I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. So, armed with a subscription to Vinegar Syndrome’s Exploitation TV, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education.
I did not do any real research before sitting down to watch THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET. All I knew of it was that the title was an obvious attempt to cash in on Wes Craven’s brutally nasty, yet essential film. If I had known what I was getting into, I might have made the choice to start out this column with something a bit lighter.
Ex-con Terry (writer/director Roger Watkins, acting under the pseudonym of Steven Morrison) is released from prison after serving a year in the penitentiary for selling drugs. Angry at what he sees as an overly harsh sentence for his crime, Terry decides to do something that will make people truly see the horrible things he is capable of—or something like that. Character motivations are not this film’s strong suit.
Using a tip he got from fellow convict Ken (Ken Fisher, acting under the pseudonym of Dennis Crawford), Terry seeks out Steve (Steve Sweet, acting under the pseudonym of Alex Kregar), a financier of cheaply made stag films. Steve is dissatisfied with the work of his current director Jim (Edward E. Pixley, acting under the pseudonym of Franklin Statz) and is intrigued by the short film Terry shows him of a creepy ceremony featuring himself and two assistants in mask strangling a man to death. Steve and Jim operate under the impression that Terry faked the death of the man, but in reality, it is a snuff film and Terry is just getting started.
When Steve and Jim try to rip off Terry by selling the film as one of theirs, Terry and his crew of deviants (now including the recently released Ken) kidnap the filmmakers (and Jim’s wife and another actress—apparently for the hell of it), turn their camera on them and proceed to do exactly what you would expect from a murderer who makes snuff films.
You could be forgiven, from reading my plot description, for thinking there is a linear or logical flow to THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET. But Watkins is seemingly not interested in a coherent story or character arcs. What he is interested in is making the moodiest, ugliest, most depressing splatter film he can. In that regard, he more or less succeeds.
There is a surprisingly large amount of baggage to unpack with the film.
Even with what had to be a difficult restoration by the folks at Barrel Entertainment for the 2005 DVD release (Vinegar Syndrome is working on an even more painstaking restoration for a future Blu-ray release), the film is still extremely rough. The grainy image—the result of either poor cinematography or mistakes in the lab…or both—is hard to watch in the more dimly lit scenes. But this rough visual presentation fits in with the overall tone of the film as a grimy look at a killer making amateur snuff films. The same can be said for the performances. While only a few of the actors tip into an embarrassing amateur level, everyone is far from polished, lending a strange believability to the proceedings even as the plot of the film spins into absurdist territory.
Watkins gets a lot of mileage out of his location. Shot in upstate New York during the drab late autumn and winter months, the dead look of the barren, older town and the titular abandoned house where much of the film takes place contributes to the overall depressing nature of the film.
There is even something impressive about the first half of the film with most characters being introduced as we hear self-loathing monologues run through their minds. Clearly a trick that Watkins came up with to get around the fact that he recorded all the dialogue and ambient sound after filming to save money, it still works as a striking experiment to show the despair of both the killers and their future victims.
Am I making it sound as though I think THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET is a good movie? I hope not, because while I can admire what Watkins got right (both intentionally and accidentally), I found it a miserable viewing experience that took a massive nosedive when it finally got around to the grisly business which is its reason for existing.
It is not as though there is ever much forward momentum in the film. Clearly, Terry is planning to film several murders and the film gives hints as to the goriness of them via one flash-forward of someone being disemboweled and stock footage of cattle being killed in a slaughter house (which almost got me to turn the movie off), but by taking the time to set up Terry and his crew of killers and the victims as characters with back stories, it seemed as though Watkins would try to offer up more of a motivation for the killings than “you ripped me off” or half-heartedly trying to turn the bleak proceedings into a metaphor for the give and take between art and commerce in the film industry.
Once the film takes the turn into pure gore territory, it stops being compelling in a depressing way and becomes simply boring. Maybe I am jaded, but the image of clumsily executed gore gags without any emotion or real context fails to shock or entertain me. These sequences take up a bulk of the film’s final twenty minutes and nearly put me to sleep.
After watching the film, I did a little bit of digging for information (after all, this is supposed to be an education). The story behind the making of the film, Watkins’ subsequent career, and the reputation that built up around the film is actually more interesting that what wound up on screen.
THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET was apparently filmed in 1972 with a cast and crew made up of local film and theater students. It was first screened in 1974 under the title THE CUCKOO CLOCKS OF HELL. This version of the film reportedly ran three hours, which sounds like an endurance test I would have failed. Thankfully, that cut of the film—if it ever actually existed—has been lost to the ages. It was released later in 1974 as THE FUNHOUSE with a cut that was close to the 78 minutes running time of the currently available film. It finally was given its largest release to the grindhouses in 1977 under the title of THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET.
Until 2000, the film was extremely hard to get a hold of. Spotty video distribution and the fact that the entire cast and crew used pseudonyms (Watkins used a different name as director, screenwriter, actor, and producer), apparently convinced some people that it was an actual snuff film. Given the dodgy nature of some of the gore effects and that there are clearly scripted and acted out scenes (including a clumsy attempt to shock with a party full of bored rich people watching a woman in blackface get whipped by a hunchback), it is hard to believe anyone might actually think that was true, but who knows? Those rumors were put to rest when Watkins came forward, admitting his involvement in the film.
Watkins went on to work as a writer and director in the adult film industry in the ’80s, while none of his cast appears to have continued on in films or television.
I have the feeling that many of the exploitation films I catch up with in this column will have a lot in common with THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET: a reputation that far outpaces the actual film, clumsy execution of its central premise, occasionally compelling sequences driven by low-budget ingenuity, and a sleaze factor that leaves me feeling like I need a shower. Things should get really interesting from here.
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Tags: Edward E. Pixley, Exploitation.TV, Grindhouse, Ken Fisher, Last House on Dead End Street, My Exploitation Education, Roger Watkins, Steve Sweet, The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell, The Funhouse, Vinegar Syndrome, Wes Craven