by Terry East (follow him on twitter @mutebullhorn)
I received an e-mail from a friend that definitely caught me by surprise. It was news forwarded to him about the passing of Ray Dennis Steckler. Since his death, I have been watching and not-so-patiently waiting for a mainstream tribute to the director. Variety was the closest but also the shortest of these tributes. (Editor’s note: RDS passed on Jan. 7, 2009. This essay was written in the weeks following.}
My waiting was perhaps naive since even amongst fans of B-Movies he is arguably unappreciated and relatively unknown. And when your largest budget was $38,000 (for 1963’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies) one quickly realizes that he seldom had the budget to pay for the making of his films, let alone for publicity.
In fact, Incredibly Strange Creatures… only got mainstream publicity because of a pending lawsuit between Steckler and Columbia Pictures, who was releasing a little film called Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb. And it wasn’t until the rise of the VHS home video market that many film fans, who thought the film was only part of an elaborate myth, would learn the truth.
Well, while my classmates in high school were partying, studying, or doing some unique combination of the two, I was a bit of a movie nut. This may have been only a slight surprise to my high school classmates and even less of a surprise to anyone who knows me now. Many weekends were spent at the local multiplex, but not all Saturday nights were nights out.
In the early ’90s, I stumbled upon a show on The Discovery Channel called The Incredibly Strange Film Show. It was a British TV show hosted by Jonathan Ross. It may not have been the first episode I saw, but the episode with Ray Dennis Steckler made an impression. Who was this guy and these strange movies that I had never heard of? Like John Waters, Ed Wood and numerous other directors that I was introduced to through this show, there was a magnetic charm about Mr. Steckler.
I was recently reminded when I watched this episode again that Steckler realized his movies weren’t perfect, but the journey of making them was always satisfying for him. Captivated by clips and interviews with Steckler and a few of his associates, I started on a journey to discover the man’s work. Despite video stores being the vessel that made his work more known, my luck with finding his movies in local video stores was nonexistent.
Eegah and Midnight Halloween Horror Movies
During my sophomore year, I would find a magazine called Cult Movies and a movie by the name of Eegah. The movie was actually a production of Arch Hall Sr. but Ray had some involvement in it, including a cameo appearance. I watched it with a group of friends as we took the dorm floor’s lounge hostage for a night of horror movies on Halloween weekend.
Most memorable about this viewing experience was a young woman who was reciting many of the lines from the movie as it played. We were all baffled when we learned she’d never seen it, but she quickly explained that the dialogue was so stock that she was figuring out the lines as the movie played. I still consider that one of the more unique film viewing experiences I have ever had, but when it came to finding Steckler’s films, it turned out to be a seductive dead end.
The number eight issue of Cult Movies proved to be quite the lead in finally finding Ray’s films. Included with a Steckler interview was an address to order his films. In 1994, nearly three years after watching The Incredibly Strange Film Show, I finally would get to see a Ray Dennis Steckler film. I bought a VHS copy of Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (so titled because after spending nearly $5,000 on the film, Steckler couldn’t afford $30 more to fix the titles on the film–they left out the “nd” in “and”–so it stuck). It proved to be well worth the wait.
However, no one else I showed it to “got it”.
They only saw bad acting, a silly plot and generally bad filmmaking technique. However, I saw something beautifully unique, perhaps weird, but also something gleefully defiant. Steckler often worked without a script. Once when he was asked why, he explained that when he had a completed script so much energy and money was wasted trying to make the script instead of taking what you have and simply running with it. Simply put, Steckler had a “let’s put on a show” attitude. And for nearly fifty years that is what Ray Dennis Steckler did. So what if Rat Pfink starts out as a tense thriller and evolves into a wacky chase featuring a crime-fighting duo?
Who the Hell is Cash Flagg?
This article would be incomplete if I didn’t mention my efforts while at the University of Florida to get one of Steckler’s films shown as part of the university’s film series. These years represented my first–and last–true taste of the midnight film experience which I only recently revisited when I saw Christmas On Mars in Orlando in late 2008. While I enjoyed the UF film series as a whole, I especially enjoyed the midnight movies series.
After I started my freshman year, I became a member of the Film Committee almost immediately. Very early on, I started to push for Rat Pfink A Boo Boo (even though I hadn’t seen the entire movie at this point). It was a hard sell to say the least. I don’t know when, or exactly why, but I would later suggest The Incredibly Strange Creatures… and in my senior year of college we finally got to bring the film to UF.
However, perhaps in my excitement, I overlooked one important fact when dealing Mr. Steckler. One must know that he also went by the name Cash Flagg in his work as an actor. The first name Cash was inspired by his desire to have cash as opposed to a check for work done. The university’s policy when we rented out films for the series was to pay out a check after completion of performance, so when the film was delivered C.O.D. in September of 1995, it was sent back to Las Vegas.
However, we would get the details worked out and the film did play that October.
One additional miscommunication occurred when we finally played Incredibly Strange Creatures. It turned out Steckler had sent us the print with the cues for releasing the creatures on an unsuspecting audience. So for both nights, a lightning storm would interrupt the beginning of the climax.
Much to my surprise, delight and ultimately relief, we had a good turnout for both nights. That was perhaps helped by the committee’s efforts in spray painting a part of the 34th St. Wall in Gainesville, advertising the film’s showing on campus.
Equally pleasing was the response. It was not the kind of crowd you’d expect when watching a movie billed as “so bad, it’s good.”
Steckler’s Influence on Cinematic Greatness
While his name hasn’t gotten much mainstream attention over the years, I was still quite disappointed that Steckler didn’t appear in the “In Memoriam” segment of the 2009 Oscars. Despite his independent streak, he can lay claim to a little Hollywood history. Three individuals who got their start working with Steckler went on to big careers in Hollywood.
Their names are Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs and Keith A. Wester, who earned a combined 10 Oscars nominations with Zsigmond winning one for his cinematography on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Zsigmond and Kovacs are the subject of a new documentary that screened at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival called No Subtitles Necessary which features Zsigmond’s work on Wild Guitar, Steckler’s first feature, and their work on The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Before working on sound for a number of Hollywood blockbusters, Keith A. Wester laid down every single sound in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo.
Steckler also worked with Joseph V. Mascelli on Creatures. Shortly after that film, Mascelli would go on to write one of the classic texts on cinematography, The Five Cs of Cinematography.
Steckler’s Stable of Actors
Now before it is suggested that Ray Dennis Steckler’s films were simply an early stop for people who went onto “bigger and better” careers after leaving him, I would single out two actors from acting repertory, Ron Haydock and Carolyn Brandt. My choice of focusing on them is not coincidental since they star in what is my favorite Steckler film, Rat Pfink A Boo Boo. Ron Haydock provided and performed (as Lonnie Lord) all the songs for Rat Pfink as well as playing Rat Pfink in the second half of the film.
Regardless of which character he played in Rat Pfink, he exhibited an enthusiasm that simply carries the film. His character was easily the most likable one he played for Steckler. His work in Blood Shack and Body Fever was a little darker, but even then there was a glee to his performance that leaves one to wonder what he could have accomplished with other “leading man” parts. Sadly, his life came to an end in the late ’70s when he was struck by a truck while hitchhiking after visiting Ray.
Carolyn Brandt, Ray’s first wife, would work with Ray until the early 1980’s. The camera clearly had a love affair with her throughout the years perhaps mostly notably in The Incredibly Strange Creatures and Rat Pfink A Boo Boo. Playing a doomed lounge dancer in Creatures, her demise comes so early in the film supposedly to allow her to help out behind the scenes.
In Rat Pfink, she plays the classic damsel-in-distress with such panache that it still surprises this “writer” that she didn’t pop up in other productions besides Ray’s.
Carolyn had especially kind words for Ray even after their marriage suggesting in a clip for The Incredibly Strange Film Show that she still held hope that Ray would received some recognition from the Academy. Further still, in interviews from this decade, it is clear that while Ray and Carolyn no longer lived together a love for one another still remained. Much like John Waters and Ed Wood, Ray Dennis Steckler managed to have a cast and crew that were a unique collection of loyal characters.
Steckler’s Legacy Lives On
When I sent for my VHS copy of Rat Pfink, I dropped in a brief letter that would start an exchange that continued until about a year before his death. In the first letter, I asked about the prospects of him coming to Florida. He politely stated that no opportunities or plans were in the works at the time. When my friend Joel and I looked to make our own film, I contacted Ray again to get permission to use some clips from The Thrill Killers in our film The Whole Town Is Sleeping. He offered support and gave us the green light to go ahead with it. He told us we could address the business end of it once we completed the movie. For other reasons, the scene never made it into the film, but that call certainly was one of many exciting behind-the-scenes moments.
When I found out that Steckler had gone from selling his movies on VHS to selling them on DVD, I was back on the phone with him again.
This time, however, he told me about a new film that he was quite excited about called Reading, PA. Knowing that I was a fan of his earlier work, he asked me (and from what I gathered other fans) to give him some feedback on the film. In what would be my last call to him, I gave him some thoughts on the film suggesting that it was an interesting start to what appeared to be a larger work.
I’m not sure how many more segments of the film he was able to finish, but I look forward to checking them out as well as what is likely his last film, One More Time which is Ray’s revisiting of Incredibly Strange Creatures. I’m quite curious to see how a 70-year-old Jerry (Steckler’s character in Incredibly Strange Creatures) fairs in the carnival side show.
As a side note, I have long thought that Steckler’s personal story deserved the big-screen treatment a la Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. However, it would be more interesting to try and pull it off on a “low budget” or “no budget” as Steckler would say. It would certainly lack the Hollywood polish that I think the story deserves, but it would be more true to his spirit. For my take, he was a legend of independent film, but even then it was on his own unique terms.
Steckler Is Gone, But Never Forgotten
While the above is a more-than-satisfactory primer on the works of Ray Dennis Steckler, one downside of his independent nature is the fact that his films aren’t sitting in a studio vault awaiting some enterprising archive manager to set them loose. Soon after his death, his website closed and from what I heard the video store he owned in Las Vegas closed.
With that, many Steckler fans did not get a chance to see One More Time, Steckler’s cinematic swan song. Despite a few setbacks in his efforts to archive his own work, it remains my hope that his films will be preserved. I still believe there are still generations of film fans ready and willing to discover the varied charms of his movies.
When I finally saw American Grindhouse, a documentary about exploitation films, I realized Ray Dennis Steckler’s exclusion from the final movie speaks to the inability of many to find a place for him in film history. On one hand, he used gimmicks that would not be out of place in a William Castle production; however, Steckler would not go to the grindhouse gore extreme like others, such as Herschell Gordon Lewis, did.
In addition to works like Goof on the Loose and The Lemon Grove Kids he had an almost child-like view of the world. Even when his work would get darker in a film like Body Fever, he was interested in looking back and not breaking boundaries on sex and violence. Yet at that time his movies only had a home in the world of double bills and grindhouses.
And so the frames continue to flicker on and on…
Incredibly Strange Film Show Part 1
Incredibly Strange Film Show Part 2