Written for Varied Celluloid by Prof. Aglaophotis!
||The Plot: Terrance ‘Terry’ Hawkins is an ex-porn film director who has been screwed-over by distributors Steve Randall and Jim Palmer; as a result, Terry tried to make ends meet through drug trafficking, but was jailed for it. Once he’s let out, Terry decides to follow what his conscious says while simultaneously get back at Steve and Jim… by making Snuff Films. Once Terry finds a building to shoot in, he assembles a team of psychos including runaways Pat and Kathy, his hobbyist cameraman Bill and his good slaughter house foreman friend and film distributor Ken. He then plans on luring Steve, Jim and whoever else they can get into the building so they can be the next unwilling actors in his movies. What kind of horrors will Terry unleash and film as he directs scene after scene of murder?
It’s amazing how many directors were (and to this day still are) inspired by the Manson Family Murders. Even more amazing are the kinds of films these directors make, most of which are raw, gritty and delightfully disturbing. Back in the seventies though, these films often got chopped up or re-released in some way, mixing up the originally intended presentation or effect. There are two examples of these types of movies: one of which was The Slaughter
which was later released and renamed as Snuff
and the other being none other than The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell
… which was renamed as Last House on Dead End Street
. Both were movies that were inspired by the Manson Family Murders and feature a gang of psychos running around killing people led by one crazy dark-haired dude with a funny dub actor. The major difference here though is that the latter movie is actually damn good.
Last House on Dead End Street
is the kind of horror movie that is surprising in several ways. It’s surprising both in how terrible/funny it is and surprising in how effective/horrifying it is. Despite its flaws, despite what it went through in order to be released, Last House on Dead End Street
manages to be a richly terrifying experience. This movie sort of reminds me of that 1981 sleazy dark comedy The Pit
… that it has to be seen to be believed.
During the first half of the movie, I thought I was in for something hilariously bad. The editing in the first part of the movie is terrible. Even if you didn’t listen to the audio commentary that explains the spliced and removed scenes, the editing is so bad it makes Coleman Francis blush. Some of the scene’s we are supposed to see later in the film are put into the first five minutes of the movie as if they’re supposed to be premonitions but they don’t work at all. They even splice in clips of characters we’re not supposed to meet just yet in the first ten minutes talking to Terry. Apparently the distributors of the movie cut out several scenes that not only sounded cool, but would’ve explained later scenes. During the second half of the movie, a character named Suzy is introduced and Terry acts like he’s known her through the whole movie. In actuality, her earlier scenes explaining her character and relationship with Terry were cut out!
Even without the distributor’s editing choices though, there are still a lot of things about the movie that seem out of place. I personally found it funny how Terry stumbles across the partly abandoned building that about a minute into the movie we see that it’s a New York State College. Not only that, but during the silent introduction of the building’s caretaker, I swear you can hear a muffled class lecture in the background. Also, the character of Ken, Terry’s crazy accomplice, was almost inappropriately hilarious. When we first meet him, he seems pretty funny, but then his character starts getting dangerous… but he’s still funny. Not only does he look like he’s chewing cud throughout the whole murder and maiming, but he dresses like a short-order cook! Then there’s that ridiculous whipping scene introducing Palmer and his wife that seems to take forever even though it only lasts about three minutes. Of all the things the distributor’s cut out, the one thing they didn’t cut was that long-as-Hell whipping scene… ugh. I know it was trying to be tasteless, sleazy and give us an example of the kind of people we’re dealing with in the scene, but if they had cut most of the duration out I still would’ve gotten the point.
The dubbing in the movie is almost as silly. It’s a little hard to describe, but imagine the dub-actors in a Godzilla
movie reading a hyper-sleazy horror movie script. I’ll admit, some of the voices match the characters like Terry, Pat, Bill and Steve, but the rest of the audio performances are just goofy. I particularly like how some of the actor’s full names like Ken Fisher and Steve Sweet are dubbed in as the character’s names up until the end… oops.
I know I’m being hard on the movie at this point, but that’s how it starts out: kind of rocky. Thankfully, it’s not entirely like that the whole way. The movie is surprisingly well-shot throughout, there are some very well framed shots, intensely good close-ups and some nice locations, too. The scene where the blind man is introduced in shadow throughout the dilapidated building, the scenes where Terry and crew prepare for shooting, the filming of the murders… I’d hate to admit it, but even the whipping scene was pretty well shot. While most of the film stock to the movie is very grainy, it’s always easy to tell what’s going on and the grain only contributes to the gritty, sleazy feel of the movie especially during the murder scenes being filmed.
While the dubbing is pretty bad, the actual performances of the actors are pretty good. Roger Watkins plays a great sleazy psychotic gang leader with awesome range and physical talent. We also get treated to different inner monologues in the movie, though there aren’t that many; all we get include one for Terry and one for Pat. They both give us some insight into the kind of people they are and the inner monologue for Pat was actually kind of interesting. If anything, I felt Terry could’ve used a bit more to him. He was a fairly interesting character and he had a nice sense of boldness and danger to him, but it seemed like there was something missing, like an extra conviction for something else or something more about society to drive him over the edge.
Also, the soundtrack to this movie is genuinely effective throughout. The effectiveness of the soundtrack is mostly due to it all being stock music from other movies, but it’s selected and remixed so well that it adds to the intensity of the film’s scariest scenes. The main theme of the movie is the most effective even though it’s probably the most simplistic: the main theme consists of a heart beat with the occasional growing hum of a synth note every ten seconds. It’s a theme that, from beginning to end, never gets old and is the kind of sound that only tightens the muscles to movie that reaches out and grabs you.
Taking into account how well shot the movie is, how its characters are presented and how great the stock music soundtrack is, I can now go into just what makes this movie great: the snuff murder spree. Yes, while the movie takes a lot of time to build up its atmosphere, but once its unleashed, there’s no stopping it. It starts off easy enough with a rather tame, but quietly creepy death scene where the first murder is filmed. The atmosphere finally intensifies in the scene where Steve first enters the building looking for Terry. It’s an alarmingly tense moment because the way its shot, the use of the music and lighting was just enough to keep me on the edge of my seat.
Most of the death scenes in this movie are simply amazing. I’ve never imagined a better, more atmospheric throat slashing death scene than the one in the beginning of Friday the 13th
, especially one that’s not nearly as graphic, but this movie has it. There is a lot of pacing to the death scenes and in how much variety they offer. Many of the kill scenes are very well lit, so you can always see the subject even on the darkest set. If not bloody, then the killings are quite gory despite the simplicity of the effect. If it’s as simple as a severed limb, this movie knows how to do it and make it look realistic. Although, there is one scene where a pair of hedge clippers are used to do more damage than mere hedge clippers can do.
Some of the imagery and props thrown into the movie make the death scenes all the more effective such as the variety of masks the cast use. The huge white mask Terry wears is scary enough even without someone underneath it and its put to great use in the kill scenes.* The transparent masks that Bill and the girls wear are pretty creepy too, but there are a lot more props used in different scenes to give the movie an almost ghostly feel to it, especially the psychological torture scene near the end.
Sadly the final murder scene has a really weak climax; the build-up was fantastic and crazy as all Hell, but the payoff was cheap. I say that because I’ve dissected a cow’s eye before: with that in mind I kind of know one when I see one, especially when it’s not in someone’s head… even though it’s supposed to be.
Also, take my advice when you watch this movie: just before the final scene ends and the credits start rolling, just as the last person in the scene is out of sight, Mute the movie. Otherwise the last dubbed-in lines put in by the distributor will just kill the final scene. I won’t say what they are, but imagine the ending to A Nightmare on Elm Street where someone’s voice magically tells you that the final scene in it really was just a dream. That’s how terrible the distributor edits are in this movie: they’ll get you in the end.
Released by Barrel Entertainment, the movie is presented in a 2 Disc box set, whereupon each disc is loaded with extra goodies. The overall presentation and restoration of the film is amazingly done, especially considering how reportedly bad the original print was. Disc 2 contains telephone calls and canceled interviews with the director. Disc 1 not only has the movie, but humorous audio commentary by the director hosted by Chas. Balun the editor of Horror film magazine Deep Red
. The commentary is a genuine treat, because Roger Watkins spares no expense in letting the audience know what went on behind the scenes, and what caused the performances… particularly his own as he admits using crystal meth during several scenes. He also tells of his inspirations for the movie, what drove him to make it and how he would set-up each kill scene. Even further, his continual (and understandable) displeasure in the cut and edit of the movie by the distributors. The good stuff doesn’t end there, either. The disc includes a ten minute radio interview with Watkins and Fisher, newspaper clips documenting the movie in the making as well as a photo gallery of Roger Watkins and his film exploits starting with a photo of him at age 10! Damn, if only he was in Nine Months, then we could see a baby photo of him in the end credits. There’s even a photo of him standing next to Christopher Lee on the set of the Hammer Film Scars of Dracula
, Peter Cushing on the set of Creeping Flesh
… even a photo of him next to David Hess!! The information given on Roger Watkins and his work are so good that it’s really inspiring to read and hear.
You have to trust me when I say I want to give this movie the highest rating possible. The atmosphere and build-up to the movie is goddamn excellent, but the overall presentation and editing of the movie as well as knowing how much better it could have been keep me from giving the movie any more credit than it all ready deserves. I’ve seen this too many times in movies and even arcade game ports where the end result of a the rather good original is chopped up and mixed around by the distributor. Now I know for a fact it’s not the released media’s fault nor is it the creator’s, but it makes the end result harder to enjoy, especially knowing how things could’ve been so much better. Despite this fact though, I have to say with even more honesty that Last House on Dead End Street
is still a great Horror movie. The movie is certainly a cult masterpiece on its own, even inspiring Brad Jones to practically remake the movie in the Shot-on Video original Cheap in a Realist fashion. If you’re looking for a genuinely frightening and bloody exploitation film, by all means go for Last House on Dead End Street