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May 16-22, 2007

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Cult Leader

Our 'House': David Hess looks back on 'Last House on the Left'

By Steve Palopoli

PERHAPS NO FILM—even in the subversive 1970s—rocked America's psyche like The Last House on the Left. Incredibly, to this day, director Wes Craven and the other people associated with it are asked to justify it, as if it's still impossible for the mainstream to believe that movie is what they could have meant to make. Even fans sometimes have trouble wrapping their mind around the intensity, despite the fact that Craven has time and again provided a detailed road map to understanding the film—who knows how many hours he's spent explaining how it came out of his own rage at the violence in Vietnam, how it was meant to be Bergman's Virgin Spring dressed up for a culture that had turned a blind eye to its own atrocities.

How ironic that that culture tried just about every means at its disposal to suppress the film, from cuts demanded by the MPAA (which still rated it "X," by the way—Craven faked the "R" rating seal) to thousands of tiny slices made in prints all over the country by individual theaters—not to mention outright banning in countries where civil liberties are even less well protected.

Today, the film has lost little of its power to shock—from rape to murder to revenge to the American home turned into a survivalist battlefield (Craven would use this theme often in future films), it is disturbing on many levels. But there's more than that to the power and enduring legacy of this movie. It also captures a spirit of independent filmmaking that has often been forgotten—the pushing of boundaries, the willingness to step up to the edge and look down.

There is perhaps no better way to understand this aspect of Last House's legacy than to go see the film at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater in El Cerrito this Thursday, May 17, when the film's star, David Hess, will be in attendance. Hess played head psycho Krug, and the intensity he brought to his performance is unforgettable. He has that intensity today, as well—even at screening events such as this, where he is still pushing his audience out of their comfort zone. By phone from his home in the Bay Area, he talked about how he doesn't want to let them off the hook when they ask the polite questions they think they should ask.

"I think it takes them warming up to me for them to let their hair down and ask the questions they really want to ask," says Hess.

This is a guy who is not satisfied with leaving anything unexamined. Besides acting—usually in the edgy persona he made famous in Last House and The House on the Edge of the Park—he's worked on the other side of the camera as director, writer, producer and God knows what else. He also has a successful music career that predates his film work and is working on a new album. (Fans will of course remember Hess' song "The Road Leads to Nowhere" from Last House).

He has fond memories of Last House on the Left, memories that are pretty much like those of us who romanticize that era of filmmaking would want them to be. "The film was hard work," he says. "But it was enjoyable and experimental. And everybody got laid, too. We all kind of shared each other."

The film was Craven's feature debut, and that was a break for Hess, who wanted to take his performance over the edge. Craven let him, and Hess quickly was able to gauge its effectiveness by the reaction he got on and under the streets of New York. "You'd know people who had seen the movie, because they would clear out in the subway when they saw me," he recalls.

He's quite proud of the film to this day, and doesn't really think about it in terms of controversy or outrageousness. He sees it as the film that allowed him to prove he could make a mark on his audience. "You hope you're doing something that no one has ever seen before," he says. "You give your all, then purge yourself, and then move onto the next role, and give even more."

The Last House on the Left, featuring an appearance by David Hess, screens at the Cerrito Speakeasy in El Cerrito on May 17 at 9:15pm. Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite Krug line here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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