It’s hard to imagine the horror genre as we know it today without the influence of Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, the filmmakers who gave us LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and later revitalized the genre by creating Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Ironically, neither man set out to be a horror filmmaker.
The origins of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT are well documented: Cunningham met an investor who thought he could market a horror film to, so he urged Craven (who knew nothing about horror—and, in fact, had barely seen any horror films) to write the most outrageously awful thing he could think of. The result was a film so raw and intense that the filmmakers became outcasts. In 2010, Craven told me, “When we saw the effect that film had on an audience, we were actually frightened. And then everybody’s reaction to us—especially me, since I had written and directed it—was: You are a perverse, horrible, twisted person. That was also scary.”
Craven claimed that he received only one directing job offer in the two years after LAST HOUSE. Desperate for work, he and Cunningham struggled for years to develop non-horror film projects outside of the Hollywood mainstream. Here are a few of their ideas:
A biopic of U.S. Army veteran Anthony Herbert, who wrote a book about American war crimes he witnessed in Vietnam.
Cunningham remembers this one fondly as a politically-charged story about “honor versus integrity.” It’s not hard to imagine that Craven felt equally strong about the subject matter. In interviews over the years, he often referred to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT as a “protest film,” and in 2010, he explained to me how the Vietnam War had profoundly changed his personal worldview: “It just seemed like one lie after another was being revealed. At a certain point, I think the entire culture felt like everything had been a lie. Everything you’d been told about the government, about America trying to do good in the world […] it was all one big fabrication.”
It would have been interesting to see Craven and Cunningham tackle this real-life horror story at a time when the wounds of Vietnam and the filmmakers’ talents were both still very raw.
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This seems like an odd pitch from the filmmakers of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, but Cunningham explains: “This was a time when we weren’t trying to sell to studios, so it was like, What do you think people might want to go see? And that was Wes saying, Maybe we could figure out a way to shoot in a Las Vegas casino. It would be fun to make a movie with beautiful women in Las Vegas.”
Seems simple enough, right? So the filmmakers went to Vegas and “did some research,” then sketched out a screenplay and pitched it to a distributor who specialized in “Roger Corman-ish titles.” Unfortunately, the distributor didn’t bite.
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According to Cunningham, this project emerged from another casual brainstorming session: “It’s back to that thing of, What do people want to see? Well, maybe a fairy tale. Fairy tales are always popular.” He adds that it would have been impossible at the time to raise money for a sequel to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, because “nobody would have known what we were talking about.” But Hansel and Gretel… well, everybody knows who they are.
Wes Craven must have liked the idea, because he later incorporated the Grimm fairy tale into his 1994 film NEW NIGHTMARE, using it to illustrate the cathartic value of scary stories—for children as well as adults. Cunningham remembers that their original Hansel and Gretel movie idea was aimed at the same broad audience: “It was meant to communicate to kids and their parents.”
As for that LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT SEQUEL idea: Over the years, a few journalists have reported that Craven and Cunningham briefly considered making a film in which Krug and company return from Hell to continue their rampage. When asked about the rumor, Cunningham chuckles and says, “I think we were both heavily into drugs at the time. I don’t think there was any way to take that seriously. That would not have been a serious consideration. At least not in the ‘70s…”
In one of his last interviews (with Jim Hemphill of Filmmaker magazine), Wes Craven remembered that during the lean years after LAST HOUSE he wrote “at least seven scripts—comedies, love stories, a story about a divorced father trying to pursue a relationship with his kids… Nobody wanted to know anything about any of it.’” Eventually, it was Craven’s friend Peter Locke convinced him to return to the horror genre.
Locke, who had already employed Craven as an editor on several films, remembers: “I said to him, ‘Listen, man, I don’t know anything about terror movies, but you made money with one. Let’s go!’ And he went to the library. We were on 56 West 45th Street and the library is on 42nd Street, so he’d go to the library after work. He was a late-night guy. And he found a couple of stories. One was so horrible that we just didn’t do it. It was about a mass murderer [Albert Fish] who did awful, awful things to himself after he murdered people. He’d stick pins in his genitals. It was just insane.” The second story was about the Sawney Bean clan, which became the basis for THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Locke concludes, “He went off and wrote this story about a family traveling west from Cleveland, which is where he was from. It was just an Ancient Mariner thing.”
In his original screenplay for THE HILLS HAVE EYES, Craven acknowledged his notoriety in an opening crawl, facetiously claiming that in the years since his first film, he had been “committed for psychiatric observation” and “treated extensively with drugs, group therapies, electroshock programs and a final lobotomy,” then kidnapped by aliens and returned to earth to make another horror movie. In 2010, he explained to me his rationale for returning to horror: “Once you do a really violent film, people don’t say, ‘Okay let’s give him a comedy to do.’ So in a way, you get stuck in that ghetto, and then you have to ask yourself: Do I stop making films because I hate the limitations? Do I make them and try not to think about it? Or do I say to myself, ‘For whatever reason, I’m in a position where I can make films of a particular sort… so what can I put into them that will be really interesting and different?’”
Cunningham reflects, “In his perfect world, Wes might have been born in Rome & made Fellini-esque movies.” Instead, both Craven and Cunningham eventually returned to the horror genre. For horror fans, that became our perfect world.