Nov 22, 2013

The Last House on Dead End Street

About a decade ago or so ago, I watched Roger Watkins’ lost Helter Skelter-esque horror-exploitation flick The Last House on Dead End Street (1977) aka At the Hour of Our Death aka The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell aka The Fun House and I was so turned off by the film’s absurdly amateurish and carelessly crude 1970s film school aesthetic that I did not even bother finishing it, ultimately shrugging it off as typical overrated cult horror crap that is worshiped by undiscerning fanboys who rate the quality of a film simply by its rarity, but not long after my initial viewing, I re-watched the film while stoned and came to the solid conclusion that it was one of the greatest masterpieces of its unhinged and unkosher kind.  That being said, I still regard The Last House on Dead End Street as one of the greatest exploitation/horror flicks ever made as a work that it is second to none in expressing pernicious psychopathy in a sort of exceedingly eerie and atmospheric form.  One of the many rip-offs of Wes Craven’s excess-ridden exploitation flick The Last House on the Left (1972) that actually manages to be better than the original, The Last House on Dead End Street is a sort of pseudo-snuff arthouse flick of the uncommonly visceral sort directed by a true degenerate and seeming psychopath who, being high constantly during the film’s production, spent only $800 of the $3,000 allotted for the actual film and spent most of the remainder on amphetamines. Nearly impossible to see until about a decade ago when the now defunct dvd company Barrel Entertainment released a double-disc DVD of it in 2002, The Last House on Dead End Street was so riddled with urban legends and mystification that no one even knew who actually directed the film until 2000 when Roger Watkins (aka Victor Janos aka Steven Morrison aka Claude Armand, etc.) revealed on an internet messageboard that he was the true auteur of this malicious and macabre no-budget cinematic masterpiece. In fact, not only was it revealed that Watkins was the director, but that he was also responsible for most other aspects in regard to the creation of The Last House on Dead End Street, not only writing, producing, and editing the film, but also acting as the charismatic lead anti-hero. The seemingly semi-autobiographical story of a Manson-like ex-pornographer who gets out of prison after a one year sentence relating to drug charges and nonsensically takes bloodthirsty revenge on society by making snuff films with a band of psychopathic degenerates that he personally banded together, The Last House on Dead End Street was so shocking to viewers on its initial release in 1977 (the film was completed in 1972, but an actress threatened to sue because Watkins included hardcore porn loops of her without permission, so the release was held back) that people thought it was an authentic snuff film, which was an urban legend that the film's sleazy distributor apparently encouraged. A rare American exploitation auteur piece directed by a patently pessimistic and curiously cynical speed addict who would go on to become a nihilistic pornographer, The Last House on Dead End Street, like the so-called Manson Family, is a demented and deranged depiction of the darker side of counter-culture movements as a god awfully grotesque celluloid work with a fiercely foreboding and even apocalyptic atmosphere and nil moral compass.  Featuring brutal slaughterhouse scenes that predate those featured in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's dark arthouse melodrama In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) aka In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden and gorgeously grotesque gore scenes that put The Last House on the Left and just about every other exploitation film of its time to shame, The Last House on Dead End Street is indubitably a singular exploitation flick in that it was clearly sired by a misanthropic and even malevolent man with a cold, black heart whose onscreen character and real-life persona seem totally identical.

 Charismatic rock-star-like ex-con Terry Hawkins (Roger Watkins) has just gotten out of jail for serving a one year sentence for drug related charges and despite claiming he liked the ‘security’ of prison, he firmly feels it is his god-given right to seek revenge against society for sending him to the jailhouse, so he comes up with the bright idea to become a snuff film director because, after all, people are terribly tired of simple pornography, so something new and innovative needs to be made. First, Terry gets a cowardly cuckold of a camera man named Bill Drexel (Bill Schlageter as Lawrence Bornman) that he used to shoot porn loops with in the past, but ultimately screwed over after stealing the poor fellow’s film. As for criminal cohorts, Terry hires two ‘witchy’ nihilistic chicks, Kathy Hughes (Kathy Curtin as Janet Sorely) and Patricia Kuhn (Pat Canestro as Elaine Norcross), as well as a crazed cow-fucker of a butcher named Ken Hardy (cinematographer Ken Fisher as Dennis Crawford), to ‘play’ as active performers in his nasty snuff flick. As for victims, angry angst-ridden auteur Terry cons a movie money man named Steve Randall (Steve Sweet as Alex Kregar), a porn star named Suzie Knowles (Suzie Neumeyer as Geraldine Saunders), and a debauched husband and wife couple, (Edward E. Pixley as Franklin Statz) and Nancy Palmer (Nancy Vrooman as Barbara Amunsen), as unsuspecting victims for their snuff flick who they ultimately lure to an abandoned building where they will be meticulously tortured, dismembered, and slowly killed for the snuff flick. Like most people of his degenerate generation, Terry Hawkins, who sports a Zardoz-like mask while in kill mode, is an idiotic idealist of the bodacious beatnik variety who spouts pseudo-rebellious hippie jargon and feels his acts of vengeful viciousness are of a nobly revolutionary variety and thus he does not think twice of sacrificing human beings for his aberrant celluloid art. When the homicidal hippies begin killing, they do it with gusto and positively perverse pleasure as they suffer from delusions of grandeur and counter-culture brainwashing. Among other things, a less than homely topless broad in Terry’s crew attaches an animal hoof to her crotch and forces one of the male victims to suck on her pseudo-cock. Terry and the gang also strap the victims to a makeshift operating table and begin operating on the unfortunate individuals, drilling their eyes with electric drills and opening them up and taking their organs, including the intestines, out as if performing a Viennese Actionist-inspired vivisection. In an off-screen voiceover added to the film against Roger Watkins' will (the filmmaker felt it ruined the entire film), The Last House on Dead End Street concludes with the post-script anecdote announcing that Terry Hawkins and his maniac crew were apprehended and jailed for their crimes. 

 Rather unfortunately, the original Watkins’ director's cut of The Last House on Dead End Street, which was titled ‘The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell’ (a reference to the nazi-themed Kurt Vonnegut novel Mother Night (1961)) and was a whopping 175 minutes in length, has yet to be unearthed and purportedly the single surviving print might be deteriorating in a New York film lab, thus it is quite doubtful that the world will ever get to see the film as the filmmaker intended it to be. As Watkins revealed in the audio commentary for the Barrel Entertainment release of The Last House on Dead End Street, his assistant Bernie Travis butchered the 78-minute cut of the film that exists today, which rather irked the director. In fact, in the same audio commentary, Watkins states of Travis that he “recently committed suicide… I’m glad to say” and that his suicidal ex-assistant was an, “inept fool” who was simply “juggling imagery around” when he put together the 78-minute cut of The Last House on Dead End Street. Of course, Watkins, who was a protégé of Hollywood bad boy auteur Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, They Lived by Night), had a lot to be pissed off and disgruntled about as he ultimately became in real-life what his character Terry Hawkins in The Last House on Dead End Street despised as he made his living in the 1980s directing gritty Taxi Driver-esque porno flicks. After directing the porn flick Her Name Was Lisa (1980) under the pseudonym Richard Mahler, Watkins made his second and final attempt at directing a horror flick with Shadows of the Mind (1980) aka A Heritage of Blood under the pseudonym Bernard Travis, but the production of the film proved to be a horrendous experience for the director and the film itself was nothing short of an abject artistic failure with nil of the grizzly aesthetic idiosyncrasies, foreboding atmosphere, nor nightmarish nihilism of The Last House on Dead End Street. As someone who has seen Shadows of the Mind (which the director himself described as, “a piece of trash”), as well as a number of Watkins’ porn flicks like Corruption (1983) and Midnight Heat (1983)—both of which star Judaic porn legend Jamie Gillis—I can state with the utmost confidence that The Last House on Dead End Street is the accursed filmmaker’s unrivaled movie magnum opus, even in its present butchered state at 78-minutes. 

 A radically raw and ravenous horror flick from meth-fueled counter-culture hell featuring white college chicks in Jolson-esque blackface being whipped at decadent jet-set parties, bourgeois degenerates being orally raped via dismembered animal hooves, and a fiercely fucked filmmaker who is more destructively dedicated to creating celluloid art than the eponymous auteur terrorist of John Waters’ satire Cecil B. DeMented (2000), The Last House on Dead End Street is an ideally incendiary, iconoclastic, and idiosyncratic artsploitation horror flick from a seemingly authentic psychopath auteur who rather unfortunately never accomplished anything else even remotely as interesting as mental illness and drug addiction apparently took their toll on Mr. Watkins. Wired (and wasting the film production costs) on meth while directing films and recently joking about the suicide of one of his former collaborators in a dvd audio commentary, Watkins was without question a true sleaze-bag of sorts in real-life and whenever I re-watch The Last House on Dead End Street, I cannot help but think the actor/direct was acting out a deep dark fantasy when he directed the film and that’s arguably the scariest thing about the wonderfully wicked cinematic work. A self-reflexive film-within-a-film where Watkins as Hawkins (in)famously yells, “I’m directing this fucking movie!,” The Last House on Dead End Street is a true auteur piece that tested the bounds of morality and one’s duty as an artist. Created by a man with next to nil interest in horror/exploitation cinema who once confessed in an interview, “You have to understand that the scariest film of all time to me is Orson Welles’ The Trial. I think that’s the most horrifying film ever made, not The Last House on Dead End Street, not any splatter film. I was heavily influenced by Un Chien Andalou, by the fact that it could shock and still does,” The Last House on Dead End Street was a film that was made at the right place, at the right time, by the ‘right’ person, and will thus live on to be a holy grail of (unhinged!) underground horror cinema despite the fact its original dubious history has been demystified for over a decade. 

A nasty and nihilistic yet charismatic and captivating true no-budget film directed by nasty and nihilistic yet charismatic and captivating individual who, not unlike the character he portrayed in the work, was too far morally gone to make a big name for himself and start a career as a serious auteur filmmaker of sorts, The Last House on Dead End Street is ultimately an extreme celluloid symptom of a country and culture afflicted with a metaphysical disease of the soul.  Forget contemporary soulless and tasteless exploitation flicks like the August Underground trilogy directed by fat fanboy Fred Vogel (who was originally supposed to produce an 'authorized' sequel to The Last House on Dead End Street, but luckily Watkins dropped dead before he could authorize an aesthetic molestation of his masterpiece), The Last House on Dead End Street is the real deal as a work of uncompromising, deranged celluloid decadence and visceral vulgarity that no one wants to admit they enjoy, even if it is one of their favorite exploitation flicks (as it is certainly one of mine). Notably, Las Vegas-based exploitation auteur Ron Atkins (Schizophreniac: The Whore Mangler, Mutilation Mile) somewhat recently directed a quasi-sequel/tribute to The Last House on Dead End Street entitled The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell (2011) starring fellow exploitation auteur Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn, The Manson Family) in the role of Terry Hawkins, which is certainly worth checking out if you're a fan of the original fan, but it lacks the unwavering viciousness of Watkins' film and is essentially an ultra-violent psychedelic black comedy from postmodern exploitation hell.  Indeed, as it's rip-off tagline advertised, The Last House on Dead End Street may be “only a movie!,” but it is also probably the only movie that acts as the sort of cinematic equivalent of being spiritually tortured and raped by a counter-culture cult, which is certainly no small achievement on auteur Roger Watkins' part, even if he refused actually taking credit for the film for what was a good portion of his lifetime.

-Ty E

1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

If principal photography on "Last House on Dead End Street" was completed in `72 then Watkins was first with that mask because that unwatchable pile of British made horse-shit "Zardoz" wasn`t released until `73 ! ! !.