There are movies whose reputations precede them. Containing more than simply graphic violence, there’s a foulness of intent that accompanies many of these titles, trading as they do an an unrelenting misanthropy that infects every frame. I’ve talked about some of the titles that are on my perma-avoid list (life is miserable enough without deliberately jamming on one’s psychic gag reflex), but there are other infamous films that I’ve been holding off on, waiting for the right moment to engage with them.
“Last House on Dead End Street” is one such movie, but beloved pal of the Empire Unkle Lancifer did such a masterful job of writing about this movie on Kindertrauma recently that I felt the time had come to face this particular nugget of nastiness. Add to that the fact that trusted tastemaker and master of the Theater of Diminished Faculties DB is a vocal fan, and I no longer wanted to be left out of that particular club.
LHODES is a title that inspires cultish enthusiasm, repeatedly finding its way onto top-ten lists compiled by fans of grimy horror. I was 100% convinced of the unholy power of this movie after I met a man with multiple LHODES tattoos (I was equally grateful that I was in a public place surrounded by a number of friends because those tattoos were hella-graphic-gross).
Interestingly, it’s not the gross-out factor that lingers after having seen this movie–it’s the overwhelming meanness of spirit, an attitude that reflects its 1973 pedigree*. The Aquarius-Age optimism of the 60s had long since evaporated, with Watergate monopolizing headlines even as the United States was grappling with the double punch of a lax economy and rising inflation. Filmed in Oneonta, NY, a small city at the foot of the Catskills, LHODES embodies the anger of disaffected young people trapped in a culture that must have felt stagnant and directionless.
*The film went unreleased until 1977 due to a suit involving explicit footage of one of the actresses.
LHODES is the perverse brainchild of director and star Roger Watkins, who plays career criminal Terry Hawkins. Recently released from prison on drug charges, Hawkins decides to start a new career as a snuff film maker. Hawkins enlists several equally delinquent friends (notably, friends both male and female) and, setting up shop in an abandoned school, begins to sell films of the group’s murderous pursuits. After paranoia gets the better of him and he feels his porno industry contacts are stealing his work, Hawkins lures them to his den and tortures them to death, capturing the entire process on film. All this is takes on additional disturbing texture when one learns that director-actual Watkins had psuedonymously directed a number of hardcore pornographic films, making it hard not to view LHODES as a deeply personal document of one man’s misanthropy. The directorial pseudonym “Victor Janos,” to which the movie is credited, could be a reference to the two-faced Roman god Janus, a symbol that would later be adopted by “Moors Murderer” Ian Brady.
Watkins’ performance in this film is utterly unhinged and thoroughly grotesque. Twitchy, oily and driven entirely by impulse, his Terry Hawkins is a feral animal created by an uncaring society and a broken penal system. His complete lack of empathy binds his cult-like followers to him, inspiring them to go past their general malaise and discontent to commit their own acts of cruelty. Hawkins is an East Coast Charlie Manson who’s dispensed with any whiff of the spiritual in favor of cold-blooded self-gratification.
The centerpiece of LHODES is the methodical torture, mutilation and murder of a woman that, in spite of its H.G. Lewis-esque effects work, makes for a deeply disturbing viewing experience. Hawkins and his ragged band of killers file into the operating chamber with silent reverence, rubber-gloved hands raised, circling the woman bound to the table beneath a white sheet. Once the blood begins to flow, the assault becomes increasingly frenzied and orgiastic. It’s an exceedingly unpleasant crescendo to an exceedingly unpleasant film, and the moments of suspense (well-used gardening shears slooooowwwwlllly descending towards the abdomen of the victim) ramp up the intensity to an almost agonizing degree.
A movie this spiritually revolting is only enhanced by its primitive aesthetic approach. The bad dubbing, grainy film stock and awkward performances underscore the ugliness of the story. The psychic acoustics of the film are almost unbearable, with a minimalist synth soundtrack, overlays of beating hearts and pacing that draws out every disgusting moment to its breaking point. LHODES presents a hopeless, horrible world untempered by any element of beauty. Beyond exploitation, this is a film that owns its filthiness without wincing–or winking.