Digging into the experimental underground horrors of one of the most unsettling films of the 1970s.
Throughout the eighties and nineties, The Last House On Dead End Street was one of the horror genre’s great enigmas. No theatrical prints seem to exist, the pseudonymous credits led nowhere and videotape editions were so scarce that far more people had heard of it than had actually seen it. The mythology around who actually made the film was a little exaggerated. The official story is that the director’s identity was a complete mystery until Roger Watkins finally came forward in November 2000 to admit that he was the man responsible for the film, but the fact that Roger Watkins was the director hiding behind the Victor Janos pseudonym was actually revealed in the late eighties by Chas Balun in The Deep Red Horror Handbook.
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 Devils for one day before walking off the set, and worked as an editor on Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends & Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again. It was while 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 whom 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 of the script was improvised with the actors (with the exception of Watkins) 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 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.
Terry Hawkins (Roger Watkins, credited as Steven Morrison), 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 – Pat (Pat Canestro, credited as Elaine Norcross ) and Kathy (Kathy Curtin, credited as Janet Sorley) – and he’s looking to pick up where he left off, but this time with a difference. Through an old friend called Ken (Ken Fisher, credited as Dennis Crawford) he meets Nancy Palmer (Nancy Vrooman, credited as Barbara Amunsen ) whose husband Jim (Ed Pixley, credited as Franklin Statz ) is being paid by “some fag” – Steve Randall (Steve Sweet, credited as Alex Kregar) – to make pornographic films for his rich clientèle in the city. Steve is unimpressed by Palmer’s latest film featuring his wife in a lesbian tryst with a young woman called Suzie (Suzie Neumeyer, credited as Geraldine Saunders) telling him that he wants “something new”. Terry, seeing an opportunity, hooks up with his old cameraman (Bill Schlageter, credited as Lawrence Bornman) 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.
As 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. It’s pretty unsettling stuff, and the final two murders are the ones that stick in the mind. The scene in which Nancy Palmer is tied to a table and has both her legs cut off before being graphically disembowelled with a pair of tin snips is so ghastly that you wonder where the film can go next. Steve is eventually 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, Ingmar Bergman’s The Hour Of The Wolf, Luis Bunuel’s L’Age D’or and the films of Frederico Fellini. Unsurprising then that, despite its status as a grindhouse exploitation film, The Last House on Dead End Street is full of allusions to other works including George Franju’s Eyes Without A Face & 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film it seems to owe a lot to is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Both films build slowly to a sustained climax of escalating horror, but whereas in Hooper’s film, the effect is satirical, 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 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.
According 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, then titled 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 film-making 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, but 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 film’s 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 do remain.
Though 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 film’s 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, 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 the 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 agreed, it is most likely that the aura that has surrounded the picture for the last 46 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, but there is one bizarre exception. It’s probably coincidental, but Jefery Levy’s underrated 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, bear an uncanny resemblance to the climax of Watkins’s film.
After its release, Watkins turned to directing adult movies such as Her Name Was Lisa, Corruption & American Babylon under the pseudonym Richard Mahler. These were dark brooding films that ironically showed a level of skill way above that demonstrated by The Last House In Dead End Street. He made only one film under his real name, the 1981 comedy Spittoon starring adult actress Vanessa del Rio. He died 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, the US DVD label Barrel Entertainment managed to reconstruct the film in 2002 using what was believed to be the only remaining 35mm theatrical print and an old uncut video master used to restore a missing the 91-second sequence showing the disembowelling of Nancy Palmer that was cut to avoid an ‘X’ rating in 1977. 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 a belief that Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse was briefly caught up in the video nasties panic after being confused with The Last House On Dead End Street due to the fact Watkins’ film 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 have known enough about Watkins’s film to confuse it with Hooper’s version because of the alternative title it used only briefly in 1977 is frankly ridiculous.
In recent years, the Blu-ray label Vinegar Syndrome has been attempting to track down the original elements to restore the film, but in the meantime, they did issue a 2K scan of the original theatrical print using better quality materials to restore the censored footage as an Easter egg on their blu ray release of Watkins’s Corruption. The quality is a major step up from those long out-of-print DVD releases and it is worth buying the disc for this alone.
For some, The Last House On Dead End Street 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 sticks in the mind in a way that many better genre films do not. It’s still worth seeking out.
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