Friday, December 7, 2018

A Tribute to Ray Dennis Steckler

This is my entry in The Unexpected Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room

Preface  note: Most of the tidbits of information that follows comes from an interview that a man named Boyd Rice conducted with Steckler,  that I found in a book called Incredibly Strange Films published by Research Publications or from comments made by Joe Bob Briggs in the commentary segment of my DVD copy of the film.  

Ray Dennis Steckler (some 40 years after our movie)

OK, are you people ready for bizarre?  If you've read every entry on this blog, maybe.  But I think most of you are going to decide I've finally did a high dive into the shallow end of the pool.  Ever forward in my attempt to try to educate you into the realm of "bottom of the barrel budget" drive-in fare, I found something that makes everything that came before this seem like Oscar night.

Ray Dennis Steckler may just have been Ed Wood, Jr.'s successor in trashy low-budget fare.  About the time that Eddie moved from "normal" cinematic fare to pornographic films, Ray Steckler moved in to take up the mantle of low-budget tripe.  (And Steckler would also later follow Wood's footsteps into doing pornographic films).

Steckler always had his eye on saving money.  Basically his philosophy seemed to be why spend $5,000 on special effects when you could spend $500, and why spend $500 when you could get something for $50?  And if you could save 50 cents here, go for it.  A perfect example is the movie that was titled Rat Phink a Boo-Boo.  The actual title was supposed to be Rat Phink and Boo-Boo, but the guy doing the title credits made a typographical error.  Rather than pay the $50 that was required to correct it, Steckler just left it the way it was.

Steckler never made the same movie twice.  He seems to have had the same kind of eclectic interests that I have.  After being hired by Arch Hall, Sr. to direct his son Arch Hall, Jr. to make a rockabilly movie called Wild Guitar, Steckler set his sights on making his own brand of movies.  The first (and arguably best) movie was a monster movie, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?  (BTW, just as a side note; the official title of the movie is supposed to include the "!!?".  Why?  I have no freaking idea...but it is sort of cool).  His second movie was a slasher flick called The Thrill Killers. He followed that with a quasi-superhero parody called Rat Phink a Boo-Boo and a pastiche that was kind of a tribute to the 30's Bowery Boys movies called The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters.

He also had a career making low-budget pornographic movies (like Ed Wood, Jr.) He also did a movie in 1979 called The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher.  The unique thing about this particular movie was that he filmed it 10 years earlier and intentionally withheld editing it for release for 10 years, but establishing the fact (within the movie) that it takes place in the year it was actually made.  The idea being, in his head, that people would marvel at how "accurately"  he got the look and feel of the late 60's/early 70's, even though the movie had been actually made in the late 60's/early 70's, just not released at that time.    (The guy was nothing if he wasn't creative, that's for sure.)

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964):

The Dancing Girls of the Carnival 
Murdered by the Incredible 
Night Creatures of the Midway!

The Hunchback of the Midway
Fight a Duel of Death With The 
Mixed-Up Zombies!

The First Monster Musical!

The classic masterpiece of Steckler was this gem, made for about $38,000, according to sources, and that was, supposedly, the most he ever spent to film a movie. Unless you watch these low-budget types of films, you won't recognize any of the actors' names, but a look at the screen credits reveals some real future star power on the other side of the camera.  Both Vilmos Zsigmond (credited as Wiliam Zsigmond) and Laszlo Kovacs (credited as Leslie Kovacs), names familiar to Academy Awards aficionados, appear as camera operators, and Joseph V. Mascelli, the man who wrote the book that is still studied today on camera work, was the main director of photography.

If you were paying attention, this gem is indeed a "monster musical".  In fact, it is billed as the first monster musical.  Before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, before Little Shop of Horrors, before Phantom of the Paradise, and, yes, before such recent masterpieces as Cannibal! The Musical, The Haunted World of Superbeasto, and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (and, no, I'm not making any of these titles up...) there was The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?

A note about the title.  Steckler originally was going to call this movie The Incredibly Strange Creature, or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-Up Zombie.  But on another lot, Stanley Kubrick was filming his classic Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Apparently Kubrick thought the title sounded too similar and threaten to sue for big bucks, way more than Steckler had for his movie to produce in the first place.  But a deal was eventually worked out with Kubrick,  and he got to use the title that was eventually used.

Steckler (billed as Cash Flagg) stars as our "hero", a slacker by the name of  Jerry.

Jerry has a buddy named Howard (Atlas King) and the two make plans to go for a day to the carnival on the beach, stopping on the way to pick up Angela (Sharon Walsh), Jerry's girlfriend.  Because Jerry is a slacker with no foreseeable future, Angela's mother does not approve of Jerry, but Angela loves him, primarily because of his free spirit, even though he is a bit of a jerk.

Some background to the carnival:  First, there is this gypsy woman named Madam Estrella (Brett O'Hara, whose main claim to fame is as Susan Hayward's stand-in and had never been in a movie before...and never would after this.  You only have to watch to see why...)  Madam Estrella and her right hand man, an ugly brute named Ortega (Jack Brady) have this lovely little habit of taking unsuspecting patrons and pouring acid in their face, and then imprisoning them in the back room of Estrella's gypsy fortune-telling tent.  (Tents have back rooms???)

Estrella has a sister named Carmelita (Erina Enyo, another one-time only actress).  Carmelita is a stripper who also acts sometimes as a lure for her sister's potential victims.  There is also a dancing duo in some sort of exotic ballet dance number, Marge (Carolyn Brandt, who was Steckler's wife at the time so we know how she got into the movie) and Bill Ward (Bill Ward).  No that's not a typo.  He actually seems to be playing himself.  Marge is an alcoholic who can barely get through her numbers without a drink.  She is also a superstitious sort and visits Madam Estella for what turns out to be bad news.

Meanwhile Jerry has shown up with Harold and Angela and after frolicking around for a while end up in Estrella's tent, where she tells Angela that someone near her will come to an untimely end near water.  But she refuses to tell Jerry's fortune.  (Any ideas why?)

Jerry then has a falling out with Angela because he becomes enchanted by the beauty of Carmelita and wants to go to the strip show, but Angela doesn't.  Of course, Jerry, being the jerk that he is, tells Harold to take Angela home and goes in by himself.  Where, guess what, she lures Jerry back to Estrella's tent.  Where Estrella does some nefarious things with him, including hypnotizing him into being a slasher to take care of some of her more private enemies.

But remember I said this was a musical?  Well it is.  Not that you'd ever write home about these musical numbers.  A couple of them are halfway decent (key word; "halfway"), but none of them have anything to do with advancing the plot.  Which if you've read my opinion on musicals you know that makes it an acceptable musical to me on those merits.  But you may cringe at the singing of the various singers.  There is one guy who does a lounge singer song that makes me wonder if Steckler intentionally found the worst lounge singer he could scrounge up to appear in his movie...

All the dance numbers were done with only one rehearsal.  A bevy of showgirls (showgirls?  in a strip show?), in costumes that probably ate up a big chunk of that $38,000, perform with the lead singer most of the musical numbers.

Keep your eye on those chorus girls, by the way.  One of them is Sharon Walsh, our lead actress playing Angela.  Another interesting tidbit:  An entirely different girl was going to play Angela, but on the night that Steckler wanted to film her in her first scene the actress tried to beg off until the next day because her boyfriend, a drummer in a band, was playing a gig that night and she told Steckler  "I always go to his shows".   Steckler fired her on the spot (as would have I) and grabbed one of the dancers who happened to be walking by and told her she was now going to be the female star.   And that's how Sharon got the part.

Another note; this time about Atlas King.  His real name was, I think, Dennis Kesdekian and he was from Greece.  He couldn't speak much English when he was hired for this movie.  He had to learn is lines phonetically.   The fact that he sounds like a terrible actor can be attributed partially to that fact, but the fact that he seems to do it without an accent seems all that more impressive.  He was only in two movies, this one and Steckler's follow up, The Thrill Killers, and seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth after that.  Maybe his experiences with Steckler sent him scurrying back to Greece where he has been operating a gyro stand, for all I know. 

I wasn't sure going in how I'd feel about this movie.  I knew I'd appreciate the low-budget aspect of it, but I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the film in general. It turns out, at least to me, that it's not quite the "bad" movie that the general public claims it is.    I liken it to one of those train wrecks that is just so bloody awful but you can't pry your eyes away from it no matter how hard you try.  And to think, it was all done for $38,000.  That's less than one day's bill for some grand extravaganzas you can see down at the multiplex today.  Plus, the "zombies" aren't like any zombies you've ever seen before.  I think they look more like actors in cheap dime-store masks.  But even that is part of the humor I get from it.  Of course you have to bear through the first hour and a half before you get to see these zombies in the last 5 minutes of the movie.

An added note, after it's initial run, Steckler often sent this movie out again under different titles.  Like The Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary (no you didn't miss something.  Nobody in the movie is named "Mary"). and The Diabolical Doctor Voodoo (No doctors in it either).  Steckler even arranged for actors to go to showings and dress up like zombies and run out from behind the screen in the theater, at a pivotal moment, to scare the crap out of unsuspecting patrons (and sometimes he would be one of the actors).  Much like some of the tricks William Castle used to use for his movies, Steckler had a showmanship sensibility.

Well folks, time to fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  I suggest if you see a carnival on the side of the road on the way home, you bypass with all gusto.  Drive safely, folks.



  1. Whoa! This does sound like one of the strangest films ever made. I'm not sure I'll go out of my way to track it down, but I really enjoyed your review – plus all the background research you included. The making of this film sounds like a film in itself!

    1. If you like Wood you will like Steckler. On the other hand if you can't stomach Eddie's stuff you'll run screaming for the exit with Ray Dennis. Thanks for reading though.

  2. I've never heard of Steckler, but this is very interesting and a great review. Steckler should get tons of points for originality. Thanks for participating in the blogathon, Quiggy!

    1. There's a whole sub-genre of drive-in movies that have the kind of low-budget oddball feel of this movie. Frank Henenlotter, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ted V. Mikels. Someday I'm going to have to get back to this theme, since it was what inspired me to write in the first place. Thanks for reading.


I'm pretty liberal about freedom of speech, but if you try to use this blog to sell something it will be deleted.