Coming of Age With Last House on the Left and VHS Bootlegs

Wes Craven’s debut is widely regarded as one of the most gruesome films in the horror genre. Last House on The Left pre-dated the modern slasher and set a standard in grindhouse cinema. Intended to be a commentary on the violence in media surrounding the Vietnam war, the outrage sparked almost destroyed Craven’s career before it began. Bizarrely, the controversy was the driving force in ticket sales at theaters and drive-ins. While the moral value of Last House is still debated to this day, it continues to serve as a grim warning to blossoming youth.

Multi-Generational Trauma

My mother graduated in 1972 and embarked on a life beyond the disapproving gaze of her god-fearing parents. Openly admitting to hitch-hiking to antiwar demonstrations, she recalls meeting a young man in the late summer requesting a date. Slightly older and handsome she referred to him as a “fly by night” boyfriend. My mom would agree to an evening at the Highway 2 & 65 Drive-In in Corydon, Iowa for a double feature. Little is recalled of the first movie, due in part to trying marijuana for the first time. The drive-in’s second feature was a different story. Wes Craven’s Last House on The Left would invoke a terror in my mother, too grisly to look away from the screen. Scenes of torture and humiliation would haunt her dreams for decades. Leaving to rethink choices made as a young adult with their first taste of freedom.

Exploitation’s Fountainhead

The gritty viscera of Last House on The Left follows Mari Collingwood on her 17th birthday. With her gal pal, Phyllis, they travel to the city to attend a rock concert. Trying to score some “grass” before the show, the girls approach a lonely looking hippie. Completely unaware that he’s a strung-out errand boy for a gang of serial killers who just escaped from prison. Captured and tortured, to say the least, Mari realizes she’s just a short distance from her own front door. There her parents await her return, having planned a surprise birthday party for their daughter.

Wes Craven would develop Last House with Sean S. Cunningham, who would later go on to produce Friday the 13th. The film was shot “guerilla-style”, bringing a documentary quality that blurred the lines of reality and fiction. This disorientation for the audience would spawn promotional taglines like “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie’…”. Craven would play up the shock factor by intercutting the confrontational gore with inappropriate slapstick scenes of bumbling police. Barely skirting by with an R rating after numerous cuts, the film was never released in Australia and outright banned in the U.K. Rumors circulated of projectionists cutting up film reels and even audience members stealing copies to be destroyed. Resulting in many different versions of Last House existing with lost or rare scenes.  

A Horror Fan Is Born

The tender buds of my own puberty had blossomed in the mid-90s, and I was devastated. The chrysalis between a feral child rolling in the dirt to a teenage Frankenstein was traumatic. I found comfort in horror films, observing victims of the supernatural and relating to monsters. Becoming a regular of the horror aisle at the local video store, I’d arrive with parental notes giving permission to rent another R-rated tape. Blessed with folks that took interest in my hobby, dad and I would watch creature features on Saturday nights. While my mom would take me to the movies for some milder horror cinema. Like The Blair Witch Project or the time we incorrectly assumed From Dusk Till Dawn was a heist movie. During conversations about the genre, she’d reference a film that had traumatized her the most. More than Deliverance or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the flick that had altered her perception of the world was Last House on The Left. Unable to describe the horrors of the real world, mom believed it was best if I viewed this movie myself. A warning of the dangers that lie beyond my rural hometown.

Tracking It Down

Not surprisingly, the family-owned video store did not carry a copy of Last House. So we went to the video stores in the city; Blockbuster, Family Video, and even Suncoast at the mall. Who knew the controversial film would be so inaccessible in the Bible Belt? It would end up being a thrift store outside of Des Moines that would lead us in the right direction. A box of donated magazines would introduce me to the last breaths of underground tape trading. The classifieds of Fangoria, Midnight Video catalogs, and stacks of tattered fanzines gave a brief glimpse into this dying fan system of bootleg circulation. By then most of the heavy weights had moved online, though some still offered PO Boxes to send a few bucks for a list of what was available. My mom decided to write a letter to Shawn Lewis of Blackest Heart Media, the independent publishing roots of RottenCotten and Eibon Press. While Blackest Heart mostly dealt in comics, soundtracks, and t-shirts, they did still sell tapes. I think we might have paid a $12 money order and waited about 6 weeks before the tape arrived. The VHS cassette had a very plain black label on a white background that read in all capital letters “Last House On The Left”.

There was an ominous seriousness about it. Lewis had sold us one of the more complete versions to exist at the time. A bootleg from Japan with subtitles burned into the bottom. Our private mother-daughter screening was as solemn as a funeral. It was more traumatic than the birds-and-bees talk years prior and I didn’t sleep well for a while. As years went on, I would share the VHS with cousins and certain friends. Late night horror-thrills with a full disclaimer before pressing the play button. Those that sat through Craven’s debut in its entirety would become grim and unwilling to discuss scenes after. I recall one male friend asking, “Your mom let you watch that movie?”

Horror Nerds of The Future

There are still specific scenes from Last House on The Left that have stayed with me after all this time. It has been well over 15 years since I’ve watched the original, with no desire to do so in the immediate future. I can’t say if the film’s message conveyed any kind of natural instinct within me to avoid danger. I still made many stupid decisions that should have left me as a cold case file. Last House was a rite of passage, not one of survival but a precursor to evolving my horror fandom. The World Wide Web connected gore hounds from around the globe and made the rarest video nasties more accessible, but it also sucked a lot of the fun out of collecting. Blogs and news feeds have replaced fanzines and word of mouth. Bootleg VHS trade continues to limp along but only as a nostalgic hobby to preserve the rich history of horror nerds for the next generation.

Last House on The Left celebrates its 50th anniversary August 30th 2022.

Further Reading

Xerox Ferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine

Eibon Press

The Rise of the Drive-In Mutants

“We are drive-in mutants; we are not like other people.”

In a small hotel conference room that stank of weed, a sea of right hands were raised in pledge. Some hands were parted as Vulcan greetings and others posed as devil horns. The audience was being sworn in by taking the drive-in oath.

“As long as one drive-in remains on the planet Earth
We will party like jungle animals
We will boogie ’til we puke
The drive-in will never die”

Long before I was ever thought of or before the term was invented, my father was a drive-in mutant. A rock n’ roll hippie of the 70’s, that regularly took in the creature features at the local drive-in each weekend. I didn’t know until later in life how much he loved the spook shows and Midnight movies. The very same cult films that I too would come to love in my life. In the mid-90s there was no greater bond between us than to make popcorn on a Saturday night and watch TNT’s Monster Vision. This was my introduction to Joe Bob Briggs, the premier drive-in film critic. Joe Bob would host the double feature and offer obscure trivia and cheap jokes. Usually, my dad would fall asleep before the second movie and I’d be left with my own prepubescent fears in the darkness of our living room. These Saturday nights are some of the happiest memories I have with my old man.

Monster Vision was officially cancelled in 2000 but the man behind Joe Bob, John Bloom, maintained an official website dedicated to his alter ego. His own work had inspired me over the years to continue to pursue writing and film making. Naturally, I did my best to follow his career with mailing lists to stay on top of his columns and events.

A few years back, John Bloom met horror enthusiast, Diana Prince when she attended one of his signings. The two became friends right about the time he was approached for the umpteenth time about a new show. Admittedly going along with it for a free lunch, he was introduced to AMC’s new horror streaming platform, Shudder. The idea was to resurrect the character and continue to host horror films. Unsure at first, Diana Prince encouraged Bloom to accept the offer. Convincing him that the fans were numerous and hungry for a return. When the funding fell through at the last minute, Prince helped secure resources to make the show happen. So as Bloom prepared to get back in the saddle, he asked Prince to be the new mail girl, “Darcy”.

Joe Bob Briggs officially returned in the summer of 2018 with a 24-hour marathon called The Last Drive-In. The response was larger than anticipated, with thousands overloading and ultimately crashing Shudder and AMC servers. Fans were tuning-in to the loading screen of doom, unable to watch the marathon. The few that could log-on got to witness Joe Bob give an emotional sign off at the end. Expressing gratitude to all the fans over the years, as he hung up his spurs. But breaking the internet was good news for Joe Bob, as it prompted Shudder to bring him back with 2 holiday specials and a regular series.

March of 2019 a reoccurring Friday night double feature with Darcy the mail girl. While the first season was airing, Joe Bob hit the road with his one man show, How Rednecks Saved Hollywood. A 2-hour cinematic lecture about the true identity of rednecks and their impact on film, from low budget to mainstream. I caught Rednecks in Milwaukee that spring, learning history of the films my dad loved of hillbillies and moonshiners.

The line to meet Joe Bob was wrapped around the block on that frigid Wisconsin evening. He arrived in a hearse from a local funeral home to a roar of applause from the crowd. When the line finally rotated through, I stood star struck before the man I grew up watching on Saturday nights. He shook my hand and signed my book: To Krystle, a drive-in kind of gal.

2020 ended up being the revival year of the drive-in with Corona virus closing theaters across the country. Reaffirming what Joe Bob has been insisting all along, the drive-in will never die. The Shudder network was generous to everyone on lock down with a second season of The Last Drive-In. Citing more viewers than ever before, fanfare flooded social media with official and unofficial merchandise. 4 more holiday specials were released and promise of a 3rd season.

February of this year, an invitation was broadcast to fans on all platforms. The first ever Joe Bob Drive-In Jamboree, a 3-day event at the Mahoning Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. Scheduled for later this summer, the Jamboree includes an indie festival for guerrilla filmmakers called “Mutant Fest”. The underfunded and DIY directors were encouraged to submit their horror films. All submissions from low-budget to no-budget welcome.

When Joe Bob and Darcy were announced as guests for the fan convention, Days of the Dead, I decided to attend myself. I was curious what such a gathering would be like for fans and celebrities during Covid. If local numbers stayed low and vaccinations continued to roll out smoothly, this would be the first horror convention in Chicago since the pandemic started.

At the Crown Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, employees were cased in plastic at the front desk. Hand sanitizing dispensers lingered in a few corners but there was minimal direction for convention attendees. The main requirement was wearing a mask properly at all times. An unquestioned rule that very few broke. After ping-ponging back and forth between will-call and volunteers, I found my way to the main room. For a few hours, I chatted up strangers and vendors, waiting for my scheduled photo op with Joe Bob and Darcy.

Considering it had been a while since the last convention, everyone was a little rusty on opening night. The photographers had given me the incorrect time slot but were determined to make it right. Runners and organizers would zip back and forth, reassuring me, “Don’t worry kid, we’ll get you a photo with Joe Bob.”

“And Darcy.” I would add every time.

There would be no Last Drive-In without Darcy.

Thankfully, both guests agreed to reshoot before their scheduled panel. Down to the last minute, here came Joe Bob Briggs, ten miles tall in his bolo and boots. Darcy glided beside him in an ethereal evening dress. Both kept their distance and masks remained on at all times through the convention. As part of convention rules, every guest had the right to set their own boundaries for contact with fans. Joe Bob had previously admitted on Diana Prince’s own podcast, Geek Tawk that he had contracted Covid in the beginning of 2020. An experience I’m sure neither wanted to repeat. They said little if anything during our reshoot before quickly moving on to their panel. I thanked everyone nervously, and followed behind them from a distance, taking a seat in the far back.

Right out of the gate, Joe Bob shared that he and local horror host, Svengoolie had been plotting doing a show together at the Music Box Theater. In summer of 2019, both hosts were hinting on social media that they were working on a project. Plans were put on hold due to the pandemic and according to Joe Bob, “Svengoolie is not coming out of his house until Covid is over.”

Joe Bob goes on to announce he’s looking to produce films and has been reading different horror anthologies that come out each year. While admitting that most are not film material, he examines each “in a certain weird way” that could possibly change them into film material. His Mutant Festival this summer is a manifestation of that, as well as uplifting the underdog film makers.

A few days before the convention, Joe Bob had gone to social media reminding his followers of the upcoming deadline for Mutant Fest. Seeing this, I had considered a short film I had helped create in 2013. Friends and I were inspired by an email received from a Joe Bob mailing list. After years of forgetting, here he was in my inbox asking for screenplays and scripts from his fans. Our short was never finished and years later I am the sole owner of the remaining footage. With a run time of 6 minutes and 51 seconds, I updated the movie the best I could and submitted it to Mutant Fest.

I have no delusions about my humble no-budget horror short, but I’m optimistic for horror in general. During the end of his panel, he marveled at how horror has become mainstream in the last 20 years. Diana Prince is now a regular columnist for Fangoria and John Bloom is a man with a vision for avant-garde directors struggling to get their films made. The Last Drive-In has really helped Shudder take off, and the team behind it will likely do the same for the future of horror movies.

The 3rd season of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs airs Friday, April 16th only on Shudder.

Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?

I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the late 90s when a middle school friend let me
borrow an edited for tv version, recorded on VHS. It was the beginning of an obsession that has
lasted over 20 years, daring me to dream beyond the walls of my reality at a tender age. The cult
film and its fanfare have always spread a positive message of unity among the strange, where
freaks and Franks could have a sense of community. 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of Rocky
though few have had an opportunity to celebrate in the last six months.
Chicago’s shadow cast, Midnight Madness, have been acting parallel to the movie screen for
over 35 years and the Music Box Theater has been their home base. Averaging one to two
Midnight screenings of Rocky Horror a month until the theater closed March 17th due to
Covid19. Not only was the scheduled performance on the 21st canceled, so were all other shows
until further notice, leaving Midnight Madness in limbo.
For the Halloween season, the Music Box partnered with ChiTown Movies drive-in theater to
bring patrons a safe experience during their more popular October events. Previously, the Music
Box of Horrors was a 24-hour marathon but this year it mutated into 31 Nights of Terror at the
Drive-In. Nightly late film screenings, trivia, special appearances, and double features on the
weekends. Midnight Madness approached the Music Box and expressed interest in continuing
the tradition of their Halloween performances by working something out with the drive-in.
Opening night was cold and rainy, making me unsure of how the cast was going to pull this off. I
was nervous to go to Rocky Horror as if it were my first time with a big V marked on my face in
lipstick. Most of my adult life in Chicago I attended regularly. Each screening and performance
were unique, no matter how many times I had sat through the film. From break-ups to first dates,
hazing of friends and family, or just looking for an excuse to be publicly intoxicated in my
underwear. Though never a cast member myself, some of my oldest and dearest friends have
been part of Midnight Madness, making tonight somewhat emotional for me.
The shows were earlier in the evening than most are used to, but tickets disappeared just as
quickly as they would any other Halloween season. There was no opening virgin ceremony or a
dance party to warm the crowd up this time. Broadcasting live from inside ChiTown Futbol, the
Midnight Madness cast was presented picture in picture, shadowing in face masks and a little
further apart. Audience participation had also changed; throwing props was prohibited out of
respect to the drive-in and there was no roar of jokes being shouted over one another. This
offered patrons the ability to come up with their own call back lines, though one could hear some
classics shouted down the rows of cars if you had your windows open. Historically honking your
horns or flashing headlights was heavily frowned upon at drive-in theaters, but at Rocky Horror
it is the face of modern fan participation. To cast and audience the differences were undoubtedly
awkward at first, but all were quick to adapt. The discomfort faded as we picked up steam
because despite everything, it was happening.
My friends and I sang along as loudly in the car as we would have in the theater. I noted several
other attendees also dressed up in spicy lingerie or as favorite characters. We disrobed briefly to
get out of our cars and do the “Time Warp” before rushing back to warm backseats, giggling red
cheeked and lipstick smeared from facemasks. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and its entire
following is where the punks and weirdos could come together and wave their freak flags. The
tenacity of Midnight Madness to bring that message to the drive-in was a victory in the darkness
of these troubled times.

Originally published in Haunted Emporium Magazine October 2020