‘Last House on Dead End Street’ is a justly famous title amongst horror fans, although up until the last couple of years, it was known more by reputation than from people having seen it. From an original work print running around 175 minutes, the film was trimmed to just under 2hours in preparation for a Cannes screening which never occurred. Stuck in legal wrangling for three years, the film eventually surfaced hacked back to 77 minutes & released as both “The Fun House” & “Last House on Dead End Street” – the latter title presumably a cash-in on Wes Craven’s “…Left”. Over the years, the film became increasingly difficult to track down on anything but appalling quality bootleg VHS, with both longer cuts having seemingly vanished & a noticeable lack of 35mm prints of the shorter cut. Meanwhile, little was known about those who made the film – it was only in 2000 that Roger Watkins finally revealed that he was both the film’s director Victor Janos & its star Steven Morrison. Thankfully DVD now means that this genre classic is now readily available for fans.
The plot is pretty simple stuff – Terry (Morrison/Watkins) is released from prison, & decides to exact vengeance on the society that put him away. Pulling together a group of fellow outcasts, he sets about making movies unlike any seen before; the illicit thrill of snuff could be an easy sell to rich perverts who have grown tired of the same old stuff in pornography.
The film was made on a very tight budget (supposedly between $800 & $1500!), & it’s fair to say that this really shows when watching the film. The 16mm film stock is grainy & grungily lit, whilst the audio was entirely dubbed in afterwards. Initially this seems to work against the film – it starts off being hard to watch because of its technical limitations, but as the film progresses, its dirty underground style meshes with the content perfectly, & it winds up being difficult to watch purely because of its extreme content. Missing the leavening humour of “Texas Chain Saw”, the constant barrage of sleaze, degradation & extreme bodily mutilation in the films second half combine with the stark, unflinching style to create a deeply unsettling bleak atmosphere of pure nightmarish horror. For a film that’s 30 years old, the sheer ferocious power it still holds is simply astonishing. Whilst the actual on-screen imagery is perhaps not the most extreme, twisted, or gory thing ever committed to celluloid, it’s the tone & relentlessly unflinching style that makes “Dead End Street” stand out. This is certainly a film not for those easily shocked, & I felt genuinely sick after watching it. The stench of death that surrounds this film crawls beneath the viewers skin & refuses to leave.
Whilst on the surface it would be easily to dismiss “Dead End Street” as being simply an (hugely effective) exercise in shock tactics, there does seem to be enough intelligence behind its shameless provocation to make it as unsettling psychologically as it is viscerally. Time & again we are watching events through the snuff footage Terry & his crew are shooting, thus implicating the viewer in the onscreen carnage. Everything that occurs onscreen is happening for the benefit of the camera & by extension the audience, thrusting the viewer into the world of the film & more complicit than an impartial observer. At one point, Terry leaps out from behind the camera & starts relentlessly kicking one of the victims in the head, screaming over & over “I’m directing this fucking movie!” There’s a genuine sense that we are watching a film created by a sick & diseased mind, hurtling out of control & unbound by the laws of society. Anything can happen here, & it begs the question just who would want to watch a film directed by this psycho - & given that that is pretty much what the audience is doing, the follow-up question of why we would want to watch this stuff is not far behind. Of course, the film can’t reasonably damn the audience for wanting to see this snuff when it is also shamelessly its own raison d’etre, but this kind of ‘having your cake & eating it’ is gloriously typical of exploitation cinema.
Although on a technical level the film is pretty limited, it should be noted that there are some very nicely framed shots in the film & several images that will stay with the viewer. Whilst the post-dubbing makes the dialogue very awkward, special mention must be made of the music, which is hugely effective & adds considerably to the grungy & hopelessly bleak atmosphere. Whilst “Last House on Dead End Street” is most certainly not a film for everyone – many who aren’t turned off by the technical flaws will be put off by its relentless intensity – for anyone with an interest in exploitation grindhouse cinema & the more extreme end of horror, it’s pretty much essential viewing.
“Last House on Dead End Street” makes its UK DVD debut courtesy of Tartan, as the first release on their new ‘Tartan Grindhouse’ label. It’s a terrific place to start off & bodes well for things to come (much Jess Franco is promised in the coming months), meaning it looks like being a label to keep an eye on for the discerning horror fan. The 1.33:1 picture is frankly not too hot – but given the scarcity of the film it’s difficult to imagine it looking much better than this any time soon. It’s grainy, lacking in detail & has quite a bit of print damage, but perfectly watchable. The mono audio suffers from the effects of the post-dubbing, & has a bit of background crackling, but it gets the job done & is perfectly audible.
It’s a two-disc set, & disc 2 includes 4 short films by Roger Watkins. Sadly the original audio has been lost, but to compensate they all have commentary by the director. “Masque of the Red Death” is his first film, made when he was just a boy, & whilst it’s very amateurish, it’s hard not to warm to some kids making a film involving Poe’s pendulum (from the Pit &). “Ron Rico” is a bizarre piece involving nuns, dwarves & hunchbacks, whilst the director himself describes “Black Snow” as ‘a piece of shit’, even though it boasts some arresting imagery & is very much of the late60s/early 70s zeitgeist. The best is probably “Requiem”, based around his dreams of his dead friend. Finally, the set also comes with film notes in the booklet, which sadly was not available in my review copy. The good news though, is that the film has come through the BBFC unscathed (the first time it has been granted a UK certification).