In writing this review, I was going entirely on information I knew of the top of my head, and the entire review was put together in under an hour. As a result of this, a lot of information is missing, presented poorly, or just outright false. In the time since, I've learned a great deal more about Roger Watkins and his work, enough that I feel it may warrant a more significant and in-depth look. For the time being, I will leave this review up untouched in the interest of preservation.
Having been interested in obscure and rare cinema for much of my life, I know perhaps better than most that much of the time the history behind something can be more interesting than the actual product. To demonstrate this, I’m going to tell you the story of a little film called ‘The Last House on Dead End Street’
First publicly released in 1974 under the title ‘The Fun House’, it is re-released under its more well-known title in 1977. The posters proudly proclaiming “It’s back! The evil that had you screaming… it’s only a movie!”. The tagline, along with the new title, are obvious attempts to trick an unsuspecting audience into thinking the film might be related to Wes Craven’s 1972 ‘Last House on the Left’.
The film is released, both under its ‘Last House’ and ‘Fun House’ titles, on a few incredibly rare VHS and Betamax tapes in the 1980s, before more or less disappearing completely. No trace can be found of the film’s supposed creators. To quote David Kerekes from 1995 “Any attempt to trace the names behind Last House on Dead End Street will lead no further than the credits themselves, all obviously false.”
Rumours persist for years. The film was a Spanish horror film from the late 60s, it was a real snuff film, it was made by the Mexican mafia, etc. The film becomes semi-legendary. More talked about than actually seen. By the mid-90s, it is almost a rite of passage for the hardcore gore fans to track down and view a copy. Although even today that’s easier said than done.
In late-2000, a man named Roger Watkins is told by his girlfriend about a film being discussed on internet message boards. A film nobody can seem to determine the origin of, available only through 7th-generation VHS bootlegs sourced from a Venezuelan television broadcast. Watkins recognizes the descriptions. It’s his film.
Posting on message boards, Watkins claims to be the director, writer, producer, and star. The film was made in 1972 under the title ‘The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell’. Of the $3,000 budget, $800 was spent on the film, the rest used to support Watkins’ amphetamine addiction. The original cut is said to be three-hours long. In ’74, the distributors take the film from Watkins and cut almost 100-minutes from it. Watkins doesn't even know his film is publicly released until he is approached on the streets by a man who recognizes him as “the guy from that movie that was throwing animal guts around”.
In 1980, Watkins’ ‘Shadows of the Mind’ is released direct to video. As with ‘Last House’, the film is taken from Watkins and re-edited to the point that Watkins completely disowns it. After ‘Shadows’, Watkins almost exclusively directs hardcore pornography, before retiring from the film industry entirely by the late-1980s.
With major contributions from Watkins, Barrel Entertainment puts out a lavish 2-disc DVD of ‘Last House’. Versions of this DVD are also released in Germany, the UK, France, and Australia. The DVD is a surprise success in horror circles, leading to plans for a sequel. A script is written with Watkins attached to direct and star, but the film is cancelled when Watkins suddenly dies in 2007. Barrel Entertainment goes bankrupt, and the film once again goes out of circulation.
In 2015, Vinegar Syndrome, a DVD and Blu-ray label specializing in obscure horror and pornography, announce they are planning a newly restored Blu-ray of the film. In 2016, Vinegar Syndrome releases a Blu-ray of Watkins’ 1983 film ‘Corruption’. It is quickly discovered that the disc has a hidden Easter egg. A full copy of ‘Last House’, newly scanned in 2K from a 35mm print. A title card before the film states that no clean-up has been done to the print, as the company is still hunting for fresher elements for the upcoming standalone release. As of writing, there have been no further updates on the standalone release. Thus, for the time being, ends the story of ‘The Last House on Dead End Street’
That's 9, count ‘em, 9 paragraphs about the history of this little film, but note that I have yet to actually talk about the film itself. I doubt I can talk at quite the same length about the actual film. As with most films of this nature, the descriptions you hear are often exaggerated and overblown, leading to a bit of a let-down when you view the actual film.
The basic premise involves a recently released convict (Watkins) deciding to take revenge on society by making snuff films. That’s about as far as it goes in terms of plot. The first half or so of the film consists of long, drawn-out scenes of inner-monologues from our central players. Occasionally we’re shown some depraved and shocking acts that don’t seem to actually contribute anything. A scene oft-mentioned involves a woman in blackface being whipped by a hunchback. No, it doesn’t make any sense in context either.
The first half is necessary to establish the characters and their motivations, but it meanders for far too long. It could easily be half the length without losing anything. The second half, however, is what the film is remembered for. Non-stop torture, murder, and mutilation. If you’ve started watching a film called ‘Last House on Dead End Street’, odds are that this is what you’re here for.
Let us not beat around the bush, this movie is bad. It is objectively terrible in almost all aspects. The acting is bad, the overdubbing is terrible and more often than not doesn’t actually match the actor’s mouths, and the gore looks so fake you’d wonder how anyone could mistake this as genuine. If you sensed a ‘but’ coming, you’d be right. This movie, for me anyway, is saved by Watkins talent behind the camera.
Watkins was a good director, he never really got a chance to utilise his talents, but he had them. The movie builds an atmosphere in a way that I can’t honestly say I’ve seen another horror movie do before. The grimy, dirty, grindhouse aesthetic, the incredibly strange music, the bizarre dialogue that seems almost ad-libbed, the claustrophobic spaces the latter half takes place it. It all creates an incredibly oppressive atmosphere of just… evil. I can’t adequately explain it, you really need to view it for yourself to get a sense of what I mean. It is one of the most unpleasant cinematic experiences I’ve ever sat through, therein lies is its power. The gore was never why people thought this was real, they thought it was real because it feels real.
Overall: For my money, the film isn’t as interesting as its history, but there is still something worth enduring here. Absolutely not for everyone. I’d almost say not for anyone. It is rough, tough, and unpleasant. However, it is essential viewing for fans of obscure and rare cinema, as well as the hardcore gore fans, although more for its reputation than its actual quality. For the right sort of person, it’s worth seeing just to say you saw it, at least once.
Recommended exclusively for the fans of obscure gore.
[Originally published May 7th, 2018]
[Originally published May 7th, 2018]