Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and Antonio Margheriti’s INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS (aka CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE)

What struck me most last night at Retrofantasma, watching The Last House on the Left in a theatrical venue, was a purely technical aspect. It’s long been common coin that Wes Craven’s grindhouse poison pen letter to the American family can be seen as a disturbing, nihilistic rebuttal to The Virgin Spring‘s concluding divine benediction on, if not sanctification of, an archetypal folkloric rape-and-revenge scenario.

But comparably less critical ink has been spilled on the film’s brilliant sound design. The soundtrack shifts gears at the drop of a hat between folk-whimsical and pensive (“The Road Leads to Nowhere,” after all), and its deployment consistently unsettles the viewer, barging in, in the seemingly wrong register, providing terribly ironic counterpoint to any given scene’s contents. As well, diegetic sounds register strongly, in particular the natural noises of the idyllic lakeside scene where Mari and Phyllis meet their dreadful ends. As Weasel sinks his blade into Phyllis’s back, a bird cries out, a piercing shriek that stands in for Phyllis’s more muted gasps.

Overtly inappropriate music links Craven’s film and Margheriti’s, with its funky, jangly score keeping time to flesh-rending and generalized mayhem. Not in the least what I expected, Invasion plays like a cannily prescient precursor to (and inversion of)  “retroactively winning the war in Vietnam” flicks epitomized by Stallone’s Rambo and Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action. In Invasion, returning vets encounter ostracization and indeed institutionalization when they aren’t met with bland indifference. Left to fend for themselves, and burdened by the metaphorically rich carnivorous cravings promised by the title (akin to Bob Clark’s neglected Vietnam parable Deathdream), the men can think of nothing better than returning to Vietnam.  When that hare-brained scheme inevitably fails, Saxon and his unfaithful wife renew their vows in a nifty little murder-suicide pact.

Adding to the film’s perverse attractions are John Saxon’s steely-eyed protagonist, and a hilariously profane English-language dub track, embodied by a particularly colorful police captain. When the ragtag band of outsiders escape police pursuit in the city’s sewer system (a perverse nod, methinks, to Carol Reed’s The Third Man), Captain McCoy opines, “Ashes to ashes, and shit to shit!” He’s also given a fantastic close-up shot, as he meditatively ponders aloud: “Cannibals…”

Trivia for you Lucio Fulci fans out there: Invasion pairs Giovanni Lombardo Radice (his character’s called Charlie Bukowski, by the way) and Venantino Venantini in an adversarial relationship as, respectively, vet and cop, in the same year that Fulci’s City of the Living Dead had Venantini introduce Radice to the working end of a table drill.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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