The 70s, as a decade, were the period in which horror was all grit, amatuers, gore, revenge, exploitation, shock, and "documentary-style" filming. There are exceptions (as with every decade) like the classic Dawn of the Dead and The Omen–plenty of others–but this was the first time things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre appeared, or this movie, one of the first, if not THE first, in the subgenre eventually known as "rape/revenge."
The movie is indeed carried off as if it is a documentary of sorts, filmed cheaply on clearly 70s filmstock in colour, with the odd hair in the age flickering at the top or bottom of a frame and lots of grain. Many in the horror scene feel this adds a positive atmospheric element to the movies of this decade. Some heartily disagree, though, and many hate this movie, few giving it as much credit as Tobe Hooper's later masterpiece. It's one of those few films Ebert has given zero stars primarily on the basis of taste, but possibly also because of his offense at the fact that this is based on Ingmar Bergman's Jungfrukällan (aka The Virgin Spring). Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) are two teenage girls going out on Mari's birthday to a concert in New York City, leaving from Mari's home in upstate New York, somewhere in the woods. They decide to "score some grass" on the way, and choose the wrong dealer-looking fellow from which to gain it. It turns out he is the son of murderer Krug Stillo (David Hess), who we've heard announced on the radio as having escaped with partner Fred "Weasel" Podowski (Fred J. Lincoln) and their "woman" Sadie (Jeramie Rain). They try what they can think of to simply escape, bargaining and pleading, to no avail. Krug, Sadie, Weasel and "Junior" take the two girls out into the woods and proceed to torture, rape and finally murder the two girls.
They then leave the area and go to a nearby house, the occupants become suspicious of the four strangers and begin to take steps to confirm their suspicions and act on them.
Now, I'll be first to say Wes Craven is an uneven director. I love A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven's New Nightmare, The Serpent and the Rainbow is good, The Hills Have Eyes is a classic, Shocker is good fun–but The People Under the Stairs is horrible and Scream was awful–and managed to screw up the approach to horror in many cases to this day, to my great annoyance. Possibly the most interesting thing about this one, though, is that Craven wrote and directed it, but it was produced by Sean S. Cunningham–director of the first film in one of the 80's other biggest horror series–Friday the 13th. Is this what offsets Craven's tendency toward bad movies? Or is it simply that he mis-steps periodically, or has lost his eye in the last decade? Hearing him talk of how he hates being associated with horror and wants to be recognized as a good director period, and to direct "straight" movies, I'm inclined to think he's just a fool. With the number of clunkers he HAS directed, it's not a shock he hasn't left the "dregs" of cinema that are the genre pictures (now, I have my problems with the idea that genre films are automatically inferior, but we're talking of how people perceive him, and so popular perception of them is what's relevant here, true, fair or otherwise).
This one, though, is a solid movie. It's not "entertainment" by any means (unless you've got some serious screws loose, or are one of those hideous people I hate who watch movies just to mock them), and it isn't ultra-professional, but it's a lot more competent than many first outings (Sam Raimi may be a better director, and The Evil Dead may be a better film, but it's certainly lacking in many departments Last House is successful in). The shots are almost all somewhat surprisingly well composed, with nice, strong focus on the appropriate elements and often evenly panned camera tracking, though the old amateur faux pas of zooming is not used too effectively. The major complaint people have (and I'm not going to fault them this) is the music, actually composed by David Hess, actor behind the evil Krug (who's actually quite successful in his role as the vicious, immoral criminal). Yeah, it's a little on the cheesy side, and often fairly inappropriate, but in many ways I feel, on this, my third (or so) viewing of the film, that it really does work, in its way, to achieve the aim of setting a time, place and mentality for the film. Complaint #2 is the "humour" involved with the police. It's not funny. It's poorly done, and it is incongruous next to some pretty disturbing images of the crimes perpetrated, but it feels like the attempt of an amateur to do something–it feels like there's a good reason Craven thought to do it, and for all that it doesn't work, that at least it was an intentional move to try and put that humour in there and hopefully spare the audience a neverending drop off a cliff into unpleasantness.
Is it something I'd recommend? Not to anyone I know–with a few exceptions, and one of them is the one who showed it to me, the rest already saw it as well. It's certainly not a date movie, but it is definitely a necessary part of any horror collection, well-executed despite the inexperience of the those involved and a landmark in a well-known, if often fallible, director.