this style of horror owes a lot more to such superior filmmaking that is anything but pure exploitation with Bob Clark’s ‘Black Christmas’ (1974) and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978). These two movies would set up all the conventions and rules that the early 80’s golden age of the slasher would abide by with ‘Friday the 13th’ influencing the bloodthirsty approach. Halloween would give birth to one of the greatest horror icons with Michael Myers. Other famous celluloid maniacs from the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger respectively would follow catapulting the slasher into mainstream consciousness becoming firmly embedded in popular culture. Therefore, the slasher is explicitly part of the horror genre as one of its most popular sub-genres that helped to shape American modern horror.

Exploitation is not a genre but more of a casual label used to summarize a whole host of different genres and sub-genres that all shared both low production quality and low artistic merit in which morals were thrown out of the window in favour of “exploiting” niches in the film market. Most of the output was made purely for financial gain as filmmakers would look at what current popular trend in cinema was the most profitable and “exploit” it with a lot of these movies being knock offs cashing in on the names of mainstream box office hits with similar titles or/and premises. Exploitation films concentrated purely on their selling points of their lurid subject matter entailing explicit sex and nudity, sensationalized violence and their SFX set-pieces and were sold to be shown in the grindhouse theatres on 42nd street, New York and on the drive-in circuit. Some of the most popular exploitation genres and sub-genres included blaxploitation, cannibal, carsploitation, sexploitation, women in prison, and of course, rape and revenge.

The original ’72 version of ‘The Last House on the Left’ opened the door to a whole host of rape and revenge movies. The general formula goes like this - a woman is raped or gang raped, left for dead, recovers and then exacts a deadly revenge that is often bloody and torturous. Rape and revenge films were usually exploitative in nature or were at least marketed in that way. ‘The Last House on the Left’ could be considered exploitation due to the shabbiness of how it was made but it really has a lot more to say as it is really angry reactionary cinema with its anti-Vietnam War sub-text. Krug and his gang of ghouls could easily be a squad of American soldiers committing the atrocities of raping and murdering young Asian farm girls and the movie carries the message of how violence results in violence.

Take other rape and revenge films for example. Abel Ferrara’s brilliant Ms. 45 (1981) is essentially a feminist version of Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante masterpiece ‘Death Wish’ and is much more than outright exploitation with real artistic merit that boarders on the art house. This is also the case with the also fantastic Swedish movie Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973) directed by Bo Arne Vibenius. I Spit on Your Grave (1978) is a film I refuse to label as exploitation as its production history and its intent by its writer and director Meir Zarchi when making it as the feminist work ‘Day of the Woman’ was anything but exploitative intentions. It was initially a commercial failure but was made a hit on its re-release by its new distributors due to its marketing as an exploitation movie with the title I Spit on Your Grave slapped on it for good measure to appeal to the grindhouse and drive-in audiences. Its shoddy production values however did not do it any favours in helping it to shake off its exploitative reputation.

Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on the Left’ not only came up with a formula that innovated an entire sub-genre but its influence also lead to blatant rip-offs and even of its title to live off the film’s success. The under the radar gem Last House on Dead End Street (1972) directed by Roger Watkins is not of the rape and revenge ilk only sharing a similar title that was given to it by its distributors to cash in on the notoriety of Craven’s movie and does not even feature a house. The 1980 Italian production ‘The House on the Edge of the Park’ directed by Ruggero Deodato not only shares a variant on the title but actually features a house as its central setting. It also has a similar story structure and even has the star of ‘The Last House on the Left’ David Hess in the leading role playing a virtual Krug clone. The film was promoted in this way with the tagline on the posters reading “David Hess ... star of "Last House on the Left" is loose again ... DON'T GO IN THE PARK!” It is also notable for actually being a thoroughly decent entertaining sleazy time. It is a shame though the same cannot be said about 1978’s ‘The Last House on the Beach’…

The Last House on the Beach (1978)

‘The Last House on the Beach’ opens with a bank robbery committed by a gang of three men. The manager is shot dead and as the robbers leave to make their getaway in their car a woman is shot and injured and we learn later from a radio news report that she dies from her wound in the hospital. The sequence is shot in such a way that we do not see the men’s faces so that later when we are introduced to them in full view we do not know who did the shooting in the heist.

Intercut with a shot of the men driving along the next scene is set in another location as we see a group of good looking young women stripping down to their bikinis to sunbathe by a swimming pool. We are also introduced to an older woman (Florinda Bolkan) who seems to have a supervisory role over them as when the girls see her they quickly do up the backs of their bikini tops. When she sees this though she just laughs to herself, a reaction that tells us that she is kind hearted and that she gets along with all the girls and is very fond of them. We find out later that she is Sister Cristina a nun overseeing these Catholic college girls for rehearsals of a graduation play of ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ and that the girls are also there to prepare for their exams in this college owned house. The shot of the men in the car spliced with this footage tells us where they are going.


Back to those trio of men who are now completely visible to us and they are having car trouble. Getting out of the car one of them lifts the bonnet to check out the engine. The group dynamic tells us that this man Aldo (Ray Lovelock) is the leader as he has an authoritative tone when speaking to the other two who are clearly idiots. He tells them they need to find a safe place to hide for a while and we know already where this is going to be. Sure enough, they drive through the gates of “the last house on the beach” and before breaking in they peek inside and we see all the women dressed up in costume for a dress rehearsal.

When bursting in one of the thugs nutcase Raymond (Flavio Andreini) brutally murders their housekeeper by caving her head in with her iron. Another of the trio scumbag Nino (Stefano Cedrati) tries to rape one of the girls but she stabs him in the leg with the end of a comb a wound that becomes infected with Nino remaining sick for the rest of the movie. Yet he is well enough in a later scene to rape one of the other girls while Walter holds her down on the back of a sofa while Sister Chistina is forced to watch as Aldo holds a knife to her throat. This is disturbingly creepy stuff. After dragging her out of bed and stripping her off it is then shot in slowmo making it seemingly last forever. There are close-up shots of the horrified girl’s face and Raymond (who has bizarrely applied women’s makeup) and Nino’s evil smirking faces as Sister Christina looks on helplessly accompanied by a non-diegetic musical concoction of atmospheric ghostly sounds and 70’s porno style music.

In an earlier scene, Raymond rapes Sister Christina as Aldo holds her down but not much is seen of this as it abruptly cuts to the next scene. When Nino goes too far, murdering the girl who stabbed him by raping her to death with his cane something that is suggested rather than explicitly shown Sister Christina decides that she has had enough and renounces her vows exacting a swift merciless revenge on the three fiends.

That is your lot! Not much else happens of worth in this dreary uninvolving knock off. In what should be, a very tense confrontational situation fails to elicit any excitement and suspense and for a rape and revenge film, a sub-genre so ripe with exploitative promise director Franco Prosperi fails to deliver the goods. Apart from that one immensely effective rape scene there is little in the way of graphic violence and T & A. There is some T but no A and you can just forget about full frontal exposure.

Prosperi is not to be confused with fellow Italian filmmaker of the same name who co-directed the infamous mondo shock documentaries ‘Mondo Cane’ (1962), ‘Africa addio’ (1966) and ‘Goodbye Uncle Tom’ (1971). No this is the director most known for later making in the early 80s low rent ‘Conan the Barbarian’ rip-offs such as ‘The Invincible Barbarian’ (1982) and ‘The Throne of Fire’ (1983) that were his last two features as a director and it is easy to see why. Although, this movie is actually well shot and edited but there is little content here filmed that is remotely worthwhile. I also have to admit that I enjoyed Roberto Pregadio’s original 70’s style score and the various funky music contributions of the decade. 

The antagonists are extremely loathsome vile misogynistic  pigs pulled off convincingly well by the actors and we long for them to get their comeuppance one thing the movie actually gets right but you will more likely be so bored long before this happens in the climax as literally not much happens at all up to this point. The last shots in this film influenced Quentin Tarantino for the final moments of 2007's ‘Death Proof’ his weakest effort that is still a solidly worthwhile watch.

Thankfully though, the actual action of the sequence is all Tarantino took from here as he had the good sense not to include the forced message of how vengeance degrades the avenger being brought down to the low level of those who suffer their wrath. This is something Craven did so well with ‘The Last House on the Left’. This movie fails to deliver with conviction the emotional level it tries to go out on when there was nothing to be emotionally invested in beforehand thanks to the lousy characterization. Speaking of which, the reason why we did not get to see who shot the bank manager and the woman in the opening sequence is related to what Aldo’s true morality is and thanks to the character's actions due to the incompetent writing it is obvious to the viewer from a mile off what that really is. The always good Lovelock has a menacing presence though and Bolkan is always good too despite the thin material they were working with here.

‘The Last House on the Beach’ is a disappointing waste of time. It may be completely devoid of originality but some well-paced suspenseful moments and plenty of exploitative thrills may have made for at least an entertaining time. Sadly, there is not much of this at all. For the record, this is a review of the original Italian language version and not the apparently atrociously dubbed English one. The film is competently shot and edited, nicely scored and features a horrifyingly effective rape sequence but all this amounts to nothing in what is ultimately a bland borefest. It is not a patch on the original ‘The Last House on the Left’, its damn good 2009 remake or even the very best of its clones ‘The House on the Edge of the Park’. Avoid.

* out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2013 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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