(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) There are two things that are guaranteed to drive me up the wall in terms of movies, and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left manages to hit both of them at once: Amateurish filmmaking and nihilistic horror. To be fair, this was an incredibly innovative film at the time of its release: by the early-1970s, horror films hadn’t yet gone to the extremes that we’ve somehow grown accustomed to, and there was an undeniable New Hollywood quality to the intention of turning out an exploitative gory cinema-vérité horror film in which a heroine is raped and killed, only for the parents to take merciless revenge. Public reaction at the time was aghast, and even today it’s easy to see why: the film is an extremely unpleasant combination of naturalistic filmmaking and merciless gore. Craven’s first film did not have the budget to be slick, and even the film’s biggest opponents (that would be me) will recognize that the overbearing musical cues, hair stuck in the film, muddy picture quality, choppy editing, neighbourhood sets and static cameras do create an eerie realism that would have been destroyed by higher production values. Even today, the very early-1970s fashion and music fix the film to a very specific time. Still, there’s no denying that the movie is excruciating to watch, especially when the filmmakers refuse any easy escape. The rape sequence drags on and on, and the film doesn’t spare anyone even when the parents of the murdered girl take their revenge. At some point, even jaded reviewer such as myself have to recognize that this is a specific kind of movie and that it appeals to a specific kind of audience. But certainly not everyone.
(On DVD, August 2016) I was about to watch the 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street without paying homage to the 1984 original … but then common sense came back to me and I had to take a look at it. Despite the film’s flaws, I’m glad I did, because this original Nightmare has a few things that weren’t captured by the remake. Probably the most significant of them is the eerie horror of the film’s dreamlike logic: Freddy’s first confrontation alone has more disturbing imagery than the entire remake, and the roughness of the film’s execution often highlights the disarming surrealism of writer/director Wes Craven’s vision. It’s this nervous energy that runs through Nightmare on Elm Street and makes it far more memorable than many slasher horror movies of the time. In other aspects, the film doesn’t fare as well: The acting isn’t particularly good (Heather Langenkamp is disappointing as the lead, and Johnny Depp does not impress in his big-screen debut), the pacing stops and goes, the cinematography is recognizably low-budget. And that’s without mentioning the somewhat unsatisfying ending, which just throws reality and nightmares in the same dumpster, then sets fire to everything and runs around laughing. Meh. It’s worth noting, from a perspective thirty years later, that Freddy’s character in this inaugural film, even played by Robert Englund, isn’t the wisecracking chatterbox of latter films: he largely remains this implacable threat and that further distinguishes this film from latter sequels and remakes. While this original Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t, strictly speaking, an exceptional movie or even a particularly good horror movie, it does have, even today, something more than other horror movies of the time. No wonder it still endures.