Box Set Review: The Incredibly Strange Films of Ray Dennis Steckler (1962 – 1986)
Severin has recently unleashed a new box set titled The Incredibly Strange Films of Ray Dennis Steckler, and that is my personal choice for understatement of the century!
Let’s just dive-in to the first feature in the set, 1962’s Wild Guitar:
The incredible legend (well at least his Dad wanted that to be a thing) Arch Hall Jr. (who also appeared in the caveman shocker Eegah! the same year) stars as Bud Eagle, a dude that’s a lil’ bit Elvis but is more a clumsy doofus with a massive Johnny Bravo-style blonde pompadour.
Anyway Bud blows in to Hollywood one fateful day, down to his last fifteen cents, and happens into a diner (populated by cartoon hooligans and an inexplicable kid dressed as a cowboy) where he meets the bubbly, Joker-grin having Vickie (Nancy Czar), a hopeful dancer that let’s Bud tag along with her to a variety show taping where she struts her stuff; a shimmy-packed, facial tick-laced dynamite bit of hot steppin’ indeed.
When one of the acts drops out , ol’ bud gets to strut his rock and/or roll, and it ain’t too shitty ‘neither, resulting in Fairway Records executive Mike McCauley (Arch Hall Sr., also of Eegah!, and other films starring his son) assuring Bud he will be a star, and setting him up in a posh apartment.
Shit goes south quick when Mike imposes his draconian rules on Bud (all in the name of making him famous, of course), rules enforced by Mike’s right hand goon, Steak (Ray Dennis Steckler himself under the outrageous pseudonym Cash Flagg) which forbid him from seeing Vickie… now let’s just stop right here…
Sure Mike is wrong, and yes, Steak is a violent psychopath, but dammit; his rules make sense from a business stand point… for instance Mike pays “fans” to get local kids into a frenzy about Bud’s tunes and start fads on local campuses… (hmmm, paid influencers… a tale ripped from today’s headlines)… and to be honest, the start of a music career is a right shit time to start a new relationship…
Anyway, Bud becomes a hit and soon finds himself in a powerplay against Mike which comes to involve kidnapping and murder!
I’m going to be honest here; Wild Guitar is a fuckin’ blast, and should be every bit as popular as the Elvis movies it attempts to emulate.
The entire affair is presented tongue-firmly-in-cheek, with over-the-top characters and comical situations a-plenty (our hero attempting to avoid a lady’s sexy dance have to be seen to be believed)… but at the same time it presents the music industry as the sham it’s always been, while still managing to feature some solid rock tunes!
Arch Jr. is a likable actor; easygoing, honest, and not without musical talent… and the cast that surrounds him, his father included, are incredibly game and fun to watch. Also of note is the effectiveness of Steckler in the heavy role, as he exudes near-palpable menace with a cool demeanor ready to explode into violence without notice, and the absolutely adorable and ever-optimistic Czar, in the female lead role of Vickie.
Adding to the fun here are a few choice bonus features including a fascinating (and honest) interview with Hall Jr. (that takes us through his career with plenty of interesting anecdotes… hell, even Harpo Marx gets involved!), an episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show focusing on Steckler’s career, an archival interview with Steckler, and the film’s trailer.
Disc two brings us what is perhaps Steckler’s best known title, 1964’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies… which I’m definitely going to shorten in this review, because I’m lazy and that is way too many words for something that isn’t an emo song name…
Jerry (Steckler/Flagg), his gal Angela (Sharon Walsh), and his blond, Greek, Elvis-clone buddy Harold (Atlas King in a performance that could only graciously be called unintelligible) spend the day fuckin’ around at a seaside carnival before ending up getting their fortunes read by fortune-teller Estrella (Brett O’Hara) where Angela is told that someone close to her will die.
What better way to follow that up than by dragging Angela to the carnival’s strip-show, where Jerry gets the hornies for Estrella’s sister Carmelita (Erina Enyo) who performs in the burlesque. Jerry eventually finds himself alone with Estrella while seeking out Carmelita, and this turns out to be a rather shit turn of events for our protagonist he’s hypnotized by that menacing mystic resulting in Jerry turning into a murderous “zombie” (which consists of him pulling his sweatshirt’s over his head like a half-assed Great Cornholio)!
While it has been billed as a musical, it’s safer to say that ol’ Incredibly is a basic idea for a film punctuated by a plethora of musical numbers that have nothing to do with the story, but everything to do with reaching an acceptable run time.
Now as uneven as you may surmise that this is, the entire affair is not short on entertainment value as the cast is game, the musical sequences gleefully corny, and the colors eye-popping and lurid. Additionally, the make-up on Estrella’s previous victims (who have found themselves on the wrong end of a jar of acid) is fun and Halloween bargain-basement gruesome… which is my all time fav aesthetic as you lascivious lot well and truly know… and the seedy carnie vibe this thing gives off is pretty damn swell-ass awesome as well!
All of the above looks spectacular here as the image present retains it’s original film grain while showcasing brilliant, cartoon colors and deep blacks.
As for special features on this disc we get an archival introduction and uproarious commentary from none other than the legendary Joe Bob Briggs, as well as an archival chat with Steckler, followed by archival interviews with the same and his ex-wife/actress Carolyn Brandt; the breath-taking beauty that was Steckler’s right-hand woman and muse.
Also included are a collection of deleted scenes, a collection of trailers for various releases of the film, and a radio spot.
Next comes disc three and 1964’s The Thrill Killers…
Mort Mad Dog Click (Steckler/Flagg… you get the picture) thrill-kills his away through L.A., while simultaneously, three inmates of an insane asylum have escaped, and sexiful Liz Saxon (LIz Renay) has fled her love-nest that she shares with her struggling actor beau and hauled ass to her sister’s diner in the sticks… where those kooky killers all convene on the scene as well. Murder ensues!
As with Wild Guitar, The Thrill Killers makes good use of it’s moody black and white photography to create a pseudo-noir whose dread shadows hide murder and menace at every turn!
Unlike Guitar, and the film reviewed previous, this picture is dark and brutal, with nary a laugh or musical number insight… rather we get dread and tension as innocents are chased and savaged by our antagonists… villains lead by a truly chilling and convincing Steckler who provides gobs of on-screen menace.
Also impressive are the film’s set-pieces; with fantastic sequences involving a stalk and slay scene set to a reading of Little Red Riding Hood, and Steckler attempting haul-ass from the scene via horseback… and early, beautifully primitive, gore sequences!
As for special features, we get an archival commentary from Steckler covering the film’s production, and an additional commentary courtesy of Christopher Wayne Curry, author of The Incredibly Strange Features of Ray Dennis Steckler, offers anecdotes about Steckler’s career and the film’s legacy. These are followed by an interview with actor/Steckler regular Gary Kent, as well as an archival chat and Q&A with Steckler.
Also included is an alternate cut of the film titled The Maniacs Are Loose (the main difference with this cut is the inclusion of an introduction by The Amazing Ormond, “America’s Premier Hypnotist,” and new hypno-wheel inserts, both filmed in color), a collection of behind the scenes footage (with commentary from Steckler), two theatrical trailers, a TV spot, and a radio spot.
Disc four kicks things off with 1966’s Rat Pfink a Boo Boo…
Rock n’ roller Lonnie Lord (Ron Haydock) spends his days signing autographs for his adoring fans (whom the audio explains are legion, but your eyes will see a slightly thinner throng) and assing around town with his girlfriend while lip-synching his ass-shakin’ banger “Your Running Wild“… when they’re not barking like dogs at each other.
Anyway, that girlfriend is a one Cee Bee Beaumont (Carolyn Brandt) who finds herself the recipient of some unwanted attention from a gang o’ goons, who eventually straight-up kidnap her.
So, what does our hard rockin’ hero do about this pickle of a hum-fucking-dinger?
Well, he sits on his ass and sings a sad song while his guitar mimics the sound of a full band, as one would. Then, obviously suffering from a mental break from the trauma of the day, he enters a closet with Cee Bee’s gardener (Titus Moede) and they emerge as the superhero, Rat Pfink (think Batman with a ski-mask), and his jester-lookin’ sidekick Boo Boo.
Unbelievably, crime fighting ensues. Also, gorilla (naturally played by go to go-go-gorilla at the time, Bob Burns).
So, as you may have guessed, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo is one confused flick.
The first half plays out as a surprisingly tense stalk and slay pic (minus the musical numbers),but then everything just flip-flops into slapstick comedy, ludicrous amounts of A.D.R., extreme padding, and superhero parody… oh, and there’s a fucking parade at one point… and a beach set musical number/goofing around sesh.
It’s as inexplicable and dizzying as one could imagine, but man is it ever extremely entertaining in a supremely psychotronic way!
Fortunately, the special features shed some light on the subject of the film’s chaotic nature by way of an archival audio commentary from Steckler who takes us through the film’s creation. A second track, courtesy of Aaron AuBuchon, Webster University Professor of Film Studies, provides an amazing scholarly analysis of the film that truly elevates it in a way that the picture richly deserves… a truly incredible listen!
Also featured are interviews with Brandt (a fantastic conversation packed with anecdotes), Psychotronic Video Store owner Bal Croce in London (discussing how tapes of bizarre genre films, many banned at the time, Steckler’s included, found new popularity in the VHS trading underground of the late 1980’s/mid 1990’s), and filmmaker/author Don Glut who discusses his friendship with Haydock while showing off some impressive pieces from his collection of animatronic prehistoric creatures.
Additionally we get an alternate opening sequence for the film, a collection of color footage of our heroes making a public appearance (along with a drum playing gorilla of course), and the film’s trailer.
Disc four also contains 1968’s slapstick-filled kiddie comedy The Lemon Grove Kids…
Gopher (Steckler) and his gang of pals… all of which act like children… engage in non-stop nonsense as they traverse a series of misadventures (comprised of three shorts) that include a cross country race (which includes the return of Rat Pfink, Kogar the ape, and Cee Bee Beaumont… not to mention a mummy), a bit of light yardwork, a close encounter of the third kind (which also involves a vampire), some dusting (for Cee Bee Beaumont again, who this time is paling around with yet another rock n’ roller who just so happens to have composed a catchy Lemon Grove Kids theme song), a kidnapping plot, and a sometimes swami named Marvin-Marvin (Keith A. Wester).
This is Stecklers take on the poverty row Bowery Boys pictures of the 1940’s to mid 1950’s mixed with The Little Rascals/Our Gang shorts and it’s just full-on fun!
Coming off like a series of home movies made by friends determined to amuse themselves as much as any audience, The Lemon Grove Kids showed Steckler had what it took to entertain the kiddos, while treating adults to some rock solid laughs as well.
Out of the three shorts, the prize winner in my eyes is the second installment, The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady From Outer Space (c’mon Ray, these fuckin’ titles already… ) which is a dizzying fever-dream which includes a green alien with fairy wings, Brandt as a Vampira clone, mole people, a motor vehicle accident, yardwork, a terrifying basement location, a sonic scream, and work-place abuse… this is precisely the type of shit that appeals to your’s cruelly, and I bet it does to your arcane asses too!
Special mention must be paid to Boris Balocoff (a.k.a. Ted Roter) as Mr. Carstairs, a Hollywood producer that appears in the third segment; The Lemon Grove Kids Go Hollywood!… this cats lines and delivery are screamingly hilarious and are one of the highlights of the entire set!
Special features for The Lemon Grove Kids kick off with an archival audio commentary and interview with Steckler which takes us through the film’s production in detail, followed by an interview with Steckler’s daughter Laura (Tickles from The Lemon Grove Kids among many other of her father’s productions) who describes what life with her father off and on the set was like.
Also included are unused footage for an unproduced fourth short (this one was to be circus based), parade footage featuring the cast of The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady From Outer Space, an early short film in the same vein as The Lemon Grove Kids titled Goof on the Loose (available with optional commentary from Steckler), and the film’s trailer.
Disc five kicks off with the 1969 crime-thriller Body Fever…
Charles Smith is a down-on-his-luck gumshoe/boat enthusiast who gets a gig tracking down burglar/Catwoman cosplayer/library stock music dancing queen Carrie Erskine (Brandt looking dynamite as ever) who made off with some drugs which makes some very dangerous people very unhappy.
Charlie wanders from one seedy scenario to the next, gathering info from playboys, whores, druggies, drop-outs, and a defeated laundromat owner (?!!), and soon begins stitching together the mystery of Carrie’s whereabouts, but will he be in over his head?
Gritty, seedy, and delightfully dilapidated, Body Fever is a pseudo-Noir accentuated by it’s low-rent surroundings and sleazy characters that give it a feel all it’s own. While the story takes place in desperate environs, and is loaded with violence, drugs, and bad dudes, the flick still has those zany-ass Steckler touches that keep things just this side of psychotronic including ridiculous stock music cues, body-hugging catsuits (as mentioned above, Carrie does a passable Catwoman, though why she dresses like this is anyone’s guess since everyone knows it’s her and constantly refers to her by first and last name), cute kids, and sidewalk chalk… and an absolutely baffling final shot.
Less baffling are the special features present which shed light on the film’s production via a duo of audio commentaries; one another anecdote filled archival chat with Steckler, and the other featuring Dark Eyes of London‘s David Dent who gives an examination of the film and it’s place in the genre.
Also included are archival interviews with Steckler and Brandt, a Q&A with Steckler from San Francisco’s York Theatre, and a collection of footage from a film to be released after Body Fever titled Bloody Jack… and honestly, this shit looks bad ass-as-fuck with a far more violence, nudity, and Steckler looking like Michael Stivic on a dude ranch than we’ve witnessed so far!
Speaking of nudity, the second feature on this disc is 1970’s Sinthia: The Devil’s Doll which opens with a whole mess of it!
Young Sinthia (Shula Roan/Bunny Allister) sees her parents going at it hardcore and straight up murders their asses.
What follows is a journey into Sinthia’s, now 20 years-old, mind at her psychiatrist’s behest… a mind filled with orgies, angry bodybuilders, more vibrant, colored gel lights than in a trillion Mario Bava flicks, jazz music, Lucifer, face-paint, Daddy issues, beaches, the Tarot, artist types (the one and only Balachoff/Roter), and some unbelievably shitty psychiatric advice.
I have no idea what happened here. It’s like Steckler was just like “Fuck it… it’s Wednesday, I’m horny A.F…. let’s make a picture… also Kenneth Anger!”
So yeah, it’s seventy-seven minutes of mostly plotless, sometimes completely dialog-less, totally psychotronic, hallucination-laden insanity sure to divide audiences right down the monstrous middle… look, you’re either in the mood for a fever-dream, or you aren’t… but, for what it’s worth, fever-dreams are my thing, so I loved this nonsense thoroughly.
As for special features this go around we get… nothing.
Moving on to disc six we get 1971’s Blood Shack:
Big time Hollywood actress Carolyn Brandt (Brandt in a role she was born to play) inherits the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever laid my eerie eyes on; namely some ramshackle shit-shack literally located in the middle of nowhere.
As if the financial burden of inheriting what is surely a condemned property isn’t enough, the “house” comes with it’s own murderous killer; The Chooper (no, it’s not a type-o… ), a supposed Native American legend that runs around dressed in black with a broadsword… you know, just as the ancients described.
Thankfully acid-washed jean and button-up belly shirt sportin’ cowboy Daniel (Jason Wayne, who’s hat is constantly blowing off his head, sometimes mid-monologue) is on hand to constantly warn people of the dangers of The Chooper (although he shouldn’t seeing as how he robs the villains victims of their personal belongings post-mortem), and to fend of the advances of the squirrely Tim (Haydock) who believes the land belongs to him… and seriously, the property sucks, so why not just give it to him and wash her hands of the whole affair?
While Steckler’s stomping ground has changed from L.A. to the deserts of Vegas, the song remains the same; wacky child antics, rando footage of a public event (this time a rodeo instead of the usual parade), flashes of brilliance, and a whole lot of brain-on-park, at-times Scooby-Doo-esque good times!
The desert locale is suitably isolated (and at times quite striking), and the titular abode is creepy as all get-out (not to mention so filthy… I’m looking at you heavily stained mattress… ) that you may want to hose-off after viewing… and that’s a good thing for a fright flick, even if the on-screen mayhem doesn’t quite provide the terror that was intended.
Adding to the experience that is Blood Shack is a host of special features which kick off with another informative commentary from Steckler, followed by the extended cut of the film titled “The Chooper” (hope your ass is in the mood for more rodeo) which comes with two audio commentaries courtesy of Joe Bob Briggs (who does his usual uproarious job) and film professor Aaron Aubuchon (who provides a scholarly analysis of the film for what has to be the first and only time).
Also included are an intro to the film by Briggs, archival interviews with Steckler and Brandt, and a collection of outtakes.
On to disc seven, and 1979’s The Hollywood Strangler Meets The Skid Row Slasher!
Photog/strangling enthusiast Jonathan Klick (Pierre Agostini) puts a murder on every model he shoots. This psycho soon turns his attentions towards a demure bookshop employee (Brandt)… but unbeknownst to our “hero”, this lil’ lady is the infamous Skid Row Slasher who makes bums look like swiss cheese with her deadly switchblade knife after hours! these two get together it’s going to be a real bloodbath!
This may be my favorite film in the set… it’s sleazy, packed with nudity and vivid red bloodshed, light on plot and heavy on absolutely ridiculous ad-libbed A.D.R. (the film was shot silent and dubbed later to sometimes side-splitting effect). It’s an absolute blast from frame one to frame fuckin’ done!
An additional positive here is the stitched together locations (L.A. and Vegas to be precise) that show off the seedy red-light districts, roller-rinks, and porno theaters that dotted the urban landscape of the time and provide the perfect backdrop to this dirty work!
Special features for The Hollywood Strangler Meets The Skid Row Slasher include an intro and, as usual, amazingly entertaining commentary from Joe Bob Briggs kicks things off followed by another archival commentary from Steckler as well as interviews with the same and Bradt, and a trailer for an unfinished project from 1994 called Hollywood Strangler in Las Vegas.
Also on disc seven is 1986’s Las Vegas Serial Killer!
Klick (Agostini) is back bitches, and he’s unbelievably a free man after he makes parole and wanders his way to Vegas! Once there he gets up to his usual sinister shenanigans which now include delivering pizza as well as photography and murder…
While set in not as visually dilapidated a setting as it’s predecessor, Las Vegas Serial Killer is not without it’s charms. This feature too is completely dubbed, still to often uproarious effect (in particular the crowd scenes where people mill about muttering like mother fucking Popeye are choice… and plentiful), and we get the triumphant return of that masterful Steckler padding featuring… and I shit you not… a parade, a rodeo, AND an air show… as well as countless footage of the Strip itself… oh and a zooming close-up of Papa Smurf because why the fuck not?
The chef’s kiss here may be the soundtrack which features peppy bongo and horny horn laden instrumental lounge music (when it isn’t an experimental electronic jazz odyssey replete with satellite beeps aplenty) that will make you believe this torrid affair was spawned a few decades earlier than the 1980’s… but those sweet, sweet satin short-shorts and feathered hairstyles will slap the 1986 back into ya but good!
Speaking of “good”, there’s plenty of bonus feature goodness to accompany this feature as well!
First comes audio commentaries from Steckler (archival) as well as actor Ron Jason (moderated by Severin’s David Gregory and Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin) that offer the usual info-packed insight into what it took to bring this low-rent awesomeness to life.
Following that we get interviews with Steckler, Jason, and actress as well as a collection of footage from yet another unfinished sequel Las Vegas Thrill Killer (shot at least partially simultaneously with Las Vegas Serial Killer) which features optional audio commentary from Jason.
Disc eight brings us… well, porn.
The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire (1971) concerns Dracula (Jim Parker) witnessing his hunchback assistant (Rock Heinrich… a.k.a. blood shack’s Jason Wayne) having sex with his brides, before said brides go into the night to continue their sex-havin’ before the entire affair ends up in a more traditional vampire tale (which Steckler looks way more interested in directing).
Nazi Brothel (1970) and Love Life of Hitler’s Nazis (1971) are part Ilsa, part Hogan’s Heroes and all bad porn… but we get Brandt (in a non-sex role) as a spy (and the catsuit returns) so there is fun among the flaccidness… and some tasteless stock footage here and there.
1971’s Count Al-Cum returns to the vampire porn genre with Dracula’s nephew (Victor Alexander) being followed by a film crew as he pursues love with mortal women. It may also be the only film that begins with a vampire straight-up jerking off in his coffin. Sublime!
Special features on this disc are particularly fascinating as they consist of two travelogues that take us to the locations where Steckler filmed his oeuvre both in L.A. and Nevada as they appear now.
Disc nine continues the trend of disc eight so put on your fappin’ shoes and fap the blues…
Dr. Cock Luv (a.k.a. 1973’s Nazi Sex Experiments) features Alexander as a Nazi mad scientist conducting sex experiments on captive women.
The Sexorcist’s Devil (a.k.a. Undressed to Kill) has the framework of a Steckler shocker as it features a Satanic cult getting up to deviltry while gettin’ it on, but of course there is that good ol’ skeet skeet skeet.
Red Heat (1976) is a Las Vegas travelogue with some stabbing and a whole lot of extreme close-up blow-jobs… as is so often the case.
As for special features we get footage from some lost porn titles and a fantastic interview with Red Heat star Lovey Goldmine that vividly brings to life what the Strip was like back in the good ol’ days.
Disc ten, the final disc in this collection, is the strangest of them all…
Summer Fun is a shot-on-video modern silent film that is basically The Lemon Grove Kids Summer Vacation with a construction sub-plot.
Reading Pennsylvania is a four hour (broken up into four episodes) journey through Steckler’s hometown where he soaks in the local culture. There is no reason why this is entertaining, but it is though some of you cats n’ creeps may not be into it as it’s not a narrative feature.
One More Time (2008) is a pseudo-sequel to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies featuring plenty of stock footage from the same, a beach-side carnival and around-town strolls to eat up that runtime, and Steckler returning as Jerry (and himself), plot points from Incredibly Strange Creatures be damned! Also, excessive slot machines.
All of this is meant to simulate the types of releases Steckler featured in his Las Vegas shop, Mascot Video, and it’s a real testament to Steckler’s desire to always be creating no matter the resources at hand.
As for bonus material we get an introduction from American Grindhouse filmmaker/documentarian Elijah Drenner, an extended archival interview with Steckler, a screen test with actress Natasha Diakova, a presentation with Steckler from Las Vegas High School, an interview with Steckler conducted by Johnny Legend (including behind-the-scenes footage from One More Time, an interview with Ray’s last wife Katherine Steckler (which details his final years), a tour of Mascot Video, and a guitar-riff laden trailer for Summer Fun.
Also included in this set is an absolutely exhaustive, nearly 100 page book written by Zack Carlson (with Charles Devlin) that provides an through analysis of Steckler’s career, illustrated with plenty of stills and promotional artwork, and featuring a complete filmography of the mad genius!
An irresistible journey into the psychotronic fever-dreams of a man that lived to create cinematic wonder regardless of the financial means at hand; The Incredibly Strange Films of Ray Dennis Steckler is pure gold for lovers of poverty-row genre filmmaking!
And that is all I have to say about that! Take it away Klick…