Classics of Horror #7 – The Last House on the Left (1972)

The Last House on the Left is the first, and probably most, controversial entry on this list.

This film – directed by a then-young guy who went on making flicks sank by obscurity (sarcasm alert) such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988), The People Under the Stairs (1991) and the four Scream (1996-2011) movies – is an exploitation horror that received humongous criticism when it came out and have been rehabilitated only in recent times.

Last House on the left 1Written, directed and edited by a young Wes Craven – one of, if not the best horror filmmaker of all time – The Last House on the Left tells the story of two naïve teenage girls who, in search of drugs, end up kidnapped by a band of maniacs who just escaped from prison.

It’s a 40-something year old movie, so I imagine nobody will complain if I insert some spoiler every here and there. I need to, in order to explain where the controversy lies.

Once kidnapped and taken into the woods, the two girls get raped, tortured and, eventually, killed.

As a consequence of its themes, the film was censored in many countries, and was particularly controversial in the United Kingdom, where The Last House was refused a certificate for cinema release by the British Board of Film Censors in 1974 due to scenes of sadism and violence.

I wonder what would have happened if A Serbian Film came out back then…

Anyway, Craven’s debut motion picture was inserted among the ‘video nasty’ list in 1984. In summary, ‘video nasty’ is the colloquial definition ascribed to a list of films that were criticised for their violent content by the press, social commentators and various religious organisations.

Last House on the left 3Due to the consequent implementation of the Video Recording Act, a stricter code of censorship has been imposed on videos than was required for cinema release. Several major studio productions were banned on video, as they fell within the scope of legislation designed to control the distribution of video nasty.

Despite many reviewers (among which Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode stood out) praised The Last House and used it as a symbol against the censorship of ideas and free art, the film had been presented to the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) for theatrical certification throughout the years and it’d constantly been refused. Until 2008 when, upon numerous investigations by the BBFC itself, it was classified uncut for video release.

At this point, you might wonder if the movie is worth its reputation.

To begin with, the violence is quite in your face, although some weird editing choices and poor practical effects (Craven had only some $87.000 budget available) make it looks dated and less effective.

However, The Last House came out in 1972, a time when audiences’ maximum level of gore was represented by the slow-ass zombies of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the hints to violence in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Due to its themes and implications, the film had an impact on me in terms of uneasiness (I must admit I consider rape as the worst crime, sin and cruelty a person could ever commit, alongside with paedophilia). So, I can just imagine how people perceived it back in the 70s.

Besides the controversy, Craven’s debut feature is an iconic rape-and-revenge exploitation that inspired an entire sub-genre with an endless list of titles and made room for a horror field that has little to do with the paranormal or supernatural.

Its grounded and down-to-hearth nature is what I appreciate the most about this film.

On the contrary, an aspect I didn’t like about it is the comic relief. In all fairness, to my knowledge, The Last House was one of the first horror flicks to introduce comedic features, a revolution that still influences horror cinema nowadays.

Unfortunately, in Craven’s film the comic relief – provided by two clumsy policemen – falls short and distracts the viewer from an otherwise dark and depressing story.

The sound design fails as well in creating a suspenseful atmosphere, being filled with tracks more suitable for a hash house than a dramatic situation as the one our teenagers are experiencing.

Last House on the left 2In terms of characters, the criminals are depicted very well and their traits emerge through dialogues and actions more than exposition. The girls and the other protagonists, instead, are flat and victims of the events, therefore not very interesting.

All in all, The Last House of the Left is worth a watch, especially if you are looking for some 80 minutes of ‘twisted’ entertainment. Craven’s debut will not be the only director’s entrance on this list and, perhaps, the next ones will justify his title of Master of Horror. Cheers!

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The Classics of Horror #6 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

This is a very sad week for the world of arts and entertainment.

Two highly inspiring figures have passed away: Chester Bennington, frontman of Linkin Park, committed suicide last night and George Romero, father of the zombie sub-genre in cinema, had died in last Sunday.

I can’t stress enough how much the sudden death of a singer who accompanied me with his melodies throughout my whole life shocked me. However, I’m not entitled to talk about it in this blog, although I wish I could express my grief in a better way.

Instead, I hope to make the brilliant director justice by reviewing, unbiasedly, the film that made him famous and gave us the basis for each single zombie movie that came out from 1968 to this day.

Night of the Living Dead is one of the first independent horror flicks, which grossed more than $30 million world-wide on a budget of only £114.000.

Last black and white entrance on this list, Night of the Living Dead tells the story of a small group of people gathered in an abandoned house trying to survive the return to life of the dead. This supernatural occurrence has been caused by radiation leaks that turn on the brains of corpses, basically resuscitating and turning them into flesh eaters.

Night of 2As this brief plot summary might suggest, the flick establishes the rules for each and every zombie movie (especially those involving slow ghouls): they feed upon human and animal flesh, they can’t be killed unless their head gets smashed, their bite is contagious and so on.

Romero has set the rules basing them on centuries of literature, dark fairy tales and bonfire stories, creating a fertile ground for one of the most successful sub-genres in cinema history.

With a small budget to his disposal, the director has also been able to confine the story within a narrow location – although news reports keep showing, throughout the movie, the consequences of the phenomenon on a larger scale, the focus of action is a small house with thin walls and, virtually, a few chances of survival.

Night of 1Even though today Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t scare a child, when I came out it’s been perceived as gory and unsettling. For example, the scene where the zombies eat the flesh of their victims must have been a massive shock for the 60s audience.

The film wasn’t ballsy only in terms of gore and violence, though. It’s then-daring employment of an African-American hero as the lead and its ubiquitous availability on television and video thanks to a lack of copyright all played roles in Night’s success. The racial component was, indeed, more shocking than the bloody sequences: “Everyone was sort of noticing the film was talking about the racial issue”, Romero said in a recent interview. “To us, it wasn’t a racial message at all”, he added, “in fact, when we cast Duane Jones (as the lead) – when Duane Jones agreed to do it – we didn’t change the script” to make it more suitable for a black character.

Night of 4.jpgNevertheless, the director himself claimed his flick to be more than just a zombie movie: “Our point was more the disintegration of society, the inability to communicate, the disintegration of the family unit. That’s the stuff that we were interested in”.

However, the social commentary doesn’t quite emerge in the film.

In my honest opinion, Night of the Living Dead is a rather weak film. Regardless its historic impact and influence, the movie lacks a sense of urgency and inevitability, which is what should emerge in a good zombie flick.

Furthermore, with the exception of Jones, every cast member gives an amateur performance, often over-the-top and laughable when it’s trying to be dramatic.

Night of 3Some of them are plainly annoying, for instance the girl who loses her brother in the first sequence involving the living dead. She’s so pathetic and nerve-wracking throughout the all movie and her contribution to the survival attempts is below nil.

Overall, the main issue with Night of the Living Dead is that it doesn’t hold up anymore.

It’s probably the least watchable out of Romero’s film and, also, in comparison to Rosemary’s Baby – which was released the same year – it looks extremely dated.

In all fairness, I wouldn’t suggest to watch Night of the Living Dead, unless you are a die-hard Romero’s fan or particularly interested in the zombie sub-genre. Instead, I recommend Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Dark Half (1993) by George Romero, because in my opinion they are its best works. Cheers!

The Classics of Horror #5 – Psycho (1960)

As I previously mentioned in my Rosemary’s Baby review, I have a ‘special’ chapter of The Classics of Horror dedicated to Psycho.

My girlfriend and I, in fact, went to watch the screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece at Grosvenor Park – a quiet oasis in the middle of the chaotic Londoner nightlife on a summer Friday night.

The location itself – which my girlfriend will talk about shortly on her blog – was worth the price of the ticket (22£ each, including a glass of fine wine) and created a mystical atmosphere that added to the quality of the film.

If you’re interested in Nomad Cinema initiatives and want to catch a glimpse of our day at the outdoor screening, check their website and enjoy the photo gallery at the end of this post.

In regards to Psycho itself, I thought to write about what makes it so iconic and inspirational to these days, since its plot, cinematography and general features have been discussed quite a lot within the last… well, 57 years!

Considered as the first slasher flick ever – although the origins of this sub-genre may find their roots back in Maurice Tourneur’s The Lunatics (1912) and countless giallo novels in the late 1880s – Psycho is much more than that.

Its influence spread through various cinema genres, such as psychological thriller, mystery and, of course, horror. Putting aside various attempts on imitations of sorts and a shot-by-shot shameless – and soulless – remake (Psycho, 1998), Hitchcock’s movie has inspired, deliberately or unconsciously, an endless number of directors and filmmakers.

Needless to say, the iconic stabbing in the shower has had tons of reenactments in probably half of the modern horror movies. That specific sequence has been received as shocking and gut-wrenching for the 60s audience but, in all fairness, experiencing it before a big screen and surrounded by an excellent sound system… well, it’s striking enough even today.

Again, the sudden change of main character – typical Hitchcock’s signature – has pushed brilliant directors to try unconventional story-telling patterns.

As if atmosphere, cinematography and music (damn, that score!) weren’t enough, the abrupt switch from one protagonist to the other puts the viewer in an uneasy condition, where the audience feels abandoned within a film universe where there is no one left to rely on.

However, what keeps me – and, I guess, all the cinema lovers – going back to Psycho and re-watch it any time with the same attitude is the character of Norman Bates (masterfully portrayed by Anthony Perkins, in the role that made him immortal). First great horror villain, Bates’ personality and psychology are compelling and captivating to these days. His character, despite the psychiatrist’s exposition scene towards the end of the film, is still a mystery for viewers and critics.

Even though the direction of Psycho is nearly immaculate, in my opinion the success of the movie – as well as its effectiveness – massively rely on Norman’s bony shoulders. Bates is an unsolvable enigma, portrayed in a various range of emotions that make him more and more unpredictable as the movie progresses. He’s also such a quotable villain, whose statements will remain impressed in people’s memories, similarly to Darth Vader’s and Heath Ledger’s Joker’s.

No antagonist in slasher flicks history has ever reached such a complexed and all-rounded characterisation. The invincibility of Myers and Voorhees, the sarcasm of Krueger, the cruelty of Leatherface, the intelligence of Vernon, the pure evil of Pinehead can’t rival with the ‘regular madness’ of Norman Bates.

Hitchcock, similarly to a few directors in cinema history, had also a strong faith in audience’s intelligence and pleasure in challenging it. There aren’t many films, in cinema history, that feature nearly no exposition as Psycho did. Here, the story-telling develops through the characters’ actions and the actions, whereas the dialogues serve as creation of compelling protagonists.

Nonetheless, there is a huge exposition scene towards the end of Psycho, which makes it a bit less timeless than it could have been, although it doesn’t affect the perfection of the film itself.

Needless to say, I strongly recommend this film. If you can, try to find a cinema nearby where they show old classics, so that you can enjoy Psycho to its finest. Cheers!

The Classics of Horror #4 – Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

PREMISE: as you might know if you have been following my series on the classics of horror, I’m tackling 20 milestones of the genre chronologically.

Does it mean that I’m skipping Psycho (1960)? No way, I would never commit such a crime against humanity. I just decided to switch the two movies – Psycho and Rosemary – around, because my girlfriend bought us tickets for an outdoor screening of Hitchcock’s film on Friday 14th, which means I can make a ‘special’ review for it that will come out on Monday 17th.

 

With all of that said, let’s dive into what is considered one of the best (if not the best) horror film of all time – Rosemary’s Baby.

In all fairness, though, the definition of ‘best horror of all time’ has been labelled to half of the iconic movies on this list.

Anyway, directed by Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a wealthy couple – Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), a bright but naive young housewife, and Guy (John Cassavetes), her husband, a struggling actor – that move into a new apartment in New York City.

However, what seems to be just flowers and unicorns, soon turns into an ocean of awkwardness, angst and fear, with Rosemary and Guy being surrounded by macabre events and nosy neighbours who seem to have an obsessive curiosity for ‘Ro’ and her future kid…

rosemarys-baby-blu-ray-screenshotFirst addition to the series originally made in technicolour, Rosemary’s Baby is a journey within fears and concerns of a woman who’s about to get pregnant from a self-centred husband all wrapped into his career and aspirations. It’s a maternity story told through the lens of mystery and horror, since the troubles Rosemary goes through in the film are either caused by her unstable psychological health or witchcrafts elaborated by people around her. Which one of those if for the viewer to figure out throughout the runtime.

According to modern standards, this film appears more as a psychological thriller – with supernatural elements in it – than a pure horror. Nonetheless, the audience back in the 60s was shocked by Polanski’s movie.

In fact, me and my girlfriend (who I re-watched the film with) struggled to believe the director got away with so many naked scenes, considering how puritan America was in the 60s.

Other than that, Rosemary’s Baby manages to be highly unsettling for its themes and some gross and gut-wrenching scenes – according to the standards at the time.

Rosemary's baby 1The effectiveness of such crucial moments in the movie is guaranteed by the performances – Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet (the nosy neighbour) won a well-deserved Award for Best Supporting Actress, for example.

The cast should be praised for that, obviously, but Polanski and his ‘awful behaviour on set’ (according to Mia Farrow) played a massive role in the film and its realism. For instance, Farrow was vegetarian when the film was shot but the director forced her to eat real rabbit liver in front of the camera to make the sequence more realistic – which brings me to believe that her throwing up in the sink straight after wasn’t in the script but more so a genuine reaction…

RosemarysBaby 4Yet, another prime example is the scene where Rosemary walks into traffic, which was spontaneous and genuine: Polanski told Farrow that “nobody will hit a pregnant woman”!

Besides all of that, I believe Rosemary’s Baby is the first ‘modern’ horror on this list, in terms of scare factors and enjoyability. However, although deemed as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, the film isn’t flawless.

Being two hours and fifteen minutes long, the first half hour drags a bit too much – it develops the character and takes its time to set up the story, but could have been cut shorter by getting rid of a few unnecessary sequences. Or, alternatively, could have been utilised to better explain the frustrations and anxieties of Guy, silent protagonist of this motion picture.

Also, the ending is a bit disappointing, even though it doesn’t ruin the movie even in the slightest.

Apart from these little flaws, Rosemary’s Baby deserved the title of masterpiece, featuring a great and purposely earing soundtrack that completes each scene masterfully.

Definitely a must-see for all horror fans out there, don’t miss it out. Cheers!