Seven minutes in, THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET's Mission Statement is belted out, loud and clear. "I wanna make some films here, some really weird films." And boy, do they ever
Plotwise, things unfold fairly straightforward and simple. Upon release from prison, minor-league pot peddler and all-around sleazebag Terry Hawkins assembles a troupe of misfits and lowlifes to help dole out vengeance to those they feel deserve it -- all the while filming their violent misadventures.
It may sound a bit bland on paper, but watchin' it is a whole 'nother ballgame entirely. Resembling a strange meshing of arthouse aesthetics with the hard-edged violence usually found in "roughies" of the previous decade, the unnerving intensity of DEAD END STREET will undoubtedly get under the skin of anyone fostered on the relative safeness of traditional horror cinema. The proceedings could have easily ended up a stereotypical precursor to the slasher outbreak of the 80's, but several elements combine to transform this running sore of nihilism into something far greater than the sum of its parts. With the disquieting marriage of its minimalist score and ambient sound work to the fetishistic sequences of mask-wearing, bizarre pseudo-rituals, and the potent climatic frenzy of sadism, segment after segment compound a relentlessly bleak world view that won't be shaken off easily. Mostly an improvised production, DEAD END STREET represents the type of work that simply can't be planned -- once in a lifetime, it just HAPPENS. Ask Tobe Hooper.
Due to its general rarity and the lack of concrete info concerning its history, DEAD END STREET's reputation has festered to near legendary status over the years. Unseen by most, Barrel Entertainment have finally rectified the situation with this superlative double-disc release, which emerges as not only a tribute to a true one-of-a-kind grindhouse classic but a tribute to the fellow who brought it into this world to begin with -- writer/director/star Roger Watkins. For the longest time, nothing was known about the man who was credited on prints as both Victor Janos and Steven Morrison. Misinformation and supposition were easy to come by, but stone cold facts were few and far between. Until about two years ago, that is. Noticing the ridiculous prices the VHS prerecord was getting on eBay (over $100!), Roger's girlfriend Suzanne posted a message on a horror newsgroup inquiring about fans of the film. And the rest, as they say, is history. Interviews have been published, appearances have been made Hell, Watkins even passed out drunk on my hotel room floor watching THE BRAINIAC. However, based on the incorrect data I'm STILL seeing around, it seems some of you weren't paying attention. So here's a quick refresher course -- you may want to take notes:
In December, 1972, a young lad named Roger Watkins -- who had been associating with the likes of Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger and Freddie Francis, to name a few -- decided (in a crystal meth haze) to make a no-budget horror flick titled THE CUCKOO CLOCKS OF HELL. Knowing the only way to get himself noticed would be to shock audiences out of their seats, he gathered his friends and set out to do just that. Taking his initial inspiration from rumors of Manson family snuff films being circulated, the idea later metamorphosed into the entity we know today. Well, sorta. Watkin's original rough-cut of the film clocked in an epic 175 minutes, but was later trimmed down to a more acceptable 115 minute length in preparation for a showing at the Cannes Film Festival -- a screening which never occurred. Thanks to a fired ex-cast member (who stills haunts the film to this day), Roger suddenly found himself and his film ensnared in litigation for a three-year duration. Fighting tooth and nail, the case was taken all the way to the New York State Supreme Court, at which point the charges were cleared, and the film was given the thumbs-up for distribution. Striking a deal with a company named Warmflash Productions, everything seemed to finally be working out. Until, of course, it was found out that they had chopped things down to 77 minutes, fabricated an entire credits reel, rearranged scenes, re-titled it THE FUNHOUSE and added a PC coda! (This version, the only one known to exist today, was later re-released post-THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT under the more familiar THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET moniker.) Disillusioned by the whole ordeal, Watkins then began to work in the porno industry, at first writing films (for such drive-in luminaries as Roberta Findlay) and eventually directing features as Richard Mahler (not, as reported in other sources, Richard Mailer -- who made Traci Lords' first film). He also dabbled in some documentary work, scriptwriting, an acting gig on a NBC sitcom called THE DOCTORS, and two semi-mainstream features -- a comedy called SPITTOON and a horror flick titled SHADOWS OF THE MIND. Got all that? Good.
The film's home video history is just as confused, since several variants exist -- though ANY version is (was) hard to locate. Issued by Sun Video on Beta and VHS in the States (and by Marquis in Canada), copies can be found as both THE FUN HOUSE and THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET. To make matters worse, some copies were intact while others suffered from a 91-second edit during the film's most graphic setpiece -- with no way to differentiate by cover art! A longer Venezuelan tape surfaced on the bootleg scene with promises of more gore and nudity, but it turned out to be identical, footage-wise, just transferred at a slower speed to accommodate the Spanish subtitles! And now comes Barrel's version, which unquestionably DESTROYS all need for any other inferior release. Originally filmed on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for distribution, this new transfer (from an extremely rare theatrical print, the last film elements known to exist) bares all the grainy earmarks of just such a birth. While dirt, scratches and other blemishes do appear often enough to warrant mention, this edition also boasts much sharper clarity and bolder colors than ever before, especially next to the washed-out and dull Sun tape. This DVD also reveals a more carefully composed film, adding a noticeable amount of picture information to the right, left and top of the 1.33:1 framing when compared to the old VHS. The (entirely post-dubbed) mono soundtrack is still a bit hissy with the occasional crackle and pop, but it's honestly as good as can be expected. Overall, a nice transfer and a remarkable improvement on previous versions. (It needs to be noted that the print used for this disc was missing the aforementioned 91-second entrail-slingin' sequence. For the sake of completeness it has been composited into the master from a videotape source, and was color corrected and digitally stabilized as much as possible. While it's a shame film materials couldn't have been found for this scene, it does help illuminate the differences between this DVD and previous releases.)
It may take 'em a while to get things released, but at least Barrel knows their market and doesn't skimp on the supplements. Before you even turn your player on you're treated to original cover art by comic legend / film-buff extraordinaire Steve Bissette. Also included with this deluxe package is a 36-page (!) booklet by Headpress editor David Kerekes, which details his personal obsession with the film and contains interviews with and reflections from several cast members.
Kickin' things off on the discs themselves is a lively commentary track with director Watkins and Deep Reditor/old hippie Chas. Balun. Though it's a cynical film, the pair stay good humored throughout resulting in a fun listen. The problems of filming with zero money are addressed, background info (and the real names) of the actors are covered, distribution hassles are recounted, and the longer rough cut is discussed. Another audio option is included for play over the film -- a 55-minute interview with the director and actor Ken Fisher conducted for a New York radio station in 1973. Sound quality is a bit rough, but it remains engaging throughout. Next up is a real treat for fans -- close to 19 minutes of hitherto unseen footage culled from a 16mm workprint reel that was found after combing through virtually every film lab in New York. It (silently) showcases several bits exclusive to the missing, longer rough-cut, fleshing out the intro and characters a bit. It's an interesting peak at what could've been. We then get the alternate intro and outro from THE FUN HOUSE release, sourced from videotape. It plays the same as the current print, except with a replaced title card. Also sourced from VHS is the original television spot circa 1979, something which I'm amazed still existed ANYWHERE (provided by underground filmmaker Nathan Schiff of LONG ISLAND CANNIBAL MASSACRE fame). It's rather reminiscent of the U.S. trailer for Argento's SUSPIRIA, and according to Roger it's in fact a short, complete sequence from his follow-up horror film SHADOWS OF THE MIND. Moving on, we have a 1975 appearance of Watkins and actor/author Paul Jensen on THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW that runs just under 10 minutes. Regrettably focusing more on Jensen's work as a writer than anything else, THE CUCKOO CLOCKS OF HELL still gets some airtime. For you headbangers there's a Jim Van Bebber directed music video from Necrophagia titled "They Dwell Beneath," which claims to be inspired by the main presentation. I don't see the resemblance, but to each their own. The final supplement on Disc One is a nicely assembled stills collection that actually revolves around Roger Watkins more than his films. Hammer fans, take note: included are several behind-the-scenes photos from Roger's on-set visits to films like SCARS OF DRACULA and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN.
With the first disc's extras grouped to appeal to more casual viewers of the film, Disc Two presents a platter designed specifically for the hardcore fans. First, we are treated to four pre-DEAD END STREET shorts, totaling almost an hour, presented with voiceover commentary from the director. It's an interesting way to see the man honing his skills, sometimes employing the same locations as the main attraction. Coming up next is a 75-minute audio journal of 40 phone-calls the director recorded while the film was in production. Very entertaining, this extra gives the listener a revealing glimpse into the trials and tribulations of no-budget filmmaking - from organizing shooting locations to talking actresses into nude scenes, not to mention the occasional prank call. Rounding things up, as far as advertised supplements go, is almost 28 minutes worth of amusingly candid footage from an aborted shot-on-video documentary about a day in the life of Roger Watkins, filmed in 1988. Easter egg hunters will be rewarded with some goofy goings-on from the commentary recording session, along with a dinner gathering of Roger, Jim Van Bebber, Sherri Rickman, David Szulkin and the guys from Barrel - drinking the night away while discussing everything from Spike Lee's BAMBOOZLED to the merits of THE WILD BUNCH.
The bottom line? A must-see film
and a fantastic package from Barrel. Highly recommended. And Roger, you still
have my lighter
( Bruce Holecheck)
For those interested in learning
more about the work of Roger Watkins, look for the following:
Issue #4 of Ultra Violent contains an 18-page interview with director Roger Watkins.
Issue #23 of David Kerekes' Headpress is dedicated to THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET.
The 15th Anniversary Issue of Chas Balun's Deep Red is now available!
The DVD will be released by Barrel Entertainment on October 22, 2002.
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