Sunday, 18 March 2012

Last House on Dead End Street (1977)


‘Last House on Dead End Street’ is an experience. “Experience” is the key word to remember if you are to fully appreciate this disturbing and truly unique piece of underground low-budget filmmaking as this is what the movie simply is - a cold experience in atmospheric dread. It is a trippy migraine-inducing mind fuck in its avant-garde displays of inhumane cruelty that is at times utterly repugnant and at others immensely nauseating. The production values are amateurish, there is little in the way of traditional cinematic narrative structure, there is no underlying message for you to decipher and it is not made to entertain. All this actually works to the film’s advantage though as it exists as a visually grainy experimental art-house work striving purely to bombard your senses with shockingly raw imagery of sadistic murder.


The history of ‘Last House on Dead End Street’ was the stuff of urban legend amongst New York’s 42nd Street grindhouse crowds. The movie was made in the winter of between December 1972 and January 1973 but was not released until 1977. This was due to one of the actresses in a minor bit part suing its creator Roger Watkins, as she did not want the visage of her naked body to ruin her chances of making it as a Broadway star (she never made it anyway). It was originally titled ‘The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell’ in its original 175 minutes version but the eventual distributors chopped it up rearranging the flow of the storyline and cut it down to a much more lean 76 minutes. They also terribly dubbed over the actors’ voices and they re-titled it ‘Last House on Dead End Street’ to cash in on the notoriety of Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on the Left’ (1972) though there is no house featured in the film as its principal setting. It received a limited run in drive-ins and grindhouse theatres and then rapidly sank into obscurity and rumours began to spread to add to the movie’s mystic encouraged by the distributors to make the title infamous. Due to the distributors attaching pseudonyms to the credits, nobody actually knew who made it and what with the ultra-low quality of the production, people believed the killings to be real and therefore an actual snuff film just as the plot entails. This is of course not true.


It was not until 2000 that the real identity of the filmmaker was revealed when Watkins posted on online forums claiming that he was the writer, director, cinematographer, editor and star of the movie. He said that only $800 was spent on production while the rest of the money he acquired for the budget he blew on his then crystal meth habit. At the time of the film’s release in 1977, Roger Watkins did not even know it was showing. This was until somebody who had seen the movie and had cut its trailer recognized him on the street referencing the horrific surgery mutilation scene. He told Watkins that the film had been out in South America for six months under the title of ‘The Funhouse’ (sharing the same title as Tobe Hooper’s severely underrated 1982 slasher) and that it would be released in New York as ‘Last House on Dead End Street’. Right up until 2002, the movie could only be acquired on hard to find bootleg copies but due to Roger Watkins coming forth and claiming ownership and with much renewed interest in his work the now defunct Barrel Entertainment released a comprehensive 2-disc DVD set to great acclaim. The success of the home release then led to plans for a sequel with a script written by Andrew Copp who had served as a special make-up effects artist on Jim Van Bebber’s ‘The Manson Family’ (2003) and Watkins was attached to direct and possibly star in again. Sadly, this never reached fruition with the tragic sudden death of Roger Watkins in 2007 while looking for financing.


The simplistic synopsis of ‘Last House on Dead End Street’ is as follows. Consumed with anger, a disgruntled and embittered unsuccessful ex-porn director Terry Hawkins (Watkins) just released from prison after serving a year for drug possession (he was dealing to make ends meet) swears to show everybody what he can do and capture on film something completely different that the world has never seen before - snuff movies. He gets together a gang of low-life psychopaths and all donning very weird creepy masks they commit the murder while filming of an old blind man and caretaker of the abandoned building that houses their productions. Terry takes his work to a couple of porn producers who not knowing that the death was actually real and believing it to be just very well done like very much what they see. They like it so much that they decide to steal it and take credit for the work themselves. Their mistake costs them dearly as they and their female partners are made the stars of Terry and his nut-job crews’ next movie.


The sheer immense power of ‘Last House on Dead End Street’ is in the techniques employed by Roger Watkins with his sharp artistic eye in getting the most out of the very little budget he had to work with. The visceral intensity of the gruesome displays of murder played out in ritualistic fashion are not overly gory for the most part except for the as before mentioned surgical themed mutilation of the wife of one of the porn producers. The story is secondary here to a gruelling exercise in a nihilistic claustrophobic atmosphere. The combination of the gritty look of the 16 mm camera (blown up to a 35 mm print) and the cocktail of surreal stock music and sound effects creates and immerses us in a bizarrely hallucinogenic nightmarish world while we witness the most strange and grotesque acts. Check out the unnerving whispering of the murderers in one such scene leading up to the torturous death of a young woman that will have you squirming. We are experiencing a nightmare while we are awake so we cannot wake up from it predating Hooper’s living nightmare artistry of sight and sound in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ by two years.


The acting on the most part is what you might expect of a production of this nature and while none of the supporting cast really stands out, if you can try to put out of your mind the atrocious dubbing they perform well enough in what is asked of them. It is Watkins though who steals the whole twisted show. Terry Hawkins is undeniably a sleazy scumbag but Roger Watkins brings a helluva a lot of charismatic charm to the role in a pleasingly perverse way and when the deranged loony really goes ape shit, it is so convincing we really believe it possibly due to Watkins’ large intake of amphetamines.


I stated before about how the film contains no sub-text. Well it does not, not in this distributors’ cut anyway. Copp wrote the script for the never produced sequel with sub-textual lending that Roger Watkins felt was lost in this released version along with most of the storyline. I also wrote about a “nihilistic claustrophobic atmosphere”. Well nihilism could have played a part in Watkins’ beliefs in an anarchic social commentary here. He got the idea for the movie’s original title ‘The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell’ from a novel by Kurt Vonnegut called ‘Mother Night’ in which the author talks about how the time in the universe is always correct but the universe itself is always in chaos. It could be that Roger Watkins was commenting on how government has a set of rules to establish order in society yet around those rules is total anarchy in retaliation against these governing laws. We learn from his character Terry Hawkins’ opening narration that he is full of hate for the established order due to the rulings of the institution of his confinement. His snuff movies could be a symbolization of a then very young Watkins’ outlet for his frustrations against society as the victims in Terry’s film are figures who have dictated to the character the outcome of his work as they have stolen it from him and took credit and therefore are not allowing him to realize his potential. I am merely interpreting speculatively and unfortunately to justify its feasibility a viewing of the full 175 minutes version would be required but it languishes undiscovered in a film lab somewhere in New York City.


Roger Watkins hated this version only seen by the public. While I would love to see his originally intended vision, how it is right now makes for a provocatively interesting watch. This fascinating one of a kind under the radar genre gem really deserves more of an audience. It is rough around the edges punky filmmaking that gives you the experience of a hellish journey into the black abyss of what evil human beings are truly capable of doing in something that is more filmic art rather than outright exploitation.

**** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

 

4 comments:

  1. Excellent post Dave. I'm just fresh from a screening of this film, and jeez, I had forgotten how weird this one is. You're right about the dubbing job, it is pretty terrible and occasionally took me out of the film for a moment, but perserverence pays off and the last half hour of the film makes for genuinely transgressive Cinema. The dubbing actually reminded me of Snuff, and the whole film vibrates with that unmistakable 70's porno vibe, the faces and fashions from a long gone era. It's interesting to speculate on what The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell might have looked like, but I couldn't imagine watching much more than 80mins of this film, it's a draining experience, even the production limitations aside the plot feels way too convoluted, and I was having trouble remembering who exactly the characters were. Of course none of that really matters, as a piece of Grand Guignol theatre the film is a triumph. I'm a bit of a Manson aficionado and I like the film very much from a Manson angle - the characters in the film neatly fit in with the core members of The Family - Roger Watkins as Manson, Ken Fisher as Tex Watson, Bill Schlageter as Bobby Beausoleil, and the two female players as Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel. One of the more apocryphal stories around the Family was that they had stolen an NBC van that was full of filming and recording equipment, which was used to make their own home movies up at the Spahn ranch - of course none of these home movies, if they ever existed have surfaced, but one imagines if they did they might look something like Last House on Dead End Street...

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    1. Thanks very much, Wes. Roger Watkins was actually a 70's porn director as well. One of his complaints about this cut was the confusion caused with the narrative. Also, great comparison to the Manson family.

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  2. I saw this movie at my local cinema, Serra Theatres in Milpitas, California (1977 would have been about right). As I was watching I had a sick feeling and I DID believe this was a "snuff" film. I can't remember if I stayed for the whole thing or left. At the time I was very much into horror films and even dabbled in the occult and this freaked ME out! In fact, I have always wondered about it and often searched for it just to confirm that I really saw it. Today was the first time I have verified it's existence. Thanks for a well-written commentary about it!

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    1. Thank you, Mariam.

      I'm happy to read that my review verified this for you.

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