Craven's directorial debut, the film was made on a modest budget of $87,000, and was filmed in New York City and rural Connecticut in 1971. It was released theatrically in the United States on August 30, 1972, and was a major box office success, grossing over $3 million domestically. Although its confrontational violence resulted in its being heavily censored and sometimes banned in other countries, the film was generally well received by critics. The film was remade as The Last House on the Left in 2009.
Mari Collingwood plans to attend a concert with her friend, Phyllis Stone, for her 17th birthday. Her parents, Estelle and John, express their concern about the band and her friendship with Phyllis, but let her go and give her a peace symbol necklace. Phyllis and Mari then head to the city for the concert. On the way, they hear a news report on the car radio of a recent prison escape involving criminals Krug Stillo, a sadistic rapist and serial killer; his son, Junior; Sadie, a promiscuous psychopath and sadist; and Fred "Weasel" Podowski, a child molester, peeping tom, and murderer. Before the concert, Mari and Phyllis encounter Junior when trying to buy marijuana. He leads them to an apartment where they are trapped by the criminals. Phyllis tries to escape and tries to reason with them, but she fails and is gang-raped by Krug, Weasel and Sadie. Meanwhile, Mari's unsuspecting parents prepare a surprise party for her.
The next morning, Mari and Phyllis are gagged and put in the trunk of their car and transported to the woods by the criminals. Mari recognizes that the road is near her home with a look of horror. Mari and Phyllis are forced to perform sexual acts on each other and Sadie attempts to perform oral sex on a weeping Mari. Phyllis distracts the kidnappers to give Mari an opportunity to escape but is chased by Sadie and Weasel, while Junior stays behind to guard Mari. Mari tries gaining Junior's trust by giving him her necklace and instead names him "Willow". Phyllis is then cornered by Krug with a machete and stabbed by Weasel. After seeing her leaning up against a tree, barely still alive and in shock, Sadie reaches into Phyllis's wounds and pulls out her insides.
Mari convinces Junior to let her go, but her escape is halted by Krug. Sadie and Weasel present Phyllis's severed hand as Mari screams in horror. Krug carves his name into her chest then rapes her. She vomits, quietly says a prayer and walks into a nearby lake to clean herself, but Krug fatally shoots her, leaving her body floating in the lake. Krug, Sadie, and Weasel clean up and change out of their bloody clothes.
In their new attire, the gang goes to the Collingwoods' home, masquerading as travelling salesmen. Mari's parents let them stay overnight, but Junior exposes their identity and orders them to leave. Later that night Junior is in the bathroom coughing and throwing up when Estelle enters to check on him. She gasps as she sees that he's wearing Mari's peace symbol necklace. She eavesdrops while the gang is spending the night in Mari's bedroom and finds blood-soaked clothing in their luggage. She and her husband rush into the woods where they find Mari's body on the bank of the lake. They carry Mari's body back to the house and exact revenge against the crooks.
Estelle seduces Weasel and performs fellatio on him that turns deadly when she bites off his penis and leaves him to bleed to death. Mari's father John takes his shotgun into the room where two of the criminals are asleep and shoots at them. Krug escapes into the living room and overpowers John and is then confronted by Junior, brandishing a revolver and threatening to kill him. But before he can do so, Krug manipulates Junior into committing suicide by shooting himself. Krug is incapacitated by an electrocution booby-trap set earlier by John. Sadie rushes outside where she's tackled by Estelle, but she escapes and falls into the backyard swimming pool where Estelle slits her throat with a knife. The sheriff arrives just as John kills Krug with a chainsaw. The deputy then brings Estelle into the living room before removing the chainsaw from John's hands.
Sean S. Cunningham made his directorial debut with the white coater film The Art of Marriage. His film grossed $100,000 and attracted the company Hallmark Releasing (unaffiliated with Hallmark Cards Inc.). Cunningham made the film Together as a "better version" of film. Wes Craven, who had no money, was put on the job of synchronizing dailies for Cunningham's four-day re-shoot. He soon began editing the film with Cunningham and they became good friends. Hallmark Releasing bought the film for $10,000 and it was considered a "hit". Hallmark Releasing wanted them to do another film with a bigger budget and gave them $90,000 to shoot a horror film.
Cunningham served as producer and Craven served as writer and director.
Written by Craven in 1971, the original script was intended to be a graphic 'hardcore' film, with all actors and crew being committed to filming it as such. However, after shooting began, the hard decision was made to edit down to a much softer film. This script, written as Night of Vengeance, has never been released; only a brief glimpse is visible in the featurette Celluloid Crime of the Century, and a sample is available in the UK DVD release.
The film was shot on location in New York City, as well as Long Island and rural locations outside of Westport, Connecticut.
The film's soundtrack was written by Stephen Chapin and David Hess (who also played the main antagonist, Krug). Chapin wrote all the incidental music for the movie; he also did all the arrangements and orchestration as well as all the contracting and producing musicians. The music is particularly notable for being heavily contrasted with the events on screen. For example, as the gang drives the two girls out into the countryside, the upbeat, almost comical tune "Baddies Theme" plays and, after the rape scene, a soothing ballad plays. This counterpointing was also used elsewhere in the film, with the slapstick antics of the two police officers occurring in between scenes of torture. The soundtrack was released commercially around the same time as the film. In 1999 the soundtrack was re-released on compact disc by Hess on Rock Bottom Rules Records. In 2013 the soundtrack had a re-release on vinyl, compact disc, cassette and digital download on One Way Static Records. It was also re-issued on a limited hand numbered picture disc for Record Store Day 2014.
The film underwent many name changes, including Sex Crime of the Century (from the characters' dialogue in the car ride scene), Krug and Company (a version included on the DVD release), and The Men's Room (simply because one poster showed a men's bathroom). None of these names were particularly successful. Someone then came up with the title The Last House on the Left, along with the infamous "To avoid fainting, keep repeating 'It's only a movie'..." advertising campaign. (In actuality, it had been used twice before: first for gore-meister H.G. Lewis's 1964 splatter film Color Me Blood Red, and then for William Castle's Strait-Jacket the following year.) The film under the Last House... title proved to be a massive hit. Stories as to where the advertising campaign originated vary somewhat. Sean Cunningham claims that the person who gave the idea for it was watching a cut of the film with his wife, who continually covered her eyes, prompting him to tell her that it was "only a movie". Other origins have been suggested, however. The tagline was so successful that many other exploitation films later used it, sometimes with their own spin. The title was sometimes imitated, as in the case of Last House on Dead End Street.
The film has a 61% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on 33 reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four, and described it as "about four times as good as you'd expect" and maintained that opinion in the mid-1980s when he supported his positive comments again on a special episode of Siskel & Ebert called "Hidden Horror".
The film was nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills.
The film was censored in many countries, and was particularly controversial in the United Kingdom. The film was refused a certificate for cinema release by the British Board of Film Censors in 1974 due to scenes of sadism and violence. During the early 1980s home video boom, the film was released uncut (save for an incidental, gore-free scene with the comedy cops, and the end credit roll) as a video that did not fall under their remit at the time. This changed when the "video nasty" scare which started in 1982 led to the Video Recordings Act 1984. This in turn banned the film as one of the Department of Public Prosecutions list of "video nasties".
The film remained banned throughout the remainder of the 1980s and into the 1990s. However it had built a cult reputation in the UK, and critics such as Mark Kermode began to laud the film as an important piece of work. In 2000, the film was again presented to the BBFC for theatrical certification and it was again refused. Blue Underground toured an uncut print around Britain without a BBFC certificate, with Southampton City Council granting the uncut version its own 18 certificate. It was granted a license for a one-off showing in Leicester in June 2000, after which the BBFC again declared that the film would not receive any form of certification.
In June 2002 the BBFC won against an appeal made to the Video Appeals Committee by video distributor Blue Underground Limited. The BBFC had required 16 seconds of cuts to scenes of sexual violence before the video could be given an ‘18’ certificate. Blue Underground Limited refused to make the cuts, and the BBFC therefore rejected the video. The distributor then appealed to the VAC, who upheld the BBFC's decision. During the appeal, film critic Mark Kermode was called in as a horror expert to make a case for the film's historical importance. However, after his report, the committee not only upheld the cuts but doubled them. The film was eventually given an '18' certificate with 31 seconds of cuts on July 17, 2002, and was released in the UK on DVD in May 2003. The cut scenes were viewable as a slideshow extra on the disc, and there was a weblink to a website where the cut scenes could be viewed. The BBFC classified the film uncut for video release on March 17, 2008.
Contrary to popular belief, the film was never banned in Australia on its initial release–rather it was never picked up for distribution in the country due to the censorship issues that it would have created at the time. The film was submitted to the censorship board in 1987 for VHS release by Video Excellence under the alternative title Krug and Company, however it was banned for its violent and sexual content. In October 1991, The Last House on the Left was part of a package of fifteen tapes that were seized by the Australian Customs Service. The package of tapes were forwarded to the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) who declared them "prohibited pursuant to Regulation 4A(1A)(a)(iii) of the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations". The film was eventually classified R by the Australian Classification Board (then known as the OFLC) for its DVD premiere on November 15, 2004. It had a theatrical screening that same month at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne.
Many different versions of the film exist on various DVD and VHS releases struck from different cuts of the film, many of them from different countries. To get a completely uncut version is difficult as even some cinema machinists cut footage from prints of the movie before screening it during the 1970s; many copies were cut or "hacked to pieces" and because of this some scenes have become rarities. According to Wes Craven, some people who were offended by the movie even stole copies of the original film and burned them.
Some incomplete scenes are:"Lesbian rape scene" – One scene long thought lost, except as a photographic still, is the two female victims forced to commit sexual acts on each other in the woods. This forced lesbian rape scene was included as an outtake with no sound on the Metrodome Three-Disc DVD Ultimate Edition and on the 2011 Blu-ray release.
"Mari in her room" - Photographic stills exist showing a nude Mari in her room in the beginning of the movie where she is reading birthday cards; the shot scenes of this no longer exist.
"Mari raped by Sadie" - Footage of Sadie committing sexual acts against Mari in the woods is often removed, even from some DVDs that have been labeled as "uncut".
In the Krug and Company cut, Mari is still alive when her parents find her. She tells her parents what happened to her and Phyllis before dying in front of them.
In the 1980s, Vestron Pictures hired Danny Steinmann to write and direct a sequel, though the film fell apart in pre-production due to rights issues. Mario Bava's film Twitch of the Death Nerve was also released under the titles Last House on the Left – Part II, Last House – Part II and New House on the Left.
In August 2006, Rogue Pictures finalized a deal to remake The Last House on the Left with original writer and director Wes Craven as a producer. The company intended to preserve the storyline of the original film. Craven described his involvement with the remake: "I'm far enough removed from these films that the remakes are a little like having grandchildren. The story, about the painful side effects of revenge, is an evergreen. The headlines are full of people and nations taking revenge and getting caught up in endless cycles of violence." Craven formed Midnight Pictures, a shingle of Rogue, to remake The Last House on the Left as its first project. Production was slated for early 2007. Screenwriter Adam Alleca was hired to write the script for the remake.
In May 2007, Rogue entered negotiations with director Dennis Iliadis to direct the film. The film was released to theaters in the US and Canada on March 13, 2009.