The aging process
It’s fairly common for critics and movie buffs alike to refer to a film as dated. Sometimes it’s a kindly euphemism for criticizing a cheesy or quaint film that is widely considered above reproach (High Noon, for example). Other times, a movie’s story or setting is, shall we say, not exactly with the modern times (I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch “Birth of a Nation”).
What is it, though, for a movie to truly become dated? For it to fall flat where its contemporaries still shine in our eyes? Watching Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” yesterday, I found a good example of that. “The Last House on the Left” is often cited as one of the most frightening films of the 1970’s. Watching it, I felt alternately bored or repulsed. Not disturbed, but repelled by rape scenes that carried on for the sake of themselves. I know that Craven was trying to make a film that depicted evil uncompromisingly. However, I don’t think he succeeded. It’s like a comedian who defends offensive humor by saying it was just a joke. Fine. Fair enough. The joke might still suck.
Beyond that, the film’s “thrill” scenes fell flat. It didn’t help that they were intercut with cheesy attempts at comedy and odd musical choices that threw off the film’s atmosphere, which is such a vital aspect of horror films. There were only two scenes that chilled me in the sense a horror film should; the end of Phyllis’s attempted escape, and Mari’s death (a devastating scene with more emotional impact than anything else in the film).
But what makes “The Last House on the Left” dated, as opposed to just a mediocre horror film? Well, it’s important to think about the time when this film was made. The 70’s were the heyday of exploitation films. These were cheaply made films loaded with gore and nudity. Their influence is present in “Last House”, which opens with a topless scene that seems gratuitous, but was par for the course in the genre. Craven turns the tables on the genre by making his villains believably evil, as opposed to just vehicles of violence and mayhem. However, his film resides within the genre; it doesn’t transcend it.
“Last House” pales in comparison to the great horror films of the 1970’s that sprung out of the exploitation genre, such as “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Those films are exercises in dread and terror, not violence and exploitation. They called the bluff of exploitation audiences in a way that “Last House” didn’t; they removed traditional exploitation elements and replaced them with beginning-to-end fright. Their sensory appeal keeps them fresh and scary. “Last House” deserves credit for attempting to make a movie out of an exploitation film. Attempting, however, is not the same as succeeding.