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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: Last House On Dead End Street (1977)

"I think I'm ready for something that nobody's ever dreamed of before. I'll show 'em what Roger Watkins can do".  Er, make that Terry Hawkins, sorry.  You see, it's pretty easy to get things confused when watching Last House On Dead End Street.  For starters, what was once a 3 hour film called The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell was trimmed down and edited by the distributors into an extremely schizophrenic 75 minutes, then retitled to cash in on the popularity of Wes Craven's notorious shocker.  In addition, the film was initially conceived and produced by director Roger Watkins while he was on an admitted amphetamine binge, which had to have had its own disadvantages.  He casts himself in the lead as a frustrated filmmaker, and one gets the feeling that the production must have served as a kind of catharsis for Watkins - or at least one hopes.  The acidic tone of both the film and his performance indicate a very real resentment toward the industry and it's this hostility that gives Last House On Dead End Street a nasty aesthetic far removed from any common mainstream sensibilities.  It almost seems as much an excursion into Watkin's own damaged psyche, as it does an excursion into terror.

The film begins with Terry being released from prison after serving a one-year sentence on a drug conviction.  Intent on creating "really weird films", he uses some of his old contacts in the industry to help finance and sell a new kind of thrill.  "Nobody's interested in sex anymore", he explains, "they're looking for something else."  He hooks up with a former associate, Ken, who has the necessary equipment and has been making cheap porn films for a producer named Palmer.  We’re also offered a little back-story on Ken, which amounts to him doing some time in the loony bin for getting a little too friendly with some cows in a slaughterhouse.  "You know how horny you get, you'd stick it in a mud puddle if you could find one" he insists.  Different strokes, indeed.  Terry then coerces a cameraman named Bill to join their little troupe as well.

Next, we are privy to a way-out happening being held at Palmer's residence, where his kinky wife is allowing herself to be whipped by a mentally challenged hunchback while a bunch of stoned onlookers heckle and cheer.  Meanwhile, her husband is having a meeting with a disgruntled investor who is looking for something edgier than the by-the-numbers smut Palmer's been pimping as of late.  They've heard of this Hawkins guy who wants to make new kinds of films (snuff films, it is revealed) and they agree to look him up.

Utilizing an abandoned warehouse, Terrible Terry and his merry band of depraved deviates begin to capture real death on camera.  He dons a Zardoz-like Greek mask, while the others wear those creepy semi-transparent masks that have since become nearly a staple prop in horror pictures.  Eventually Palmer and his associates get greedy and decide to cut Terry out of the proceeds from these felonious film endeavors.  And as you can probably imagine, Terry doesn't exactly take too kindly to the matter.

Last House On Dead End Street is admittedly a very crude and primitive structure.  For starters, it was filmed on grainy 16mm stock and even the best of transfers still bleed a bit and retain a fuzzy look to them.  Moreover, the editing is painfully haphazard, the narrative often meanders and the post-production dubbing job is quite simply beyond reproach.  Then add to that the cacophony that comprises the overall sound design: we get echoey voice-overs from the psychopath's perspectives; monologues from other characters (often during static or seemingly disjointed scenes); strange choral loops punctuated by screaming and maniacal laughter; and the underlying score, which is comprised of highly distorted psychedelia and film-library selections.

Now whereas technical limitations of this measure would normally hinder most efforts, here all these various elements combine to make an almost hallucinatory experience for the viewer.  Whether it was intended or not, there is a sense of disorientation and alienation that is evoked through the inconsistencies; while the warped kinetic energy on display feels a little too real for comfort.  Think of an art-house film made by The Manson Family and you might be following the path of least resistance.

The shock-pieces in Last House On Dead End Street are undoubtedly what makes it popular among cult film enthusiasts.  There's some real slaughterhouse footage likely to upset any PETA-friendly individual; a strangling; a throat slashing; a branding, a bizarre violation via deer-hoof; death by power tool (several years before Abel Ferrara went drilling); and in its most alarming sequence, a bound woman's body is dissected and disemboweled.  Some of these scenes may look tame and unconvincing now, but there's a wild evil behind every act that almost feels authentic.

LHODES is about as bleak and nihilistic a film as you are likely to find.  There is some narration at the end that feels grossly out of place stating that all the parties involved were later apprehended and are serving time in prison.  Not part of the original presentation, this was tacked on by nervous distributors as a kind of disclaimer to hopefully ease any negative reaction by audiences.  Once made, it sat in limbo for nearly 5 years before finally making its 42nd Street debut in 1977, horribly truncated and re-edited.  One can only wonder what other madness might have been captured on those lost reels, but what remains is still a genuinely unsettling and provocative horror film - even by today's standards.

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