Ray Dennis Steckler lost out twice. He made films in an idiom sure to be ignored by serious critics, who for most of the time
he was working werent looking for the kinds of things he was offering anyway, even if they knew he was offering them. Then,
by the time the big paradigm shift happened, and everybody on Stecklers side of the tracks was suddenly up for maverick genius
status, he got a bit of the attention he was due but it didnt stick, because what he had to offer wasnt so easy to label as
the stuff Russ Meyer or HG Lewis were selling.
Im not saying Im a great filmmaker or anything; I try to just be different, he explained in Vale and Junos Incredibly Strange
Films. Its so easy to copy someone else, and I just dont do that. Therefore it is insanely reductive to describe his films
as exploitation, because exploitation, if it is anything, is the art of sublimating or even repressing ones personal instincts
in the interests of saleability. The trouble with Steckler was that he was different from everyone.
Ed Wood might have been the closest comparison, but Ed Wood, for all his instinctive artistry, was essentially delusional.
The effects he achieved were the accidental alchemical consequence of filtering ordinary Hollywood aspirations through an
extraordinary psychological prism, on not enough money (a bit like a meth high). Alter the balance by changing any of the
variables and the effect would be lost. With a proper Hollywood gig his unique qualities might easily have been submerged
in generic conventionality, and whats more, hed have been the happiest man in the world. In a sense, his greatest dream as
an auteur was to make a film that nobody could instantly identify as an Ed Wood movie. His signature was his burden.
Though he never got the chance to prove it, it is surely beyond question that the same could never have been said of Steckler.
Note his own attitude to Woods work: a staunch defender of it against the Golden Turkey bullies, as alert to the psychological
nakedness with which Wood personalised stock genre material as to the poetry of the result, he nonetheless knew better than
to make any grandiose claims for the man in terms of advance planning.
Steckler himself was different: he loved cheap movies, he loved western serials and PRC horrors and the Bowery Boys, but it
was lifes irony alone that forced him to recreate his ideas in the same basic industrial conditions. Given the breaks of a
Bogdanovich, a Coppola, or even a Lynch, the whole world might have been talking about the guy who made Poverty Row mainstream
and took a chunk of the zeitgeist along with him.
He would certainly have shown just how technically competent he was (and my God he was: a great photographer, a great framer,
a great composer of imagery) but the films would have been thematically identical, and he would have balked at not being able
to shoot and plan them the same way too. There have only been a few times in Hollywoods history when the big studios truly
gave away the kind of freedoms he took for granted: Hoppers Last Movie, Antonionis Zabriskie Point, possibly
Heavens Gate. (And note that on those rare occasions, whatever other faults or merits they possess, the results always
seem to be elephantine, where Stecklers are tight as a drum: the lesson may be that self-indulgence is a luxury permitted
only to those who cant afford it.)
Thats probably why the writers and critics behind the reclamation of exploitation cinema as alt-art only ever really flirted
with him: he was too unusual to fit in any of the traditions being exhumed and venerated. Furthermore, those elements of his
films that did slot neatly into the exploitation framework were plainly not the essence of him.
Unlike Woods his vision is deliberate, the effects he achieves are the effects he wants to achieve, and if he was ultimately
every bit as eccentric in thinking that what he had to offer might tally with what the greater public went looking for, he
was vastly more articulate and convincing when it came time to make a case for his legacy. Asked in a TV interview to define
the essence of his contribution to cinema, he replied disarmingly: I hope its originality.
If, somehow, you cant see whats great about Stecklers movies on a first viewing, read the interviews with him in Incredibly
Strange Films and youll catch on straight away. Here is a film artist, no question: a man steeped in film, its grammar,
its history, its power and potential. His work does not speak for itself in one mouthful, like Lewiss or Meyers. Its a dense
tapestry of self-invention, self-justification and self-allusion; it can be delved into deeply, and it rewards close analysis
and comparison. That hip reflexivity for which Tarantino is even now periodically lauded, the replication of mass culture
as an index of individuality, is done so much better by Steckler: I cant imagine anyone watching The Thrill Killers and
still caring too much about True Romance, or finding much to hail in the generic mood swings of From Dusk Till Dawn
after exposure to Rat Pfink a Boo Boo or The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up
Stecklers films are fun, but hes not laughing at us when he makes them: the biggest difference of all from Lewis. Hes creating
real work, which just happens to adopt an incurious attitude to the range of materials and ideas through which that work can
be created. That made him tricky; because the first rule to being an artist in the exploitation arena is dont really be one.
But Steckler comes on unashamedly like an auteur; he makes claims for the work. (I look at it every two or three years, and
there are two or three scenes that are probably as good as anything ever done in the movie industry, he says of his rarely
seen detective movie Body Fever in Incredibly Strange Films.) His eccentricities sounded great in précis,
in a big book about the wonderful wacky world of exploitation films, but he never got to single volume status: it takes too
much work to pin his films down.
Plus, he doesnt play any of the expected exploitation games. The most shocking thing about his signature titles may be the
self-imposed restraint with which they mask nudity and shy from bloody violence. (The lurch to pastiche that characterises
both Thrill Killers and Rat Pfink may well have resulted in part from his unwillingness to sustain their initial
grim intensity.) On one of his DVD commentaries, he says how a viewer came up to him once and said that he liked his movies,
but that they were surprisingly un-gory, and hed like them a lot better if he put more gore in. But Steckler didnt much care
for gore, and for the squarest possible reason: he didnt think it was necessary. Hitchcock never needed to use a lot of gore,
he explained, and its hard to think of any line better able to alienate him from the fraternity that was poised to hail him
as a counterculture hero. (When they asked him what his favourite films were, he would often talk about Casablanca,
Doubtless Lewis had no burning passion to dismember people and tip their guts on the carpet either, but his commitment was
to lowbrow demand. Steckler is following a vision that, even if it runs contrary to demand, will not be contained. He did
do porno, towards the end, to make a buck, and he certainly wasnt ashamed of it, but theres no way of incorporating it into
his legit oeuvre, because its not the same man behind the camera. Hell be anonymous if theres no hope of being himself, but
the pure Steckler is only ever his own man: a true artist, though he fools around with junk concepts.
The proof of that is in the filmography: there arent a lot of titles there. Raising money wasnt easy for Steckler because
he didnt have much to sell: he cheerfully recounted stories of how real chances to get into Hollywood movies were frustrated
because he clung obstinately to his bizarre story ideas (he once tried to get the rights to Batman so as to turn it into a
musical); even in his own domain he baffled potential backers with idiosyncratic decisions, like switching casts mid-movie,
or opting to shoot a slasher movie as a silent because he had decided it didnt really need much dialogue. But if a big studio
had offered him big money to do it the same way, of course hed have taken it.
Hes an ideas man; and his films are more subversive than anybodys (except perhaps Paul Morrisseys) because they deny those
who swim only in the mainstream the standards they demand, but also the out of towners the hooks they need to be at home in
He may have just sounded pragmatic when he said he had to improvise because circumstances demand that kind of flexibility
when youre on next to no budget - until you remembered the kind of decisions he was actually talking about. Steckler changed
entire plots, and switched the whole mood and style and genre of the piece mid-production, if some opportunity emerged to
go another way or because the intended path had been denied by circumstances. And those circumstances can be anything, right
down to and very much including changes in the weather.
He thought of himself as a nuts and bolts realist because he had the idea to turn a kinky crime thriller into the adventures
of Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, to perk up a narrative that had run its course too early. He never quite saw that only an
insane filmmaker would do that, that what he took for practicality was a species of creative lunacy that no other filmmaker
no matter how strapped or compromised would even consider.
And thats the paradox: the complete willingness to compromise, to subvert his vision utterly, to let circumstance dictate
his ideas is his unique gift. The thing that makes his films so awe-inspiringly inventive, and so very personal, is the thing
that he deems the most accidental and beyond his control. I cherish the dream of him working for Universals dollar, coming
in one morning and telling the suits and the crew that he had completely changed the whole thing overnight. (Shades of Fields
in The Bank Dick: Instead of it being an English drawing room dray-ma, Ive made it a circus picture!)
The unspoken heretic truth about outsider art is that once you start calling yourself an outsider it gets much easier. Its
one thing to hide ideas within a commercial milieu, the way Hitchcock and Welles and suchlike are supposed to do, and its
one thing to challenge mainstream standards within an exploitation frame, the way all those you-know-whos are supposed to
do. But when the ball is kicked so far off the pitch that a Herschell Gordon Lewis can be hailed as maverick for giving them
what they want exactly how they want it, and not even with an audible voice, then clearly a man like Steckler is not playing
by either criterion. This is the nowhere his films inhabit: they are not layered; they are what they are, but what they are
is something nobody else was doing, or asking for, and in the end, you run out of artistic criteria they piss on, and have
to start inventing new ones.
Actually, there is one, just one, that they dont violate: they look gorgeous. Thrill Killers, Incredibly Strange
Creatures and Rat Pfink the triumvirate on which his reputation primarily rests, or should - are beautifully photographed
and beautifully composed films. They contain some of the most astounding imagery, and not just on the conceptual level: they
are realised cinematically with rare but conventional precision too. They have great title sequences. And they are blessed
by the presence of Stecklers muse, Carolyn Brandt (above), an actress of true Hollywood luminosity content merely to shine
on her husbands ante-world, stunningly if untypically attractive, and never more so than in Rat Pfink.
Ultimately, any discussion of Steckler settles down to the subject of discontinuity and of juxtaposition. This is his defining
element. If Hitchcock is the master of suspense, Steckler is the master of WTF.
I have this dilemma when introducing newcomers to his films: how much do you tell them first? Take Rat Pfink. Do you
show it to them totally cold, so that they get that incredible feeling of shifting tectonic plates when it gets to halfway:
that strange unease when a heretofore tense, pretty sexy, pretty creepy, pretty rough crime thriller (with rock and roll numbers)
has now, at a crucial moment, shown the two male leads going into a cupboard and now hes showing the doorknob turning ineffectually,
and theres comic dialogue about the door being stuck and each of them standing on the others foot and now with the unimagined
inevitability of death the door is opening and they are dressed in the cheapest, stupidest home-assembled approximation ever
of a Marvel superhero costume. And then the film doesnt even switch into superhero adventure mode, but daffy comedy, with
a near-endless chase as our heroes pursue the villains in a motorcycle and sidecar, an encounter with an escaped gorilla,
and consciously spoofy dialogue. (Remember, Boo Boo, we only have one weakness. Whats that, Rat Pfink? Bullets.)
And yet its not a betrayal, its not a collapse, and its not even lazy: its just a different way of doing things. And it has
you: the damned thing has you gripped. It works, just the way the crazy fucker thought it would. You cant look away; you dont
want to. You know you are in the presence of something unprecedented, in the mind of someone unique.
But if you come to the film, as most people these days must, knowing whats going to happen, and knowing how definingly Stecklerian
it is that it does, and knowing what the title means and how it ended up that way, and loving and digging and looking forward
to all that, youre not quite having the cinematic experience that Steckler had in mind for you. Youre watching it as a cineaste,
not as a punter.
Its hard to get a grip on where his immense ingenuousness ends and his immense sophistication starts. The title both gives
away the fact of its narrative leap and at the same time withholds it, because the actual on-screen title is not the strange
but plainly anticipatory Rat Pfink and Boo Boo but the entirely meaningless Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. But again, theres Stecklers
innocence: hes not playing games with us. Rat Pfink a Boo Boo is a simply magnificent title, one of the finest ever
coined, but theres no need to doubt Stecklers explanation as to how it came about: the guy designing the titles got it wrong
by mistake and it was too expensive to change. (Regardless of the fact that the expense would be irrelevant to every other
filmmaker on the planet with a new film in their hands that they are trying to sell to the public: its simply not an option
to risk putting it out with such a meaningless title.)
As with the title so with the movie. Its very difficult to guess what kind of an experience Steckler wanted his audiences
to have, or thought he was giving them. He thinks he has made a super hero comedy, because thats how it ended up. How it ends
up is what it is. Never mid that theres no hint of any of that stuff for the first forty minutes, never mind the tonal shifts
so severe theyre more like tonal ruptures.
This isnt just a plot that doesnt make any sense, the way his beloved Poverty Row and exploitation horror plots usually dont
make sense. Neither is it simple juxtaposition, in the way that Thrill Killers begins as scary psycho horror and turns
into a horseback chase movie, or Incredibly Strange Creatures splices horror film and musical as if so weird a forced
marriage was in itself a selling point. It is the conscious rejection of narrative convention, a kind of experiment in how
far you can get it right by deliberately doing it wrong. These are what if movies, and they are intoxicating.
The most important point to make about the first halves of Thrill Killers and Rat Pfink is that they work damned
well on their own terms: as well as any other low budget thrillers you can think of, because Stecklers a fine low budget filmmaker.
And he truly had no idea where they were about to go until he took them there, so they never wink at you ahead of time. Everythings
in place for a low budget sleeper hit, and then they willfully go bananas, and for Steckler its just all part of the show.
In that cult directorial twilight, where so many discrete careers and trajectories jostle for attention in one glutinous assembly,
some names loom larger just because they were bigger personalities, or did something first, or with wildest abandon. Few really
cut their own track like Steckler. Thats why hes a great loss. He would never have stopped surprising us. And he was a wonderful
raconteur, and an articulate advocate for his vision.
DVDs of his films, with their extensive interview and commentary supplements, preserve more of the flavour of the man than
we have of most directors, far more than we have any right to demand, but its obvious that this is a guy you could spend forever
listening to. He had some great stories: about nearly killing Alfred Hitchcock, getting sued by Stanley Kubrick, being asked
by Harpo Marx why he was shooting Eegah on his private property I dont condescend to Stecklers movies: I venerate him
the same way I venerate Antonioni and Fellini and De Mille. No Steckler movie is worthless, a lesson I taught myself on a
film-by-film basis, always assuming that I had now seen all the good stuff, and that what remained would be a pale shadow.
But Body Fever and The Chooper and The Lemon Grove Kids are all essentials, all feeding into the same
single self-reflective oeuvre. There are in-jokes, allusions and endless cross-pollination that are played not for the joy
of recognition but because thats what total immersion in a world apart breeds in a man like Steckler, a kind of heroic, bloody-minded
insularity entirely at home in its own dream world. Steckler may be the least famous director to ever act as if he was playing
to a captive analytical audience; one that he knew didnt exist even in his own backyard. And yet that is his future, of course:
playing to just that audience.
Matthew Coniam also writes for Movietone News
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