Sunday, February 26, 2023

A thorough, entertaining book on Ray Dennis Steckler's incredible career


Review by Doug Gibson

Christopher Wayne Curry is the author of the new book, The Incredibly Strange Features of Ray Dennis Steckler, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, N.C. (800-253-2187). It's a very thorough, very entertaining overview of the late cult director's career. Curry dug deep into old press releases, reviews, tons of interviews, insights, and a journalist's' doggedness to blend Steckler's career and personal life together into a history worth reading.

There's a great movie, or streaming series, to be produced from the C- and D-budget producers/directors/actors of the 1960s, and this book could provide the inspiration.

The iconic-looking Steckler, he kind of resembles a poverty-row version of Nicolas Cage in films he starred in -- is a bit of a contradiction for me. His films, while certainly very unique and fun to watch, have never been among the top of my cult lists. However, the man himself is one of the most interesting cult film director auteurs. He made films from scratch, more often than not without a script, or more than a conventional month's pay to start. There is a necessary spontaneity in his films; the tone and theme was capable of changing in the middle, from thriller to comedy, to travelogue, to musical, from horror flick to rodeo show.

And from what I've seen of him in video interviews and print interviews and articles, he seemed a genuinly decent man, a lifelong film obsessive who tried his best to keep the moods of the vintage films he loved, especially the 1930s and 1940s western 'oaters, into his films of the '60s and early '70s.

With a couple of exceptions, Steckler's incredible cult heyday comprised about a decade, starting with directoral and acting duties in "Wild Guitar," "Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies," "The Thrill Killers," "Rat Pfink a Boo Boo," "The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters," and "Body Fever." Things got darker with "Sinthia: The Devil's Doll" (the first film since "Wild Guitar" where Steckler was a "hired-gun" director), and "Blood Shack." He also made a very funny short called "Goof on the Loose." (Below are scenes from "The Thrill Killers" and Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.")

Curry takes the reader through Steckler's early years, his time in the U.S. Army, and his late '50s entry into Hollywood. He was a hard worker, one of his earliest assignments was as a prop man, and later assistant cameraman, on Timothy Leary's long-running project, "The World's Greatest Sinner." It was a hand-to-mouth existence. As Curry notes, when Steckler met his future wife and star of many of his films, Carolyn Brandt -- a dancer with a unique, angular beauty -- he was living out of his car.

Steckler had talent and could work inexpensively. That earned him the "Wild Guitar" director duties for Arch Hall Sr. The film was one of several that starred his son, Arch Jr. Steckler got along OK with Hall and son, but an independent streak, and a desire to decide how his films were marketed, eventually moved Steckler to other partners and producers, notably George J. Morgan, during his main "cult" era.

The anecdotes from the mid 60s films of Steckler underscore their cult status. "Incredibly Strange Creatures" is a visual trip, with its exterior setting of the old Pike amusement park in Long Beach Calif.; its non-sexy dances; shrill musical numbers; bizarre makeup of the monsters. This mishmash of musical horror somehow ends on a beach with wild surf and dangerous rocks. The female lead was replaced by a carnival dancer who now had two parts. In garish color, there is a controlled chaos to the film that keeps a viewer looking at it.

"The Thrill Killers" starred Liz Renay, an ex-con former moll of a Mafia chief. Steckler literally grabbed her as she was released. The film is a violent tale of a gang killing many, but it also plays homage to Steckler's love of westerns with horse chases, motorcycles racing, a baddie chasing a heroine through rough terrain, and lots of shooting. 

"Rat Pfink a Boo Boo" starts out as a tale of a film star (Brandt) -- with a singing star boyfriend -- being terrorized by thugs. Once she gets in real peril, it suddenly transforms into a comic-like superhero tale with her boyfriend and his friend becoming caped crusaders Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. This film, which also involves a gorilla, is surreal to the max. Its guerilla, on-the-spot, take-what-you-can filmmaking is underscored by a final scene where the masked heroes crash a southern California parade that is definitely not part of the movie. It's exhilerating!

"The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters" are three short films made into one film. It is a wacky, low-brow comedy tribute to the Bowery Boys films. Steckler loved those films, and especially Huntz Hall's stupid/funny Sach character. Curry relates that when Steckler finally got a chance to meet his idol Hall, he was treated very disrespectfully by the aging Hollywood star, and then threatened with a lawsuit unless changes were made to Steckler's character. 

Several of the actors and crew who worked with Steckler made it to A features in Hollywood. Steckler never begrudged them. He seemed happy with their success, from interviews I have read. But I cannot help thinking that Hall's casual cruelty to a colleague and fan had an impact on Steckler's optimism and enthusiasm. He never made another film as deliriously inventive or spontaneous than the four just mentioned.

They were family-centered (including his kids and their playmates), friends-centered, film-troup regular-centered low-budget creations. And as Curry so interestingly relates, they were barnstormed around the country in roadshow styles, with matinees and/or midnight showings, with ushers hired to "terrorize" theater-goers, with small musical events, often in a parking lot. As Curry describes the histories of these films, it must have been exciting times. What a creep Hall was to blow smoke on Steckler's dreams.

"Body Fever" (see photo above) was Steckler's ode to crime noir, and '40s detectives in the '70s. Carolyn Brandt is absolutely gorgeous in the film as femme fatale Carrie Erskine, who steals cash from mobster Big Mac. He was played very effectively by Bernard Fein, creator of TV show "Hogan's Heroes", Steckler is good as a low-energy but somehow effective private eye. I think this is technically Steckler's best film. It's a fun story. It has wonderful Los Angeles atmosphere, and there are touches, such as Steckler's scene with actor/director Coleman Francis, that add authenticity to the story. (The backstory to this, which really highlights Steckler's kindness, is that Coleman, who had been in earlier films, was down and out due to alcoholism. When Ray met him, he created a role for Francis to help him out.)

Yet, as Curry and history notes, "Body Fever" quickly went to the shelf. No interest. And except for an otherwise pedestrian serial killer grindhouse film, "The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher," 1979, that is somewhat saved by its grimy LA slum settings and an unsettling, strong performance by Brandt, Steckler's era of making unique, interesting films was over. The 1971 unreleasable "Blood Shack," shot in Nevada, is just not that good. Its only small value is seeing Brandt and Steckler's children in the film. An alternate release, called "The Chooper," is slightly better. But again, another film shelved until video arrived.

Curry notes that this late 60s, early 70s era was when Steckler's marriage with Brandt was falling apart. In a remarkably frank interview with Curry, Brandt recalls her failing marriage and Steckler's repeated adulteries. In fact, she tells Curry that her least favorite film is the first "Lemon Kids" short because Ray was having an affair with the actor who played "Roxy." It's a credit to the pair's relationship and commitment to their children that they remained on cordial terms. Both remarried.

Curry handles with tact that beginning in 1971 Steckler began making hard-core pornography, apparently over a decade-plus. I've never seen one and have no interest in watching the few that are in Severin's recent Blu-Ray release of Steckler's films. Curry appropriately goes over the history of these films but it's a small section of the book. In an interview with Steckler's daughter, Laura, who acted in and helped with his mainstream films, she plaintively wishes that the films were mosty omitted from the book.

According to Curry, Steckler would abruptly end interviews if questions about his porn films were offered. According to an interview Curry does with actor Ron Jason, Steckler was let go from his film teaching job at the University of Nevada Las Vegas because of his porn films. "...he was broken-hearted when they let him go," Jason said. In her interview, Laura Steckler surmises that her dad made those films to pay the bills, which seems likely.

With the mid to late 80s cult genre video boom, Steckler enjoyed a renaissance that lasted until his death. He owned three video stores in Nevada, and was a genial, considerate man who would talk to his fans and sign his videos. At one point he re-edited his main cult films into hour-long black and white versions, with new titles. He called it The Steckler Collection. It'd be fun to access those films again. They do no seem to be for sale anymore.


Like other cult icons, the sheer uniqueness of Steckler's films will provide him fame that will exceed most peers who "graduated" to big budgets. Unlike an Ed Wood, he was fortunate to live long enough to enjoy recognition. And he enjoyed it with kindness, grace and consideration.

Curry's book is a treasure. Through the pages, we witness a smaller but no less interesting Hollywood of the 1960s. Steckler surrounded himself with so many eclectic, often eccentric interesting colleagues. He had his casts, his producers, his crew, even his hangers-on. It's fun to follow all those who populated Steckler's world.

I'll close with another Steckler actor, legendary stuntman Gary Kent, who tells Curry: " ... there was never much pay at all. Lunch would be a bologna sandwich, if that. You were working mainly because you wanted to be in a movie ... So Ray brought his enthusiasm and that big camera and I just loved the sight of it."'

Amazon link to buy book is here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Three cheers for Satan's Cheerleaders?



Review by Steve D. Stones

Any movie or book with the word Satan or Evil in the title has always got my immediate attention. Even as a child, I often wondered why grown adults would believe in such nonsense as the Devil any more than they would believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. Yet the majority of our population seems to strongly feel that the Devil is alive and well, and corrupts our souls. If the Devil did exist and he made this film, perhaps he deserves to be banished to Hell for corrupting the souls of viewers who sit through this turkey?

One good thing going for the film, "Satan's Cheerleaders," is that is that it stars Yvonne De Carlo of television’s The Munsters fame. John Carradine also stars in the film, and seems to appear in the majority of all cult films ever made. Surprisingly, Debra Hill, co-writer and co-producer of John Carpenter’s Halloween, served as script supervisor for the film. Carpenter’s director of photography, Dean Cundey, also served as director of photography for this film. The director was Greydon Clark.

It’s the eve of the first football game of the school season, and Benedict High’s cheerleaders are on the beach practicing their cheers for tomorrow night’s big football game. They take a break and play football with some of the football players. The football coach is upset about this and tries to break up the group so that they can prepare for the game.

The day of the big game arrives, and the janitor of the high school, Billy, breaks up the cheerleaders from fooling around with one of the football players on the field. A carload of cheerleaders from the opposing team arrives on the field and showers the group with water balloons.

After football practice, the janitor sits at his office desk reciting a satanic chant while grasping his pentagram necklace. He peeks through an air vent behind the locker room wall to watch the girls showering. He places a curse on the girls by rubbing their clothes with his pentagram necklace. 

As the girls and their cheer coach, Ms. Johnson, leave for the game in a car, the janitor follows behind them in his pick up truck. He continues reciting a satanic chant and clutching his pentagram necklace. Apparently he is placing a curse on the girls.

The curse causes the car to swerve off the road. Although the car has not crashed into anything, this leaves the car completely disabled. The girls walk down to the main road to flag down someone for help. Billy the janitor shows up in his truck and piles the girls into the back. Ms. Johnson sits up front as Billy threatens her while fondling her breasts.

As Ms. Johnson and Billy struggle in the front seat of the truck, Billy loses control of the vehicle. This scene is some of the worst acting in the entire film.

The girls and Ms. Johnson leave the truck and walk down the hill. Billy is not far behind them. They encounter a sacrificial altar and a giant sculpture of a horned beast. Patti, the pretty blond of the group, removes her clothes and lies on the altar. She cries out coos of orgasmic pleasure. The rest of the group seems oblivious to any of this going on. This causes the janitor to drop over dead. The group seems unconcerned and unsympathetic to his death. This is another scene of really bad acting.

They leave in the janitor’s truck and encounter John Carradine on the road picking up aluminum cans. He appears to be a vagabond. Carradine is unable to help them, so they drive further down the road and pass a sign identifying the town as Nether, California, population 360. Soon they encounter the local sheriff named B. L. Bubb. The sheriff invites them to his office. A giant pentagram hangs above the fireplace, but the girls do not seem to notice or care about it. Soon Yvonne De Carlo, the sheriff’s wife, walks into the room to greet the girls.

We soon discover that sheriff Bubb and his wife De Carla are the head of a local satanic cult and they want a young virgin girl for one of their sacrifices. Who would have guessed? The viewer can see this coming from a mile away.

After the sheriff orders the girls to stay in the upstairs room of the office, they soon escape out the second floor window and flee into the woods. One of the cheerleaders, Debbie, breaks off from the group and encounters Carradine again living in an old abandoned car in the woods. She asks for his help, but soon discovers he too is a part of the cult from the pentagram hanging around his neck. She flees back into the woods.

The entire cult chases after the cheerleaders, but they don’t seem too quick or urgent about it. They take their vicious dogs named Lucifer and Diablo with them to find the girls. The dogs may be the best actors in the film so far.

Meanwhile De Carlo stays behind and prays to a giant pentagram with an eye in the center. She summons the two dogs to attack Patti because shebelieves Patti is the "chosen one" and the virgin maiden they seek for their sacrifice.

The cult eventually catches up to the girls, but discover that none of them is a virgin except for Ms. Johnson, the cheer coach. Here we discover that Patti is actually a witch summoned by the cult.

The film ends with the girls cheering at the High School football game. Patti uses her satanic powers to get the team to win the game.

This is certainly a film that any mainstream audience would have a difficult time sitting through. The girls in the cheerleading squad fit many of the stereotypes we have of cheerleaders. Chris is busty and naive, but not nearly as naïve as Ms. Johnson. Patti is a tramp who likes to remove her clothes at any opportunity she can get, and yet she is also the smartest one of the group. Debbie is independent, and breaks off from the group to save her own skin.

If you are a fan of John Carradine, you may find this film to be a bit of a disappointment because his role is very brief. Nevertheless, you may still want to check it out anyway. Yvonne De Carlo fans may also want to see this film, if only to see what she was up to long after The Munsters television show had ended. De Carlo was a very beautiful woman, even in her later years of life, as you will see in this film. Seeing her in a red satanic cult outfit is actually kind of cute in an evil sort of way.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Blood Shack, 1971 -- The Chooper will Get You!



Review by Steve D. Stones

Severin Films has recently released an awesome Blu-Ray boxed set of 20 incredibly strange films by director Ray Dennis Steckler. Included in the set is his 1971 film – Blood Shack, and an alternative cut of the film - The Chooper. The boxed set also includes an informative booklet about Steckler, his films and career.

In Blood Shack, three young people in an antique car pull up to an abandoned house in the middle of the Nevada desert. A young woman in the group named Connie, played by Laurel Spring, has recently had an argument with her husband and has left him. She dares the two young men she's with to stay in the abandoned house overnight. The two men refuse to stay in the house, claiming a local legend says it's haunted and that the entire ranch surrounding the house is possessed by a sword slashing, ancient Indian spirit known as “The Chooper.” The two men leave Connie alone at the house.

A shirtless rancher named Daniel, played by Jason Wayne, warns Connie not to stay in the house overnight. Connie ignores his warning and goes into the house. She lays out her sleeping bag on a worn, soiled mattress in the middle of the front room of the house and strips down to her underwear. The camera shows close ups of large holes in the walls, torn wallpaper and a very dark interior. A dark dressed figure enters the room and chases Connie throughout the house. He stabs Connie several times with a sword, killing her.

Daniel arrives the next morning to see Connie's dead body in the house. “I told you the Chooper was gonna get you! I told you!” he screams out, as he places Connie's body in the back of his pick up truck to bury her corpse out in the desert. Apparently this is not the first time Daniel has found a corpse in the house that was killed by the dark figure.

Carol, played by Steckler's beautiful wife Carolyn Brandt, inherits the abandoned house and the ranch from her family. She arrives soon after Connie's death to inspect the property. She is immediately pressured by a local land investor named Tim Foster (played by Ron Haydock, the hero of Steckler's 1966 film - RatPfink A Boo Boo) to sell the entire ranch. Carol refuses to sell the ranch to Foster, but is pressured by Foster several times to sell. Foster becomes more and more aggressive to buy the land as the film progresses.

Also included on the Blood Shack disc in the Blu-Ray set is the alternative cut of the film – The Chooper. This cut of the film runs 14 minutes longer. The opening narration by Carolyn Brandt is also longer, and gives a greater description of how the ranch curse and The Chooper began. This print of the film is not as sharp as the Blood Shack print, so it likely has not been digitally remastered. The opening titles of The Chooper, however, are much more interesting by showing crudely painted bloody graphics and titles which omit director Steckler's screen pseudonym of Wolfgang Schmidt. Steckler's name does not appear in the opening credits of Blood Shack.

The Chooper also has a scene in which Carol speaks to Daniel in an office room with posters from many of Steckler's movies hanging on the walls. This scene is not shown in the Blood Shack print of the film. Other added scenes in this cut of the film show Tim Foster confronting Carol at a worn down gas station to ask her again to sell the ranch. More scenes of Steckler's children Linda and Laura are also in this cut of the film that are not shown in Blood Shack.

A pony named Peanuts stars in The Chooper in a brief scene and also gets a screen credit at the end of the film. Steckler inserts several scenes of a local rodeo in the film. These scenes are more frequent in The Chooper cut of the film. Steckler is careful not to reveal the face of The Chooper every time he appears in a scene to chase and stab his next victim. Blood Shack is also known for its third title - “Curse of The Evil Spirit.” In an opening commentary, movie critic Joe Bob Briggs says The Chooper is the original cut of the film. Happy Viewing.


Editor's note: McFarland Press has just released a new book, The Incredibly Strange Features of Ray Dennis Steckler, by Christopher Curry. We have ordered it. You can here.