The Last House on Dead End Street (1977) Review

tlhodesTHE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET (1977)

Director: Roger Watkins (credited as Victor Janos)

Writer: Roger Watkins (credited as Brian Laurence)

Starring: Roger Watkins (credited as Steven Morrison), Ken Fisher (credited as Dennis Crawford), Bill Schlageter (credited as Lawrence Bornman), Kathy Curtin (credited as Janet Sorley), Pat Canestro (credited as Elaine Norcross), Steve Sweet (credited as Alex Kregar), Nancy Vrooman (credited as Barbara Amunsen), Suzie Neumeyer (credited as Geraldine Saunders), Edward E. Pixley (credited as Franklin Statz).

Running Time: 78 minutes

Throughout the eighties and nineties, The Last House On Dead End Street was one of the horror genres great enigmas. No theatrical prints seem to exist, the pseudonymous credits led nowhere and videotape editions were so scarce that more people had heard of it than had actually seen it and…some doubted the film even existed at all. In November 2000, Roger Watkins finally came forward to confirm that he was the director hiding behind the Victor Janos pseudonym, and in a lengthy interview with journalist David Kerekes he revealed the entire twisted history behind the film (Contrary to popular belief, Watkins’s identity as the film’s director was actually revealed at least a decade earlier by Chas Balun in an article included in the The Deep Red Horror Handbook). As with most enigmas, the answers revealed much that was not known about the production, but also led to more questions, mainly about a now seemingly lost director’s cut.

Terry Hawkins (Roger Watkins), a leather-jacketed psycho recently released from prison after serving a year for drug offences arrives back in town and is out for revenge. Before his incarceration Terry made porno films and with the help of two female acquaintances – Patricia (Pat Canestro) and Kathy (Kathy Curtin) – and he’s looking to pick up where he left off, but this time with a difference. Through an old friend he meets Nancy Palmer (Nancy Vrooman) whose husband Jim (Ed Pixley) is being paid by “some fag” – Steve Randall (Steve Sweet) – to make pornographic films for his rich clientèle in the city. Steve is unimpressed by Palmer’s latest film featuring a young woman called Suzie (Suzie Neumeyer) telling him that he wants, “something new”.

The Last House On Dead End Street#1Terry seeing an opportunity hooks up with his old cameraman (Bill Schlageter) and takes over an old abandoned building in which to shoot his new project. With his gang of cohorts, all wearing masks, they tie up the building’s blind caretaker and Terry strangles him while the others film it. When Steve sees what they’ve come up with, he realises that he has found his “something new”, but when Terry finds out that Jim and Steve are passing his films off as their own, he lures them to an abandoned building with Nancy and Suzie where he plans to exact a savage revenge for their betrayal.

Roger Watkins had been making films since the age of 10. He was once an apprentice for Freddie Francis during his time at Hammer, he worked on Ted V. Mikel’s Blood Orgy Of The She Devil (1973) for one day before walking off the set, and worked as an editor on Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends (1971) and Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again (1973). It was working on the later film that Watkins got the idea for the feature film that would become The Last House on Dead End Street. During the production, he was sent by Nicholas Ray to meet with a Czechoslovakian producer who Ray would not see personally, and it was he who suggested that Watkins do something based on the Manson murders. Watkins had read Ed Sanders’ book The Family while working as a cameraman at a TV station, and decided to run with the idea.

Watkins began filming his project entitled ‘At The Hour Of Our Death’ in late 1972 with students and several professors at the university where he studied English literature. Filmed by Watkins himself and Ken Fisher, practically all the script was improvised with the actors using their real first names. As it was shot without live sound, Watkins had to post sync all the audio. After changing the title to ‘The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell’ (a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel Mother Night) Watkins was to have taken the film to Cannes but because of a lawsuit filed by Barbara McGraw, an actress who was to have appeared in the film, it was kept out of cinemas until 1977 when it was eventually released, first as The Fun House and then later as The Last House On Dead End Street.

The Last House On Dead End Street#2As it stands, the film divides fairly neatly into two segments. The first half is something of a mess, but despite being technically below par and incoherent, there are flashes of genuine artistry. It is only in the final 35 minutes where Terry and his accomplices butcher their captives that the film really snaps into focus giving the impression that these are the scenes Watkins really cared about, and it’s pretty unsettling stuff. The climax involves throats being slashed, graphic disemboweling, branding with hot irons and other assorted degradation. One victim is dispatched with a drill to the eye but only after he is forced to fellate a doe’s hoof that one of the girls has protruding out of her trousers. As he does, the others stand around jeering, one of them holding up a mirror so he can watch himself doing it. It’s genuinely fucked up, so twisted that you do worry for the sanity of the filmmakers.
Watkins himself cites his influences as Orson Welles’s The Trial (1963), Ingmar Bergman’s The Hour Of The Wolf, Luis Bunuel’s L’Age D’or (1930) and the films of Frederico Fellini. Unsurprising then that The Last House on Dead End Street, despite its status as a grindhouse exploitation film is full of allusions to other works including George Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without A Face (1959), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and John Boorman’s Zardoz (1973), acknowledged by Watkins himself but odd because his film was shot first.

The film that The Last House On Dead End Street seems to owe a lot to is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Both film build slowly to a a sustained climax of escalating horror, but whereas in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the effect is satirical, some kind of parody of the American family (even though Hooper denies it) The Last House On Dead End Street is totally free of any such subtext, aiming instead at a pure expression of demented horror. This pretty sound comparison was thrown thrown into confusion when Watkins revealed that the print of The Last House On Dead End Street as we know it is part of a much longer and never released cut of the film that actually pre-dates Hooper’s classic.

The Last House On Dead End Street#3According to Watkins, the distributor that eventually released the film removed a vast amount of footage, and re-dubbed the feature in its entirety. The original dubbing was apparently much better, and it was this atrocious new soundtrack that led many to suspect that the film was European in origin. Watkins’s original edit of The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell ran approximately 175 minutes (later reduced by about an hour) and is almost certainly lost forever. The film was originally presented in a linear fashion with no flashbacks or flash-forwards. It began with Terry being arrested in the projection booth of a porno theatre, establishing that he is already associated with filmmaking at the outset, and was followed by about 20 minutes of slaughterhouse footage. This was intercut with scenes of the girls Pat and Kathy leaving home and establishing them as they come together with Terry. Watkins stated that he wanted to use the footage of animals being killed to juxtapose one kind of slaughter with another as in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1924), but it could also be another nod to Georges Franju who filmed in a slaughterhouse for his short documentary Le Sang Des Betes (1949). Apart from a short clip of a cow being killed, this exposition was cut in its entirety. The opening of The Last House on Dead End Street occurred 25 minutes into the original cut.

This also helps to answer some of the films lapses in logic. For example we never see Steve or Jim passing Terry’s films off as their own, or why Terry asks for Steve to bring Suzie along at the climax even though he has never seen the film she was in (originally Suzie Neumeyer had a substantial role in the film that was almost entirely deleted by the distributor). It is now difficult to say whether this drastic cutting eliminated the more explicit references to the Manson murders, but fragments remain. The “Terry is the Answer” dialogue spoken during the climax are indirectly modelled on the murders, and Watkins said that the killing of the blind man is modelled on Bobby Beausoleil’s killing of Gary Hinman.

The Last House On Dead End Street#4Though the climactic 35 minutes of the film are relatively untouched, there are still significant deletions. A scene of Terry half strangling Palmer after chasing him up the fire escape has been cut, but can still be glimpsed during the films opening. Just after he has been slashed by Ken off screen, spraying his blood across the white wall, Palmer originally stumbled out and tried to begin directing his own death, which explains why Terry jumps up and begins screaming “I’m directing this fuckin’ movie”. The most substantial cut occurs after the doe’s hoof scene as Palmer escapes and flees down the corridor and goes through a door. In the original cut he finds himself back in his own house. Disoriented, he wanders around before slumping down in a chair. It is then that the lights flash on and he finds himself back in the abandoned building as the gang advance on him with the drill. This is quite an explicit reference to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also suggests that Palmer has actually been driven insane by the ordeal.

In interviews, Watkins stated an extreme dislike for clips from the film’s climax that the distributor spliced into the beginning of the film along with many other changes. Though the loss of his original cut is extremely regrettable, the question remains as to whether we would still be talking about the film had it been released at its original length? Though Watkins would probably not have agree, it is most likely that the aura that has surrounded the picture for the last 37 years is due to its reputation as a compact, nasty little 78 minute exploitation film that pays off its shoddy build up with a utterly memorable climax, a film moulded by it distributor, not it’s director.

The film’s lapse into obscurity meant that it never had much of an influence on other films, with one bizarre exception. It’s probably coincidental, but Jefery Levy’s SFW (1994) starring Stephen Dorff and Reese Witherspoon as survivors of a siege involving a media terrorist group displays striking similarities with The Last House On Dead End Street. The scenes in which the masked camcorder wielding terrorists film their captives, framed by dazzling lights bears an uncanny resemblance to the climax of Watkins’s film.

The Last House On Dead End Street#7After it was released, Watkins turned to directing porn films such as The Pink Ladies (1980) and the dark brooding Her Name Was Lisa (1980) under the pseudonym Richard Mahler. He made only one film under his real name – Spittoon (1980) – before his death in 2007 at the age of just 59, but he did live long enough to see his cult debut resurrected. Though the original negative was lost, a US DVD outfit called Barrel Entertainment managed to reconstruct the film in 2002 using what was believed to be the only remaining 35mm theatrical print. This version was missing the 91 second sequence showing the disembowelling of Nancy Palmer, cut to avoid an “X” rating in 1977 which Barrel restored using an uncut VHS master. As a result, the print is unavoidable scratchy and the stock does not always match, but essentially, what Barrel has did was deliver the film looking exactly how you imagined it would look.

The Last House On Dead End Street was never released in the UK until Tartan’s 2006 DVD, not even in the dark unregulated pre-VRA days. There is apparently a widely held belief that Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981) was briefly caught up in the video nasties panic after being confused with The Last House On Dead End Street due to the fact it was initially released as The Fun House. One consistent fact about the video nasties panic was that the moral campaigners involved in trying to ban the many films they saw as dangerous knew next to nothing about the films they were attacking. Even if it had been released on video in the UK, the idea that these people would know enough about Watkins’s film to confuse it with Hooper’s version because of the alternative title it used only briefly in 1977 strikes me as highly unlikely .

The Last House On Dead End Street#6For what seems like the majority of horror fans, this is an insufferable nasty and amateurish film, but for some it has a strange and intangible power, like a half remembered nightmare you can’t shake. It’s like what you imagined horror films would look like when you were too young to see them, dangerous and genuinely irrational. It stick in the mind in a way that many better genre films don’t. It’s worth seeking out.

Rating: 6 / 10 (but the effect is 10 / 10)

Daniel Stillings

Daniel Stillings

About Daniel Stillings

About Daniel Stillings Daniel is a little strange, the result of being traumatised watching a videotape of Zombie Flesh-Eaters when he was 11. He once had a picnic where they shot The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (a fact he was unaware of at the time) loves Jean-Luc Godard and Steven Seagal movies (if only they'd collaborate) and hates mobile phones. He also plays guitar in a covers band, but secretly yearns to be a member of The Residents...or maybe he already is!
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