Ray Dennis Steckler: Actor and director of cult films and slasher movies who worked with Hendrix and Zappa
Monday 23 February 2009
Ray Dennis Steckler rose above most drive-in and exploitation directors with two immortally named and enjoyable cult films, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo.
Steckler, an ex-army photographer, arrived in B-movie Hollywood in 1959, working as a cinematographer. Under the pseudonym ‘Cash Flagg’ (a persona he retained when appearing in his own films), he also secured work as an actor.
The aspiring director had an aversion to scripts: to his mind, trying to find the ‘right’ locations and props just delayed things. He preferred to start with a general idea and a can-do attitude. But his first solo credit was the strictly scripted Wild Guitar (1962). He also acted in it and lost several teeth in a fight scene. To stay on schedule, Steckler cleaned up and duct-taped some styrofoam into his mouth to cover the gaps.
Looking for more creative freedom, he set up his own company. But it wasn’t just multi-tasking that made Steckler comparable to Russ Meyer and the notorious Ed Wood: he was similarly devoted to making films that were unlike anyone else’s, though it meant low budgets and guerrilla film-making with friends and family, including his first wife.
His first production was The Incredibly Strange Creatures (1964) about a Dr Caligari-like hypnotized murderer. It became “the world’s first monster-musical” when Steckler teamed up with a composer and found some Las Vegas showgirl costumes. “We didn’t have a big budget,” said Steckler, “but we thought a big title would make it look like we did.” As a trained photographer, Steckler tried to employ good cinematographers: Lazslo Kovacs and the future Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond both worked on The Incredibly Strange Creatures.
Steckler’s freeform approach meant that his films often lurched between genres. The Thrill Killers (1964), about murderous escapees from a mental asylum, climaxes in a shootout between a cowboy and a motorcycle cop, but the most outrageous example is Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966). Beginning as a black-and-white crime drama, it does a handbrake turn when the heroes enter a closet and reappear as superheroes in an orange-hued Batman parody that is simply an extended chase scene. The surreality is helped by a friend’s gorilla suit and a passing marching band. Steckler sometimes claimed that the planned title was ‘Rat Pfink and Boo Boo’ but the graphic designer made a mistake and there was no money to correct it.
But where Wood remained essentially an outsider, leading a clique of misfits, Steckler, apart from his personal work, made successful promo videos for Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Jefferson Airplane (the druggy “White Rabbit”) and others.
When drive-in and old-style exploitation declined, Steckler moved into porn and slasher films (pseudonymously as Cindy Lou Sutters or Sven Christian) that became increasingly dark while retaining his inimitable style. Las Vegas Serial Killer (1986) featured an actor called Ron Jason, who met Steckler when he came to repair the air-conditioning.
He recently completed One More Time, an “extension” of The Incredibly Strange Creatures. But Steckler denied it was a sequel. As he said, “Would Orson Welles make a sequel to Citizen Kane?”
Ray Dennis Steckler, film-maker: born 25 January 1938 Reading, Pennsylvania; married Carolyn Brandt (dissolved; two daughters) married Katherine (two daughters); died in Las Vegas 7 January 2009.
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