‘It Felt Like a Film Made by Serial Killers’: Eli Roth on ‘The Last House on the Left’ at 50

The director of "Hostel" and "Cabin Fever" reflects on the legacy of Wes Craven's directorial debut.
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, David Hess, Jeramie Rain, Fred J. Lincoln, 1972.
"The Last House on the Left"
Everett Collection

Fifty years ago, two unknown filmmakers named Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham released their low-budget thriller “Last House on the Left.” Or, given its effect on audiences, maybe it’s more accurate to say they unleashed the film. Either way, the horror genre was never the same: Craven, who was making his feature directorial debut with “Last House,” went on to helm several of the smartest, scariest, and most imitated horror films of all time, including “The Hills Have Eyes,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and “Scream.” Cunningham, his producer, would exert an equally pervasive influence on the genre as the director of the original “Friday the 13th.” Ironically, neither filmmaker had a strong desire to make horror movies. “I do not think Sean or Wes had any personal affinity for horror or set out to make an influential mark on the genre,” David Szulkin, author of “Wes Craven’s ‘Last House on the Left’: The Making of a Cult Classic,” told IndieWire. “It just worked out that way. Everybody has to start somewhere, and without ‘Last House on the Left,’ there might never have been a Freddy or Jason.”

The opportunity to make “Last House on the Left” came when the distributor of “Together,” a piece of soft-core erotica directed by Cunningham and edited by Craven, offered to finance a low-budget horror film. Using the plot of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” as a template, Craven scripted a deeply unsettling tale of brutality and vengeance, in which a pair of young women are raped and murdered by a gang of thugs who end up seeking shelter in the home of one of the victims’ parents. When those parents realize who their houseguests are and what they’ve done, they shed all pretense of middle-class propriety to commit acts of increasingly savage revenge. Craven might not have had any particular interest in horror, but by tapping into his own most primal fears and his rage about the political tumult in America at the time he created a film so disturbing that it remains the benchmark for no-holds-barred horror without mercy for either the characters or the audience.

“I don’t consider ‘Last House on the Left’ a horror movie like ‘Friday the 13th’ or ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’” said Szulkin. “It is not a fun roller coaster ride. Sean has said the idea was to produce a film so assaultive that it made an anti-violent statement, to show violence as ugly and brutal and personal as opposed to the sanitized ‘bang, you’re dead’ killing in a cowboy movie. ‘You want to see violence? Here it is.’ The Vietnam War was going on, and as Wes put it, ‘At the time, it felt necessary to get to the guts of the matter.'” Film scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of “Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study,” sees the film as both of its moment and timeless in its impact. “Like ‘The Virgin Spring,’ this is much more than a historical document,” she told IndieWire. “It speaks to something really fundamental and really ugly about human nature that transcends time. The world is a horrible, scary violent place whether it’s medieval Sweden, Vietnam-era United States, or today, so the desire for revenge is enduring, too — and so, it seems, are the lessons that vengeance isn’t as clear cut a solution to dealing with this brutal world as we might sometimes like to hope it is.”

The Last House on the Left” received mostly scathing reviews at the time of its release, though Roger Ebert praised the film as a harrowing exploration of evil and Robin Wood would embrace it as a trenchant critique of conservative values in the age of Nixon. Today, the movie’s sledgehammer impact remains undiminished in spite of the many imitations and remakes (both official and unofficial) that it spawned; Craven’s inexperience and lack of resources made the movie far more effective than it ever could have been with more polish, because it felt like something captured on the fly — like somehow a documentary camera crew had embedded with an escaped gang of lunatics. Szulkin sees its influence in everything from Rob Zombie’s directorial efforts to the final scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” In fact, Tarantino paid direct tribute to “The Last House on the Left” in “The Hateful Eight” by using one of its songs on the soundtrack, something his friend Eli Roth had already done in “Cabin Fever.” In that movie, Roth repurposed several of the songs David Hess, who played the main bad guy in “Last House,” had written and performed for the movie to both pay homage to Craven and signal his own intentions as a filmmaker.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, from left: Eli Roth, Brad Pitt, 2009. Ph: Francois Duhamel/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection
“Inglourious Basterds”Francois Duhamel/Weinstein Company/courtesy Everett Collection

Indeed, it’s hard to think of another writer-director who has been as heavily influenced by Craven as Roth, or who has taken that influence so many steps forward to develop his own form of recognizably auteurist horror cinema. “Hostel: Part II,” for example, is to post-9/11 America and Abu Ghraib what “Last House on the Left” was to Vietnam, and “Knock Knock” plays ingenious variations on Craven’s home-invasion formula — though with a very different social emphasis and a more comic take on middle-class normality being assaulted by primitive impulses. On the 50th anniversary of Craven’s horror masterpiece, Roth spoke to IndieWire about his personal response to the film over the years and why it has had such an impact on him, Tarantino, and other directors of their generation.

IndieWire: Do you remember the first time you saw “The Last House on the Left?”

Eli Roth: I remember it very well, it was on VHS when I was 13 years old. “Last House on the Left” was one of those VHS tapes that people warned you against renting. You couldn’t begin your horror journey with it, you had to work your way up to it. I remember renting it with a few other movies, among them was the “Last House on the Left” rape/revenge rip-off “I Spit on Your Grave.”

I remember the opening titles and the music so vividly. Mari Collingwood in the bathroom mirror, through the frosted glass. The dialogue about Phyllis’ parents being in the “iron and steel business.” I remember being shocked when I saw it, but what stayed with me more than the imagery was the music. I hadn’t heard instrumentation like that in such a violent horror movie before, and the lyrics “And the road leads to nowhere” just echoed over and over in my head for weeks after.

We had all seen the trailer, where you were instructed to keep repeating to yourself “It’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie,” so I think I expected it to be worse than it actually was. I remember not necessarily enjoying the film, but being shocked by it, and then becoming obsessed with certain aspects of it. It felt like a film made by serial killers.

I didn’t understand how someone could make something so horrific, and after speaking with Wes Craven years later about it, apparently neither did he. It wasn’t just the rape that was brutal, it was the insane disembowelment that followed — but then there’s this crazy moment of reflection and remorse the killers have where even they realize they’ve gone too far. Craven forces us to humanize the killers, they seem to regret what they did, but it’s too late to turn back now.

I also couldn’t believe the end credits had lyrics that were a recap of what was going on in the film, with a number of double entendres. Was I imagining this? Was the serial killer in the film singing an end credits song talking about what just happened? And then the logo of an animated lobster snapping its claws? Was this really the last two minutes of such a disturbing film? I just had to watch it over and over, trying to understand how and why Craven had ended the film almost like a sitcom. I still have no idea.

The “killers invited to have dinner” scene really stuck with me, and I of course have since seen “The Virgin Spring” and understand where that all came from, but I loved using the killers’ lack of manners to reveal they’re low class criminals. It’s a scene I used in “Knock Knock” when Keanu Reeves walks into his kitchen to find the girls eating breakfast with their hands, with the dog eating off their plate on the table, gargling syrup.

I didn’t feel good after I saw “Last House on the Left,” but I never forgot it. It’s not the type of film one can enjoy, but you can certainly admire it, both in its filmmaking technique and the unflinching way Craven deals with the subject matter. And of course all of it is anchored by a brilliant performance by David Hess. I couldn’t believe the person I was watching on screen rape and disembowel these poor teens was was the same guy who was singing these early ’70s folk songs on the score. It was a film I couldn’t dismiss or put away, and over the years it just grew with me.

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, Jeramie Rain, David Hess, Sandra Cassel, Fred J Lincoln, 1972
“The Last House on the Left”Courtesy Everett Collection

How have your feelings about the film changed since then?

I watch “Last House on the Left” every few years or so. I first saw it in a theater when I was a freshman at NYU and the producer Roy Frumkes screened a 16mm print, and I believe David Szulkin was there or set it up. David and I had gone to high school together and he was starting a book on “Last House on the Left” at the time, which I thought was pretty impressive. I liked the film but didn’t dare write a book about it, you really had to know your Krug to do that.

“Last House on the Left” is not the type of film you can put on with your significant other and say, “Oh this is a horror movie you might like.” It’s a rough piece of cinema, but I like movies that rough. I like movies that challenge what I think a movie’s supposed to be or what you’re allowed to do, especially when they pay it off all the way through the end.

I went to a screening of it at the Cinematheque while I was editing “Cabin Fever” and saw Wes Craven speak. And it was during that screening that I thought,“You could never use music like this in a horror movie today.” Then it occurred to me, what if I used that same music in “Cabin Fever?” “Cabin Fever” was more like “Cabin Favor” — everyone was doing it for free in the hopes of some back-end money (which luckily paid off) and our entire music budget for source music was $1,500. So I found David Hess and told him I’d like to use six songs in the film, and he was so gracious and generous. He said I could do it but we had to record “Wait for the Rain” with his kids, and the entire music budget would go to his friend Greg Hilfman who would engineer the session. I said absolutely, and thought it was perfect for the end credits. I get oddly emotional and nostalgic hearing that music. It just transports me to another time. It was a blast to see the music with my first film in cinemas, and gave me an excuse to talk about how much I love the music.

Why do you think “Last House” was such a seminal film in the horror genre? Why has it stood the test of time?

“Last House on the Left” is infamous for a number of reasons. The attack on the girls is horrific, but the revenge is extremely satisfying. People love the film because it launched Wes Craven, who conquered horror in three separate decades, a feat still unmatched, and you can see the early seeds of ideas, such as a villain named Krug. Second, you have the incredible performances of David Hess and the rest of the cast, including a young Martin Kove, who if I’m not mistaken was Hess’ roommate and told him to go audition for the film. But really because the rape scene is still so disturbing and brutal and the punishment is so over the top that it has become one of those rite of passage films that if you love horror, to be a completist, you have to see it. You might not like it, you might want to take a shower after watching it, but you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s in the rare pantheon of films like “Cannibal Holocaust” that for horror fans are among the most brutal ever made.

How have “Last House on the Left” specifically, and Wes Craven in general, influenced you as a filmmaker?

Wes has influenced me in so many ways, professionally and personally. He was just an incredibly sweet, generous man, a mediator, a bird watcher, an artist —  everything about him inspires me to create and keep making films. Everyone who ever got to work with him loved him, and I only met him a few times and he was just so warm to me always. I find his influence seeping into my films in so many ways, not just with the slasher films, but with that dinner scene returning to me as the breakfast scene in “Knock Knock.” The castration and full penis slicing off in “Hostel Part II,” and the disemboweling of “Last House on the Left” found its way into Jonah’s death in “The Green Inferno.” It’s all in there in some strange blender in my brain. It’s like I wanted to recreate those death scenes in my own way.

Eli Roth and David HessCourtesy of Eli Roth

Why did you use David Hess’ music in “Cabin Fever,” and what kind of interaction did you have with him?

That first time I met David Hess face to face I couldn’t believe it. I mean, he was so nice but he has that powerful voice, and he was still fucking strong. Like you could see him playing the heavy in a movie in a heartbeat. But once he was around his kids Bo and Jesse it was hilarious to see him pivot to the role of the neurotic Jewish dad. Once I saw him as someone I easily could have done many Passover seders with, I relaxed. He had amazing stories about making the film and the reaction after. He said people believed he was really that killer and he couldn’t get work. People would cross the street to get away from him when they saw him in public, they were so scared of him.

I think David had that insane actor psycho side, but also this beautiful hippie Laurel Canyon side to him as well. I really enjoyed his music, I listened to it for years after I met him. He was one of a kind. I wish I had my old answering machine with messages from him asking me when we were going to make “Cabin Fever 2” together. I’d like to reconnect with his kids Bo and Jesse as well, they were pretty great. When Quentin wanted to use the music in “The Hateful Eight” I put him in touch with the same people who helped me back in the day.

I wanted “Cabin Fever” to feel timeless. It’s one of the reasons I had the kids arrive in a truck. I knew the film would get dated with cell phones and things, but I wanted to keep it as acoustic as possible, if that makes sense. Classic score, practical effects, people playing acoustic guitar and using harmonicas like in “Phantasm” or films like that. Just make it feel very ’70s without it being a pastiche. One of the things I did to keep that vibe was using the “Last House on the Left” music. I loved it so much as a kid I wanted to see if modern audiences would accept it, and if they liked it, would get them to see the film and appreciate David’s music and Wes’ incredible early filmmaking.

I also wanted to signal to the horror fans that I love what you love and I knew to pull these tracks, similar to when I used some of John Harrison’s spectacular “Creepshow” score for my “Thanksgiving” trailer. It’s always fun to put Easter eggs in like that. But if I’m being totally honest, in some weird way it’s my way of experiencing getting to make one of one of the most iconic horror films of all time. I wanted to feel connected to it, forever. I guess I just got a little more obsessed than most.

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