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Ray Dennis Steckler Has Passed

One of the most unique filmmaking careers imaginable has come to a permanent end.  Of course many would argue that the career of Ray Dennis Steckler actually ended years earlier, but on January 7, 2009 the man passed away.  He was seventy years old.

     Ray Dennis Steckler, a.k.a. Cash Flagg, Wolfgang Schmidt, Sven Christian, Cindy Lou Sutters and a myriad of other names, spent his life working the schlock movie circuit as a director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and actor.  He started out as a cameraman on anti-classics like EEGAH! and THE WORLDíS GREATEST SINNER.  He moved into directing with the 1962 Arch Hall, Jr. musical comedy WILD GUITAR, and from then on there was no stopping him.

     If Steckler never achieved the fame of fellow trash movie auteurs like Edgar Ulmer, Ed Wood or Roger Corman, thatís likely because his movies for the most part arenít that memorable.  There are, however, four noted exceptions to that rule.  Iím referring to the divine quartet of THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES (1964), THE THRILL KILLERS (1964), THE LEMON GROVE KIDS MEET THE MONSTERS (1965) and RAT PFINK A BOO-BOO (1966), which remain among the wackiest, craziest, most joyously anarchic excursions in low budget moviemaking ever to grace movie (or TV) screens.

     If these films recall anything itís the French ďNew WaveĒ cinema of the 1960s from filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.  Those films were notable for their experimental editing and heavily improvised free-form narratives, things that also characterize Stecklerís films.  Of course, Truffaut and Godard seemed to know what they were doing, whereas the verdict is still out on whether Steckler ever did.

     No matter.  His best films remain mini-masterworks of fevered inspiration guaranteed to turn your brain to cottage cheese by the time theyíre through.  THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES is a mind-bender that fully lives up to its loopy title, being the nutzoid story of a romance between a stripper (Carolyn Brandt) and a dude who becomes a mighty mixed-up zombie.  The surprisingly crisp photography and fluid, ever-mutating narrative are utilized effectively--both would become Steckler trademarks.    

     THE THRILL KILLERS is an even stronger film, indeed perhaps the only authentically good film of Stecklerís career.  It features a vicious serial killer (played by Steckler himself under his Cash Flagg pseudonym) and three escaped maniacs who together commit all manner of vicious mayhem.  The constant tonal shifts are pure Steckler, but the film also works as a straightforward psycho thriller, with crisp black and white photography and surprisingly strong, graphic violence.  The final chase through Topanga Canyon may drag on a bit long, but the film is still among Stecklerís very best.  

     THE LEMON GROVE KIDS MEET THE MONSTERS followed, an astounding take on the Bowery Boys so named because it was shot in and around Stecklerís Hollywood home, located on a street called Lemon Grove.  Cash Flagg is back, together with several other adult actors, all pretending to be children in a succession of overbaked slapstick routines.  The proceedings, divided into three parts, are more often than not goosed up with fast motion photography, silent movie style intertitles and poorly integrated sound effects.  The film is quite simply a jaw-dropper that occupies a category all its own.  What precisely that category is I canít say, and nor can I make up my mind whether THE LEMON GROVE KIDS MEET THE MONSTERS is some kind of poverty row classic or simply the biggest load of shit Iíve ever seen.   

     But Stecklerís most outrageous concoction was almost certainly RAT PFINK A BOO BOO, an utterly flabbergasting horror/comedy/musical/superhero movie.  It began as a thriller called THE DEPRAVED that Steckler grew disinterested in, and so halfway through filming he had his protagonist suddenly enter a closet together with a supporting character and reemerge as...RAT PFINK and BOO BOO, crime fighters extraordinaire!  The film as a whole is far and away the most schizophrenic of all Stecklerís projects, making it by extension one of the craziest films of all time. 

     Unfortunately Stecklerís subsequent films werenít up to the same level as those early four.  Yes, there remain several Steckler movies I have yet to see--THE HORNY VAMPIRE, THE SEXORCIST, TEENAGE HUSTLER, DEBBIE DOES LAS VEGAS(!), THE LAS VEGAS SERIAL KILLER, WAR CAT and SUMMER OF FUN.  Maybe thereís a buried masterpiece in there somewhere that will bring back the magic of Stecklerís early mind-gems.  But from what Iíve seen, the manís work decreased markedly following RAT PFINK A BOO BOO.

     I found SINTHIA, THE DEVILíS DOLL (1968) a dull and repetitive sexploiter filled with cheesy psychedelic effects.  BODY FEVER (1969) was, despite promising elements, an inert would-be film noir with Steckler as a private dick searching for a woman who commits crimes dressed as Batwoman.  BLOOD SHACK (1971) is possibly the most deadening of all Stecklerís films, a none-too-horrific horror film with a bunch of people schlepping around a desert shack amid lots of stock rodeo footage.  THE HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER MEETS THE SKID-ROW SLASHER (1979) is nearly as agonizing, a hellaciously drawn-out slog whose title literally tells the story.

     So the man was an inconsistent genius without question.  Steckler, who relocated to Las Vegas in the 1980s, reportedly spent his final years trying to get another film project going.  He ultimately had to content himself with putting out his early masterworks on DVD, a worthwhile endeavor Iíd say, since it allows us to focus on his accomplishments rather than his failures (of which there exist quite a few).

     Conclusion: Ray Dennis Steckler was an admirably stubborn and individualistic moviemaker.  He wasnít always ďonĒ (few are), but he did succeed in crafting four of the most unforgettable films of all time--and thatís something very few others can claim. 

     Ray Dennis Steckler, R.I.P.

 

--1/16/09


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