“I’m directing this fucking movie! I told you to stay behind the screen!”

So I watched this on an unbelievably shitty VHS transfer that hurt my eyes with Spanish subtitles on youtube, which feels absolutely appropriate given the subject matter.

Roger Watkins shot this nasty thing in 1972 in his senior year of a Theatre Studies major, apparently spending $2200 of the $3000 budget on methamphetamines. He used the remaining $800 to shoot this MOS mostly in an abandoned warehouse. It had trouble securing distribution until 1977, where it quickly fell into obscurity and became the subject of rumours that it was a real snuff film due to its scarcity and the fact that everyone involved used a pseudonym. Until 2000, when Watkins (who later worked in the hardcore porn scene) came forth on an online message board saying that he was the writer/director/star, no one was sure of its origins.

So when I tell you that this feels like the nightmare of a bunch of strung out, meth addicted, disillusioned university students, I mean that it is that.

This is a cruel, nihilistic piece of work, but it is one with a true power to unnerve and hold hostage in its vision. The plot (such as one exists) concerns Terry Hawkins (played by Watkins himself), an ex-con who decides to get revenge on the world by making snuff films with a bunch of his hippie lunatic friends.

Everything is framed strangely, off key, and with not enough coverage. The copy I saw (and presumably the original blown up 16mm shitty print to some extent as well) is barely readable, leaving really only broad geometry as expression. Despite, or perhaps because, of this, one can see that Watkins actually had some real intelligence behind the camera, as these compositions are purposefully discomfiting and powerful. Mythic, even, in their broad strokes of colour and blinding lights. Negative space fills the frame – even during strange, seemingly joke sequences (such as one involving black face that is basically despicable in purpose but hilariously pretentious in justification) – making every moment feel empty, like its happening at the heart of a black hole.

The sound, all dubbed so poorly that it’s often tough to tell exactly who is speaking, adds to the sense of disconnect. Especially with the frankly brilliant use of public domain music and in-your-face mixing. Old organ music and heartbeats blast over barely audible conversations and murderous whisperings.

But none of this would really matter if it weren’t for the strange purity of the exercise, a seeming refusal to be anything more than a piece of, well, horror. There’s the hint of subtext here about a post-Manson America turning in on itself, and contextually the film fits the burgeoning cynicism of that era, but all of that grows thinner as the film moves forward, sacrificing narrative for a series of increasingly horrific incidents with little context. A surgical murder scene. A man fellating a deer hoof before having his eyes gouged out. Eventually, all that’s left are spotlights pointed at the camera and a distinctly nihilistic aftertaste. This is a film that feels simply vile.

There is power in that simplicity. It’s not a message I particularly respect, not a cinematic goal I particularly aspire to, but I admire a certain amount of artful artlessness. Watkins using his considerable powers to just make something, well, evil. That narrow path gives way to a very real sense of unreality, one where I begun to feel insecure in my own bed while watching it.

I can accept the fact that many people will find this too amateurish and gross to get lost in it beyond a certain point. It is both of those things. But if you tell me you aren’t completely beholden to the nightmare, at least for a moment, when you see Watkins wearing a Zardoz mask and whispering creepy shit into a blind man’s ear while he strangles him to death, you’re lying.

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