The Virgin Spring – 1960

Director Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay Ulla Isaksson
Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg,Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson

The story behind The Virgin Spring is steeped in Swedish lore, including a 13th-century ballad. It deals with the convergence of religious beliefs, human nature and the quest to overcome the weakness of the flesh with hands that are dedicated towards working for something more.

Bergman works with his The Seventh Seal writing partner Isaksson to create the medieval story of a father and mother who send their virgin daughter to take candles to church. She is accompanied by their seemingly less innocent servant girl, pregnant with no husband. The dividing line between the two is on many grounds. Karin (Pettersson), the virgin, is also not unfamiliar with the ways of courtship. She is also a Christian.

Ingeri (Lindblom), who secretly worships Odin, is looked down upon, but it’s obvious that she impregnated against her will. She is bitter at the differences between the two and secretly prays for doom for Karin.

The parents have their own set of issues. Töre (von Sydow) clearly enjoys his relationship with his daughter, who favors him in return. Märeta (Valberg) is envious of their relationship and has secretly begun to hate her husband as a result. She longs for her daughter to return the devotion she has, which is more than that for God itself.

Along the way to the church, which is miles away by horseback, the two girls are separated. Karin comes across two men and a boy herdsmen. They begin to share a meal. This ends with the rape and murder of the young girl at the hands of the two men. The boy, horrified, tries his best to cope.

Ingeri, watching this from a hill, is torn apart with grief and guilt and heads back to the farm.

The three goat herders end up at the farm before nightfall and before Ingeri. They ask for shelter and it is granted. The family, still waiting Karin’s return, is unaware that these are the people responsible for her disappearance. They do find out.

This film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 1961. It is an incredible story dense with symbolism and meaning. It’s also shocking for its portrayals of rape and murder in a time when these things were not shown on screen.

(****1/2 out of *****)

12 years later there would be a reimagining of the story. It’s lighter on the symbolism and heavier on the dumb humor and just plain grotesque concepts.

The Last House on the Left (1972 film) - Wikipedia
The Last House On The Left – 1972

Written and Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Martin Kove, Eleanor Shaw

The Last House on the Left achieved notoriety for being a bold update of a classic film. Even Roger Ebert gave it ***1/2 (out of ****). It’s unclear if its because it was a lower bar in the early ’70’s or if someone recognized the future genius of Wes Craven. Ebert mentions the shock value in the film, including one scene that unsettled beyond the others. There are some artistic dalliances, such as daughter Mari’s death scene sinking into the abyss of a lake ala John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia.

Mostly, though, this film shows a director who is working without permits or a budget to speak of, while getting the most out of a collection of bad actors working off of horrible dialogue. The original story takes a pounding here. Mari is more virginal. Her friend Phyllis is not innocent at all. They are going to a rock concert instead of a church and their quest for drugs leads them into the arms of two ex-cons, a woman accomplice and the drug addicted (yet still supposedly innocent) son.

The story strains credibility on every front. There is no feeling of genuine fear. Mostly, it’s just funny in a sad way. The acting is almost universally horrible The framing of each scene and the quality of each shot is bad even by standards of the era.

The worst addition to the story is that of two policemen that seem to be the inspiration for Smokey and The Bandit. Martin Kove is unbelievably doltish as the deputy to an even dumber sheriff.

There is almost nothing to redeem this version of the film, outside of the second half performance of Eleanor Shaw as the aggrieved mother of Mari.

In every respect, this is an exploitation film.

(* out of *****)

Fortunately, the story is salvaged four decades later in an unnecessary but much better remake.

The Last House on the Left (2009 film) - Wikipedia
The Last House on the Left – 2009

Director Dennis Iliadis
Screenplay Adam Alleca, Carl Ellsworth
Starring Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt, Spencer Treat Clark, Martha MacIsaac, Sara Paxton, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul

In this latest version of the story, we still have none of the religious subtext of the original. We don’t even have the empty revenge of the 1972 flick. Instead, we have a straight up fight for survival.

The cast this time is much better. Goldwyn and Potter play the parents, already grieving the loss of one child while struggling to reconnect with the other, played by Paxton. Their trip out of town leads to a house (or two) on the lake. We see that Paxton’s Ami is an excellent swimmer. No doubt all of this, and the fact that Dad is a doctor will come into play later.

The escaped convict this time is played with alacrity by the great Dillahunt. His gang including brother (Paul), girlfriend (Lindhome) and weakling son (Clark) help him escape prison transfer quite gruesomely.

The machinations that lead to the capture of the young girls is not quite as absurd as in the Craven film, even if most people would never go to a motel room of a complete stranger to get high.

The story gets good after the girls attempt to make their escape. I won’t tell you more than to say that much of the film from here on feels possible, if not entirely possible. There are no bad performances, and if you like revenge that doesn’t go down easy, this is your film.

By now, the story has been stripped of any cultural significance beyond that of home as a castle idea. It’s more akin to a roller coaster ride through a haunted house. In that way, it’s an improvement over the middle dreck of a film, even if it’s likely to go into the chasm of history as somewhat unremarkable, even if it tripled its investment.

(***1/2 out of *****)

All this to say it’s remarkable how far a medieval ballad can reach through time, even if what comes out on the other side holds little resemblance to the significance of the tale.

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