Colour, 1991, 102m. / Directed by Wes Craven / Starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill / Universal (US R1 NTSC, Brazil R0 NTSC, UK R2 PAL, Germany R2 PAL, Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

In retrospect, it's stunning how much genre films got away with during the Reagan and Bush years. With little fanfare, that era bred such amazingly subversive tracts as They Live, The Stepfather, Society, and from horror's most sociologically conscious chronicler, The People under the Stairs. A surprisingly resonant effort from Craven's most difficult period (in which studio and MPAA interference sabotaged nearly all of his post-Elm Street efforts), this imperfect but fascinating study of urban blight decked out as a sick fairy tale was an obvious influence on such subsequent films as Trespass and Candyman. Our story begins as young Fool (Adams), distressed by his mom's illness and impending eviction, decides to accompany his sister's boyfriend, Leroy (Pulp Fiction's Ving Rhames), on a quest to swipe some rumored gold coins from the house of their mysterious, money-grubbing landlords who hold the entire neighborhood in a state of poverty and despair. Unfortunately it all goes horribly wrong, and Fool winds up trapped in an elaborate, spooky house filled with booby traps and hidden corridors, hunted down by the insane, inbred brother-sister owners (that memorable Twin Peaks couple, McGill and Wendy Robie). He also discovers the titular people under the stairs, the mutilated and rejected survivors of children kidnapped in an attempt to breed the perfect offspring.

Featuring such peculiar images as a shotgun-wielding McGill clad head to toe in black studded leather, this bizarre studio project represents Craven at his most imaginative, wheeling off in a different direction every twenty minutes or so. There isn't much in the way of explicit violence, but conceptually this is definitely disturbing material; Craven is obviously ticked off at the current state of affairs (one early suspense sequence uses Bush's bombing of Iraq as television accompaniment) and he gets his licks in with admirable skill. Unfortunately the somewhat over-the-top ending gets a bit too preachy, turning Fool into something of a Robin Hood figure with everyone happy and all the scales tipping back into place. Had Craven followed his thesis logically to the end (either as fairy tale or social criticism), the film should have ending on a darker and more ironic note, at least serving up nastier desserts for its villains. What's here is certainly worthwhile and nowhere remotely as compromised as his other films surrounding it; the dark and claustrophobic photography is generally effective, and the trapdoor-laden house makes for a diverting setting capable of knocking the characters and the plot itself around like a pinball machine. Bonus points for the acting, among the strongest of Craven's films.

If ever a Craven film called out for an audio commentary, it's... well, The Last House on the Left, which we already have, but surely this one is high up there, given Craven's ability to provide literate and illuminating discussion of his work. Unfortunately you'll only get a trailer if you buy this disc outside the US; in America, you don't even get that meager bonus. While Universal offers a slick and colorful anamorphic transfer, otherwise this smacks of a thoughtless rush job. Technically there's not much to quibble about; black levels look excellent (vital for a film like this) and the surround audio does the job nicely, showing off the dark score by Don Peake (and Graeme Revell, sort of; check out the soundtrack CD for a full explanation of this film's peculiar music history). If Shocker can merit a special edition (in Europe at least), certainly The Serpent and the Rainbow and this endearing oddity deserve the same treatment.

Color, 1972, 84 mins. / Directed by Wes Craven / Starring David Hess, Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham, Fred J. Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler / MGM (US R1 NTSC), Film-Fradivis (France R2 PAL)

Ranking with The Exorcist as the definitive post-Manson generation gap horror film, The Last House on the Left is most notable in horror circles for kicking off the careers of Wes Craven (the only director who, love him or hate him, has managed to redefine the entire genre at least once a decade) and Sean Cunningham, who nearly sank the boat entirely with the Friday the 13th franchise. Seen today, Last House is a thoroughly non-PC film and may seem like a broadcast from another planet to those who think of peace slogans and bra burnings as distant relics of pop culture. For those a little more tuned in to the tumultuous passage of the past forty years, however, this film will mean so much more.

On her sixteenth birthday, pretty suburbanite Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) and her more jaded pal, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), plan a trip to the big city to see a notorious blood and gore rock act. Along the way they try to score some grass from the dimwitted Junior (Marc Sheffler) and wind up captured by his psychopathic father, Krug (David Hess), the ruthless leader of a small criminal gang which also includes the more low-key Weasel (Fred J. Lincoln) and politically inept feminist Sadie (Jeramie Rain). The two girls are taken out to the woods, where much sadistic mayhem ensues. Posing as refined salesmen, the four criminals take refuge in a nearby house which, unfortunately for them, belongs to Mari's parents...

The infamous tag line "The avoid fainting, keep repeating, It's only a movie... only a movie..." got its start here and at least applies to the notorious midsection of the film, which takes the conventions of the already established roughie grindhouse film (see The Defilers) and pushes it into horrific overdrive. Thankfully the syrupy Hess music (eerie opening theme excepted) and the irritating comic relief of two bumbling cops (including future Cagney and Lacey star Martin Kove, who was also doing Paul Morrissey stints at the time) make it awfully easy to keep reminding yourself that it's simply fiction. The oft-noted device of borrowing from Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring explains the film's basic plot structure, but exploitation films of the time are a much heavier influence. Craven and Cunningham's backgrounds in adult filmmaking, coupled with their shrewd intellectual awareness, made them ideal candidates to demolish the line between "safe" revenge fantasies and dangerous "you are there" documentary-style atrocities; indeed, the formula remains so effective that the upscale Miramax art film In the Bedroom, made thirty years later, is a barely redressed packaging of the same storyline and narrative tactic. In between the revenge genre has gone through numerous permutations including I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45, though the hollow and wrenching feeling evoked by the end of Craven's film has never really been duplicated. It's a highly unpleasant rollercoaster ride which pulverizes the viewer; apart from one expertly timed shock in the woods, the scares come more from the escalating panic and believability of the characters than any tried-and-true horror filmmaking tactics.

The various cuts of this film have become legend over the years, ranging from the standard R-rated version (the standard one on VHS from MGM and Vestron) to the "complete" (as far as we know) unrated print originally sourced from Canadian video which made the bootleg rounds for years. The American and French DVDs contain the same extended cut (but with closing credit cards missing from the Canadian transfer), with the entrail-pulling and neck-carving bits which propel the film into the upper ranks of the mainstream cinema of cruelty. Many of the film's notorious outtakes are also included, with some lingering gut-pulling and additional (silent) dialogue scenes; only some simulated, medium-shot, forced lesbian action in the woods was left off the disc, presumably for legal reasons. (It's not that much of a loss.) The transfer of the film itself is remarkably colorful for a film known for its cruddy visual appearance; shot hard-matted at 1.85:1 in 16mm, the film never looked great in theaters and appears similarly scratchy here, with several permanent in-camera flaws still on display. Medium and long shots are usually on the soft side, consistent with the original film format, but the film has never looked this good on home video, comparatively speaking. (Avoid the badly blown up full-frame version, which is an atrocity.)

Wes Craven's involvement makes the American disc the clear way to go (and at a much lower price tag, too); he introduces the film with a tongue-in-cheek warning and participates in a commentary track which places the film in its historical context. As with his other DVD appearances, he takes a largely analytical approach to the various symbols and sociological motifs used in his film, with a few production asides to keep things lively. Cunningham appears as well and makes for an engaging conversational partner; here's hoping Paramount lassoes him in for a much-needed special edition of his most famous film, should they ever get around to it. They also appear in the "It's Only a Movie" documentary, which also features some of the actors (Hess and Grantham, of course, have the best stories of anyone). Other extras include the unforgettable theatrical trailer and a rundown of the most controversial footage which previously wound up on several cutting room floors. A British edition has been prepared by Anchor Bay but will no doubt travel a rockier censhorship road than the American edition, which gets away with a simple "Not Rated" stamp on its packaging.

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