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THE THRILL KILLERS

In tribute to the January 2008 death of the unsung trash auteur Ray Dennis Steckler, here’s a review of one of his few authentically good films: THE THRILL KILLERS, a typically whacked out mid-sixties psycho fest that’s also suspenseful and exciting.

The Package 
     THE THRILL KILLERS (a.k.a. THE MANIACS ARE LOOSE and MAD DOG CLICK) was made in 1964, during Ray Dennis Steckler’s most fertile period.  It was the second of his 1960s-era masterworks, following THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES (1964) and preceding THE LEMON GROVE KIDS MEET THE MONSTERS (1965) and RAT PFINK A BOO BOO (1966).  Of the four, THE THRILL KILLERS is the only movie I found myself laughing with rather than at.
     In the cast you’ll find many Steckler regulars, including the leggy Carolyn Brandt (Steckler’s then wife) and Herb Robins (future director of THE WORM EATERS and THE BRAINSUCKER).  Also featured is R.D. Steckler himself, playing the psychotic Mad Dog Click under his Cash Flagg pseudonym.  Another big name worked on the crew, though uncredited: the legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, of McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, DELIVERANCE and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND fame, who in the early days of his career (partially) photographed THE THRILL KILLERS.

The Story
     Following a title card informing us that “Events in this picture are said to be true......and to have transpired back in the year 1965 as here-in depicted,” we meet Joe.  He’s a Hollywood resident who dreams of becoming a movie star, and, according to a know-it-all narrator, is caught in a “world of non-reality.” 
     We also meet Dennis, another Hollywoodite who’s stuck looking after a bunch of bratty kids.  He’s trapped in a “world of reality.”  But not for long, as driving to work he stops to pick up a hitchhiker--who turns out to be the psychotic Mort “Mad Dog” Click, who callously shoots Dennis and steals his car!
     Mort commits another murder shortly thereafter, this time a young woman he lures into a cheap motel room and then stabs to death with a pair of scissors. 
     The next day a young couple turns up at a desert house they’ve purchased...which just happens to be inhabited by three escaped mental patients harboring a severed head.  The trio makes fast work of the couple and then they take off.  They stop at a diner in Topanga Canyon and hold the place up.  Among the terrified clientele are Joe (Mr. Non-Reality himself) and his pretty wife.  They end up chased through the canyon by the maniacs, two of whom die in the melee.  The remaining nut is apprehended by cops.
     However, Mad Dog Click turns up in the area and kidnaps Joe’s wife, precipitating yet another hoary chase through the canyon.

The Direction 
     Even without the presence of Cash Flagg (a.k.a. R.D. Steckler) in the cast, Steckler’s touch is evident in the perpetually shifting tone and ever-fluid narrative.  Steckler has admitted he more-or-less made the film up as he went along, and it shows. 
     This does not, however, mean the proceedings are in any way choppy or discordant.  What emerges is a fully cohesive flow of invention, from the outrageous Ed Woodian narration that opens the film (and then is never heard again) to the severed head that heralds the maniacs’ arrival to the mundane radio drama that plays on the soundtrack as the maniacs go about their bloody business.         
     But THE THRILL KILLERS also works as a straightforward psycho thriller.  The black and white photography is impressive in its starkness, and the violence is strong and surprisingly graphic.  Plus at an economical 72 minutes the film moves fast and never overstays its welcome--that is until the final chase through Topanga Canyon, which quickly grows monotonous (Steckler was admittedly in love with the scenery).  Otherwise, though, this is a top-notch production from a one-of-a-kind talent.
 

Vital Statistics 

THE THRILL KILLERS
Morgan Steckler Productions 

Director: Ray Dennis Steckler
Producer: Arch Hall Sr., George J. Morgan, Ray Dennis Steckler
Screenplay: Ray Dennis Steckler, Gene Pollock
Cinematography: Joseph V. Mascelli, Lee Stronsnider
Editing: Austin McKinney
Cast: “Cash Flagg” (Ray Dennis Steckler), Carolyn Brandt, Herb Robins, Liz Renay, Joseph Bardo, Gary Kent, Keith O’Brien, Laura Benedict, Ron Burr, Titus Moede
 


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