Of all the films in the history of grindhouse cinema, perhaps none has had so convoluted a path to (entirely well-deserved, in my opnion) cult status as Roger Watkins’ seminal “Last House On Dead End Street.”
The story begins in 1972, when recent grad Watkins returned to his alma mater The State University of New York at Oneonta, a sleepy little campus upstate that nonetheless seemed to have a thriving film department at the time. Though not a graduate of the film school (I believe he earned his BA in English Lit), Watkins nevertheless had several friends in the department, including professor (and influential film historian) Paul Jensen. When Watkins returned to campus with a moderate supply of reversal film he’d picked up in his travels out west, Jensen was able to secure him use of a 16mm camera from the film studies department and Jensen, together with de facto DOP Ken Fisher, was able to recruit a handful of students and even some faculty (including Jensen himself) to be his actors in a largely improvised film he was calling “The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell.”
If memory serves me correctly, the entire film was shot in under three weeks, mostly at night, utlilizing free locations around campus and an abandoned rail station nearby. Watkins has claimed his total “budget” for the film was somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,800, all of which he blew on keeping himself hopped up on crystal meth during the entire duration of the shooting. When you’re watching LHODES, then, what you’re watching is literally a film with a budget of zero dollars.
Watkins himself plays the lead character, Terry Hawkins, a guy just released from the slammer who evidently was screwed over by some business associates in the porn film racket, and he emerges from the clink a hardened man determined to give the porno world “something they’ve never seen before.” Quickly enlisting the aid of a buddy(played by Fisher) recently released from a mental institution where he’d been locked up for sodomizing a calf (yes, you read that correctly), they recruit a Monson Family-type group of young female followers to be the co-conspirators in their new film project.
They get down to business making honest-to-goodness snuff films and show them to Hawkins’ unsavory contacts in the porn industry, who praise the his work for its “realism,” not knowing that they are, in fact, watching actual murders on film. They soon learn the truth the hard way, though, for when they screw Terry over again, he and his followers embark on a new round of filmed killings, with said porn “entrepreneurs” as the victims/stars!
It has to be said that the killings of this unsavory lot are among the most memorable in film history, especially the notorious “fellated goat’s hoof” scene that has passed into exploitation film legend. The gritty, visceral nature of the unfolding violence, with most of the “gore supplies” coming from a local butcher’s shop, is immediate and unforgiving. Having no budget actually helps in this regard, as you get the feeling you almost could be watching real murders committed to cheap, low-grade film.
In fact, it has to be said that the cheap (as in non-existent) production values (it was recorded silently, with voices dubbed in later and music and such sound effects as there are coming from library tracks a la George Romero) are one of this film’s greatest assets, as it literally feels like this film could have been found buried in a canister under the basement of a particularly loathsome vice den after a police raid.
The ingenious use of freebie props from the school theater department such as the Greek theater masks worn during the killings (pictured at the top of this post) lends a further air of authenticity by making it appear s if the killers want to protect their identities.
The film has its flaws, to be sure, but how many of these can actually be laid at Watkins’ feet is debatable. The fly-by-night producers who bought the film for a song off Watkins and later cheated him out of any and all royalties he had coming his way trimmed the flick down from a length of over three hours to a mere 77 minutes, and thus much of the explanatory backstory and huge segments encompassing character development and other aspects the producers evidently found to be irrelevant were excised, with the end result being a rather jumbled affair that goes right from “guy gets out of prison” to “guy makes a snuff film” to “guy gets screwed over and makes more snuff films starring the folks who did him wrong.” Most unforgivable is the cop-out voice-over ending, where we’re simply informed that Hawkins and all his cohorts were busted and are now doing life sentences in the state pen.
Still, all the slicing and dicing done to the film can’t take away from the power of the slicing and dicing that we see in the film, nor can it diminish the movie’s overall nihilistic and obsessively bleak vibe.
After being butchered, the film was finally released in 1977 under the title of “The Funhouse” to the southern drive-in circuit, where evidently it pulled in somewhere around $4 million, unbeknownst to Watkins. He finally found out about his movie hitting theaters when it played 42nd street sometime around 1979 under the title “Last House On Dead End Street,” a title the producers cooked up hoping to cash in on the last vestiges of “Last House” title-mania inspired by Wes Craven’s phenomenally successful “The Last House On The Left.” Nobody knew who the stars and production team resposnible for the film were, though, as Watkins had, in disgust, excised his name and the names of all his “fellow travellers” from the flick when he got wind of what the producers were doing to his movie in the editing process back in 1973/74. Having washed his hands of the whole sordid mess (he’s credited in the film as “Steven Morrison” for his acting work and his director’s pseudonym is “Victor Janos”), he assumed the film was never released and was just getting dusty in a cabinet somewhere. When people started coming up to him and asking if he was the guy they just way in that movie where everybody’s getting butchered up, though, he found out that the latest “Last House” rip-off he’d been seeing hearing ads for on the radio was, in fact, his film! Evidently he and Jensen caught it on a double-bill with “The Hills Have Eyes” on 42nd Street and he reports of audience members getting sick and running from the theater. Apparently in Chicago a screening even caused the audience to riot and start setting fire to chairs in the theater!
From there, the story only gets weirder. Released a few different times by various fly-by-night home video labels in small print runs under both “The Fun House” and LHODES titles, the film took in a few bucks for lower-than-the-bottom-rung VHS distributors, all working off a crummy, washed-out, who-knows-where-they-found-it print. It was picked up for a song by some Venezuelan TV network and ran as a midnight movie on that station for years, and throughout most of the 80s and 90s bootleg copies of the Venezuelan broadcast were almost the only way horror and sleaze aficionados could see the film. Given the falsified names of everyone on the credits, no one even knew who the hell to contact for any further information about the film, much less who actually made the thing!
All that changed in the year 2000, when Watkins’ girlfriend alerted him to a discussion going on about his film on the message board of the FAB Press website, where the usual questions— “who made this thing?” “does anyone know anything at all about it?” were being asked. Once he chimed in and provided details about the film that only he’d know, the true identity of the man behind “Last House On Dead End Street”—and the identities of his cohorts—finally came out.
The late, great Barrel Entertainment then set to work finding the best print available (from a west coast film collector), and assembling a plethora of extras from Watkins himself (early home movies, a radio interview circa 1972, an interview appearance with Jensen on The Joe Franklin Show, even recording of phone calls he made at the time he was working on the film!) in order to put out an absolutely astonishing double-disc DVD release in 2002. Sadly, this is now out of print and commanding top-dollar prices on both Amazon Marketplace and eBay. An inferior region 2 release that’s edited even further (it’s only 74 minutes) is somewhat more readily available, but even that’s not cheap, and you’re getting a seriously lackluster product.
All in all, if there is one film that represents the epitome of a tortured path from inception to completion to distribution to eventual DVD release, it’s LHODES. Well worth tracking down if you can fit it into your budget, this is a relentlessly and authentically brutal viewing experience that you’ll never forget.