Finding Happiness in the Apocalypse

Finding Happiness in the Apocalypse I’ve been joking for awhile that we’re in the apocalypse.  I’ve talked in this blog about how this may in fact be…

Finding Happiness in the Apocalypse

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.

Blogtober Viewing 2020: Mommy Issues in Stereo

Blogtoberfest viewing – the good, the bad, the terrifying — has commenced, beginning this year with a film that’s been languishing in my Netflix queue for too long: the German-language horror-thriller Goodnight Mommy, co-written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz.

Relying on three main characters, Goodnight Mommy opens in summer, as a woman returns home to her twin boys with her face swathed in bandages. The boys think she’s not acting the same as she did before she went to the hospital; there’s a good amount of back-and-forth about this — “Maybe she’s just feeling off?” “Maybe she’s an alien? “Maybe she’s born with it?” — but no real resolution comes quickly.

I was surprised to see six years have already passed since Goodnight Mommy hit the theaters, originally as Ich Seh, Ich Seh (I See, I See); I had it in my head that it was released in the last three or so. But it’s definitely not dated, and in fact holds together quite well in a mid-pandemic viewing climate.

Other factors Goodnight Mommy has going for it: standard-issue creepy twins. Ambiguous surgical procedures. A slow burn that goes into hyper-speed in the third act. What I think are Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Some really strong-swimming red herrings, and two Red Cross volunteers for good measure.

It also had a killer trailer, one that Mtv posited was the ‘scariest ever’ at one point, and I can’t disagree. It carries the same chaotic-but-sterile feel as the entire film, spliced together with some key phrases and a little bit of healthy misdirect (maybe).

It’s also important to note that, with all of the the head-fake twists and turns, metaphor-heavy imagery and a stark, secluded European home as a backdrop, this is not a movie that starts and ends as a psychological thriller. Much of the terror is concocted in the viewer’s mind, but plenty is also served on a nauseating, ergononic platter; strong minds with weak stomachs beware.

A few more convo-starters for your next weird cocktail party:

Goodnight Mommy had no script when it was filmed; one was written ‘eventually,’ and the child-actors never saw it. All of the actors are almost entirely improvising.

• It won the European Film Award for Best Cinematographer, the Fangoria Award for Best Foreign Film, and the Golden Trailer Award for Best Foreign Horror Trailer, in addition to being named the Austrian bid to the Oscars for Best Foreign Film in 2015.

• Franz and Fiala’s follow-up to Goodnight Mommy is The Lodge, released in 2019 and starring Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road, Elvis’ granddaughter).