Last House on Dead End Street Review
Usually, the phrase “cult classic” is used for any film with a mildly cliquey following whether it’s Rio Bravo or The Wicker Man. So it’s fascinating to watch a film which really is a cult classic, one which was virtually impossible to see in a watchable form for the best part of twenty five years. Last House on Dead End Street has never before had any kind of official release in the UK and finally seeing it available in high street stores is an odd experience for those of us who first watched it on a third-generation video copy – the appalling picture quality rendering it even more scuzzy than it was intended to be, if that’s possible.
The title, imposed by the distributors, is an obvious nod to Wes Craven and Roger Watkins goes even further than Craven in depicting human depravity. And there are few more depraved humans than Terry Hawkins who emerges from prison determined to make his mark on society by producing “something nobody ever dreamed of before”. It could be pointed out that the notion of something nobody has ever dreamed of before turns out to be non-actors throwing guts around and splattering sheep’s blood over each other – but we’ll let that pass for the moment. Terry’s interior monologue – “I like jail. It’s nice and secure” - leads us to some flash-forwards of his plan, which turns out to be the making of some snuff movies. These are intended to punish society although the hysterically amateurish artiness of them seems more likely to punish any pathological viewers looking for a cheap thrill. Think Warhol crossed with Herschel Gordon Lewis and you’re close to the mark.
Terry clearly can’t do this on his own so he recruits a selection of psychopaths to help him. The first is a sideburned horror who informs us that “You know what I like. Tits like bananas… and leather…” but turns out to have rather more select tastes –an unfortunate encounter with a cow’s rectum resulted in a trip to the asylum when a government inspector wondered whether sodomy was a strictly necessary part of the slaughterhouse procedure. Then we have some girls who all look like Marie Osmond and say “I’m bored now” while removing their brassieres. Finally, he hooks up with Bill who is, according to the sleeve, “impressionable and easily manipulated” and, more to the point, can’t grow a proper beard, choosing instead to let stubble grow on his chin like mould on a slice of ciabatta. Bill is reluctant but Terry reminds him encouragingly “Who the hell else is going to pay you to make movies”
Meanwhile, the film indulges in a bit of largely irrelevant S/M involving a young lady in blackface being whipped by someone pretending to be a hunchback for the delectation of some burbling extras who don’t notice that the sound effects aren’t in synch. Next door, a movie producer listens in pained fashion while stroking his pussy and wonders whether he can possibly find a film which will really make people sit up and take notice. Can you hear the cogs of the plot clicking into place? “I could shoot a lesbian film with some of the good looking chicks I’ve been working with,” muses the producer, adding “Maybe we could throw the dog in!” His gangster partner isn’t sympathetic – “Just produce! This country is built on innovation so start innovating!” – and suggests a team-up with Terry Hawkins. “I’m not interested in art” says the gangster, which makes his interest in Mr Hawkins, who rants on like Tracey Emin in one of her less cogent phases, somewhat strange.
I’ll pause for a moment to observe that while everyone tells you how disturbing and horrible Last House on Dead End Street is, I actually think it’s so utterly daft that it’s impossible to take it seriously. It has none of the painful intensity of Last House on the Left or the suspense of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s not provocative like I Spit on Your Grave and it doesn’t have the gothic joi-de-vivre of a Fulci film. It doesn’t even have the deranged commitment to social comment of Driller Killer. It’s just very, very silly. Which is, I hasten to add, a recommendation. It’s potentially nasty and unsettling and it is undoubtedly sleazy, but it exists in a little world of its own that never connects with the outside.
Having filmed the killing of the blind superintendent of his apartment, Terry decides to start by seducing the movie mogul’s wife – “You’re a pretty classy chick” – and, for reasons beyond my comprehension, she comes across despite Terry’s reluctance to remove his leather jacket and his maniacal kneading of her buttocks as if he were making dough balls. Before he leaves, he whispers sweet nothings like “When your husband gets home, tell him Terry Hawkins was here on a business deal”. Who said romance was dead?
This set-up lasts about forty minutes but seems to take much longer. There’s no sense of pace or suspense and it is virtually impossible to get involved with the narrative because the dialogue and performances keep taking you out of it. It’s hard not to wonder what the point of all this is. Clearly, it’s a stab at art and probably at some kind of social comment but for one thing it’s not very good art and for another, the social comment is jejune at best – pornography is dehumanising seems to be the main message.
The second half of the film gets a lot more interesting although no less idiotic. We enter seriously weird territory when Terry begins to make his films, turning himself into some kind of messiah and getting his willing compadres to do all manner of anti-social things. This would be unpleasant stuff were it not for the constant chatter in the background as Terry talks crap about virgin brides and his followers repeat it in a whisper. Blood and guts are splattered about with glee and there’s a degree of expertise to some of the special effects which you won’t find elsewhere. Yet Watkins obviously doesn’t realise that being disturbing takes a lot more than simply upsetting the audience with graphic detail or gratuitous weirdness. It takes a degree of artistry which he doesn’t possess. Technically, the film is sometimes competent but uncontrolled so that there’s little sign that the shots were properly planned in advance or even thought through. On other levels, it is barely adequate. At one point, a character says“For a good horror film, you gotta have some good actors” which is unfortunate in the circumstances. The acting ranges from the hysterically camp to the wooden but this could perhaps be excused by the unspeakable dialogue, provided by the director.
Yet, even while you can’t take Last House on Dead End Street seriously, it remains fascinating. The story behind the making and distribution of the film is particularly interesting. Until 2000, no-one owned up to directing the film and Roger Watkins (who also stars) hid behind the directoral pseudonym Victor Janos and the acting pseudonym Steven Morrison. It was made in 1972/73 and was released in the late 1970s, much to the surprise of Watkins who hadn’t been informed. The original version of the film ran three hours and is now (perhaps thankfully) lost. The soundtrack was recorded on a tape recorder and then dubbed onto the film and the budget for the whole movie was, depending on who you believe, between $1,500 and $3,000. Watkins claims to have been high on drugs and it’s not hard to believe that.
Some people will find Last House on Dead End Street genuinely nasty and disturbing and I am quite willing to believe that some viewers genuinely believe it’s a classic of underground filmmaking. But all this talk about it being an ‘evil film’ and truly perverted is, in my view, bunkum. It’s a no-budget amateur film which gets off on blood and gore and thumbs its nose at various interest groups – feminists are almost guaranteed to hate every second of it and homosexuals aren’t likely to be too thrilled either. The set-piece evisceration and dismemberment which takes place around the hour mark is certainly memorable and unique for the period but for all its graphic bloodletting, it’s too obviously fake (and overacted) to get you where you live. Showing depravity is always a problem of course – how do you stop it looking ludicrous? Watkins doesn’t – and the sight of someone who resembles Ricky Tomlinson being forced to fellate a deer hoof is more likely to lead to giggles than screams, especially when accompanied by the supporting cast cackling like they’re trying out for a part as a witch in a school Halloween pageant.
The visual transfer of Last House on Dead End Street is absolutely dire although this is not Tartan’s fault. There’s a whole load of print damage visible, constant and intrusive grain, considerable amounts of artifacting and a lot of colour bleeding. Given the hopelessly poor quality of the source material, as discussed above, none of this is remotely surprising. It doesn’t appear to be an NTSC-PAL conversion judging by the running time. On the whole, this is probably as good as the film is ever likely to look and it is at least reasonably clear to see what’s going on – some bootlegs from the 1980s were so dingy that you might as well have been watching white noise.
Much the same goes for the sound which is hissy and crackly. However, the dialogue is clear for much of the time and the porn-movie music score sounds suitably sleazy.
The bonus materials are disappointing. The 2002 DVD release from Barrel Entertainment was packed with good stuff including a commentary track, a 60 minute audio interview and a riveting, often bizarre log of phone calls. All we get here are the four short films made by Roger Watkins in the years preceding this movie and eighteen minutes of outtakes. These are all silent and are unlikely to set anyone’s world on fire although since this is the only way we’ll ever get to see them, they have some curiosity value. The short films run about an hour in total and they are all silent. Realising that this might not be the most engrossing way to spend sixty minutes, Mr Watkins has added an amusing and informative commentary track to each one. The earliest – “The Masque of the Red Death” – is the worst but by the time of “Black Snow”, Watkins was developing some minor skill and it’s not too painful to watch.
The trailer and film notes advertised were not on the review copy sent to me. Compared to the US release, this is poor stuff indeed.
Any fan of this movie will already own the excellent USA release but those with a more casual interest in horror or extreme cinema should find this worth a look. Shame that Tartan are charging so much for such an extras-lite release when the R1 can be bought for the same price or less.