Posts Tagged ‘movies’

RIP Harvey

Two weeks.

Two fucking weeks.

That’s how long it’s taken me to get my head together enough to write something about the life, work — and passing — of a guy I never knew, but who had a more profound impact on my existence than most people I’ve known really well. I can count the actual heroes in my life on one hand (and don’t worry, Dad, if you’re ever reading this — you’re one of them). Now I can count them on four fingers.

In the overall scheme of things, Harvey Pekar could probably  be truthfully described as  neurotic, obsessive,  unkempt, curmudgeonly, disheveled, fatalistic, compulsive, and manic.

He could also be described as unflinchingly honest, enormously talented, creative, humane, brave, hyperintelligent, unpretentious, and in possession of more out-and-out integrity than the next hundred, the next thousand, the next million people you’re likely to meet — combined.

Chances are the character “attributes” I listed first could just as easily be laid at the doorstep of you, me, or anyone else when our time comes to shake off this mortal coil. Those in the second list? Not so much.

In a world full of showbiz phonies and jive Hollywood fast-talkers, Harvey Pekar never sold out. Not to David Letterman. Not to HBO. Not to Time Warner. Not to anyone.

Presented with one opportunity after another to turn his groundbreaking autobiographical comic series American Splendor into some kind of cash-cow, he hesitated. Not that he was opposed to finally, after decades of toiling in near-obscurity (despite the fact that dozens of his stories were illustrated by Robert Crumb, for crying out loud!), making a buck off his work. Far from it. Providing security to his wife Joyce and his adopted daughter Danielle was high on his list of things to do. But not if he had to compromise the essential integrity of his work in any way, shape, or form.

Harvey by R. Crumb

When American Splendor finally did make the leap from the printed page to the silver screen in 2003, it was exactly the type of film those of us who had followed Harvey’s work for years had hoped for — it was honest, insightful, intelligent, and innovative. Just as wed’ always known it could and should be, but maybe better than we’d dared hope. We should have had more faith in Harvey. If it was anything ever in danger of being anything less, he never would have had anything to do with it.

He shook off the easy trappings of fame not out of some high-and-mighty sense of self-importance, but because that whole scene just never even interested him. Even at the height of his Hollywood flavor-of-the-monthness, he’d rather be at home listening to an old jazz LP than be the center of attention at Sundance or Tribeca. He was who he was, and if you didn’t like it, he didn’t care.

"American Splendor" Movie Poster

For my part, I first encountered Pekar’s work in my late teens, still a hopeless comic book addict but well past being interested in the four-color “adventures” of men in tights and women in even-less-than-tights. The sheer banality of Harvey’s work, focused as it was on the most absolutely mundane aspects of his life as a VA hospital file clerk, hit me like a sledgehammer blow to the head. Here was reality in all its unvarnished non-glory — comics really could be about anything at all, as I’d been telling everyone for so long.

There will never be another

My favorite stories were those concerned with the quiet dramas that make up the average person’s life — the small setbacks that feel for all the world like monumental defeats, and the even smaller victories that feel like — well, like just that. Stories like “Rip-Off Chick, ” “A Semi-Bummer Weekend,” “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies In The Supermarket,” and my personal favorite, “Stetson Shoes,” were in so many ways about nothing at all — yet they somehow managed to encompass almost all the ups and downs of human existence into their pictures and word balloons.

Harvey Pekar didn’t lead a life markedly different from you, me, or anyone else we might know. He didn’t possess some mystical sense of clarity that allowed him to see things in some amazingly profound way. He just had the balls, and the writing skill, to look at himself, and those around him, with honesty, wit, and a fair degree of compassion. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t faultless, and often he wasn’t fair. I’m sure he wasn’t easy to live, or even to be around for an extended period of time. But he was the genuine article.  He had something to say about his life, the lives of those he knew, and the society we live in, and he said it. He said it with the simple unrestrained eloquence of an equal. He never thought of himself as being “above” those around him, or as even being in any special or remarkable.

And that’s what was most remarkable about him. He was our voice, and our mirror — our best friend and our fiercest critic. He was , in the words of the front-page, top-of-the-fold article about his death in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, our “bard of the banal.” He was us, and we were him.

He was Harvey Pekar. An everyman. A working stiff. A regular schmuck. And we’ll never see his like again. Mr. Boats. Toby Radloff, Joyce, Danielle — there were so many great characters in Harvey’s stories, but he was always the heart and soul, even in the tales that didn’t feature him.  He was the voice. Our voice. Our guide through our own world. That voice is gone now, and the world itself seems to be missing its voice-over interpreter.

Harvey was only 70 when he died, although let’s be honest — it seems like he’s been 70, or older, for along time now. Youthful vigor was never one of his strong suits, even though in his later years, between his regular American Splendor series and his historical graphic novels, his work output was more prolific than ever. And those later years weren’t easy for Harvey. After retirement from the VA, he was lost without his work routine, He slipped into manic depression and received electroshock “therapy.”  Cancer, which almost took his life a decade earlier (as detailed in the superb Our Cancer Year graphic novel co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner) made a return appearance. And his blood pressure was off the charts. So I can’t say that I was completely surprised by his death — but I was still shocked by it. I saw it coming, but still wasn’t ready.

Who are we kidding? I’m still not ready.

I don’t know what happens when we die, although all available evidence seems to suggest we end up as worm food and that’s it. I do, however, know a thing or two about life here on Earth — and I know that it was better two weeks ago, when Harvey Pekar was still a part of it.

"Star Trek" Movie Poster

"Star Trek" Movie Poster

Suffice to say this will be a quick post in my semi-regular “Hollywood Sidebar” series, since “Star Trek” is a monolithic Hollywood summer blockbuster that doesn’t need any free promotional help from some little blog that seven or eight people read, any my recommendation is hardly going to make any difference as to whether any of that seven or eight of you see this thing or not.

I will, however, say this about this movie—I was not expecting to like it. I’m a sci-fi fan, sure, but have never been much for “Trek.” Fans of the franchise tend to work my nerves. I’m not particularly enamored with J.J. Abrams (I have a sneaky suspicion that “Lost” is one big scam,  I thought “Cloverfield” sucked, and I could frankly care less about “Alias” or “Mission:Impossible 3”). I’m hard-wired to dislike summer juggernaut releases just as a matter of principle. And yet, even with all that going against it—I liked this movie. A lot.

Why? Well, the performances were spot-on, the story was involving without being unnecessarily convoluted, it was accessible to non-“Trek” fans while not insulting the intelligence of long-time aficionados, the effects were good, the pacing was swift without feeling rushed, and it had a nice balance of nostalgia and newness. In short, it was everything you’re looking for in a blockbuster, and more than you’ve come to expect.

I would imagine the massive continuity changes will piss off some overly-obsessive fans, but let me just say, without giving anything away, that the plot device by which this film sets itself up as both a relaunch and a sequel was, in my view, pretty ingenious.  You needn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things “Trek” to understand how it works, and to be impressed with it. One more feather in this film’s cap.

I saw this with my dad, who’s been a big fan of the show since it first aired in the 60s(in fact, I took him to see it for his birthday). He enjoyed it quite a bit and left the theater with a smile on his face — that probably says more for it than any amount of praise and raving on my part could.

If you only see one summer blockbuster this year—a course of action I would fully support—make it this one. You won’t be disappointed.

"Blood Freak" Movie Poster

"Blood Freak" Movie Poster

Sometimes, dear reader, your friendly neighborhood TFG is truly at a loss for words. It doesn’t happen too often, mind you, and not nearly as frequently as many who know me wish it would, but when trying to describe the wigged-out WTF-ness that is the 1971 cinematic absurdity known as “Blood Freak,” I’m afraid the English language just plain fails me (or perhaps I fail it). This, you see, is an exercise in (I’m assuming) accidental cinematic bizarreness so complete—and so confounding—that mere words simply cannot convey the nature of this particularly fetid celluloid swamp.

“Blood Freak” is the “brain”child of  Brad Grinter (“Flesh Feast”) and wanna-be Johnny Weismuller Steve Hawkes, who had starred in one low-budget Tarzan flick and was destined to do one more. The two of them wrote, produced, and directed thing thing together, and each “star” in it as well, Hawkes portraying the hero of the story, Viet Nam vet-turned-freewheeling-biker Herschell, and Grinter playing the film’s chain-smoking narrator. Evidently they’re pretty proud of the fact that Hawkes is in it, too, since  “starring Steve Hawkes”  appears not once, but twice, during the opening credits.

Writer/Producer/Director Brad Grinter as the narrator

Writer/Producer/Director Brad Grinter as the narrator

Our story begins when Herschell encounters a pretty young lady named Angel having (unspecified) car troubles along the Florida turnpike. Herschell gets her car working again and she invites him over to her place for a party her swinging sister Ann is having. Why she’d invite him, though, is a mystery since Angel and Ann are polar opposites, Angel being a Bible-quoting Jesus-freak of the first order and Ann being a swinging sixties (errr—-make that seventies) “let it all hang out” -kinda chick who’s into sex, drugs, rock and roll—but mostly drugs, and the party is full of Ann’s friends, of whom Angel clearly does not approve. Anyway, invite him into this den of debauchery she does, and while Herschell makes it clear that he’s more on the Angel side of the fence as far as the sex and drugs scene is concerned, Ann takes a shine to the muscle-bound lunkhead regardless and crafts a plan to lure him into her web of vice together with the help of her drug dealer, Guy, who supplies her with some super-pot that’s sure to turn Herschell, he assures her, into a raving addict in no time.

Herschell splits the scene to attend a Bible study group with Angel, where he meets a kindly old-timer who sets him up with a job at his poultry ranch. He’s got a week to kill before the job starts and nowhere to go, though, and that’s when his troubles begin. Angel offers to put him up at her and Ann’s place, and Ann quickly dares Herschell into trying her “super-pot” by insinuating that he’s a coward if he doesn’t. Sure enough, half a joint later our guy Herschell is a raving, lunatic pot-addict and Ann has gotten him into bed.

When he starts his gig at the turkey farm, Herschell is offered a way to make a few extra bucks on the side by a couple of unscrupulous scientists who work there and are experimenting on drugging turkey meat (for reasons completely unknown). They even offer him a little grass on the side in addition to money if he’ll help them out. After his first day on the job, Herschell comes home in a medical state I have never seen before or since that can only be described, I guess, as “marijuana withdrawal,” and he completely freaks out back at the pad. After getting high, though, it’s all good again, and he’s ready for work the next day. His scientist buddies set him up with a fork, a knife, and a whole frigging turkey, and Herschell chows down. But wait! Something strange is happening! The drugged turnkey causes Herschell to go into convulsive fits, and the scientists, after finding him writhing on the ground, whisk him away to a secluded ditch and leave him for dead. But our guy Herschell isn’t dead, and soon he returns home—but he’s not the same man. Herschell’s head has been replaced by the head of a giant turkey—a giant turkey that soon finds he needs the blood of drug addicts to survive!

Herschell and Angel

Herschell and Angel

So there you have it—this film is about a giant, blood-drinking, turkey-man. Really. With a European “star” (Hawkes) who can barely utter a sentence in English. And a chain-smoking narrator who cuts into the “action” by reading from a script on his desk (in fairness, though, he’s not the only actor in this fim who appears to be reading from a script,  the two scientists are at least as bad and they even stumble over their lines, as well).

What is this movie, then? Bad monster flick? Anti-drug scare film? Christian exploitation cinema? Low-budget mishmash or bad ideas? In truth, “Blood Freak” is all that and more. A bastard offspring of Herschel Gordon Lewis (and I must say some of the blood and gore effects in this film, particularly one where a guy gets his leg sawed off, are surprisingly effective given the utter incompetence of everything else on display) and Ron Ormond,  “Blood Freak” is unlike anything else that’s ever been made—or ever will be made. And that’s probably (okay, certainly) a good thing. But it’s definitely “must-see” stuff for the seasoned aficionado of exploitation fare.

“Blood Freak” is available on DVD from the fine people at Something Weird Video. The video quality is superb (considering how rare prints of this title probably are to obtain), and while the sound quality is hit-and-miss, overall it’s certainly passable. The DVD is loaded with cool previews and several shorts that encompass the various “themes” of the main feature. Highly recommended.

Oh, and Steve Hawkes made the news for a minute in late 2004 when one of the pet tigers he keeps on his Florida compund escaped and was shot by the cops. Really.

The Most Fun You'll Have Reading About Trash Cinema

The Most Fun You'll Have Reading About Trash Cinema

Just a real quick heads-up for those who don’t already have it—the collected edition of the best of Robin Bougie’s extraordinarily bizarre “Cinema Sewer” magazine came out a few months back from FAB Press, and I have to say, even with all the absolutely terrific books on exploitation films that have come out in recent years, such as the late, great Bill Landis’ and Michelle Clifford’s superb “Sleazoid Express,” Stephen Thrower’s huge and indispensable “Nightmare USA,” and others, Mr, Bougie’s book is probably the most flat0out fun you’ll have reading about trash films.

The book collects the very best of the first several issues of the magazine of the same name, and adds a nice selection of new and updated material, as well. Mr. Bougie is a talented cartoonist, and the “half-book/half-comic” feel to the whole proceedings makes for a fast-paced, fun, and informative read. In addition, Bougie covers some truly bizarre stuff that you’re not likely to find written up in any other zine (“Let My Puppets Come,” for instance) and presents everything in a witty, accessible style.

I can’t sing the praises of this book highly enough, I had an absolute blast reading it. It’s available directly from FAB Press on their website (fabpress.com, of course), Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the like, or directly from Mr. Bougie himself at cinemasewer.com, where you can find individual back issues and other goodies for sale, as well.

Bougie has been absolutely instrumental in exposing Z-grade masterpiece “Things” to  a wider audience, so what more does he need to do to prove his bona fides than that, I ask you? So stick your head into the Cinema Swer—sure, you may come out smelling foul, but you’ll have a great time getting messy!

basketcaseart03The work of cult film auteur Frank Henenlotter holds a special place in my twisted heart, as his films were staples of the late-night second-tier “premium” cable channels (Cinemax, The Movie Channel) during my misspent “formative” years, and as such I wasted far too many hours watching them repeatedly and finding my fondness for them grow with each successive viewing. While his strange blend of gross-out horror and slapstick-style comedy is admittedly an acquired taste, his sizable semi-legion of fans is testament to the fact that many people are indeed tuned into his particular warped wavelength, and as such, I thought it might be fun to pay homage to what are unquestionably his three best efforts (to date, that is—I have yet to see his long-awaited new release, “Bad Biology”), the “unholy trinity” comprised of “Basket Case,” “Brain Damage,” and “Frankenhooker.”  Let’s begin this nostalgic look back at Henenlotter’s career at its inception, his feature-film debut, the 1982 classic “Basket Case.”

The set-up is simple enough : a doctor is murdered in over-the-top gruesome fashion in his home by an unseen assailant. Cut to a 20-something young man with a big wicker basket and even bigger hair (our “hero,” Duane Bradley, played—if that’s the word we really want to use because very few of the performances in this film resemble anything traditiononally defined as acting—by Kevin Van Hentenryck) from upstate New York arriving at a fleabag 42nd street “hotel,” checking in, showing off a fat wad of cash that attracts the attention of the establishment’s unsavory residents—excuse me, “customers”—and asking where he can get something to eat. After procuring a sizable quantity of hamburgers, Duane heads for his room and there we see that the food isn’t for him,  as he feeds it to whoever or whatever is in his wicker basket. Duane then holds what appears to be a one-way conversation with his basket-dwelling friend, goes to sleep, and the next day begins to embark on a series of visits to other doctors, saying he’s an “old friend” who wants to pay a surprise visit.

Over the course of his brief “scouting mission” to say hello to his “old friends,” Duane manages to pick up (through zero effort on his own part) and start a semblance of a romance with one of the doctor’s receptionists, get acquainted with the truly varied yet deliciously stereotypical cast of characters who reside in the hotel (including getting drunk for the first time in his life with a hooker who lives across the hall played by Beverly Bonner), and withstand further telepathic assaults from his “pet” in the basket.

Along the way, we learn the film’s not-so-secret— that his wicker-dwelling companion is actually his horribly deformed twin brother, Belial, who was attached to Duane in conjoined fashion until they were teens, when some unsavory paid-in-cash doctors agreed to separate the two so Duane could lead a “normal life.” As for Belial, he was surreptitiously dumped in the trash, presumed dead, or soon to be so. Belial quickly summons Duane via telepathy to rescue him, and then the two creatively and grotesquely kill their father, who was the brains behind the operation of—errr—-the operation and are raised from that point on by the kindly aunt who had looked after them during their early years. When she passes away, they have no remaining relatives (their mother died giving birth to them), and set out to avenge themselves on those who separted them.

Duane's basket-dwelling brother

Duane's basket-dwelling brother

I won’t tell you (if there is a “you” out there reading this) how it all ends up in case you haven’t seen the flick, but I will say that there are some solid cheap gore effects, a fun, cheesy extended stop-motion animation scene of Belial trashing the hotel room, some sick chuckles thrown in for good measure, and an authentic vibe of Times Square griminess to the proceedings that makes this demented zero-budgeter an absolute joy to watch and sets the tone for all of Henenlotter’s subsequent work—outrageous premises, lovably bizarre monsters, New York sleazepit locations, and biological absurdities of the David-Cronenberg-on-crack variety are constant running themes in his films.

Something Weird's 20th Anniversay DVD Release

Something Weird's 20th Anniversay DVD Release

There are a couple of different DVD versions of “Basket Case” out there, but the best is easily the 20th Anniversary edition released in 2002 from Something Weird Video. Featuring a plethora of extras including a commentary by Henelotter, producer Edgar Ievins, and actress Beverly Bonner, a raft of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, a documentary short featuring Henelotter and rapper R.A. “the Rugged Man” touring the movie’s  original filiming locations, an extensive selection of trailers, TV spots, radio spots, promotional posters and artwork and still photos, and radio interviews with actress Susan Smith (who played Duane’s love interest) among other delights-for-the-completist, this is definitely the version of this disc to own and can be found at bargain-basement prices most anywhere.

Followed by two sequels, the first of which is pretty damn clever and the second of which doesn’t quite reach the same level of twisted-yet-fun depravity of the first two (but which isn’t nearly as bad as many folks seem to think), “Basket Case” is definitely one of the better efforts of the low-budget horror-comedy genre and has earned its esteemed reputation in B-movie history. If you haven’t seen it, then I highly recommend checking it out ASAP, and if you have seen but it’s been a few years, it’s well worth another look, as it holds up surprisingly well given its budgetary and technical limitations, and it has an air of authenticity that most shlock filmmakers often spend their entire careers striving to find but never quite achieving.

Next up I’ll be taking a look at Henenlotter’s second feature, the remarkably twisted “Brain Damage.” Until then, thanks for reading,  and remember, when it comes to moviemaking, money is no substitute for brains and imagination!

the_witch_wwho_came_from_the_sea_poster_003The 1976 classic “The Witch Who Came From The Sea” is, simply put, a film that must be seen to be believed—or more accurately, it’s a film that must be seen and felt, since it’s about as emotionally gripping and character-driven as any film that ever played The Deuce.  Nathaniel Thompson of Mondo-Digital and DVD Delirium has described it as a movie that feels as “if Tennessee Williams wrote an exploitation film,” and I can’t really top that description it’s so completely apropos given the themes of dark family secrets, alcohol abuse, and distorted memories of the past (and perceptions of the present) which dominate this story , so I won’t even try.

In brief, Molly (played by Millie Perkins, best known for her starring turn in the TV version of “The Diary Of Anne Frank”) lives in a quiet, sleepy little seaside resort town where she works as a waitress and indulges in her favorite vices of heavy drinking, random, meaningless sex, obsessing over television celebrities, and filling in the gaps in her memories of childhood by concocting a rich fantasy world where her father was a noble seafaring captain. Molly also dreams about castrating muscled beach hunks and steroid-ripped NFL players, but as the film goes on we come to realize that these may not be fantasies at all and that these brutal castration scenarios tie into chapters of her past that she’d sooner forget—and is, in fact, trying her damnedest to.

Directed by Matt Cimber (Jayne Mansfield’s last husband for all you trivia buffs out there), who’s best known for helming blaxploitation favorites like “The Candy Tangerine Man” and “The Black Six,” this is a moody, evocative, dreamlike  film beautifully shot by renowned cinematographer Dean Cudney and featuring a finely nuanced, touching performance from Perkins at its core.  While the subject matter is no doubt harrowing and violent in every sense—physical, emotional, and psychological, the dreamy, naturalistic flow of the film provides the velvet glove wrapped tightly around the subject matter’s iron fist.

Available on DVD from the fine folks at Subversive Cinema, this title is, sadly, out of print, but still readily available at modest prices, especially if you’re willing to get a used copy. The 16:9 anamorphic transfer on the disc is absolutely lovely, and there’s a fine “making-of” featurette and an engrossing commentary by Cimber, Cudney, and Perkins among the disc’s fine bonus features.

While the poster for the film certainly makes this look like your typical “barbarian sorceress” type of flick,  and the promotional slogan “Molly Really Knows How To Cut Men Down To Size!” evokes images of a grindhouse bloodbath, the truth is that this is a sensitive, poignant, and emotionally jarring film that will reward any adventurous cinephile who’s willing to go with it’s flow. Very highly recommended indeed!

Shock-O-Rama's Newly Remastered "Drainiac" DVD

Shock-O-Rama's Newly Remastered "Drainiac" DVD

Maybe it’s because I was just saddled with a massive plumbing mainline repair bill of $7,800 (probably roughly what this film cost to make), but something about Brett Piper’s “Drainiac” really appeals to me. In the (admittedly brief) period of time before his name became synonymous with “cheap CGI” and “starring Misty Mundae,” Piper cooked up this little gem in his home environs of New Hampshire with a cast and crew composed mostly of friends, various acquaintances, and aspiring (i.e. unprofessional) actors and actresses willing to work for next to nothing. It’s a definite labor of love, and while being a confused and often haphazard one, nevertheless that warped, twisted love shines through.

To briefly sum things up, a high-school girl (played by Georgia Hatzis) who’s mother has recently died and who’s father is a drunken, verbally abusive good-for-nothing sets to work fixing up a house said rotten father has recently bought hoping to “flip” quick for some cash after doing a series of fast (mostly cosmetic) repairs. However, an evil spirit of some sort that lives in the dilapidated shithole’s plumbing (and claimed the lives of a couple of vagrants “a few years ago” in the movie’s opening scene) has other ideas and when our leading lady’s high school friends show up to (ostensibly) help her clean the place up, it decides it’s going to burst forth from the pipes and kill them all instead. After getting good and tanked at a local watering hole , her father heads home to see how his daughter’s doing with the unenviable task of cleaning up his latest dilapidated get-rich-quick scheme (in a classic cheesy exchange the bartender asks the dad if he’s sober enough to drive and he replies “I’d better be, I’m too drunk to walk), only to fall victim to this foul drain-spirit when his mini-van radiator overheats and he pulls over to find out what happened (how it got from the house to the car is never really explained) and gets fried to a crisp when he opens the hood for a look. While some of the usual teenage hijinks ensue at the house, a world-weary exorcist (played by Steven Bornstein) comes across the father’s dead body and makes his way to the house, where presumably he’d been heading anyway since this is the sort of thing he does for living. He ropes the kids into a rather impromptu exorcism, the spirit(s) reveal themselves, all does not go as planned, not everyone survives, the spirits go apeshit, the house implodes on itself, and all that’s left is a giant crater in the ground to prove that any of it ever happened. The end.

Even as late 90s/early 2000s straight-to-video horror flicks go, it’s a mind-numbingly simple “plot,” with some truly harebrained dead-end subplots thrown in for no real reason whatsoever (such as when our heroine finds an antique photograph of a woman in the house who looks exactly like her mother—only the picture is over 100 years old! gasp!), but the combination of zero-budget (but well-executed, all things considered) stop-motion and live FX works, there’s something honest about the sheer one-dimensionality of all the characters, and the stilted dialogue is charmingly cheesy for the most part.

The folks over at Shock-O-Rama have recently released a “special edition” DVD of this overlooked non-masterpiece, which completes the film to Piper’s satisfaction for the first time (he’s referred to the initial DVD release as literally a “work in progress”), and blows the original 16mm image up to an anamorphic 1.78:1 presentation. Also included is a pretty thorough commentary from Piper that’s entertaining, informative, and immediately out-of-date as he talks about how he can’t wait to release this new hi-def transfer on HD DVD since HD DVD is the wave of the future and standard DVD is on the way out as sure as VHS and this release is intended for HD DVD only and won’t be put out in standard DVD format . Whoops, guess that didn’t happen! And while Piper can be forgiven for thinking HD DVD was going to win out in its short-lived “format war,” I have yet to see a “Drainiac” Blu-Ray release advertised anywhere.

All in all, a fun little way to kill less than an hour and a half (hell, less than an hour and twenty minutes) of your life, and a nice little “time capsule” peek of sorts into that period of mid-90s to early-2000s of straight-to-video Z-grade horror that is often completely passed over almost as a matter of course by most DVD companies,  even those willing to crank out lesser 60s, 70s, and 80s exploitation titles— which is something of a shame since  some flawed gems, such as this, are to be found there.

last-house-on-dead-st-23

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.

Barrel DVD

Barrel DVD

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.