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.