LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET (ROGER WATKINS, 1977)
A few years ago, when Barrel released their marvelous special edition DVD of Last House on Dead End Street, it was seemingly all that genre fans and magazines could talk about. There was tons to read about the history of the film, tons of back story, and a countless number of people claiming LHODES as the most disturbing film ever made. But for some reason, despite it's welcoming into what could be considered a horror "canon," Last House... has rarely been mentioned since then. Originally released in May of 1977, this year, 2007, marks its 30th anniversary. Also, this year marks the sad death of its director, Roger Watkins, who was also responsible for several brilliantly atmospheric hardcore films made between the late 70s and 80s.
The plot of the film, at least in it's current viewable version, is large inconsequential to the grand guignol set pieces that give the film the reputation it has. In fact, it can more or less be summarized in a single sentence: Terry Hawkins gets released from prison and, mad at the world, decides to start making and selling snuff films to take revenge on the world and contribute to a sense of moral decay. But not surprisingly, that simple of a reduction overlooks everything that makes the film worthwhile.
The reason for the success, the power, of the film lies in the fact that it exists in somewhat of a void of pure, abject horror. There are no characters in the film that one can feel any pity for, every character is utterly despicable. Even Terry's victims are awful people, one of the men's wife getting dolled up in black face in order to be whipped by a man while party guests laugh in glee and clap. This is the world that the characters are situated in. It's hopeless, dirty, and very bleak.
I mentioned that the film in it's current viewable state has a plot holes the size of Texas, but this could, and very likely is, due to the fact that the only available version of the film is 74 minutes long, whereas supposedly, somewhere in a New York film archive, a 175 minute version is sitting. One cannot even imagine what exists in the other 100 minutes of film, but I think it's safe to assumed that the plotholes would be filled. The main plot hole being simply that the audience is never shown any progression between when Terry hooks up with the "producer" of his films and when Terry gets overly screwed by the producer, which leads to the films utterly memorable climax. All we can currently see is more or less the first meeting between Terry and the man, and then Terry's backlash. While it is a shortcoming overall, there are more than enough redeeming factors to the film that make it worthwhile.
Nowhere else in cinematic history has such an abject void existed so successfully. Virtually everything that occurs serves to disorient, confuse, terrify or disturb the viewer. What really makes the film work so well are the bizarre small touches that decorate the film and bewilder the audience; the masks that Terry has his 'girls' where during films, the fake head arbitrarily placed next to the head of a victim as she is dismembered, the black face the woman wears while being whipped, and the climactic deer hoove that the producer is forced to fellate during his final moments. As a whole, they literally add up to not much, but their placement and subtlety (and unexpectedness) force these objects and displacements to become signifiers that signify that something is very, very wrong.
It is for this reason that the film is an utter success; it's a remarkably no-budget film that exists not within the realm of the 'so-bad-it's-good,' but rather exists as pure atmosphere. The story isn't necessary; if all the viewer could see was the film with it's remarkably perfect score, no dialogue or voice overs, the exact same affect would be achieved. It may be very obvious that when Watkins made the film he was intending to play into the Manson phenomenon (particularly invoked by Terry's girls chanting things such as "Terry will solve everything, Terry will remove your fear"), as well as the conceptual idea of snuff that was closely linked to that incident. But what Watkins truly succeeds in doing is cinematically constructing the idea of the "other," that which is deeply terrifying to humans. The "other," in this films case, is a nihilistic, utterly abstracted snuff film director, and the nihilistic, utterly abstract content of his snuff films. And it is truly terrifying.
But, as it naturally often does, with the terror comes a sense of beauty. The aforementioned signifiers that further separate reality from this filmic world are sublimely remarkable. From a purely aesthetic sense, divorced of any political context, a white woman, nude, with significantly overplayed black face on being repeatedly whipped while party guests clap and laugh is a very, very powerful and beautiful image. Same goes for the use of dollar store masks that repeated create the surreal sensations of Terry's snuff films; they're separate from reality, another layer upon what is literally happening (and using a mask is both obvious and genius in this case), and create beautiful images.
Another thing that works wonders for the film is the abandoned university building that a majority of the film is shot in. Brilliantly empty and decrepit, it creates a sense of physical space that perfect matches the metaphysical space implicit in the abject horror of the void.
So, while the film does suffer serious short comings in terms of plot, it's highly irrelevant to the success of the film. Undoubtedly if the plot were better thought out and actually there it would do nothing but extend the ideas of the film even further, pushing it possibly into the realm of something that would be far more notorious. But as it stands, it's still a sublimely beautiful piece of atmosphere decorated with utter desperation and nihilism.