Barrel Entertainment talks with Roger Watkins
by Art Ettinger
Roger Watkins began making films at age ten. His first film, Masque of the Red Death starred childhood friends Ed Beverly and Dave Day, who would later turn up in several of Roger’s 8mm World War II epics. The trio experimented with lap-dissolves and were able to achieve a primitive Jack Pierce style meltdown of a vampire who is staked through the heart (complete with blood and worms).
Roger attended SUNY-Oneonta where he continued to shoot whenever he could. SUNY professor and author Paul Jensen (Boris Karloff and His Films,Hitchcock Becomes Hitchcock) appeared in many of Roger’s college short films, including a tight adaptation of EC Comics’ killer Santa Claus shocker, And All Through The House.
In late December, 1972, Roger began work on a far more ambitious project. Armed with a 16mm camera and talent from SUNY’s film and theater department, he started work on his first feature, Last House on Dead End Street.
Paul Jensen: Orson Welles once said that there are two kinds of people: those whose first reaction to an idea is to say “no” and list the reasons why it cannot work, and those whose first reaction is to say “yes” and set about making it work. When Roger described his plan, I realized that it sounded impossible and even foolhardy, but I also realized that I must at this moment be one of Welles’ “yes” people. I had no idea if it could be done or how it could be done, but I decided to do what I could to help it happen.
It happened. A grim, pre-Able Ferrara exercise in violence and nihilism, Last House on Dead End Street maintains its power to shock and sicken, even thirty years after its conception.
Roger Watkins has worked with Nicholas Ray, Freddie Francis, Otto Preminger, Dave Day and Harry Nilsson, among others. He has directed several documentaries, including Heaven Knows, a harrowing fly-on-the-wall look at life in an insane asylum.
Roger lives in upstate New York and currently seeking the funds to finance his latest project, Hobo Flats.
This is Art Ettinger’s legendary interview with the one and only Roger Watkins. Terry gives the answers! Trust us, it’s a wild ride.
– John Szpunar
Barrel Entertainment: How many movies have you made altogether?
Roger Watkins: Fourteen, I believe.
BE: Do you have a filmography anywhere?
RW: No. (laughs) I never made films under my real name. One of them I did. That got out there by accident, and I was really pissed off about that.
BE: Which one was that?
RW: It never came out. I actually destroyed the negative.
BE: You destroyed the negative of your own film?
RW: I actually did. It was a mess. The reason it was a mess, is because I didn't have anything to do with the post-production, and – this is literally true – this woman who had never edited anything in her life, got the job by blowing the producers, and she just destroyed the film!
BE: Was it a hardcore film?
RW: No, no – it was a comedy called Spittoon. It was very bleak, but very funny. It was just ruined, mainly by cutting and music.
BE: And you just couldn't stand it, so you destroyed it?
RW: I might have to send you a copy, so you'll be one of the few people that has it.
BE: I'd love to check it out!
RW: It's awful. My real name wound up on that, and that bothered me.
BE: And that wasn't intended?
BE: Now, you've shot on anything ranging from video to 35mm?
RW: I shot one porno on video and that was it.
BE: Which one was that?
RW: I've never seen it. I did supervise the editing, but I haven't seen it since I edited it. It was called Decadence, which is not a very good title – I always run into bad titles somehow. You know, the original title of Last House on Dead End Street was The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell, which I really like.
BE: And where does that title come from?
RW: I went through this Kurt Vonnegut phase around, well, 1972, just before I filmed it, and I had read a bunch of his novels, like everything he had written up until then. I think it might have been in The Sirens Of Titan [It was Mother Night – JS] but I'm not sure now because I read them all together. But he talks about this imagery of the cuckoo clocks of hell, that only tell the right time once every thousand years, and that's perfect for Terry Hawkins and these people. To me, they make sense! To me, they're like avenging angels that are just doling out some justice here. (laughs)
BE: Do you have any favorite films that you did besides Last House on Dead End Street?
RW: Believe it or not, I like Corruption. Both Corruption and Midnight HeatI've made copies of, where I got rid of all the pornography – and they're only like thirty minute movies but they're good, and they look good, and they sound good, and I like them.
BE: What's your most recent work? Are you still directing?
RW: No, I just finished a script. I'm going to get back into directing, because I've written quite a few things. I wrote a movie – not too many people know this, but of course my father does – a war picture with a guy named Eddie Straussberg in 1987, about a very little known battle in World War II. I knew about it because my father was there, but he wouldn't talk about it. It was called the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest. And we wrote this script, and – I'm not making this up – we were offered all kinds of money if we'd compromise it. “We need women here,” this and that. We never would, and I was writing an HBO special for a comedian named Pat Cooper – I don't know if you've ever heard of him, he's always on the Howard Stern show, I was on there with him – and anyway, I showed it to these people at HBO and they stupidly write me a letter saying no, we're not interested in war pictures. To make a long story short, it was on two years ago. It was called When Trumpets Fade.
BE: So they ripped it off?
RW: Oh, absolutely.
BE: Such an obscure battle, it had to come from that.
BE: Wow, maybe you ought to get paid off of that!
RW: Well, what happened was, Eddie and I were going to sue them. We had these copyright lawyers in New York City and they knew what it was; they had the script and they had the videotape and everything. So, they start suing and what happens is, HBO has two hundred and sixty-eight lawyers. And all of a sudden it's like “OK Roger, you've got to give us $18,000.” I don't have $18,000. I don't have eight dollars! So, that's what happened there.
BE: You mentioned you were on the Howard Stern show with Pat Cooper... what's the story behind that?
RW: That's a very famous show. What happened was, Pat Cooper is a big comedian, especially on the east coast, and he's very big now ‘cause of Howard. He's always on Howard. So – this is funny – he hired me to do an HBO special. The reason he hired me is because I made this very strange film, but very funny, and – he's sixty-four years old, this guy. I wrote him this bizarre shit that was really sick, but very funny, and he finally says to me, “Roger, I can't do this. I'm sixty-four and you're writing for a thirty year old man.” And that was the end of it. So one night he calls me up and goes, “Listen, I feel bad,” – and he really shouldn't have felt bad because he paid me, he's a good guy – he says, “I'm going to be on Howard tomorrow, why don't you come by and I'll give him your new script, and he'll probably like it, because he's crazy.”
So I get there in the morning, and I got there before Pat, and there's these people there, and I'm listening to them, and they're there to mean-mouth Pat. So finally Gary Dell'Abate comes out and sequesters them; I'm sitting there, Pat comes in, and I'm like “Pat, they're fuckin' setting you up, man – you're gonna go in there, Stern is gonna say, 'You ever mean-mouth me, Pat?' You're gonna say no, and they're gonna bring in your mailman, your butcher, your policeman, and they're all gonna say what you say about Howard!" (laughs) So what happened was, Pat just went crazy. They started videotaping it, Stuttering John and these people, so he just went nuts! But he calmed down, and it was funny because after they leave with the camera, he looks at me and winks because he knows this is "good copy". So he goes in, and I've got my little envelope with films and these bits I wrote for Pat that I think Stern would have liked... so all of a sudden Pat just storms out of the fucking place, and I'm like, “Oh shit, I'm never gonna get this stuff to Howard.” So the next thing, Jackie the Jokeman comes up and says, “Hey listen, we're a little afraid of Pat but you look like you could take care of yourself... come with us, we'll go look for him.” And it was really funny with me and Jackie out on Madison Avenue. We didn't find him. So, we go back inside and I'm putting on my coat, and all of a sudden I hear Howard Stern go, “Where's that guy who was with Pat this morning? Go get him and bring him in here.” And you don't have time to think – they just grab you. So I was on and I made up my mind, I wasn't going to try to be a wiseass, I'm not going to try to be funnier than Howard Stern because I'm not. I'll just be a gentleman and say some occasionally witty things. Which is what I did, so Stern and I got along really well. And I was on for like twenty minutes. It was funny, because have you ever heard of Billy West? He does the voices of Ren and Stimpy?
BE: Okay, sure...
RW: I didn't know Billy West was on the show with Stern. There was this guy sitting there, he seemed like a nice guy, and Stern said, “What films have you done?” I said Last House on Dead End Street and this guy who's sitting there goes, “Jeez, I love that movie.” Who is this crazy ass? How has he even heard of this thing? Turns out he was Billy West. He was really nice, because I wrote him a letter afterwards saying, “Jesus, I didn't know you were the great Billy West, my daughter loves you, I love you – could you just send an autograph to my daughter?” I gave him an envelope and all that, and the guy sends a cell!
BE: An animation cell?
RW: Yeah! He sends an animation cell to my daughter, autographed. It was really nice.
RW: So like I said, that show has been on three or four times since; he puts it on once a year because it's really funny, with Pat and everything. We're talking, and Howard says, “Listen, leave your script here with me and I'll read it, because if you're as sick at Pat says you are, we'll get along real well!” Now this sort of irritates me, but this is the way my career has been the last few years anyway. I leave it and nothing happens, I don't hear anything. I wait like three weeks and call up Gary Dell'Abate and say, “Gary, what the fuck happened with my script?” He says, “Oh man, did you have it in a big thick envelope, says 'To Howard from Pat'?” I said yeah. He goes, “Well, I called Pat and asked him what to do with the script, and he said 'Throw the fucking thing away!'” (laughs) So then I went down and met with him, and they got the script and then what happens is, I move. This has been the luck of me for the past few years. I moved, nothing really happened, and then I finally call up Howard Stern and they said, “Jesus, we were looking all over for you! You didn't answer the phone for the last year and a half!” So that's how I got on there.
BE: That's great. I'll have to look for that.
RW: I think people should hear about that.
BE: The way I heard it, people said you were on the Howard Stern Show on one of those newsgroups, where people were posting about Last House on Dead End Street.
RW: Very rarely do I see anything correct on message boards. Very rarely, unless I add to them or something. But that's what really happened.
BE: Do you watch movies? What are some of your favorite movies?
RW: I used to live for movies. I used to be obsessed with movies, especially horror films. Lately I haven't been, I don't know why. I think I'm just disillusioned with the whole thing because HBO owes me a million and a half; the distributors of Last House on Dead End Street owe me just under three million dollars... you know, I think I've become so pissed off and jaded over the last few years.
BE: It's kinda ruined your love for it?
RW: Not really, because I still worship the same films. I still watch them at least once a year, like 8 1/2. Orson Welles' The Trial, I don't know if you've ever seen that...
BE: No, I haven't seen The Trial.
RW: My absolute favorite films. The Seventh Seal by Bergman. I consider all these horror films, except maybe 8 1/2. The typical ones – Horror of Dracula, which I grew up on. I was in England, you know. I stayed with Freddie Francis. I don't know if you know who he is. He's a great cinematographer, but he also directed some horror films. So I was hanging out when I was twenty with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee...
BE: Some of the Hammer crew.
RW: Yes, they were my big inspiration when I was a kid. I started making films when I was ten.
BE: What about Theater of Blood or Spirits of the Dead? Did those influence you?
RW: Spirits of the Dead I've never seen, but I want to, because Fellini directed one of those episodes. He did the one with either Terence Stamp or Peter Fonda. One of them. Theater of Blood was with Vincent Price, right?
RW: That was after the Hammer films I liked. I like Hammer from '58 to '70 or so.
BE: Do you like any newer horror movies?
RW: I liked Night of the Living Dead a lot, which isn't new any more, is it? I don't see very many horror films that I like. I don't like Nightmare on Elm Street. I saw Horror of Dracula when I was ten, and one of the reasons I really, really liked it was because nobody in it was under forty. And I liked that. It was all mature adults, and it tended to lend some sort of legitimacy to the genre. These are not kids starring in this thing, these are adults, and they're all excellent actors... so I liked that. I really can't think of any horror films I like recently. Well, if you want to call it a horror film – to me, it's one of the scariest films ever made – Pi.
BE: Did you like Requiem for a Dream too?
RW: I haven't seen that. I should, shouldn't I? I think nothing can really scare me too much. Night of the Living Dead was the last film to really scare the hell out of me when I saw it. Oh yeah, I liked The Sixth Sense. I thought that ending was fairly chilling because that's been one of my nightmares since I was a little kid. That maybe I'm dead and I don't know it. That's always bothered me. I liked that. The Wild Bunch had a big influence on me, not just technically but philosophically. Recently, one of the ones I liked a lot wasSleepy Hollow. I like just about anything Tim Burton does; I think he's probably the only legitimate genius making film in America today – commercial film, I should say. Darren Aronofsky is probably a genius but not very commercial. I liked 12 Monkeys. What else can I think of that I like... I don't get excited, but I got very excited about Pi.
BE: That's nothing compared to your movie!
RW: I know, but it did excite me because it's so intellectual too. I'm not an occultist at all, but I'm well-steeped in occult lore and ritual and I know what to watch out for, because I do believe – this is a conversation I had with Christopher Lee when I was nineteen – he said, “Listen: I don't believe in any of this shit, but I believe it's dangerous.” And then he brought up Charlie Manson. He said, “They're dangerous!” (laughs)
BE: How did you get hooked up with Christopher Lee?
RW: Well, I had a bag full of films, which I still have of course. I just went to England. A friend of mine, Paul Jensen [the blind man in LHODES] had written an article on Freddie Francis for Variety, and he had his address. He had never talked to him or anything. It was 58 Wheatlands Heston Village. I'll never forget that. So I just fuckin' got a plane ticket and I went to England, and I'll never forget this – I get to his house, and nobody's home. So I laid down – I had this big duffel bad and I put my head on it and I just went to sleep. So this neighbor came over and she said, “Are you here to see Freddie?” And I said yeah. She goes, “Did you come far?” I said, “Well, from America.” And she goes, “Well he's in Sweden for the next month or so.” (laughs) But she's very nice, she goes "Why don't you come over to our house, my husband knows him, they're good friends." He was this big playwright named Alexander Foote. He was a nice guy, he goes, "No, no, Freddie's down in Bournemouth, he'll be back tomorrow.” He got him on the phone, and I talked to him. I went to London and stayed in Earl's Court that night. The next day I came back; Freddie was there; he invited me in – it was great! We had a couple beers, we watched soccer, which I didn't know anything about. He wasn't shooting anything then, but Roy Ward Baker – he's sort of a nondescript director – he was shooting a film called The Scars of Dracula. So I went to that shooting every day, and hung out. That's when I first met Christopher Lee and all those people. But the genre was already ruined. It was Christopher Lee and a bunch of eighteen year olds, which didn't appeal to me at all. It wasn't well done at all.
BE: What about your epic Last House on Dead End Street? It was originally called The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell and ran almost three hours, supposedly. Do you know where that cut is now?
RW: No. Well, I know where it might be. It was in a lab in New York. All the elements were in the same lab, and they're not there. Suzanne Rowe [Roger’s partner] had spent weeks just trying to find a print of [that cut] – anything, and we came up empty-handed. I mean, we're talking twenty-eight years ago.
BE: How was the original cut structured? How much do you remember about how that was structured?
RW: Well, first of all, it made so much more sense. First of all, the whole first twenty minutes of it – which was the title sequence – was set in the slaughterhouse. So you see all these cows fuckin' getting slaughtered, blood up to these peoples' knees, and it was just nightmarish.
BE: Did you film that slaughterhouse footage?
RW: Yes, I did. Also, you saw Ken, my little sidekick; he's working there. So what you're doing is cutting from the slaughterhouse to me. I was working as a protectionist in a porn theater. And you see me get arrested, so you know I have some sort of knowledge of how film is put together. Then you cut to Pat Canestro, the taller girl, leaving her husband, and then you cut to the littler girl meeting Pat, and all this is going back to the slaughterhouse. So by the time you came out of there, you knew who all the characters were. You were also meeting Palmer who was shooting a porn film. Which is so much better. So the characters were all introduced, rather well I think, and concisely, in the first twenty minutes and you knew who all of them were. So that opening scene that you see in the tape, where I'm walking up to that old building, that was twenty-five minutes into the picture.
BE: Is the picture as it is now basically sequential as far as there's more to it, or is it out of sequence?
RW: Well, there was a lot more to it. It's sequential, except they did stupid-ass things like out front as I'm walking into the house they show a bit of Ken cutting the girl's stomach out or something...
BE: Yeah and part of the strangulation is shown.
RW: Right. That's just stupid, and they did that, I guess, because they didn't think the imagery would hold the audience. They wanted to see blood right away. But it was linear time. Sequential.
BE: Besides the twenty-minute intro, what else do you remember about the cut? It was three hours…
RW: There's a lot more in the sense that you had Palmer making his little dipshit porn movies, but you had Terry Hawkins making some porn movies too. So he starts off making porn movies, and they're in some sort of competition. And then you have Sweet, who sort of prefers Terry's stuff, and then you have Terry, who just goes off the deep end and starts killing people.
BE: So would this have been shown before that scene where they're watching the bad porn?
RW: The scene where they're watching the bad porn would have been intercut with the slaughterhouse footage. So you'd have had me in the projection booth getting arrested, you'd have the girls getting together, you'd have had Palmer showing Sweet his shitty pornos, and you'd have had Palmer's wife getting whipped. All that stuff.
BE: Did you at any point edit it down to the length of a feature?
BE: So your edit was that three hour edit?
RW: Wait, I'm sorry – I edited it down to one hour and fifty-five minutes at some point.
BE: Did you know it was being released as The Fun House?
BE: At what point did you sell it and to who? You just left it on the side of the road or what; how did this happen?
RW: A friend of mine named Pete Roma had a studio over in Westchester. So I used to do some stuff over there, commercials and stuff. And this guy, Leo Fenton was his name, said, “I think we can release this Fun House thing.” His wife wanted to be a movie star. He wanted to release it so he could have a company that had a film, and then do another film. And I did do a horror film with his inept wife which I won't even discuss (laughs). That's what Spittoonwas about – working for this dopey guy.
BE: What happened to that movie you did?
RW: Oh, that's out there.
BE: What is it?
RW: I'm not saying! (laughs) Originally the script was very tight and I liked it, it was written with Paul Jensen and it was called The Heritage of Blood, and it was a tight little script.
BE: And that's out there.
RW: That's out there! Oh God, is it ever.
BE: By the time it was retitled Last House on Dead End Street –
RW: Well, first it was The Fun House.
BE: All right, and by the time it was retitled Last House on Dead End Street, how did you see it? Did you see it as The Fun House or as LHODES?
RW: Now this is funny. It's 1979 and I'm making Her Name was Lisa, and I'm cutting it on 9th Avenue and 44th Street at the Film Center. So I'm coming out and I'm walking down the street, and this guy comes up to me and he goes, “Jesus! You're the guy in that movie cutting people up and shit.” I didn't know who he was. I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “No, you're him, I can tell by the way you laugh! You're him!” I said, “How do you know about this?” He said, “You don't know what happened to the film, do you?” I said no. He said, “Come up to my office.” And he was an editor that somehow had gotten involved with this; he did the trailer for Last House on Dead End Street. But the trailer was just a scene I did for the follow-up film I made for the creepy guy Leo. So he didn't do any editing, it was just a scene I already shot! But he says to me, “This film, these guys distributed it already, they called it The Fun House and they had riots! They had a big riot in Chicago when they showed this thing.” And Dallas too! And they made four million dollars, mainly south of the Mason-Dixon line. He said, “I'm telling you, this film is coming out in three weeks, it's gonna be called Last House on Dead End Street, and it's gonna be all over the place.” And I'm telling you, three weeks later – the local stations in New York City are 5, 9 and 11 – every six minutes on every one of those stations was that trailer. It was a big opening and it was all over the place! It wasn't just one theater.
BE: When they decided to retitle it Last House on Dead End Street, had you seen Last House on the Left?
RW: Here's a classic for you! I finished shooting Last House on Dead End Street in January of '73. There's this movie that comes to town called Last House on the Left. So I go see it with my friend Ken Fisher, the guy who plays Ken. We just thought it was... I didn't like it! First of all, I knew it was a rip-off of Bergman's Virgin Spring. So on some level that offended me, that they couldn't come up with something a little more original than that. And that's about it. I thought it was creepy and shit. She bites off the guy's dick and you go, “Aggggah.” But what really fuckin' almost bothered me was there's a sequence in it that's like a dream sequence, and somebody wakes up and everybody's dressed like for surgery. When I saw that, fuckin' Ken is hitting me and I'm like, oh, fuck! If they do what we did... I'm gonna be really fuckin' pissed! And I think somebody put the chisel on a tooth, or something?
BE: Yeah. It's a dental thing.
RW: OK. And I was so happy. I was like, “We're safe!” So I did see it at the same time we had just finished shooting LHODES. But I'm offended by the title Last House on Dead End Street.
BE: You think it misrepresents the movie?
RW: Yes, I do. And because of the year it came out and all that, it makes me look like I was trying to take advantage somehow of that film, and I certainly never would.
BE: Did you have anything at all to do with the Sun Video release?
BE: Even they released a number of different versions, I don't know if you’re aware of that. Their tapes differ in where the cuts are and how long the tapes are...
RW: Really? I didn’t know that.
BE: There's a tape under the title of The Fun House.
BE: Yeah. Most of them are under Last House on Dead End Street, but I actually have one under Fun House. It's the same opening credits but it has the title The Fun House – it looks like the original title, with an old sort of font.
RW: That Gothic sort of look.
BE: Yeah, the Gothic look.
RW: I've seen that. Cheap old black & white zoom-in titles.
BE: Exactly. Their longest version runs about 77 1/2 minutes. Do you know who handled the editing of their videos?
RW: I don't.
BE: Do you know why they put out so many different versions?
RW: I have no idea. I didn't know they did!
BE: Yeah, there's at least four different versions.
RW: No, I didn't know that. The one I had – I actually had to buy one – is pretty much the one I see most of the time. It cuts away during the disemboweling sequence.
BE: Does it have anything additional besides the remainder of that scene? Or is that mainly the big difference?
RW: That's the big difference. One thing there's too much of and always was, I would have cut it down considerably, is where the queer guy is sucking the deer's hoof. It just goes on too long.
BE: You think that scene's too long?
RW: I do. Don't forget, I cut it on rewind; I never saw it at speed! (laughs) The scene I like, nobody ever brings it up it seems, is when they hold a mirror up to his face and then the girl pulls the mirror down, and you see this disgusting sort of mask staring at him, right next to his face. I like that. And I would have trimmed that considerably. It's too long before the mirror comes down. That's one example of what I would do differently.
BE: That's interesting. Finishing up on the Sun Video thing, do you have any idea of how many copies are out there?
RW: I have no idea.
BE: Are those edits then basically your edits, just a shorter version of the movie?
RW: No, they didn't edit anything. They just took out whole scenes. The edits are my edits.
BE: The scene to scene cuts are yours?
RW: That's all my stuff. Like I said, it was never fine-tuned. They just said, “This is too long. Let's take this out, let's take this out. Hey look! We can lose 20 minutes right out front with this slaughterhouse shit. Let's just get rid of it.” And that, to me, was absolutely necessary.
BE: What's left now is real brief.
RW: Yes. It wasn't, and it was horrible! I had to force myself to have rare roast beef that day. Me and Ken Fisher. I'll never forget that.
BE: You had roast beef the day you were shooting the slaughterhouse footage?
RW: Yes, I had to. I might never have had roast beef again.
BE: Where did you shoot that?
RW: The whole film was shot in Oneonta, New York because my friend Paul was a professor up there, so he had the cameras. It was an Arriflex 16S, eight quartz lamps (laughs), and things that I would find and just use! All the stuff with the masks... I was there to make the film and I knew basically what I wanted to do, but I would go to somebody's house and this professor of theater had these masks, and I said, “Holy shit, this is great!” So that's how things would wind up in the film.
BE: So those masks... some professor had those for Greek tragedies or something?
RW: Exactly, it was for a production of Oedipus.
BE: What kind of reactions did the film have when it played theaters, that you know of?
RW: I knew supposedly they had a theater burn down in Chicago. (laughs)
BE: Did you see any news reports about that?
RW: I don't know, because I heard about it after the fact. The guy who I met on the street, he said, “You know, they burned the theater in Chicago!” I saw it for one night in the theater.
BE: What was it like? How were people reacting?
RW: It was like, eeeuuuhhh! You know, it worked! The only thing that I've never liked, and a lot of people like it because they think it adds to the disorienting effect of the entire film, is the dubbing. The dubbing was just never cleaned up! You have to clean that up. Me, I just cringe when I see people talking and the words come out a second later.
BE: That adds to the quality of the film, though!
RW: I know a lot of people think that, so what can I say. That always bothered me. I remember going to see the film and here it was, fifty feet wide and my lips are six feet wide, and words are coming out at the wrong time! (laughs) I was just, like, shrinking in my seat! But you're right. A lot of people – a LOT of people – just think that really works. I don't, though.
BE: You mentioned something happening in a theater in Dallas?
RW: Supposedly. This came from the same guy on 9th Avenue. Actually, that's where it opened. They opened it in Dallas, Texas as The Fun Houseand evidently there was some violence in the audience, people kicking the shit out of each other, people screaming and yelling and going nuts...
BE: Was that a theater or a drive-in?
BE: Now, did it play in multiplexes when it had this bigger opening in 1977?
RW: There were really no multiplexes in 1977. It was all still big old theaters.
BE: There were multiplexes beginning then.
RW: It played in big theaters, on the big screen.
BE: Did you go see it then? That's when you saw it on 42nd Street?
RW: I saw it on 42nd Street when it came out as The Fun House.
BE: Did you see it as Last House on Dead End Street?
BE: Was the movie actually rated R?
BE: With the full disembowelment scene?
RW: Well don't forget, when it came out and I saw it, it didn't have the full disembowelment scene.
BE: It didn't have it in the theater when you saw it?
BE: It had the cutaway?
RW: The guy picks up the tin snips, and-
BE: As soon as he cuts to the robe, it –
RW: Right. They were outta there.
BE: See, the version that I saw that has the full disembowelment scene does have an R card on it.
RW: I couldn't believe that with the slaughterhouse footage it [got an] R! Back then, especially. Nobody ever did anything like that before.
BE: The MPAA's website lists the production company as Warmflash Productions, Inc.
RW: That's true. That's who did the trailer from the second film. That was the guy I met on 9th Avenue.
BE: What were you trying to do when you made Last House on Dead End Street? What was the theory behind it?
RW: You know what the budget was on that movie, and I'm not making this up?
BE: What was it?
RW: I had $1500. I was high on speed and I made a movie for $1500, and that's no lie. (laughs.) That's absolutely 100 percent the truth.
BE: Why make this movie?
RW: Well, how am I going to compete with Hollywood? How am I gonna make8 1/2? How am I gonna make The Seventh Seal, which is more where my sensibilities lie? I'm not, but I can make something so shocking that people will notice it.
BE: How do you view the movie's antihero, Terry Hawkins?
RW: Like I say, I like him. I liked all those people. I see the other people as the villains. I just see them as corrupt, immoral pieces of shit, that in the end probably get what they deserve and the world is certainly no worse off for the loss of any of them.
BE: So that's why you've said you don't like the voice-over at the end...
RW: Oh, I hate it. It makes me crazy.
BE: But Hawkins was an ex-con in the original script, right?
RW: Yes. Well, he got arrested in the beginning.
BE: But that voice-over in the beginning where it said that –
RW: There was no voice-over. You see him get arrested –
BE: But in the movie as it is now, he's walking in the building and he's basically saying he just got out of prison. Was that yours?
RW: I had to make it up when we were doing the dubbing, so everyone would know what was going on.
BE: OK. But the voice-over at the end, that one you had nothing to do with.
RW: I had nothing to do with that. That was a guy named Bernie Travis, who committed suicide and I was glad when he did. Piece of shit.
BE: I actually showed Last House on Dead End Street to a college film class. I was teaching a little student-run course on sick movies, and a lot of people, especially with the juxtaposition of the people viewing the bad porn, thought that the message was that it was an anti-porn movie.
RW: No. I think it might be an anti-pornographer movie! (laughs) It might be that.
BE: The hilarious lesbian porn scene where the dog is walking in and out – what's that all about?
RW: That was my friend's Weimaraner. Ken Fisher's. We're shooting at his house and I just thought it was funny. (laughs) The guy that does that, the guy who plays Palmer, was a theater professor up there named Ed Pixley. He was a very proper guy and I couldn't even believe he was in this fuckin' thing! I said “Ed, you've got to live with your family and shit.” He goes, “I don't know. I just always wanted to be in a movie!” So he did it, and he was good! Everybody else in it is an undergraduate.
BE: You said you finished shooting in '73?
RW: January, '73.
BE: Had you heard of snuff movies?
RW: Oh yes, of course! Here's how the whole thing happened: I was living with a director named Nicholas Ray. I was editing his last picture. Nick was strung out, for a lot of different reasons. They wanted Nick to make a film in Czechoslovakia with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Nick says to me, “Roger, I can't even go to this meeting. You go.” So I'm like, “OK, I'll go.” I went to the Chelsea Hotel, he was a very nice man, I don't recall his name, and we're talking [about Nick], and he goes, “You know what I'd do if I were you? I would make a movie about Charlie Manson, because you're a sick-looking fucker and you could pull it off, and there's money in that shit!” So that's how I got the idea. I had read The Family by Ed Saunders so yeah, I knew all about snuff films.
BE: Had you seen the movie Snuff or heard of that?
RW: Oh that was out years later.
BE: It supposedly played in '72.
RW: No, that's not true. I saw that movie in '77 or '78. I knew Roberta Findlay, the woman who did that footage at the end. She was a friend of mine. Actually, I wrote a couple of movies for her. So that's when it came out. It never played in '72.
BE: Do you believe in snuff movies? Do you think they really exist?
RW: Probably not. I don't think so.
BE: I just realized that I forgot to ask you for a general biography - where you're from, who you are, what you do for a living now...
RW: Same thing! Of course, I haven't done anything in two years but fortunately I've had some money to live off of. Actually, I have just finished [writing] this Hobo Flats thing that I want to do. It's done now. It's miles ahead of Last House. Miles. And it's still just as perverse and bizarre, but it's also very funny. It's the one film I really do want to make.
BE: Do you plan on funding that yourself, or are you looking for someone to do that with you?
RW: I'm looking for funding. The thing is, this film is a bit more expensive than what I've done. I budgeted this at around six million dollars. But then again, I have Dennis Hopper and people like that, so it's a slightly different ball game than Last House on Dead End Street.
BE: What's the general idea?
RW: I hate to describe things. I'm no good at it. I could write a full length screenplay better than a three page synopsis. What's it about? How can I word this... it's about a de-gloved gynecologist. He's wandering around in the desert in the beginning, and he witnesses this horrible accident but he doesn't really care, and then he drifts into the desert and he's trying to figure out how he got to be what he is. So the whole thing takes place as a flashback; well, not quite because it'll cut back to the desert now and then. And the desert is filling up with people from his past for no real logical reason, but they're there, having a picnic. And it goes back to one day and one night in his life when he was thirteen years old. And it's quite funny. And I don't know what to say beyond that, without going into the whole picture.
BE: When you say you've got Dennis Hopper, you mean he's agreed to do it with you?
RW: I was with Nicholas Ray. He directed Rebel Without a Cause, They Live by Night... he's just one of the big, big Hollywood directors. When I was twenty-one, I was staying in his house, editing his last picture. If you can find a film by Wim Wenders called Lightning Over Water, it's about Nick when Nick was dying of cancer. But in the film, Nick is actually showing some scenes that I edited for him. They're not very good, and the film wasn't very good, but that led directly into Last House on Dead End Street – knowing Nick. Because that's how I wound up in that producer's hotel room on 23rd Street. But it's an interesting film if you can find it. It's very disturbing, especially if you knew Nick. I mean, what he's doing is dying and he's trying to make a film about his death with Wim Wenders! So it's almost unwatchable by most people. I think the first six minutes is just Nick sitting up in bed coughing. It's pretty disturbing. Anyway, Nick said, “Before you leave, let me write you a letter of recommendation.” And he did, on his own stationary, with his signature and everything, which was phenomenal because he never did this for anybody in his life. So a year or so ago when I was trying to get a hold of Hopper, I just made a copy of that and sent it to him. And I got a call from him right away. So that's the Nick Ray/Dennis Hopper connection.
BE: I was surprised to hear you say you were into Tim Burton.
RW: Oh, yeah. I love a lot of his things. I loved Beetlejuice, I loved Sleepy Hollow, I loved Ed Wood. I thought Ed Wood was one of the best films of the decade, really. Just because it was an act of love, and it was done so well. Ed Wood in real life was sort of this despicable alcoholic. (laughs) Nothing really nice about him, and he didn't have any talent at all. But the point of view of the film, I thought was nice. I liked it very much.
BE: You also said that The Wild Bunch was something that influenced you...
RW: Very major influence on my life. Saw it on 42nd Street when I was about nineteen.
BE: That would be the place to see it!
RW: Yeah, that was great. You get the proper audience there too.
BE: Now, it's all Disney. A lot of the theaters are there, but they're all owned by Disney.
RW: They're bad. It used to be: See three horror films, or three exploitation films, for 99 cents. It was great. I remember once, I went to see a film calledPutney Swope, which was a really funny, underground sort of film, directed by Robert Downey Sr., the father of the actor. And I'm sitting there watching it with two of my friends that I dragged there, and as we're watching the film, someone comes in and shoots the guy in the head sitting right in front of us! (laughs) It was great.
BE: Did you see the rest of the movie?
RW: I did, yeah! I made my friends stay. Phil Aiston and Tom Leslie. I made them stay.
BE: Back to Last House – Who made up those aliases?
RW: That guy I told you about that killed himself, Bernie Travis.
BE: So you had nothing to do with the names.
RW: Nothing. Nothing. I was appalled.
BE: You intended to have your own name on it?
RW: No, but I intended to have no name on it, because I was pissed off at how they cut it down so much and just rearranged some sequences which I didn't approve of. I didn't want my name on it.
BE: If they had left it as is, would you have left your own name on it?
RW: Absolutely. Absolutely. I believed in that film.
BE: I mentioned to you that when I was a kid, I rented it in a regular video store. Did you ever see it for rent anywhere over time?
RW: This guy down the street here from where I live rents it, independently of me. He didn't know I made it. I’d seen the old Sun Video ones years ago. In 1982 and '83, I remember seeing it in stores all over the place. The one the guy has down the street... that guy has the best video store in the world. In the world.
BE: Which video store is that?
RW: It's in Piermont, New York. It's called Piermont Video. And this guy, I mean, forget anything commercial... he's not interested. He's got Last House on Dead End Street and Cannibal Holocaust and shit like that. Anything obscure. For instance, one of my favorite horror films, maybe my favorite [is] a film called Vampyr by Carl Dreyer. I wanted to see that all my life. He had it. I wanted to see Witchcraft Throughout the Ages all my life. He had it. So if you ever come just outside of New York City...
BE: Now we're really getting into the nerdy fan material. Have you ever seen a BETA copy of Last House on Dead End Street? Because it was released on BETA, supposedly, by Sun Video.
RW: No, I didn't know that. I believe it, because there was sort of a schizophrenic video release back then. You could get BETA and you could get VHS.
BE: I've never seen one, and I do have a working BETA player... I've looked for the tape and I can't find it.
RW: I haven't seen it, no.
BE: What can you tell me about the cast of the movie?
RW: The cast of the movie were all friends of mine who were undergraduates.
BE: Were you in school there?
RW: No, I had graduated in '72.
BE: From Oneonta?
RW: Yeah. I had actually been asked to leave Cornell (laughs). This is actually a funny story. Cornell looks out for her people. And what happened was I was just into drugs and shit when I was there as a freshman. So they'll say to you, “Listen. If you're going to flunk out, why don't you quit?” Because if you quit, you don't have a bad record. If you flunk out, you're fucked. So I left, and this girl I liked was going to school in Oneonta! (laughs) Which was a far inferior school, but I could hop right into there, so I did. I was a good student, straight-As; I decided I didn't want to go to Vietnam and everything, and needless to say as soon as I get there I have nothing much to do with the girl at all! But I liked it there, I had a good time, and I met this guy Paul Jensen.
BE: The blind man.
RW: He's the blind man, but if you look him up, he's written a lot of great books: Boris Karloff and his Films was good, The Cinema of Fritz Lang... he's got what I think is the best book on horror films I've ever read, called The Men Who Made the Monsters. Very, very good. He just had a book come out three or four months ago on Alfred Hitchcock called Hitchcock Becomes Hitchcock. He's very good, but we had nothing in common except film, which of course was everything. So we became fast friends, and I was with him a lot. We just became good friends. I started making films on my own when I was ten. He knew there was no teaching me how to make films or anything, so he didn't bother. What I would do is do whatever I wanted and he would give me independent study credits for whatever film I brought to him. And they were good films.
BE: What are the films like?
RW: Let me tell you how I started making films. Nobody actually knows what it was that fascinated me about this process. People have asked me, what was the first film I ever saw, the first horror film? My mother took me to seeTobor the Great, which absolutely floored me. I played Tobor the Great for two years. When I was ten, I was a child who was absolutely fixated by time. I remember being four and walking down the street in Binghamton, New York and I was real happy because it was sunny...
BE: That's where you grew up?
RW: Yes. I had this overwhelming sadness at the passage of time. Because I'm so happy, I'm just a little boy, right? But it hits me, this has got to end... and all of a sudden I'm profoundly sad! Which I'm sure is not normal. (laughs) I don't think that's a normal thing for a four year old to do, but I did it. When I was nine years old – and this is what's important, because this really determined my life – it was a summer night, and there was a strange guy in my neighborhood named Jim Brochus. This was a strange guy; he couldn't pronounce his Rs. A very imaginative guy, but so imaginative that everyone thought he was crazy. But I liked him. So he comes up and he asks me what I'm doing, and I was just real bored so I say nothing. I'm just hanging out. He goes, “Listen, I got a movie projector.” Which didn't really mean much to me, because I'd seen home movies and things like that. So he says, “No, you've got to see this – you crank it! You've got to see this, you turn a crank...” I really wasn't too excited, but I went over to his house. He just lived down the street, and in the cellar he had this black, 16mm movie projector with like a 100 watt, regular light bulb, not even a tungsten, and a hand crank, and no take-up reel, and he had one movie, and it was Felix the Cat. It was probably from the '30s, black and white, and I remember it had nail polish on it, bright red nail polish, just drips on it... it might have been paint, but it looked like nail polish. I said “Alright, let's check this out.” So he puts it on, but what fascinates me right away – I liked the cartoon because it looks real strange and I've never seen one with nail polish on it before – but what's really fascinating to me is this crank. Because with this crank, I can go backwards, I can go forward, I can go really fast or I can go really slow, or I can stop everything. And all of a sudden it hits me: I'm manipulating time. I can actually make it go fast, slow, backward, forward, and I went nuts. I made him show me that until his mother finally threw me out around midnight! We watched that film probably forty times! (laughs) And every time we watch it, we have to put in back on the reel with a pencil because we don't have a take-up reel. So it's just spooling out on the floor. So that did it to me, right there; I had to make movies. My birthday was going to be in a month or so, so I ask for a movie camera and my mother got me a Brownie Fun-Saver, which I still have. It was funny, cause I started scripting movies in my head even before I got that camera, and I had this friend named Dave Day and Dave Day was into this too. So I made all these movies and he was in all of them; we'd get other people but we'd usually kill them and we'd have nobody else to be in it so they'd have to come back as different people (laughs), so they were the same actors, dressed the same, so it was always funny. And that's how it started! The first film I made was called The Masque of the Red Death, only because I liked the title. I liked the word "masque", but it was really The Pit and the Pendulum. We built our own pendulum and all that – it was awful, but it wasn't awful, really. Nick Ray was fascinated by it. That's one of the things I dug about Nick, he loved all the stuff I made when I was ten, eleven... he didn't care about nineteen or twenty. Of course, he was on drugs! (laughs) But anyway, that was the beginning of it. I'm telling you it had to do with that specific projector, that specific film, and that specific time in my life. That's what it was. If Brochus hadn't come to my porch that night when I was sitting there, who knows what would have happened. Nobody knows this. People know that I saw the Felix the Cat film when I was ten, but they don't know the effect or why, the projector itself, nothing. Most people ask me very superficial questions so I don't bother giving them good answers. But I'm telling you the truth.
BE: Back to Last House on Dead End Street. Anything interesting about any of the other actors or actresses?
RW: Before we get there, a couple of quick things.
RW: So I made a bunch of films, and some of them are really good. When I got to be seventeen or eighteen, I was doing some really good stuff. When I was nineteen, I went to England. The director named Freddie Francis, who was a Hammer film director. Did we talk about him?
BE: We talked about him. You talked about first camping outside his house.
RW: Right. And then I was with Otto Preminger, do you know who he was? I did the same thing – I went to his door, knocked on it. It's funny, when I got out of college I went to California I absolutely hated it. I hated it! I hated it! And I had a job my first day, on the set of Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. This is something nobody knows. My first day in Los Angeles, Blood Orgy of the She-Devils is being made by Ted...
RW: That's it! Ted Mikels. I couldn't take it. These people were so stupid, and untalented, and just nothing; I left, and ran into this other guy, and he knew Burgess Meredith so he calls him up. And Burgess Meredith says to me, “What are you doing in California? There's nothing happening here. Otto Preminger is staying at my house.” That was like two miles away from where I lived. “I'll call him; you go see him.” I go back there and knock on the door; there's Preminger. Of course, Burgess Meredith never called him. He forgot, or whatever. But Preminger was cool. I said, “Listen, I'd really like to show you some films!” He goes, “You won't waste my time, will you?” I said no, not at all. So he says, “All right, come by Saturday with your films.” So I did, and Otto Preminger and I are sitting in his bedroom, showing my movies on the wall. And he was cool! And this guy came from The New York Times to interview him; he was doing a film called Such Good Friends. Preminger says to this guy from The Times, “This is Roger Watkins. He's the best young filmmaker I've ever met in my life!” I'm like, whoow! So I hung out with Otto, and I guess just after that was Nick Ray – I met him in maybe February or March of '72, and by December of '72 I was shooting Last House. So that's how that happened. And that's why I'm more than happy to accommodate anybody who comes to me. Because when I was a kid, people like that did a lot for me. Otto Preminger gave me... you know that little Super-8 camera that you see in Last House on Dead End Street? Otto Preminger gave me that, which was a cool thing to do.
BE: The base of movies I usually watch from are the exploitation films of the '70s and '80s, hence my love for your movie.
RW: Well, I've always been schizophrenic in my film-making. For instance, I knew growing up that if I make something sensationalistic, people are going to watch it. So I would make something like this film I made called Ron Ricowhich was about a dwarf with no arms looking for Jesus; it's funny, but it's also kind of touching. But it's really accessible, it's got rock & roll music, it's got everything you want to see, the imagery is pretty interesting... but at the same time, I made a film called Requiem, which is a half hour film about my reactions to my best friend's death in Vietnam. Very understated. Very quiet. To the uninitiated, possibly boring. I don't know, and I don't care.
BE: Watching Last House on Dead End Street, you get the feeling that everyone involved was a real maniac. What was the atmosphere like on the set?
RW: Nothing like you would imagine. The atmosphere on the set was me higher than shit on methamphetamine. And Ken Fisher... I must tell you, if it weren't for Ken there, would be no Last House on Dead End Street. Because he was the one who would say, “Come on Roger, you've got to do something here, you've got people waiting around, you've got to think of something, you've got to do it...” And I'd say, “All right, let's do this.” And he would set lights for me and everything! I mean, Ken Fisher was indispensable in this film in terms of getting it done. He's the guy who would wake me up in the morning and say “Listen, you've got to come, everyone's waiting,” and stuff like that. Very indispensable. He played Ken, the calf-fucker there. So he was very important. Basically, my mind was fairly insane, I think because of the drugs. It was speed. It was all speed.
BE: Were the other cast members...
RW: No. (laughs)
BE: Were they wild?
RW: No, not at all. Not at all. In fact, everybody was always shocked that I would get anybody to do these things. I'll run 'em down: Ken Fisher, he was older than the rest of us. He had been in the service and everything; he was just out of the Army or the Air Force and he looked crazy, but he wasn't. Kathy Kurtin, the little girl, the shorter girl of the two, she was like Betty Crocker. Pat Canestro the older girl, she's a schoolteacher now someplace. None of these people were crazy, none of them were wild, none of them were anything but good friends of mine who were doing me a favor, really.
BE: You were planning on showing the film at Cannes.
RW: I was.
BE: Did you show it at Cannes?
BE: What's the aspect ratio of the movie?
RW: When shot it in 16, it was meant to be projected at a full 16 aperture, because to tell you the truth, I didn't know about aspect ratios to save my life. I had no idea. So it was composed for a 16mm frame. Obviously when it gets blown up, you lose a little off the top and bottom right there. For instance, I'll give you a good example. The scene where you see me and Ken in jail; that strange looking jail with the silver pillar that I'm leaning against, and he's on the couch, in proper framing at 16 you see all of my face below my chin. In the 35mm, I'm cut off half way up my chin. Things like that would really disturb me.
BE: So those Sun Video tapes are taken off a 35mm?
BE: Was any part of the movie filmed with sync sound at all?
RW: None. Not a frame.
BE: I could tell from talking to you that you obviously did the voice of Terry Hawkins, did the other actors do their own dubbing?
RW: Nobody. Nobody did.
BE: And Francis Ford Coppola had a part in the original dubbing?
RW: Yeah. What happened was this. The whole thing's tied up in legal shit now. I was home one day, I was living in Brooklyn, and Paul Jensen told me that Coppola's going to be at the YMHA on 96th Street, talking and shit. I thought, that's cool, that was going to be on a Saturday night. This was a Friday. So I think, “Friday... he's got to be staying in New York, I'm gonna call some of the hotshot hotels and get him.” I called the St. Moritz first, I asked for Mr. Coppola's room... sure enough, some guy gets on. I say “Yeah, is Francis there?” He says, “Hold on, I'll get him.” Now this is funny. He goes, “Francis, it's for you,” and you hear Francis going, “Tell him I'll taking a shit! Tell him to call back in ten minutes, my ass is killing me!” (laughs) So I call back in ten minutes and Coppola gets on the phone, he goes, “Man, I gotta tell you, my ass is on fire. I had fuckin' peppers yesterday, I'm dying here.” So I started talking to him and he was really nice; he goes, “Look, I'll tell you what: Come on down to the YMHA tomorrow, and after the thing we'll talk a little bit.” So I went down there with Paul Jensen, and Coppola's speaking, and he showed about ten minutes of a workprint of The Conversation... so you can nail down the time that was. After it was over – it was just an illusion really, but Jensen took a picture of me and Francis backstage and it's like I'm talking and gesticulating, and Francis has his finger on his chin and he looks like he's really intensely listening. I'm sure he was probably thinking, “I've got to take a shit!” But anyway, I tell him about the picture and everything else. He didn't see it, so he goes, “You've got to finish this thing. I'll set you up down in Princeton, New Jersey and you can go down there and dub the whole thing.” So he did! And we went down there, and they were all real people there. It was a good job, I thought, the long version. So we went to Princeton and did it, and I was happy with it. We come back years later and the thing is being dubbed by the distributors – these assholes, they just redubbed the whole picture.
BE: But you participated in it, right?
RW: I did. It was my voice; my former wife dubbed a couple voices. She did Kathy, the little girl. A girl named Nan Bernstein who became a big producer at United Artists is a couple of voices. They were all Broadway people and stuff.
BE: Where did the idea of having the chick in the S&M scene wear blackface come from?
RW: I don't know. I just thought it was outrageous.
BE: Did you intentionally refilm that scene in Pink Ladies?
RW: Why, is it in there?
BE: Yeah, there's a woman in front of a mirror putting on a white face mask. It's very much the same setup.
RW: Hmmm, I don't know. I haven't seen that in so long and I don't want to see it. Possibly, but I don't recall.
BE: And where'd you get the little kid who hands the whip to the hunchback? Whose kid was that? That's one of the sicker things in the movie – suddenly this young boy comes on screen!
RW: Well, this house was owned by this very wealthy woman named Georgia Brasie who had a big huge department store in upstate New York called Brasie's. And that kid, I think was maybe her grandchild! (laughs) But I agree, that's a pretty odd thing to let your grandchild do.
BE: How long did the movie take to shoot?
RW: Let me think: Four murders, four nights... of course, Palmer's started in the afternoon and then went into the night... I would say approximately ten, maybe twelve days, tops.
BE: That's impressive. You go to see crap in the theater and they spend months on it.
RW: I know. (laughs) Do you know a guy named Andy Copp? He has a magazine called Neon Madness. He's out of Dayton, Ohio and it's an interesting little magazine... he actually did a nice little article on LHODES he sent me, before anybody knew it was mine. But it was interesting, and he sent along a little film he had made inspired by Last House on Dead End Street. Super-8. I was very impressed and I enjoy getting things like that. Good things like that.
BE: You're waiting for the school shooting that was influenced by someone who was obsessed with Last House?
RW: Probably. Undoubtedly.
BE: Did you use real animal guts in the evisceration scene?
RW: Yes. They came from the slaughterhouse when we did the slaughterhouse stuff.
BE: You just got them at the same time?
RW: (laughs) Actually not, we went into the big building there to film that scene. If I was in a scene, Ken Fisher would operate [the camera]. One of us was always operating, but if the two of us was in a scene there was this other guy there. He's a real nice guy, I can't remember his name, but I remember saying to him, “Listen, could you run back to the slaughterhouse and get some guts?” So we're filming this and then he comes with two big buckets full of guts. That was kind of cool.
BE: They certainly looked real.
RW: They're real.
BE: There's something painted on the wall in that room. Do you remember what it is?
RW: During the operation?
BE: Yeah. There's a face or something painted.
RW: Oh, yeah. There's lips. Big lips with big teeth, grinning down on everybody.
BE: Did you do that specifically for that scene?
RW: No, actually Ken Fisher found it. There was an old theater there, and it was in the prop room or something. Ken Fisher brought it out and said, “Can we use this?” I said, “Yeah, tack it up over the door, it's great.” So it's just sort of serendipity.
BE: That's the one part of the movie were you almost get an idea of how someone could have come up with the name The Fun House. That image has sort of a funhouse look to it.
RW: I'll buy that.
BE: Do you know who wrote the music?
RW: It was stock music out of an editing house in New York City named Ross Gaffney. What you do with that stuff, you just pay a flat fee for every cut off a record that you use in the library. So me and this guy named Jim Flamberg, who now just cowrote a film called Nurse Betty that was out recently, he and I just distorted it, synthesized it, and laid it in. That was it. There was never really any original composition. But it works well!
BE: It does work well. And there seems to be at least a few different styles, each working well in the different parts of the film.
RW: You have that heartbeat style, you have the crazier music... it’s all stock music.
BE: Was the dialogue adlibbed?
RW: Most of it. Virtually all of it; the only things that weren't, I actually bothered to write down, [was] the scene where I go to Bill the cameraman, when he's sitting in his room with his little 8mms – that I wrote out before we did it – and the scene where Sweet and Palmer are talking, and they're watching their crummy little porno loops. That was written out.
BE: Did you ever have a script per se?
RW: No, no, no. Never a word. It would have been written on envelopes and things.
BE: What's being said in that scene where you and the girls are chanting something about the virgin bride?
RW: That brings up an interesting thing because what happened is this: That was completely silent when I shot it; there was dialogue, but not much. But what happened when I went to dub it, I realized it was just sort of naked, it couldn't sustain that long a scene without some sort of dialogue. So I just wrote down all this stuff on an envelope, literally on an envelope, and it's just this crazy chant. Actually, somebody put it on a CD as a song! I'm telling you the truth.
BE: What about the line where they first put on the masks and one of the girls says, “We look like vampires.”
RW: Yeah, they were pretty much told what to say. Everyone was pretty much told what to say. It isn't as if everybody was free to say what they wanted to say. I told them what to say.
BE: You were telling them what to say on the spot, or did you conceive it ahead of time?
RW: No – I conceived that line during the dubbing.
BE: The words do seem to match the lips of the actors a lot of the time.
RW: Yeah, and well they should, because I tape recorded all the dialogue. See, that line with the mask on, that was done in the dubbing. There was no line being said when we shot that. But all the dialogue scenes, there was a little tape recorder going and we just dubbed the lines that were said on the set. They're supposed to match.
BE: Do you have any other interesting anecdotes about the shooting of the movie itself? Any other stories?
RW: It's probably the last time in my life I enjoyed making a movie. (laughs)
BE: Wasn't that kind of early on in your movie making career?
RW: Mm-hmm. Actually, I spoke a little too soon. There were three documentaries that I did in 1976 that I enjoyed making.
BE: What were they about?
RW: Actually, nobody knows this – I was on a TV show called The Doctors, it was on NBC –
BE: You were working on the show, or in the show?
RW: I was one of the doctors. Dr. Slocombe. So anyway, I met this guy there, he wanted to produce films about mentally retarded children that were in hospitals that they were trying to open group homes for. So I said, “Well, I'll do it.” He didn't know anything about film really, so I made, just gratis, three films that were quite good. And the reason I enjoyed it is because like Last House on Dead End Street, I had total freedom and control. And that's why.
BE: So they were documentaries about these homes?
RW: Yes, about the kids who were going to movie in. They were building the first group home, I guess in New York, and I just followed some of these children from these horrible institutions they were in, like Leachworth Village and these horrible places, to the building of the home and then moving in.
BE: What happened to the documentaries?
RW: They have them. They belong to this "Venture In" place. That was the name of it. That's what happened there; I did enjoy that. I did all the cutting and everything, so I enjoyed it. You know, Last House on Dead End Streetdidn't turn into a nightmare until it was done, and first I get sued, and then the distributor – it just becomes a nightmare for me.
BE: But now it's a classic.
RW: Yeah, there's a lot of gratification in that.
BE: There's a Mother, May I go out to Kill? poster in one of the scenes inLast House...
RW: Yeah, that was directed by Freddie Francis who was the cinematographer who I stayed with in England. Freddie Francis directed a lot of horror films. That was from a film called The Psychopath; he's also won the Academy Award two or three times for best cinematography. Interesting man. I went to his house – I'm fifty-two now – I was like twenty years old and I went to England; he thought I was crazy because he couldn't understand why anyone liked these horror films he was doing for Hammer and for Amicus. He just thought they were beneath him. Oddly enough, he doesn't anymore. His wife, her name was Pamela Francis who was the big continuity person in Europe at the time. She did all the Star Wars pictures; any big picture, she would do it. She was the best. And I got along very well with her, and I think it was she that convinced Freddie that, “Look, Freddie, people come from America to talk to you, they must be taking you seriously.” But he directed that film where Sweet is watching movies on the wall or something. He's watching the murder of the blind man.
BE: I know I've seen that video box before.
RW: It's an interesting little film!
BE: I haven't seen too much Freddie Francis, other than the really big stuff like Tales From the Crypt...
RW: Which I didn't really like. What do I like by Freddie? God, there's so many and it's been so long... I can't think of anything that I like by Freddie! (laughs) I don't know.
BE: Anything interesting about the girl on the table in the evisceration scene? There are rumors of her being freaked out for weeks after doing that.
RW: No, that's bullshit.
BE: She's young, though.
RW: She's, I think, nineteen. (laughs) No, I don't think that's true. No.
BE: What would you do differently if you were making that movie now?
RW: I would leave it just as it is. The only thing I wished I could have done – I'm talking about my original shoot – I wished I could have had sync sound. I know you disagree with that, but I wish I could have had sync sound. And that's about the only thing!
BE: Now you said you've made about fourteen movies in all, and you talked about some of your recent work and you talked about the movie Spittoon... As far as the porn movies that you made, I'm trying to sort out which movies about yours and which ones aren't yours...
RW: I'll name all of them. The first one was Her Name was Lisa, then there's this horrendous one that I hated called Pink Ladies.
BE: Seen that.
RW: Then I make Spittoon which is an R-rated film. Then I go back becauseSpittoon is a debacle, through no fault of my own, and I mean that. Then I made something in there called – fuck it was awful, I don't think I even put Richard Mahler on there cause I hated it so much – called Cosmopolitan Girls which is just awful. Here I am in the midst of this horrible suicidal depression over Spittoon and what a horrible thing it's become when it never should have, and I'm making this porn movie – it was just a piece of shit. I shouldn't even tell you about that. And then comes Midnight Heat. And then comes Corruption. And then comes American Babylon. And then I did a video, it was the only one I ever did of those, called Decadence, which I did edit. I was with the guy cutting it, or whatever they call it, on video. But I never really saw it afterwards, I walked out of the video editing room and that was it. I'd like to actually see that. That had some interesting pretentious shit in it. (laughs) It was stupid, but I got paid a lot of money. But that's it for that genre. I wrote a couple of others, one called Neon Nights, one called Mystiquewhich they sort of ruined. It was actually a pretty good script; they kind of ruined it. Roberta Findlay did that, the one that did Snuff.
BE: She did Mystique?
RW: She did Mystique with Walter Sears. They fucked it up. Basically, everybody was paying me to write. When I hit that porn scene, people were paying me to write – I wrote scripts I forgot I wrote, just for the money. Because I could write these scripts in a matter of two or three or four hours tops, and I'd get like $2500-$5000 for them! So I was just writing these things and what I would use for inspiration was... for instance, Mystique is Thomas Mann's Death In Venice. Do you know this short story? An old guy, he goes to Venice, he's really sick, he's a doctor, and you don't think he's a homosexual or anything. He never has in his life, but he falls in love with this like fourteen year old boy. And of course in Venice there's the plague and everything around him is death, and it was just a great, great short story. So I took that and made into a lesbian thing with an old lesbian who's dying of cancer, falling in love with a younger girl.
BE: How did you get into the porn industry? You started out with these pretty big-name people.
RW: Well, what happened was this. I had done Last House on Dead End Street; of course it gets tied up in the courts and all this other shit. There was some bad personal stuff going on too, and I don't mean drugs. I don't necessarily consider that bad. Deaths of friends and loved ones, and things like that. The people who picked up Last House on Dead End Street, when it was really The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell, they wanted me to do a film. I mean, we hadn't even finalized any deal on Last House, but they wanted me to make a horror film. And the reason was this guy's wife wanted to be a movie star. She had no talent, she was ugly, fat, dwarfish; it was ridiculous. So I wrote a script with Paul Jensen, the blind guy, it was called The Heritage of Blood, which was a rip-off of the title of a book on the history of Hammer films in England. But it didn't come out as that anyway and I would never tell you what it came out as because it was so awful. But anyway, it was a joke. I remember saying to this guy Leo who picked up Last House, “Why are we doing this? It's horrible and your wife really stinks! There's no point to this!” And he goes, “Roger, the point is that it's cheaper than a divorce.” And I must tell you, on this film I at one point walked off the set, it was such a horrible experience. I wouldn't go back until they gave me another $10,000. This would have been 1977, maybe '78. End of '77. The crew was incompetent. There was one guy there I liked, his name was Danny Canton. He and I got along. He was the assistant cameraman. So I remember he and I sort of stayed friends; well, he used to shoot porns for this guy in New York named Dave Darby. That's not his real name. So one day I was with Danny Canton and he goes, “Listen, I've got to collect some money from this guy Dave, you want to come with me?” I said, “Yeah, what the fuck.” So I get there; I'm telling you, it's like another world. There's women running around in fucking panties, cocaine piles all over the place... so this guy Darby says to Danny, “Who's this guy?” “Well, he just directed a film and I was the assistant cameraman.” He goes, “Yeah? Wanna direct a porn?” (laughs) We got a real guy here, let's seduce him! So, I was broke. Not "broke" broke, I was eating and we had a place to stay. I was married, my wife was about a month pregnant. So I said, “Well sure, but I'll tell you what – I don't want to direct the sex scenes. I don't want to tell two people how to fuck, I think it's stupid! So I'll write it, I'll do the dialogue stuff and you do the sex stuff.” Which is why I think, especially inHer Name Was Lisa, it's all this hand-held shoddiness.
BE: So you didn't do sex scenes?
RW: No. I wouldn't direct them. I said, “This is what I want.”
BE: In any of the movies?
RW: Oh yeah, I did after that because he was so inept, I realized I had to do it! (laughs) So I think after Her Name Was Lisa I did. I think I did. The ones I did all the sex in and everything are American Babylon, Midnight Heat, andCorruption. I think the three before that, Darby probably had a hand in a lot of the sex.
BE: Did you get along with any of the actors or actresses particularly well?
RW: Yeah, I got along with most of them! I liked Bobby Astor, I liked Jamie Gillis quite a bit, I liked Vanessa Del Rio quite a bit. I never had any problems with any of them.
BE: Her Name Was Lisa is so nihilistic. It looks like what a porn flick from the director of Last House on Dead End Street would look like. Porn movies from that era tend to be just full of humor and so jokey, and yours are so dark... what was behind that?
RW: Well, this is interesting. That's why this guy Dave Darby – he was the producer on that – he also did those two horrible ones, because he realized when we made Her Name Was Lisa, “Roger, we gotta do something light, man, this is too heavy!” But the way that came about: The same day with Danny Canton we're up in his office, and I thought this was slightly perverse, it turned out he had a daughter named Lisa. So he says to me, “I want our movie to start out with a girl named Lisa.” He had the title, he said it's calledHer Name Was Lisa- “...it starts out and this girl is in a coffin. Now I don't know how she got in the coffin, I don't know anything about it, but I just see that for the first image in the film.” So that's how it started. So he more or less begged for that one. But he produced Midnight Heat too.
BE: Midnight Heat – that's when video was just starting to get going. Did you ever see any of these movies in the theater?
RW: Oh yeah, they were out in theaters. All of them.
BE: Did you go watch them in the theater?
BE: What was that like?
RW: Well, I saw Lisa in the theater, I saw Corruption and Midnight Heat in the theater. I saw American Babylon in the theater. I just liked to watch it because it was the "big screen" and all that, and that was it. I never paid much attention to the people watching it.
BE: Richard Bolla is in Pink Ladies and he's obviously well-known for his role in Cannibal Holocaust..
RW: Oh yeah! He's a wise-ass.
BE: He made Pink Ladies just a couple of years after Cannibal Holocaustwas made. Did he mention anything about that movie?
RW: No. I don't know, I didn't like him. I'll tell you why. I didn't know if he was having some personal difficulties or what. He was funny and all that shit, he was good, he did okay, but the whole thing, just about, was filmed in his sister's house in Staten Island. It was actually a condominium. So we're there, and meanwhile the sister and the husband are breaking up so there's all this friction in the air and they keep screaming and yelling and fighting... so Richard Bolla, he's getting all pissed off at his sister because he's getting embarrassed. (laughs) And he just had this fuckin' attitude I didn't really like.
BE: Have you ever seen Cannibal Holocaust?
BE: I was wondering what you thought of him as an actor.
RW: Well, I thought he was okay! I mean he seemed like he probably could act given the proper material. I just thought Pink Ladies was this exercise in stupidity, really.
BE: But where'd you find that guy who could suck himself off?
RW: He came in to fuckin' Darby's office one day. These people come to you, you don't have to look for them! They'll come to you. But the guy who could suck himself off, that's Ron Jeremy!
BE: I don't think that was Ron Jeremy.
RW: Trust me. That's Ron Jeremy. He's fucking Robin Byrd.
BE: Ron Jeremy's in that movie, but I thought there's this other guy, a real thin guy, sucking himself off.
RW: No, Ron Jeremy blows himself. And the other guy we called Spike, he's the guy that somebody would tie him up and leave him against the wall. (laughs)
BE: That's what I was wondering about too, I mean a lot of the mainstream porn movies from that era have a little bit of S&M but all of a sudden in Pink Ladies you have this guy seriously bound up!
RW: That was the only scene I liked. I've got to tell you something: This guy, he wanted – and I wanted him to, and Dave Darby wouldn't let him ‘cause he thought we'd be arrested – he wanted to nail his scrotum into the floor. I said come on, we've got to get this! So I started calling him Spike! (laughs) So he developed this big reputation in the NYC underground S&M world as Spike; you could beat the shit out of him, put nails in his balls and everything. He actually had a business card that said Spike on it and everything.
BE: So these people just came to these sets.
RW: Well, they would come to the producer's office.
BE: So this was all preconceived in offices? You would figure out who was going to be in it and you'd take it from there?
RW: Yeah, pretty much. I remember these women would come to Darby and they would say – this is one I'll never forget – do you know who Tish Ambrose is? She's in a scene in Midnight Heat. I think it's a flawed scene, Dave said, “You've got to put it in, Roger, because you have sex happening twenty minutes into the picture.” So the first chick that Jamie fucks in his office, she's got the mole on her tit... that's Tish Ambrose. I'll never forget: I'm in Darby's office, we were going to do Midnight Heat, and she comes in. He always said to them, is there anything you like to do especially, sexually? I'll never forget, she goes, “Well, a little bit of shit and a little bit of piss, you know...I'll eat it.” (laughs) And I'm like, oh God. But yeah, most of these people were like sexual outlaws, just hanging out in oddball places, the Hellfire Club and all kinds of sex clubs...
BE: Corruption and Midnight Heat, they both look so good and they seem like serious works. Did you have goals in mind? What were you trying to do with those movies?
RW: Well, I thought they were serious. I think they're serious pictures. They are. I'm not offended by pornography. I don't find it as erotic as I would R-rated sexual stuff. I'm looking at this Headpress no. 21; on the cover there's this stunning redhead, with a latex skintight blouse on, and it's erotic. You don't really see anything. Highly erotically charged. I think once you see close-ups of penetration and things like that, for me it just isn't that sexy.
BE: Midnight Heat has a lot of really "techniquey" scenes, like all that slow motion footage...
RW: I shot all that. That was shot on the Bowery. That was in Darby's office, it was obviously already written and it was pouring out, I said, “Dave, we've got to go down to the Bowery and get this shit.” So we had an Arriflex, an Arri VL, and we took it down there and I shot all that stuff. It just happened to be perfect. It was a perfect day, perfect lighting, everything was perfect. That was shot, all of it, within three hours. I would say two to three hours.
BE: I was watching that with three people, a couple of whom had never really seen too much porn from that era, and they were just amazed that this was how a hardcore flick began. It's interesting in the beginning of that movie... was that intentional how there's no music during the first couple of sex scenes but there is music for the characters driving around and walking around?
RW: Anything in there is intentional. Jim Flamberg, co-author of Nurse Betty, wrote the music for that. That music was scored!
BE: It was all scored?
RW: It was all scored. That's not stock stuff. Corruption, Jim Flamberg scored that too. American Babylon, I think I ripped that off of old records!
BE: The scenes with the colored rooms in Corruption – how much of that was lighting and how much was actually colored rooms?
RW: They were colored rooms. They were painted. They were all the same room, just painted. It would be red, and as soon as we go out to film something else these guys would go in and paint it blue or whatever, and then we'd go in and shoot when it's still wet! It's all the same room.
BE: Looking at this list of adult movies made by Richard Mahler and Richard Mailer, it looks like none of the ones made by Richard Mailer are ones you actually made. I picked up a movie called, I Never Say No.
BE: A Taste of Money?
RW: No. None of mine.
BE: Yours are all under Richard Mahler?
BE: So you weren't the one who made the underage Traci Lords movie then? That's one of the Richard Mailer ones.
BE: Now that all these people are contacting you about LHODES, what do you think of all the Last House on Dead End Street fans you've met so far?
RW: Well, you know I respect all of them and they're obviously people of intelligence. (laughs) I'm very impressed with them. People have sent me movies like this guy Copp. I'm impressed with their films, I'm impressed with their music, I was impressed with David Kerekes' Headpress and the book he wrote, what he had to say. I find them all to be intelligent and probably somewhat crazy. I have no doubt you're somewhat crazy, otherwise you wouldn't like Last House on Dead End Street!
BE: So Last House on Dead End Street has influenced a bunch of bands... what bands are doing stuff about Last House?
RW: Well, there's one called Necrophagia, they have a website that's pretty good. There's another one called The Forgotten; they're out of New York here. They actually took the branding scene from the movie and just laid it down into their CD for a whole track! (laughs) And there's this guy called something like Hanks White, and he's quite good. There's some others. I'm waiting for Marilyn Manson to call.
BE: So besides directing, you've written a bunch of scripts. We talked about a few of them, the movie HBO ripped off...
RW: Yes, that was called Hurtgen and they called it When Trumpets Fade. Feel free to publish that fact.
BE: What other scripts do you have out there?
RW: A film called Obituaries. Do you know about that? It never was made, but it got a lot of publicity. Harry Nilsson was a big star when I wrote [the script] and he bought it from me. It was in pre-production and he died of a heart attack. (laughs) And I should buy that one back. I wrote a bunch of material for a comedian named Pat Cooper which is how I wound up on the Howard Stern show. Then, there’s Hobo Flats which I've got high hopes for.
BE: That sounds like it's really going to be something.
RW: But it's hard to get off the ground, because it is to 2001 what Last House on Dead End Street was to 1973, only in a different way. It's a comedy, but I think far more subversive because it's very anti-religious, especially Catholicism, It's also extremely, I would say, sexually subversive. I'm not sure anybody would have the balls to do it.
BE: Well, you pulled off Last House.
RW: I know. You're absolutely right.
BE: Do you have a script for a sequel?
RW: No, I don't. I'm not sure I would have much to say about it. I would have to do a completely different thing. I would have to make a comedy. (laughs) I don't want to try to outdo myself, you know what I mean? Part of the beauty ofLast House on Dead End Street is that I think it was made out of necessity, really... there was no money so it was made out of sheer imagination. I think if somebody dumped a bunch of money in my lap and said to make Last House Part 2, it probably would stink. I don't know.
BE: So what does it all come down to... I mean, this many years later, and you made one of the most legendary cult masterpieces of all time – how does it feel?
RW: Well, I feel as if somehow my aesthetic life... you have to understand, I've spent years in the creative wilderness doing shit I don't like, shit I don't respect, having to put up with people you wouldn’t believe, they have no concept of what art should be or is or anything else... and I feel somehow validated. It just makes me feel like, “Well yes, Roger, look – that was the one film that was you, nobody else, just YOU. Period. And almost thirty years later, people are still talking about it, remembering it, writing about it, making records; it's influencing people with film, with music, with a lot of stuff. So it gives me a resurgence in my own confidence as an artist. I was maybe seventeen or eighteen and I was reading maybe Immovable Feast, something by Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a brilliant man, but you know he started writing for the money. And he stared writing shit, for money. And Hemingway said to him at one point, “You know, if you keep writing shit, the day's going to come when you're not going to able to tell the shit from the good stuff.” And Fitzgerald was like, “Don't be silly, that's ridiculous.” But it happened to him. It did happen to him. So I've always operated under the fear that I would become the shit I was making. And by the shit I was making, I mean the second film I made after Last House, I mean like Pink Ladies, I mean, like that fuckin' garbage Cosmopolitan Girls. I'm not talking about what I consider a trilogy, which is Midnight Heat, Corruption, andAmerican Babylon. I think they're good. But if you hang out with people in that business – if you're in the business itself – I wasn't in the business when I made Last House. I was just an entity unto myself (laughs), out there with a camera and a bunch of friends and that was it. But once you star dealing with people with money, with distributors, all the mechanics of filmmaking beyond the aesthetics of filmmaking, it turns into a horror show. And not just on a low-budget level – on almost any level. So what I'm saying is, I feel vindicated and I feel proud that people like you appreciate this film so much. That's all.
BE: We're really pleased that you made this picture because there's really nothing else like it. I mean you can watch literally hundreds and hundreds of horror movies and nothing compares.
RW: Well, thank you. See, I didn't mention one of the other things I wrote. I wrote a screenplay called Music for Airports, which I like... it was doomed because it's about alcoholism. It was based loosely on the writings of Carson McCullers. She wrote Reflections in a Golden Eye. A lot of these things were made into film. That was. Ballad of the Sad Cafe, which was made into a film just a few years ago... The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was made into a film.. she's one of my absolute favorite writers in American literature. And I knew her psychiatrist. I wasn't going to a psychiatrist or anything, but [it was] Dr. Mercer, who I had a lot of respect for. The thing was, when Dr. Mercer met me, I was going through this really bad period where I just got divorced and all this other shit, and I was just constantly drinking. Constantly drinking. So I was glommed all up and just fucked up and everything. And Dr. Mercer was there. She talked to me politely and invited me to this Carson McCullers retrospective with a bunch of artists and things, but in the middle of it – this was cool – she goes, “Roger, you have to leave, you're scaring everybody.” And I didn't think I was doing anything and it turned out later I wasn't, she just said, “Oh, somebody told me you scared them just by the looks of you.” But anyway, at some point – this would be like 1987 – I was like, “Fuck this - I'm gonna get my shit together.” So I just stopped drinking, and I started lifting weights and running, and I was beautiful. Now I'm only semi-beautiful, but I was beautiful. So Dr. Mercer sees me on the street; she goes, “Oh my God Roger, you're just like the phoenix. You have to keep destroying yourself to be reborn.” I thought that was apt. I looked my life over and said, that's absolutely true. I have to take everything to the absolute edge of things, where you either have to die or recover, whether it's filmmaking, drinking, drugs... doesn't matter what. Plus from her, being a psychiatrist, I thought that was interesting…
A tip of the Barrel to Art Ettinger and Scott Gabbey of Ultra Violent magazine for allowing us to print the above interview. Ultra Violent no. 4 is available now, featuring interviews with Roger Watkins, Jean Rollin, Olaf Ittenbach, Jack Ketchum, Michael Berryman, and much, much more! Visit Ultra Violent at http://www.uv-magazine.com
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