An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · January 11, 2019, 12:55 AM EST
Last House on Dead End Street

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on January 10, 2003, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

And now, folks, the ne plus ultra of fan enthusiasm finding expression in a DVD. For a variety of reasons, Last House on Dead End Street was the last movie one could imagine receiving gala disc treatment, but here it is, showcased in a two-DVD set from Barrel Entertainment as exhaustive as anything in the medium’s recent history.

Last House is one of those movies whose cult reputation has in part been engendered by its obscurity (as Headpress’ David Kerekes describes in his liner notes, printed in an interview-packed 36-page booklet that is just the tip of the supplemental iceberg). I’ve never been a huge fan of the film, though on this second viewing, I was able to look past its many technical flaws and get a little bit into its creepy self-reflexivity: This story of a twisted amateur filmmaker who eliminates his enemies in a homemade snuff flick looks itself like the work of a primitive celluloid-crazed auteur. It’s one movie about which it can truly be said that its technical roughness adds to the overall atmosphere.

Good thing, too, because the transfer of the movie is the weakest element of this package. Not that Barrel could have done any better under the circumstances; indeed, the company deserves kudos for tracking down the one film print apparently in existence (owned by Fantasia festival honcho Mitch Davis) and augmenting a bit of missing gore footage with clips from a videotape source. Colors and sharpness are weak and there’s frequent damage, though the mastering is as good as it can be, and it’s worth keeping in mind that the movie was shot on 16mm reversal stock. The mono sound handles the entirely post-dubbed dialogue and library-music score as well as possible.

But even if I can’t be overly enthusiastic about the movie itself, I will say this: the set gave me new appreciation for the film it could have been. Originally a 175-minute (!) epic inspired by the Manson massacre called The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell, it was hacked down to just under 80 minutes by the distributor, which redubbed the film to boot and, after creator Roger Watkins took his name off, applied an entirely bogus set of cast and crew monikers. Watkins, who wrote, directed, produced, compiled the score for, co-shot (with Ken Fisher) and stars in the movie, was understandably bitter about the experience, though on the commentary track he shares with Chas. Balun, he seems to have made peace with the situation and is able to laugh about the resulting flaws, while sharing a good amount of anecdotes. Balun asks the right questions and makes numerous pronouncements about the film’s subtext (it’s hard to tell at times whether he’s kidding or not); both rave about how good the transfer is, yet Balun also states that this type of down-and-dirty shocker shouldn’t look too good, taking a swipe at the Texas Chainsaw restoration in the process!

Even more informative than the commentary, and impressive on Barrel’s part, is the amount of vintage material compiled here, which reveals as much about Watkins as it does about his film. A third audio track accompanying the movie contains a 55-minute radio interview from around the time of its production, in which Watkins and Fisher revel in the enthusiasm and chutzpah of youth. Not to mention pretension: Watkins calls Night of the Living Dead “a pretty bad film,” and when the interviewer presciently brings up Last House on the Left, Fisher decrees it “a piece of junk”! It’s interesting to hear the duo discuss their plans to use a synthesizer score and self-distribute their movie (neither of which came to pass) as well as the then-burgeoning indie filmmaking scene, comments which could easily be applied to the current camcorder revolution.

Watkins also mentions his intent to release the movie himself in an old video segment from The Joe Franklin Show, on which he is accompanied by—and subordinated to—his film professor Paul M. Jensen, who’s really there to flog his book The Films of Boris Karloff. (Franklin seems to attempt to draw a parallel between Karloff’s movies and Watkins’—if he only knew!) The first disc also crams in 19 minutes of outtakes (which are in much better shape than the feature!), the title sequence bearing the film’s alternate title The Fun House, a Necrophagia “tribute video” and the movie’s trailer, which utilizes footage from another Watkins project, plays very much like the Suspiria preview and cribs the “It’s only a movie!” tag from Last House on the Left.

But that’s far from all, folks. The second disc presents four of Watkins’ short films, which seem very much the product of a director with serious themes on his mind and suggest that Cuckoo Clocks might have been something to reckon with. Not that they all achieve their ambitions; with the sound elements lost, the shorts are accompanied by Watkins’ commentary, and he calls one of them, Black Snow, “junk,” even bringing Balun in for a bit of facetious analysis! Watkins’ talks here drop clues about the roots of his cinematic obsession with death, as they are informed by the passing of people he knew; one film was based on a friend who was killed in Vietnam, while an actress from another subsequently perished in a car accident. Along the way, the director mentions a fifth short, the wonderfully titled Amputee Grand Prix, which unfortunately isn’t included here.

Then things get personal, via 25 minutes of clips from a video documentary shot by a friend about Watkins, circa 1988. The image quality is poor but the material is almost uncomfortably illuminating, catching Watkins at a low point after his divorce—he even shows us the rooms in his now-empty house where his daughters once lived. He also references other friends and relatives who have died, discusses his admiration for deceased author Carson McCullers, even leads a trip to her grave—and generally lets us far deeper into his head than most filmmakers ever dare.

My own favorite among the supplements, however, is the 75-minute collection of phone calls audiotaped by Watkins during Cuckoo Clocks’ production. These provide a uniquely candid chronicle of a grassroots feature in the works, as he checks on locations and people’s schedules (making sure his actresses are OK with doing nude scenes), solicits publicity and deals with various problems (as indicated by chapter headings like “I Can’t Make It” and “My Car Won’t Start”). The you-are-there feeling becomes especially compelling as the snafus get worse, as Watkins learns that a 35mm blowup will cost much more than he was first told and a man who was providing him a camera threatens to have him arrested. This section also discloses that Cuckoo Clocks was actually about Manson for quite a ways into the shoot; it’s unclear at what point it became a fictional story.

Amazingly, there’s very little repetition among all these supplements; the only tidbit offered nearly every time is the fact that Watkins took the Cuckoo Clocks of Hell title from a line in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night. Even if you don’t like Last House on Dead End Street, it’s highly likely you’ll be fascinated by the look behind the scenes and inside its creator’s mind that this package provides. “You bet your ass this is for real,” indeed.