DISCLAIMER: Junk's going to get all kinds of sociological this morning, so if you're not game for that sort of thing, I recommend clicking on tags like "Lucha Libre" or "Head-Explodey," which are WAY free-er of academic mumbo-jumbo. What can I say? Sometimes my thoughts, they get provoked.
One of the things that fascinates me about movies made with the intent of evoking a direct reaction from an audience--be that reaction laughter, horror, sentiment, or any combination of a hundred others--is that these movies often have their roots in pre-cinematic traditions. Even though I poke fun at the claims of literary inspiration in nunsploitation films, they are in fact the direct inheritors of late Eighteenth Century and early Nineteenth Century anti-Catholic stories like "I Promessi Sposi," "The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk," and Matthew G. Lewis' "The Monk." The folkloric sources of tales of supernatural creatures like werewolves and vampires have been thoroughly catalogued by more academic minds than mine, and ghost stories are as ancient as the art of storytelling itself.
It might surprise some fans of genre entertainment to learn that one of the most quintessentially grindhouse, quintessentially American, quintessentially cynical and vicious shock films in the history of horror cinema, Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left," draws heavily from an Ingmar Bergman film titled "The Virgin Spring," which was itself based on a medieval ballad.
In the same way that genre films traffic in subtle differences between things that are pretty much the same (EXAMPLE: Bela Lugosi and Richard Roxburgh both played the Dracula character on film; you remember one of these performances), "The Virgin Spring" and "The Last House on the Left" tell stories of young women whose lives are taken by lustful murderers and whose parents take ghastly revenge on those murderers when they unwittingly end up taking refuge in the familial abode. It's important to note here that neither film is "About Women"--rape is violence and it's a societal ill that should upset ALL people. Both of these films are "About Violence" and "About Reactions To Violence." While the events in both films are very similar, the message of each film is incredibly different. "The Virgin Spring" is a meditation on the intersection between faith and personal tragedy while "The Last House on the Left" exalts the cathartic power of revenge.
There are many places where one can draw comparisons between these two films, and there's a lot of rich discussion to be had about the differing intentions of the filmmakers. To me, the most provocative difference between the two films is the way in which they deal with Difficult Women. For the shorthand purposes of a blog entry, I'll define a "difficult woman" as a female who challenges narrow cultural expectations by her aggressiveness and "un-femininity." In "The Virgin Spring" and "The Last House on the Left," there are female characters who are difficult, and the handling of these difficult women is a reflection of the culture in which each movie was created.
In "The Virgin Spring," Karin, the golden-haired daughter of wealthy medieval landowners Töre and Märeta, is set upon by three goat-herders as she travels from her farm to a church. If this sounds as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull, that's only because we haven't gotten into the details yet! Karin is accompanied by Ingeri, a pregnant teenager and practitioner of Norse paganism who works on the family farm. Ingeri harbors a simmering resentment towards the privileged girl, realizing that the community's perception of Karin as pure and therefore valuable is due largely to her social station. She rages at this chasm between her own lowly upbringing and Karin's entitlement. Simply put, Ingeri is difficult. Her jealousy of Karin isn't unfounded, and her anger comes from a place of frustration rather than of malice. In the scene where Karin is raped and murdered, which is lensed with a documentarian's matter-of-fact eye, Ingeri looks on, powerless, horrified that her ill-wishes towards Karin have come to pass. She feels a sense of guilt that her spite has somehow caused Karin's death and once she is back at the homestead of Karin's family, she confesses what she feels is her involvement in the tragedy. It's noteworthy that Karin's father responds to Ingeri's confession with grace and forgiveness--her perception of her criminality is left for her to work through, while the men who murdered Karin are punished with death.
There is no room for Ingeri's ambiguity in the universe of "The Last House on the Left," a film that divides the world into Good and Bad and casts its teenaged female leads as catalysts of crime being punished for daring to fraternize with people outside their upper-middle-class caste, smoke dope, and listen to rock music. A female character who struggles with jealousy and violent urges in a complicated fashion doesn't belong here, so she is split into two characters: Phyllis and Sadie. Phyllis is the more worldly of the two teen victims, having lost her virginity and dabbled in drugs, and Sadie* is the sole female member of the gang of criminals who rape and murder the two unfortunate teens. Ingeri's disrespect for cultural norms is hacksawed from her envy and rage to create the kind of one-dimensional characters that propel "The Last House on the Left" to its explosive climax. Where Ingeri wishes Karin ill, she is horrified when this comes to pass--Sadie, on the other hand, takes a malicious delight in the defilement of the two upper-middle-class women. It's all about the release of pent-up violence in "The Last House on the Left," whether it's the outburst of jealousy on the part of the murderers that results in the deaths of the young women, or the purging of the parents' fury.
*It's interesting to note that Manson Family murderer Susan Atkins adopted the moniker "Sadie Mae Glutz" during the cult's reign of terror.
"The Virgin Spring" closes with Karin's parents recovering her lifeless body and vowing to build a church in their daughter's memory, breaking the cycle of violence. "Last House on the Left" ends on a freeze-frame of blood-spattered survivors who have triumphed in a battle of upper-middle-class family values over the anarchy of the inner city. To put it in terms of an extreme understatement: the parents in "The Last House on the Left" are NOT going to be building any churches anytime soon.
It's interesting that the messages of these two films, which are intended for very different audiences (in fairness: there's that thin sliver of a Venn Diagram that represents "me and some like-minded deviants") draw such drastically different meanings from similar material. One wonders what that medieval balladeer who wrote the original song would have thought about all of this!