Friday, November 4, 2016

The Video Nasties, Part 2: The Last Downers On the Left

As readers of Part 1 of this series may remember, I am kinda obsessed with the list of 72 movies banned or censored in the UK during the early ‘80s, dubbed the Video Nasties.  Trying to give each one its own review is a fool’s errand, though.  One, because there are 72 of them and it would take forever, and two, because only about half of them deserve more than a few paragraphs, and some considerably less (I’m looking at you, Naziploitation).  So the ones I don’t cherish enough to give a full review will end up condensed into this series.  

Now, there are a number of Nasties that merit a deeper exploration, but are so grim and depressing that they don’t fit with the upbeat, positive atmosphere I try to project here at Schizocinema.  It’s hard to get jazzed about films that mostly revolve around rape, torture, and brutality, so I’m offering them up in bite-sized nuggets to minimize the aftertaste of misery.  First up is the film that started the whole gritty, downbeat trend for drive-in movies of the ‘70s, and the two Italian shockers it inspired.  

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) is a core Video Nasty.  When the British censors needed an example of the indecent, harmful filth they were trying to protect the public from, LAST HOUSE was always on their highlights reel (and they actually did have a highlights reel).  There is no doubt why it made the list.  For those who don’t know, LAST HOUSE is a retelling of Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING, a revenge tale about a trio of ne’er do wells who murder an innocent girl then unknowingly find themselves staying in the home of the girl’s parents, were their comeuppance is served.   Wes Craven, in his first film, wasn’t as elegant as Bergman.   He didn’t pull punches.  The first half of LAST HOUSE is all about two young women being sexually tormented and degraded by possibly the most despicable movie villains ever.  It’s not as graphic as you might expect, but it is relentlessly harrowing and not at all pleasant viewing.  

The film isn’t mindless exploitation, though.  Craven, who had been a college professor, was interested in the dehumanizing effects of violence, and the movie was a direct reaction to the horrors of the Vietnam War he was seeing in the media.  The repellent Krug (David Hess) and his crew are chillingly callous as they push the envelope as to how cruel they can be to the girls, but there is a moment directly after they pass the existential point of no return when the mood becomes quiet and reflective.  They all seem to acknowledge that whatever small piece of humanity they still possessed is forever gone.  It is a haunting, beautiful scene, juxtaposed against the most atrocious violence.  After that transition, the movie marches them head long into their inevitable and extremely justified doom.

Inexplicably, the dread is occasionally and abruptly broken up with banjo laden slapstick cop sequences.  Perhaps Craven meant this to be a moment to catch your breath, but for me, the cuts are so jarring and out of place that it makes the viewing that much more uncomfortable.  It kept me off balance.  It’s just another example of how effective but not fun the movie is.

The most enjoyable thing about the movie is the title.  I love it because it is a classic, drive-in marketing gimmick.  It has absolutely nothing to do with the story.  All the really vile stuff happens in the woods, and the only house in the movie, one belonging to the avenging parents, has no geographic reference to it being last or on the left of anything.  The title is so simple, ominous, and provocative that it doesn’t matter.  It grabs your attention, certainly more than the original titles Craven came up with.  His idea was SEX CRIME OF THE CENTURY, and while it is accurate, it's definitely not marquee friendly.  His other idea, KRUG & COMPANY, has the opposite problem.  It is so innocuous that it could be a kid’s movie.  The only way it could be more misleading is if it were called KAPTAIN KRUG & HIS SUNSHINE FUN BAND.

On a side note, the 2009 remake of LAST HOUSE dramatically reduces the amount of sexual violence in the story, to the point where the single rape scene seems shoehorned in to fulfill a production obligation.  Consequently, it is a much more enjoyable film than the original.  The remake lacks the power and impact, but it also doesn’t make me want to roll into a ball and weep by the end.    

LAST HOUSE was a huge hit at the drive-in and almost immediately spawned a slew of copycats, many from Italy.  One that also got on the Nasty list was NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS (aka LAST STOP ON THE NIGHT TRAIN, 1975).  As far as the story goes, it’s almost a remake.  Obviously, the big change here is the substitution of a private train compartment in place of the woods for the scene of the crime(s).  This makes things even worse, not only for the claustrophobic feel, but because the girls are agonizingly close to salvation the whole time.  

The most fascinating difference that director Aldo Lado brings to the story, though, is the class component.  All of the dirty work against the teens is perpetrated by two criminal lowlifes, but their actions are orchestrated by a well-dressed, seemingly proper aristocratic woman they meet on the train by chance.  She is the truly sadistic one, egging the witless punks on to increasingly depraved tortures, getting vicarious thrills without ever having to lift a finger.  The trio eventually ends up at the parents’ house, in a circumstance no more contrived than in any other variation of the story, where the truth about the girls’ fate is partially revealed.  The father unleashes all his righteous vengeance on the low class thugs.  The Lady (Macha Méril), whose real name is never given, remains above suspicion and walks away scot free.  That injustice is the final twist of the knife.

The clear social metaphor of the story provides a little academic distance from the brutality, unlike LAST HOUSE’s gritty, in your face immediacy.  Lado was a more accomplished director than first timer Craven, so NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS is a much better looking and technically proficient film.  There is no ill-conceived humor and considerably less banjo music.   It is still a very rough ride (zing, train pun).  Again, it is a worthwhile film to experience, but no damn fun to sit through.  

HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980) is the last LAST HOUSE style bummer on the Nasty list.  The title is a clear nod to LAST HOUSE, but an even bigger one is the casting of David Hess as the main baddie, Alex (seriously, any time Hess is involved with a movie, you should worry).  Not only that, his pal/toady, Ricky, is played by Video Nasty regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice, an Italian actor who specializes in gruesome deaths.  He shows up in CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, CANNIBAL FERROX, and Lucio Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Let me tell you, this is a disturbing pair.  Do not offer these guys a ride, even if they are wearing their classy disco threads.  

Not only does it star Hess and Radice, it is directed by Ruggero "CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST" Deodato.  It's the perfect storm of ghastlinessUnsurprisingly, HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK gets very, very harsh.  But like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, it was not entirely what I was expecting.  This one doesn’t rehash the LAST HOUSE story.  It is closer to a home invasion flick, or more specifically, a bad party guests that won’t leave flick.  Like NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS, it has a class conflict theme, only this one is even more central to the twisty plot.   

A yuppie couple on their way to a fancy uptown party have car trouble, and in an epically foolish move, invite the two grease monkey mechanics who help them to come along.  The tension starts as soon as they arrive at the party, but it is directed at the mechanics rather than the high society partiers.  The upper crust snobs are viciously condescending to Alex and especially to the mentally slow Ricky, humiliating them for sport.  Alex, who we already know is a rapist and murderer from the opening, pushes back with brute force and shuts everyone up—for a time.  Interestingly, the power dynamic keeps switching back and forth between the richies and the working class slobs, even as the stakes continue to rise.  Eventually things come to a head and Alex unleashes the full Hess.  Things become really hard to watch at that point, but even the mind games leading up to it are extremely uncomfortable.  The whole movie is almost unbearably tense.    There isn’t a single moment of humor to give you a little relief, unless you count the clothes.  

As disturbing as these movies are, none of them are entirely exploitive trash.  They are all interesting in different ways, and depending on your tolerance for nihilism, they are all worth a watch.  I DO NOT recommend them as date movies, however.  Unless you are dating a real weirdo.  

So let’s see where we are on the Video Nasties tally board:
  4.  THE GESTAPO'S LAST ORGY (barely worth a mention, sorry to bring it up)
  5.  LOVE CAMP 7 (again, sorry)
  6.  SS EXPERIMENT CAMP (merely being thorough)
  7.  BEAST IN HEAT (let's just move on)
Twelve down, sixty to go.  It gets easier from here on out.  Kind of.
C. Chaka    


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