The Last House on the Left is a 1972 American exploitation horror film written, edited, and directed by Wes Craven and produced by Sean S. Cunningham. The film stars Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, and Marc Sheffler. The plot revolves around two teenage girls who are taken into the woods and tortured by a gang of murderous thugs. The story is inspired by the 1960 Swedish film The Virgin Spring, directed by Ingmar Bergman, which in turn is based on a Swedish ballad, "Töres döttrar i Wänge".
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 under the same title in 2009.
The film underwent multiple title changes, with its investors initially titling it Sex Crime of the Century. However, after test screenings were completed, it was decided to change the title to Krug and Company; however, this title was found to have little draw during test screenings. A marketing specialist who was an acquaintance of Cunningham's proposed the title The Last House on the Left. Craven initially thought the title was "terrible." The film was released under this title on August 30, 1972. Like many films during the era, it had a regional expansion to cinemas and drive-in theaters over the course of the next several months, opening in various U.S. cities between September and November 1972.
Due to its graphic content, the film sparked protests from the public throughout the fall of 1972 who called for its removal from local theaters. The Paris Cinema, a movie theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, issued an open letter to these criticisms in September 1972, in which it was noted:
After carefully considering all the circumstances, management has decided to continue to show the movie. This difficult decision was predicated on the following considerations: The film relates to a problem that practically every teen-age girl and parent can identify with, yet does not pander to the subject matter. The story does not glorify violence, nor does it glorify the degenerates who perpetrate the violence ... we feel the movie is morally redeeming and does deliver an important social message.
Promotional material capitalized on the film's graphic content and divisive reception, featuring the tagline: "To avoid fainting, keep repeating 'It's only a movie' ..." advertising campaign. Under the Last House... title, the film proved to be a hit. Anecdotes as to where the advertising campaign originated vary somewhat. Cunningham claims that marketing specialist who devised the Last House... title 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, as it had been used twice before: first for H.G. Lewis's 1964 splatter film Color Me Blood Red and then for William Castle's Strait-Jacket the following year. The tagline was so successful that many other exploitation films later used it, sometimes with their own spin. The film's title was also imitated, as in the case of Last House on Dead End Street.
Newspaper advertisements featured lengthy statements issued by the film's producers defending it against claims that it sensationalized violence, one of which noted: "You will hate the people who perpetrate these outrages–and you should! But if a movie–and it is only a movie–can arouse you to such extreme emotion then the film director has succeeded ... The movie makes a plea for an end to all the senseless violence and inhuman cruelty that has become so much a part of the times in which we live." Promotional artwork for the film accompanying such producer's statements included a warning that the film was "not recommended for persons under 30." The film continued to screen throughout the United States into 1973.