A frequently appalling, amateurish seventies sleaze fest that remains a fascinating curiosity nonetheless. Its non-budget is evident throughout, as is the post-production reediting by unscrupulous distributors (who reduced a 3-hour opus to a semi-coherent 78-minute head-scratcher), yet this film seems to have actually been enhanced by its shortcomings: it’s genuinely weird and disturbing, as creepy and surreal as anything by David Lynch. Still, based on the monumental 2-DVD set released by Barrel Entertainment in late 2002, it seems LHODES will be remembered more for its astonishing DVD package than for any qualities it may possess.
This project started out as a three-hour amateur effort entitled THE CUCKOO CLOCKS OF HELL, written, produced, directed by and starring the debuting Roger Watkins, who completed the film in 1972. Inspired by the Charles Manson killings, it was a heavily improvised work that wasn’t released until four years later, heavily cut and retitled LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET (in a none-too-subtle attempt at cashing in on 1972’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT). Unfortunately, it seems this latter version is the only surviving cut…but then, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
Over the years, LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET has amassed much notoriety on the bootleg circuit, mostly based on some disturbing last minute carnage many claim is real. The “snuff film” rumor was enflamed by the overall home movie feel and clearly pseudonymous credits (Watkins didn’t want his name “anywhere near” the butchered version, and the rest of the cast and crew evidently felt the same way). The idea that people were actually killed during the making of this film still persist (at least one comment on the film’s IMDB page attests to that “fact”), Illusions die hard, even these days.
However, it must be said that I probably wouldn’t be reviewing this film at all if it weren’t for its epic DVD version. Barrel Film’s two-disk package was, quite simply, one of the best on the market. It contained all the expected extras, like commentary (with DEEP RED’S high-spirited Chas Balun making a good complement to Watkins, who sounds understandably bitter about the fate of his film) and the original theatrical trailer, but it also boasts unreleased documentary footage of the director at work and, best of all, a 75-minute compilation of phone calls made during the film’s production. Sadly, that DVD is now out of print.
Terry Hawkins is an irredeemable scumbag just released from prison. Far from reformed, he finds himself angrier than ever at the world around him and decides to make his mark via a series of snuff films. Hawkins embarks on a murder/mutilation spree together with a small band of disciples, all of whom don clear plastic masks and capture the resulting “action” on film. In the end, though, we’re informed by a (distributor inserted) voice-over that the whole gang was apprehended and incarcerated.
Yes, the story is slim, to say the least. What really makes this film work are the numerous striking details Watkins includes, ranging from a singularly creepy close-up of a clear mask silhouetted in a warehouse window to a bizarre painted mouth that inexplicably hangs from the ceiling during a climactic murder sequence. The stock music Watkins utilizes, consisting of repetitive 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-esque humming, is also effective, even if it is rather tacky. Ditto the nonsensical chanting heard in one pivotal scene (“The answer is virgin bride…”), a far too obvious gimmick that somehow works in spite of itself.
The climactic murder sequences really aren’t as graphic as you might have heard (the lighting is so poor it’s often difficult to make out what’s going on), but they’re still among the most disturbing I’ve seen. And get a load of that party scene with a woman in blackface(!) getting whipped, and a later bit where a guy is forced to fellate a deer hoof(!!)—both sequences seem overwrought and desperate, but, once again, they work…somehow.
The entire film is a mass of amateurish and clichéd elements; bad acting, clumsy editing and hideously overexposed film stock are just a few of its many annoyances. It’s difficult to discern how much blame Roger Watkins bears for all this (his distributors did a number on the film, without question, though Watkins has admitted he was high on amphetamines throughout its gestation), but the shortcomings only add to the powerfully conveyed atmosphere of disorientation and horror. The film’s cinematographer Ken Fisher says the original three-hour cut was “a remarkable, exhausting trip through Roger’s psyche.” I’ve no idea how close the surviving cut is to its creator’s psyche, but it appears that somebody’s disturbed mind was definitely laid bare.
LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET (a.k.a. THE FUNHOUSE)
Director: “Victor Janos” (Roger Watkins)
Producer: “Norman F. Kaiser” (Roger Watkins)
Screenplay: “Brian Laurence” (Roger Watkins)
Cinematography: “Alexander Tarsk” (Ken Fisher)
Editing: “Brian Newitt” (Roger Watkins et al)
Cast: “Steven Morrison” (Roger Watkins), “Dennis Crawford” (Ken Fisher), “Lawrence Bornman” (Bill Schlageter), “Janet Sorley” (Kathy Curtin), “Elaine Norcross” (Pat Canstro), “Alex Kregar” (Steve Sweet), “Franklin Statz” (Ed Pixley), “Barbara Amunsen” (Nancy Vrooman), “Paul Phillips” (Paul Jensen), “Geraldine Saunders” (Suzie Neumeyer)