Let me start off this review by saying this is a one of my personal favorites, and for those who seek it out based on my review (or any other positive reviews) may not see it in the same light. Despite the title, it's not a rip-off of Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and I feel it's actually superior to Craven's movie. It's certainly more vicious and disturbing. The film begins with Terry Hawkins being released from prison after serving one year for selling drugs, and through his "inner monologue" we learn more about his pissed off and nihilistic view of society. "I'll show 'em. I'll show 'em all what Terry Hawkins can do!". And show them he will.
He finds an abandoned building and decides to use it as his "production studio", exclaiming to the girl who's with him, "I wanna make some films here - some really weird films!". He meets up with a former "business associate", Ken, who has film equipment and has been making movies with a porno filmmaker named Palmer. We learn some of Ken's sordid past. He had worked in a slaughterhouse for a while; and we're shown some foreshadowing inserts of cow slaughter. Apparently Ken was a bad boy though, and he some time in an institution for porking dead cows, as he explains to Terry, "You know how horny you get? You'd stick it in a mud puddle if you could find one, but you can't find one in the middle of winter, you know." So Terry and Ken decide to partner up on these new films Terry plans to make.
Next Terry meets up with another former associate named Bill, who's a camera man. Terry uses his winning personality to convince Bill to join his entourage, "Now get all this crap together and be ready to go in an hour!". Now we move to a crazy little shindig being thrown at Palmer's house (the porno filmmaker I mentioned earlier). His wife Nancy is a kinky one and likes painting her face black prior to being whipped by a mentally handicapped hunchback, as the party guests laugh and cheer her on. An oddly surreal scene, no doubt.
Meanwhile, her husband and his producer, Steve, are in the study viewing Palmer's latest film, which the producer is not too impressed with, "Palmer, you sit here showing me 10th rate porn while your wife is in the next room getting her ass whipped, and you have the nerve to talk to me about your reputation?!". Steve then tells Palmer they should hook up with this guy Terry Hawkins, who's planning on doing some films no one's ever seen before. Now we cut to the chase. Terry's "new style of film" is snuff films. His crew wears these creepy, semi-transparent theater masks while he dons a huge Greek god-style mask, and they kill their victims on camera.
Steve, the producer, finds a lucrative underground market for the films, but makes the fatal mistake of cutting Terry out of the profits. Terry repays the favor by using Steve, Palmer, and Palmer's wife as "actors" in his final masterpiece. What follows is a gruesome, disturbing and often graphic account of their last moments caught on film.
The foreshadowing slaughterhouse scene I mentioned earlier plays out here in the end, involving a branding iron, throat slashing, stabbing, mutilation, dismemberment, and disemboweling. In one sickeningly surreal scene of humiliation, Steve is forced to fellate a deer hoof, protruding from between the legs of one of Terry's female crew members, as another crew member holds two other hoofs up to the girl's head (as though they were devil horns).
It's a bleak and nihilistic film with a suitably bleak ending, although there's some tacked on narration stating that Terry Hawkins and the other members were later apprehended and are serving time in prison. This narration was never part of the original film and was probably added by or at the request of a distributor who thought audiences couldn't handle such a bleak ending without some form of punishment for those involved.
I remember first reading about this film in some article by Chas Balun, either in Gorezone or Deep Red, back in the late '80s. It was originally distributed on VHS by Sun Video in small quantities. I was actually lucky enough to have found a rental copy back then and dub it. It seemed like such a dangerous film made by reckless filmmakers who just didn't give a damn about playing by the rules. To add to the film's notoriety, all the people involved were hiding behind pseudonyms. It was later revealed that the writer and director of the film was a New York resident named Roger Watkins, who also played the role of lead maniac Terry Hawkins. His main influence for the story was Charles Manson and his followers and the rumor (now an urban legend) that the Manson family had made some snuff films.
He and a dedicated group of theater and film school friends shot it back in 1972 (while he was in a meth-fueled haze, according to Watkins). The original title was THE CUKOO CLOCKS OF HELL, a reference from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night (which has nothing to do with the film, by the way). The running time of this original print clocked in at nearly 3 hours. At some point it was cut down to the lean and mean 80 minute version that exists now. Unfortunately, the original 3 hour print has been lost, and all that remains of it is about 20 minutes of silent footage, included on the Barrel Entertainment DVD. Hopefully this print will resurface one day, because I would sure love to see it. In 1977 it was retitled THE FUNHOUSE, and it made the rounds through the grindhouse and drive-in circuit. It was later retitled LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET and raked in more money at the grindhouses by using an ad campaign that cashed in on the success of Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT - "It's Back! The Evil That Had You Screaming...It's Only A Movie!".
It also played on some double bills with Craven's THE HILLS HAVE EYES. The movie was shot on 16mm film which gives it that grainy and gritty documentary-like feel that is perfectly suited to films dealing with this subject matter. It was also shot without sound, with the dialogue, sound effects, and music dubbed in later. This can usually hurt a film, but here it gives it a disjointed feeling. That, combined with the minimal synthesized soundtrack and the looping and echoing of various dialogue, add to the unsettling effect of the film. It's like the visual equivalent of listening to Nurse With Wound, Coil, or some other early industrial artist. One aspect I love about this movie, and other ultra-low budget DIY movies like it, is that it's a big defiant "middle finger" in the face of the money-hungry Hollywood studio system. This subtext is actually in the film itself, with Steve and Palmer representing the Hollywood studio system, out to make a buck by feeding the masses what they want to see. But their product has become boring and trite, and they're losing money. In comes Terry Hawkins, an underground independent filmmaker with a vision to give people something they've never seen before. Of course, "Hollywood" rips off his product, puts their own name on it and run with it, cutting the independent filmmaker out of the picture all together. The only difference here is that "Hollywood" pays the ultimate price in the end.
If you're a fan of hardcore horror and exploitation films you should track down a copy of LHODES. The folks at Barrel Entertainment released a definitive 2-disc DVD set back in 2002. I think it's out-of-print now, but it's definitely worth seeking out. It still packs a punch today. For better or worse, this movie along with Michael and Roberta Findlay's inferior film SNUFF, gave rise to the whole pseudo-snuff genre; and are the predecessors to the Japanese GUINEA PIG series films DEVIL'S EXPERIMENT and FLOWER OF FLESH AND BLOOD, as well as the AUGUST UNDERGROUND films. Roger Watkins died in 2007. Prior to his death, he had written a sequel to LHODES and was set to direct it, with the help of Fred Vogel's Toe Tag Pictures (the guys behind the AUGUST UNDERGROUND films). The last I heard, Toe Tag still owns the screenplay and may eventually shoot it.