Wes Craven's first film as director, The Last House On The Left, was produced in the United States in 1972. A loose re-working of Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring, it tells the story of two teenage girls who are abducted, tortured and murdered (and in one case raped) by a group of psychopaths. The psychopaths unwittingly seek refuge at the house of the parents of one of the girls. When the parents find out who they are harbouring, they exact their brutal and bloody revenge.
The film was first seen by the BBFC on 4 July 1974. The film's UK distributor was already aware that the BBFC might find it problematic and submitted the film with a covering letter. As well as stating that "It is not a violent film although of course it does have some menacing undertones", the distributor stated that "Before submitting the film to you we have already made considerable cuts, thereby eliminating much of the goryness [sic] that was in the full-length version [...] It is not my intention to exploit the film; simply to present it in the same way that say Don’t Look Now was presented".
Nonetheless, the BBFC was unimpressed and responded to the distributor on 8 July stating that the film was unsuitable for classification. In his letter of rejection, BBFC Secretary Stephen Murphy stated: "Despite your letter, we can find no redeeming merit, in script, in acting, in character development, or in direction, which would lead us to feel that this muddly [sic] film is worth salvaging. Mind you, I wonder whether your editing "to remove some of the gore" (the mind boggles!) has disturbed the continuity. There are passages where we are not at all sure whether we are in fantasy or reality. There are bits where the characters - even under severe stress - don't really make any sense. There is that discordantly ham sheriff; and the pretty-pretty wood-and-river bit".
Murphy concluded by stating: "We have to reject the picture. Maybe we are wrong. But if we are to go into this area of sexual violence, it will have to be for a film in which we detect greater merit than this".
On 10 July, the distributor responded, stating: "I appreciate that this is a difficult film but I do not agree that it is a film that cannot be considered under any circumstances [...] I am not saying that we would necessarily agree to further cuts but as we have already cut the film we would at least like to know the extent to which we may have to consider cutting the film in order to get it certificated. I am surprised that you found certain passages of the film did not really make any sense. Having spoken to Sean and Wes Craven, the director, they confirmed that the discordantly ham sheriff and the pretty-pretty wood-and-river bits and of course the ballad music were purposely interwoven into the story in order to make the clashes between abnormality and normality even more obvious. I believe that the film does have merit and I believe that there is an audience for this film. I would like to ask your help because at the moment I am floundering in the dark and have nothing to work on. I would be prepared to put this film up to the G.L.C. [Greater London Council] and we will be arranging a screening for several prominent critics and members of the cinema industry".
Bringing the matter to a close, Stephen Murphy wrote back on 11 July: "I think what you are asking for is quite impossible. We are not really saying that we object to particular passages in the film: we are saying that we find the whole feel of the film wrong, and that our judgement is taken over the film as a whole. If we could see any way of cutting it to make it acceptable, then we would offer cuts".
Finally, in 1976, the film was submitted to the G.L.C. in the hope of obtaining a certificate for screenings in London (the BBFC-rejected The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had recently been granted a local X classification by the G.L.C.). However, the G.L.C. decided on this occasion to agree with the BBFC and refuse the film a license for screenings in London.
After this matters went quiet until 1982 when the film was briefly made available on VHS, without a BBFC classification. Prior to 1984 it was possible for unclassified films to be released on video tape without approval by the BBFC. Nonetheless, the release of various uncensored and banned films on a format that allowed them to be viewed in the home by persons of any age led to public concern and ultimately political action. Video cassettes of The Last House On The Left , together with other horror titles, were seized by the police and the film was placed on the first iteration of the Director of Public Prosecutions' list of potentially obscene 'video nasties'. Indeed, the title was never formally removed from the DPP list and received a number of convictions in the lead up to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act 1984, which introduced mandatory classification of video works from 1985.
After the introduction of the Video Recordings Act, no distributor submitted the film to the BBFC for video classification, presumably on the basis that its history of being rejected by the BBFC and convicted by the courts made it very unlikely that a certificate would be forthcoming. Nonetheless, the film was screened without a certificate at London's National Film Theatre in 1988 as part of a retrospective of the films of Wes Craven. By this stage Craven had become a much better known director in the UK, largely thanks to his hugely popular A Nightmare On Elm Street. No action was taken against this one-off screening and indeed BBFC Director James Ferman was invited to appear in a panel discussion of Wes Craven's work. Nonetheless, Ferman made it very clear that the film would still be regarded as unacceptable for classification.
In 1999, following the departure of James Ferman from the BBFC and the belated classification of the previously unavailable The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, another distributor decided to try their chances with a cinema release of The Last House On The Left. By this stage, Wes Craven was a much better known director and his debut film had acquired something of a cult reputation, not least because of its status as a banned 'video nasty'. Therefore, the BBFC was reluctant to reject the film outright. However, whereas the BBFC had felt able to issue uncut classifications to other infamous 70s horror films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where the issue was purely horror, the sexual nature of the violence in The Last House On The Left remained a sticking point for the BBFC. Additionally, the fact that the film had been convicted under the Obscene Publications Act (something that had not happened withThe Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Exorcist ) made the BBFC wary of passing Craven's debut uncut, even after nearly 30 years. Accordingly, the BBFC asked the distributor to make cuts in three scenes, totalling just under 90 seconds.
These cuts were designed to reduce the more extreme aspects of sexual humiliation and violence directed at the kidnapped girls (the stripping, rape and knife murder). However, the distributor decided that the film would not be a commercial proposition without the extreme moments that had made it so notorious in the first place and declined to make cuts. Therefore the film was officially refused a classification on 15 March 2000. It was the first film to be refused a cinema classification outright for ten years.
In 2000, the BBFC launched new Guidelines, the result of a major public consultation exercise. These new Guidelines placed a significant emphasis on the clearly expressed public view that adults should be free to make their own viewing choices, provided that the material in question was neither illegal nor harmful. Accordingly, a new distributor decided to resubmit the film, this time for release on the relatively new DVD format.
Mindful of the BBFC's recent commitment to intervene only where necessary at the adult level, the BBFC offered the distributor a much reduced list of cuts, totalling only 16 seconds, after which it was felt that the DVD could be classified 18. The grounds for the cuts were partly the possible harm that might arise to viewers but partly also the work's previous history of convictions under the Obscene Publications Act. The BBFC is required, as part of the terms of its designation, to seek to avoid classifying any material the courts might find obscene. Nonetheless, 16 seconds of cuts were too much for the film's distributor, particularly given that the film was already available uncut on DVD in America, and they decided to take the unusual step of challenging the BBFC's request for cuts in front of the independent Video Appeals Committee.
Unfortunately for the distributor, not only did the Appeals Committee determine that cuts were required but they also stated that the BBFC had been too generous with the film. Accordingly, 31 seconds of cuts were insisted on before the film could be classified 18 for DVD release in 2002.
Nonetheless, one outcome of the appeal was that the Committee cast doubt upon the reliability of the obscenity convictions the BBFC had previously relied upon as part of the grounds for insisting on cuts. In many cases, especially more recently, The Last House On The Left had in fact been seized as part of large batches of unclassified works (pirated videos and foreign imports) with the seller simply pleading guilty in order to obtain a more lenient sentence. Therefore there was little or no evidence that a jury today would actually find the film obscene, putting aside any other issues of offensiveness or possible harm.
In 2008, the BBFC was once again asked to look at The Last House On The Left for a proposed three disc box set of the film. On this occasion, in line with the Video Appeals Committee's findings, the BBFC was able to discount the work's previous history as a convicted video nasty and look at the film afresh. Although still very disturbing, it seemed that the film had been largely overtaken by more recent 'torture porn' horrors such as the Saw and Hostel films, Wolf Creek and The Devil's Rejects. Given that these films had been passed 18 uncut for cinema release and enjoyed a degree of popularity, without any clear evidence of harm, it seemed inconsistent not to finally allow the much earlier film to be passed uncut. Accordingly, The Last House On The Left was finally classified 18 uncut on 17 March 2008.
In 2009 a modern remake of the film was again passed at 18 uncut for the cinema and also on DVD.