Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Death, Drugs, And Ray Dennis Steckler!

I'm fascinated by Ray Dennis Steckler in the same way I'm fascinated by Ed Wood. Both were maverick filmmakers who operated on shoestring budgets (or no budgets sometimes) and produced a pretty ample catalogue of movies. What makes them kindred directors is not the cheapness of their movies necessarily, but the downright sincerity of their efforts. They weren't out to make bad movies necessarily, unlike other cheapo directors like Jerry Warren and Larry Buchanan, but were thinking of themselves of as auteurs ignored by the movie powers, even cast aside. Both Steckler and Wood ended up making porn flicks to earn their daily loaf. Unlike Wood though, we have Steckler explaining his movies at length in sometimes fascinating commentaries that reveal the secrets of his filmmaking and sometimes uncover the scars in his soul as a result of his lack of financial success in Hollywood. He says again and again and again that his complaints are not "sour grapes" but clearly they are just that. In this post I want to take a quick glance at four of Steckler's later films, some made simultaneously with his porno efforts. 

The first and perhaps most accomplished relatively speaking is Body Fever, which is a film noir effort in color made on the cheap and using that to best effect. It features Steckler's wife Carolyn Brandt at the time, a leggy actress who almost exclusively appeared in her hubby's movies. She's pretty and at times when shot correctly striking, but her acting is pretty average. The real standout in this movie about a detective and a jewel thief evading gangsters and finding love is Gary Kent, a Hollywood stuntman of some reputation who does a great job as a pretty nasty thug in this movie. Kent is the guy who inspired the Brad Pitt stuntman character in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and it's easy to see how. His body is lithe and you can tell this is a guy who can handle himself. This movie features some of the same sets (in Steckler's basement of all places) used in the porn flick Synthia the Devil Doll. 

Blood Shack is one of the most curious flicks I've ever seen. It's shot silent with a modicum of sound added in after the fact to marginal effect. It's setting is the real "star" of this movie, as rundown a piece of property as you're likely to find, a house that seems open to elements most of the time. Supposedly this is a haunted house, haunted by an Indian spirit called "The Chooper". That in fact is an alternate title for this movie and the one I prefer just for its weirdness. The title comes from an earlier Steckler movie The Lemon Grove Kids and a couple of minor characters from space called "Choopers". One of those costumes is re-used here and that's enough apparently for Steckler. Once again Carolyn Brandt is on hand as well as longtime ally Ray Haydock, a rockabilly singer and comic book writer among other things. Haydock would be killed in a tragic car accident soon after this movie was completed alas. The Chooper kills several people in the flick with minor gore and one of the grossest mattresses in film history. All that is crummy about Steckler movies is on display and all that is wonderful is there too. This 1971 movie was made at the same time as a porn flicked called Hillbilly Sex Clan, which shares the set as well as at least one actor from Blood Shack

The Hollywood Strangler Meets The Skid Row Slasher is a Steckler movie from his later period. long after he'd made many many porn movies, many set in and around Las Vegas. Steckler had moved there after his divorce from Brandt but that doesn't stop her from appearing for a final time for Steckler in this weird weird slip of cinema. I'm not spoiling it much by saying that Carolyn Brandt plays a bookstore owner with a compulsion to stab hobos and bums. Also on hand is an actor named Pierre Agostini who is blessed with a rugged face that does him great service in this movie in which he strangles many many women over and over. These two killers circle one another in a bizarre silent dance of  psychotic co-dependence and finally have it out. This movie is silent and that adds to the strangeness of it, but it does limit its narrative possibilities. He re-uses footage from one of his porn films in this one called Sex Rink. 

In 1986 Steckler makes another movie and he revives the Hollywood Strangler and moves him to Las Vegas. In a strange effort to create something of continuity in his movies all of Steckler's psychos share the last name "Click", first used in The Thrill Killers many years before. The Las Vegas Serial Killer is the least watchable of these movies, because the repetition of the other Strangler flick is repeated but without the relative complexity of the other psycho. Neither of these movies is really that good, but the other is slightly better. We follow to lame thieves this time when we're not watching Agostini strangle some unsuspecting woman. The movie rambles around Las Vegas and like many of Steckler's movies does a pretty decent job of documenting the real world at that time. The Vegas in this movie is long gone, and there is a wisp of nostalgia from glimpses of those old casinos. 

Unless like me you have a fascination with bad movies I cannot recommend these flicks, but I do say you will earn a lot about Ray Dennis Steckler from listening to his sometimes bizarre commentaries. It's often what he doesn't say that is remarkable, ignoring as if it didn't exist his porn career. In fact I've not mentioned that Steckler doesn't use his real name as director any of these flicks, but rather the name  "Wolfgang Schmidt" He has other names for his porn flicks such as "Cindy Lou Sutters" and "Sven Christian" or "Harry Nixon", so he seems to think that's enough that folks won't find out about his other career. One thing that comes clear listening to Steckler talk about and over his old flims is that he never stopped loving his first wife, he is completely besotted with her. I feel sorry for his second wife as she barely rates a mention though being in the last movie in fact.  Steckler died in 2009, but his movies live on in a way and he did find the immortality he sought as a Hollywood director...sort of.

Note: I have not yet dealt with one of Stecker's most famous movies -- Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, but I hope to do so later.  

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