From Banned Film to Bucolic Road-trip

TRIGGER WARNING: The Last House on the Left is a violent and exploitative horror film made in 1972. While there are no explicit mentions of violence in the post below, the plot and imagery of the film make avoiding some sensitive subjects difficult.

When the unknown cast and crew of The Last House on the Left embarked on their scene-shooting journey across the Northeast U.S., they barely had a script in hand, hadn’t settled on even a working title (Night of Vengeance? Sex Crime of the Century? Krug and Company?) and decided not to bother securing permits for any of their locations, calling for a few jumped fences.

The resulting movie — an exploitation film of the seventies-slasher variety in which two teenage girls are abducted, taken into the woods, and tortured, to keep it broad — doesn’t necessarily disguise any of these short-comings, but it did have a pretty measurable effect on the careers of its producer Sean Cunningham, who went on to co-create the Friday the 13th franchise, and its writer/director, a guy named Wes Craven.

The Last House on the Left also holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most censored, banned, or cut films in history, to the point that some scenes simply don’t exist anymore. The fact that projectionists in independent theaters sometimes literally took the movie into their own hands to remove scenes is what lead me to realize this weird, graphic, schlocky piece of cinematic history can also serve as the road-map — or cover, if you’re the only horrorphile in the house — for a delightful New England day-trip.

The Berkshires Connection

Let’s start right down the road from where I live, at a theater that once screened The Last House on the Left and, for better or worse, made a national mini-splash by choosing to continue showing the film while other movie-houses refused in response to public demand.

Operating as the Paris Cinema at the time, the Pittsfield, Mass., theater released an open letter via what’s still our local daily, the Berkshire Eagle, detailing management’s decision:

“After carefully considering all the circumstances, management has decided to continue to show the movie. This difficult decision was predicated on the following considerations: The film relates to a problem that practically every teen-age girl and parent can identify with, yet does not pander to the subject matter. The story does not glorify violence, nor does it glorify the degenerates who perpetrate the violence … we feel the movie is morally redeeming and does deliver an important social message.

It’s not a statement without its issues — for one, in the early seventies, sexually violent films were often couched as educational content in order to both skirt obscenity laws and push agendas (pot is bad!), a practice that earned the term ‘white-coating’ after some production companies went so far as to precede the main feature with an address from a physician.

The theater still stands, but has long since converted from a cinema to a venue for staged productions, today operating as the permanent home of Barrington Stage Company. I interviewed its Artistic Director Julianne Boyd all the way back in 2005, when BSC was still in the midst of moving in; the resulting article is decidedly unspooky, but this photo I snapped at the time kind of is:

Awaiting New Purpose

For potential road-trip purposes, BSC’s award-winning main stage — which, long before the Paris Cinema’s Fight-the-Power days, was an active Vaudevillian venue — can be found in the heart of downtown Pittsfield. BSC also offers an interactive lobby display of its history and complete social distancing information on its website; to check out the main stage virtually, click here.

The Fairfield County Connection

Some of The Last House on the Left‘s scenes were filmed in New York City and parts of Long Island, however the majority was shot in Westport, Conn., and surrounding towns.

The reason is simple: it was, in some cases literally, Cunningham’s backyard at the time. Most of the scenes in the woods were filmed at and around the Saugatuck Reservoir, while others were captured at the Poplar Plains Cemetery on Wilton Road. The Westport Police Department doubled as the entrance to a city apartment for one early scene.

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The Last House on the Left, 1972 (dir. Wes Craven)

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Road-trip Tunes and In-the-Car Games

Finally, one of the strangest aspects of The Last House on the Left is the juxtaposition of its jaunty folk-rolk soundtrack over what were some of the most gut-churning scenes ever committed to film at the time. It was actually written by Stephen Chapin, Harry’s brother, and David Hess, who also stars as main bad-dude Krug in the film. The soundtrack has taken on a cult status of its own, pressed to vinyl for the first time just last year, and can totally pass for subtle dinner party music in an unsuspecting crowd.

The Chapin connection is also a great piece of trivia to keep conversation flowing, as are these factoids:

• Other than Craven and Cunningham — which sounds like a law firm, but isn’t — the most famous person attached to The Last House on the Left is Martin Kove, who plays an inept police officer and went on to be best known as having no mercy:

• Gene Siskel, like most critics, hated the film – but Roger Ebert sort of liked it.

• It was the first horror film to use the tagline-veiled-as-warning “It’s only a movie” in its advertising. It was certainly not the last.

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