Sunday 21 April 2019

Goof on the Loose - the Films of Ray Dennis Steckler - Part 2 - the 'Las Vegas' Years

Welcome back to Part 2 of the Ray Dennis Steckler story - you can read Part 1 here.

Sinthia: The Devil's Doll (1970) At the end of Part 1 we left Steckler just after he had completed his gumshoe thriller Body Fever. The following year - 1970 - he wrote and directed his first straight out horror film, Sinthia: The Devil's Doll. Although things aren't quite as simple as that, for Sinthia's sets, again filmed in the director's LA basement, are pretty similar to some of the setups used in Body Fever; many of the actors feature in both films and several of the nightclub shots in his earlier movie are also used in this one - so it's likely that a lot of Sinthia was filmed contemporaneously with Body Fever, maybe as early as 1968 - certainly it sat on the shelf for a while until its US release in June of 1970.

Photographed, co-written and directed by Steckler, this is the first movie where he used an alias he would employ in many later films - and also as occasional nom de porn - Sven Christian (a name he may have in part taken from Sven Johannsen, a character in a film he briefly worked on, also in 1968, called Sappho Darling, directed by Gunnar Steele). Body Fever had included (brief) nudity for the first time in one of his movies, and in the DVD commentary for that flick he hinted that those scenes were included against his better judgement, but because audiences demanded it. As this doesn't seem to square with Ray's oft stated objective to film strictly on his own terms, it can only be explained by his understanding that skin meant bucks in terms of box office - something he was to learn well, but at personal cost. But Body Fever's tone also denoted a move to darker themes which Steckler would pursue throughout most of the rest of his career, in contrast to his earlier, more lighthearted films. It was Texan executive producer Dorothy Sonney who approached Steckler with the idea to make "something weird" with a lot of nudity, and boy did he succeed with Sinthia.

Working from a script by Steckler and his go to guy Herb Robins (who also appears in the film as Lucifer) Sinthia is a dense and often impenetrable work by anyone's standards. Like a case from Freud's notebooks shot through with Kenneth Anger's filmic sensibilities, it's the story of Cynthia Kane, who, as a 12 year old, killed both her parents after witnessing them making love, and burned their house to the ground. Too young to be prosecuted, she grew up into an attractive 20 year old who is plagued with nightmares of her earlier deeds and a pronounced daddy fixation. Under the care of a psychiatrist, Cynthia is encouraged to face her demons and eventually kill herself in a dream state to rid her mind of its terrible persecutions.

Sinthia is unlike anything else that Steckler had made thus far; often maligned for its repetition and slow pace (this is Steckler we're talking about), it exerts a Last Year in Marienbad style hypnotic state in the viewer, and its dream within a dream logic, containing then very fashionable kaleidoscope effects and coloured gels - which would not be out of place in any of the more arty movies of the period - once again shows that Ray (who photographed the thing) knew what he was doing behind the camera.

As Cynthia ("Synthia" in the credits and on the poster), Shula Roan (real name Bonnie Allison) is interesting if limited in range, which is not surprising since she was a Sunday school teacher, not an actress. Introduced to Ray by Ted Roter (better known as Peter Balakoff, although credited as Boris Balakoff in this movie), the director was immediately impressed and, if stories are correct, cast her on the spot (he had been looking at actresses for the character of Cynthia for weeks) - a typically Steckler thing to do. Roan is given some rather ripe lines which would lead to accusations of overacting in a thespian of a higher calibre; as well as her frequent cries of "Daddy! Daddy!!" she's asked to utter dialogue like "Flesh upon flesh; my mother, my father and I" and "The devil is living in my brain!" The scenes of Cynthia's descent into hell ("Go where you will and Lucifer's disciple will reclaim you!") are rather Edward D. Woodian, but Roan does well to carry the movie, in that as a non actress she's in pretty much every scene.

Others in the cast included: Playboy model Diane Webber as 'The Housewife,' who had previously done quite a lot of TV (including an episode of Alfred Hitchock Presents in 1961; maybe that's how she met Steckler?); Brett Zeller, as Carol, who had also starred in Body Fever - and as a keen artist provided the paintings for both movies; and Gary Kent, playing Cynthia's father (another Steckler regular who had appeared in The Thrill Killers and Body Fever).

Sinthia was released in the UK as Where the Devil Toils on a double bill with the hilariously named softcore comedy One Million AC/DC (scripted by one Edward D. Wood Jr, fact fans) at the private Tatler chain of cinemas. It also had a later video release as Teenage She Devil.

Blood Shack aka The Chooper (1970/71) At the beginning of the 1970s, Ray had separated from Carolyn Brandt, moved away from Los Angeles and set up camp in Las Vegas. The reasons for the move, given in various interviews, ranged from not being able to find anywhere to park in California, the smog in the city which affected his allergies, to the need to escape from Hollywood, a place that had always turned its back on the director. I'm also willing to bet that his split from Carolyn had something to do with it - we know that she separated from him - although, as we'll see, the couple were somehow able to separate their personal and professional lives to allow them to keep working together. Whatever the reason, when he relocated to Vegas he was an unknown quantity once again. What we do know is that he opened up a furniture store with Ron Haydock, and was pretty cash strapped. Nevertheless he managed to scrape together $500, rented a remote shack in Death Valley for three months, and started work on a new movie, The Chooper.

The Chooper is a different movie again for Steckler. It's actually a bit of a mess, not helped by having to pad the thing out with extraneous rodeo footage - shot in Pahrump, Nevada - to get the feature up to 70 minutes, which was the minimum running length to ensure theatrical distribution (a shorter version, running at slightly less than an hour and entitled Blood Shack, was also released). Steckler gave himself the pseudonym of Wolgang Schmidt - named after Wolfschmidt vodka that he had been drinking at a party - because, as he explained, no-one wanted to see Ray Dennis Steckler movies!

Working to a sort of script penned by Haydock and Steckler, The Chooper opens, after some stunning ghoulish credits by Larry Fisher, with Brandt in voiceover explaining the origin of the strange ninja type phantom haunting an old barn in the Nevada desert (the explanation - and sadly Fisher's credits - are both dropped in Blood Shack), which is actually the vengeful spirit from an old Indian tribe; an alternative name for the film was The Curse of the Evil Spirit. Brandt plays, well, Carolyn Brandt - that's actually her character name, not a slight on her acting skills - a disenchanted actress who has inherited the barn from a relative and has come out to the desert to get back in touch with nature. Here she meets Daniel (Jason Wayne), a kind of caretaker, who has a side job in getting rid of The Chooper's victims, and Tim (Haydock) who is very insistent that Brandt should sell the barn to him. We see a young girl (Laurel Spring) killed by The Chooper after she dares to stay in the barn on her own - later her boyfriend comes looking for her and he too is offed, shortly followed by a portly sheriff, investigating the disappearance of both - reliable Daniel disposes of the bodies, a service he continues to perform until he too is Choopered. After an awful lot of stomping about (and that rodeo footage) it transpires that Tim is actually the killer, having vowed to do in anyone who sets foot in his beloved barn.

Steckler made The Chooper/Blood Shack in part to prove to himself that, although based in a new part of the US, he was still first and foremost a filmmaker. I also see this as a love letter to Carolyn. She's in pretty much every scene and the camera (and its operator - Steckler himself) seems to almost physicallly yearn for her. Steckler's kids Linda and Laura are both in it, and the scenes where Carolyn interacts with them take on a tragic aspect. Her first person narration of the admittedly rather daft events in Blood Shack is perhaps the film's most compelling feature, and the whole thing has a mournful and at times elegiac quality, enhanced by beautiful footage of the Nevada mountains and the vistas of Death Valley. The film played in one theatre in Denver, Colorado, before finding its real audience on home video.

Steckler reportedly made a serial killer film right after The Chooper called Bloody Jack, with Herb Robins, Carolyn and Ray all appearing in it (the latter as Charlie Smith, reprising his gumshoe role from 1969's Body Fever). Although completed, it has never seen the light of day.

Steckler's Porn Years

By 1971, now firmly ensconced in Las Vegas and with divorce to Brandt imminent, things were clearly tough. Las Vegas opened up new business opportunities for the filmmaker, but The Chooper was the last Steckler movie to get theatrical distribution. It was around this time that he was apparently approached for The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (whether as director or in front of the camera, I'm not sure), but turned it down.

Ray's move into hard core porn, was, for all we know about him, driven purely by the need to turn a buck; one thing that's obvious about his porn output is that it's in no way enjoyable - the films almost feel like they were made under duress, but their themes also point the way towards his future features. The director always denied his involvement in the adult film world - and indeed became quite hostile to interviewers who tried to raise the subject. However the fact that he used his non porn pseudonyms in the credits of some of these films - not to mention the continued use of Carolyn Brandt in the movies and a re-release of two of them many years later with the sex scenes excised - suggests otherwise.

Steckler started 'soft' - he was director of photography on the 1971 movie Pinocchio (sometimes referred to as The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio), a first feature directed by Corey Allen who almost exclusively worked in TV before and since the film. Pinocchio had an impressive cast, including Dyanne (Ilsa) Thorne, Monica (The Stewardesses) Gayle, and in uncredited roles Uschi Digard and of course Carolyn Brandt. It was rumoured that a hardcore version of the movie was filmed and then trimmed to obtain wider theatrical distribution later in the 1970s, although this seems unlikely given the cast members involved, unless of course the scenes were inserts. After this there followed a large number of hard core sex films over the next seven years, all filmed under various pseudonyms or with Ray uncredited. Some of these utilised horror themes either to provide a flimsy story element prior to the action, or more integrally to the plot, and show traces of Steckler's DIY imagination.

In 1971 Steckler made three such movies. As Michel J. Rogers, he directed and produced Sacrilege. A witch in plain clothes, Cassandra (adult star Jane Tsentas, who appeared in a few horror themed shorts), brings a bookish young man back to her apartment, and seduces him in witch form. Cassandra has a cat, Lucifer, who transforms into the devil on occasion, much to the annoyance of the bookish man. The same year, as Sven Christian (the pseudonym he'd first tried out as cinematographer in Sinthia: The Devil's Doll and Blood Shack) he directed The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire. Carolyn Brandt, credited as Jane Bond, appears at various stages of the film as Elena, wife of Dracula, telling the story of the Count (played by Jim Parker, surprisingly as he was a top rated Las Vegas TV horror host at the time trading under the name 'Vegas Vampire'), who sends his female servants out to seduce male victims and bring back their blood. I can't help thinking that the rather unsavoury scenes of men screaming while the servants bite their dicks off after a hot night of sex may be Steckler's internal two fingers up at the adult film industry. The 50 minute short also features a portly Dr Van Helsing who plans to track Dracula down and kill him with a silver implement that looks suspiciously like a knitting needle. The Count is eventually exposed to the Las Vegas sun and disappears, leaving his hunchback assistant to grieve goofily - this is a film that has Steckler's filmic footprints all over it. Finally in 1971 came (oh stop it) The Horny Vampire, which starred Jerry Delony (an adult actor who would go on to have parts in Ilsa Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs (1976) and Richard Linklater's 1990 movie Slacker) as a vampire, Victor Alexander, on the streets of Las Vegas picking up tips on how to seduce women by reading a book called, er,  '1001 Ways to Seduce Women.'

The next movie of note from this part of Steckler's career is 1973's Peeping Tom. Also known as The Creeper, it was directed by Steckler using his Sven Christian pseudonym again, with the director also providing the narration. A grubby looking guy hangs around the streets of Las Vegas, and spies on different households in various sexual situations. Of note is the first couple he sees, where the man is played by Jason Wayne (Daniel from Blood Shack), part of a couple who trade insults at each other as part of their sexual pleasure. Around this time he also carried out some camera duties for Doris Wishman, shooting all the Las Vegas scene for the infamous Deadly Weapons, starring 'Chesty' Morgan.

1974 was the year which saw Steckler write, produce and direct two films which could be seen as the apotheosis - or nadir depending on your viewpoint - of his adult filmmaking.

The first, Fire Down Below aka Perverted Passions, created under a couple of  pseudonyms - Cindy Lou Sutters and Hans B. Andersen - is important in Steckler's story because it allows us to 'read' his state of mind at this time, particularly as it's also possible that he photographed it under the fake Andersen name; it was pretty much all his movie.

We are first introduced to an unnamed man (Will Long, also in The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire, who according to one source, died during the filming of the movie), recently released from a mental institution, who is driving the streets of downtown LA looking for women. The movie's first narrator is the guy's probation officer who tells us that this "ordinary guy," as he's described, is out in the community because of dumb ass Americans who voted to cut Government spending and thus reduce resources to keep people locked up. The camera moves from documenting the sleaze holes of the city to showing us the guy's peeping tom activities, but the officer's narration suggests that peeping is only the tip of his weird iceberg. The next voice we hear is the man himself (unmistakably voiced by Steckler, who's expletive ridden monologues are quite a surprise for those who have viewed him as a genial family guy). The camera follows the man as he progresses from watching others to procuring the services of a prostitute. In one of the least glamorous sequences of any of Steckler's movies we watch as, naked, overweight and very sweaty, he's fellated by a prostitute before strangling her, while the probation officer returns to inform the audience that many of the man's problems stem from the small size of his penis. This leads to more strangulations, including a brief sequence where Carolyn Brandt falls victim to the murderer's hands.

Steckler introduces a second recidivist into the movie. Another unnamed guy who - the probation officer informs us - has sprung from prison, for the same fiscal reasons as the first guy. This bloke is merely a robber though - he doesn't seem interested in sex - but he sure loves to ride around on motorbikes. It's only a matter of time before the two criminals run into one another, with guy one being shot by guy two who promptly rides off into the desert, before falling off his chopper and presumably dying on the process. This final confrontation scene will be a hallmark of Steckler's future output.

There is something about the combination of ugly sex, the shots of LA theatres playing XXX double bills, and the sweaty criminals, which tells me that Steckler was in a very dark place. His voiceover of Long's character seems authentically troubled and angry, and footage of the strangler killing his ex wife...well it's just too Freudian for words.

As a postscript to this, Steckler re-cut Fire Down Below in 2003, removing all of the hardcore shots, bringing it down to a 30 minute short, retitled Faces of Evil. Not only did this action pretty much confirm that Steckler was the man behind these adult films, but also that he was keen to distance himself from the sex part of the film, while still seeing value in the violence/social commentary elements.

The second movie of 1974 was directed under another pseudonym. One 'Sven Hellstrom' was responsible for The Sexorcist aka The Sexorcist's Devil aka Undressed to Kill (a later release, timed to cash in on the success of Dressed to Kill, with the director now credited as Max Miller). This movie, which also runs about an hour, was narrated by and stars Carolyn Brandt (credited as Eva Gaulant) as freelance reporter Janice Lightning. Recently separated from her husband, but still wearing her wedding ring ("I just can't get him out of my mind," she explains), she's writing an article on Professor Ernest Von Kleinsmidt who has discovered a parchment in a swamp, which when translated and read aloud brings back the devil's disciple, Volta. Volta seduces prostitute Diane (Janice's roommate) and, now under his spell, takes the life of a client, her pimp and finally her friend Janice. Von Kleinsmidt comes to the rescue, after having worked out the evil that he had unwittingly unleashed, but evil triumphs when Diane stabs him too. Turns out that the devil commanded his disciple to get Von Kleinsmidt out of the way. Mission accomplished, the now free Volta walks back into the swamp, ready to do the devil's bidding.

About half of this movie is the usual hardcore action (although Diane is the only woman involved) but it's interesting firstly because it's probably Steckler's bloodiest film - the knife attacks aren't realistic but there's no shortage of the red stuff - and secondly, aside from the sex scenes, this is probably one of his most straightforward horror movies. It is Brandt that takes the front seat here though - she gets more screen time than in any other of his films, and the line about Lightning continuing to wear her wedding ring has a note of sadness that may just have reflected their off screen relationship.

Red Heat (1976) Again made under the Cindy Lou Sutters/Hans B Andersen monikers, here's another film which develops themes that Steckler would return to in his next 'mainstream' features. Narrated by Carolyn Brandt, who confusingly credits herself as being adult filmmaker Sutters, and tells audiences that she and her horny cameraman came from LA to Las Vegas to shoot raunchy films. Following a similar pattern to 1974's Fire Down Below - perhaps even a sequel - Red Heat's title is the name given by Brandt (as Sutters) to a red-headed model called Mary (Lovey Goldmine, a former Las Vegas burlesque dancer), who she fancies would do well in porn films. But Red has different plans; starting with knifing her two timing violent boyfriend in the shower, then roaming the streets of Las Vegas looking for victims. Interestingly Mary doesn't have sex with any of the men she kills, seducing them with the possibility of going all the way before stabbing them - again, all rather Freudian. Red Heat's other storyline follows a bike riding gun toting hoodlum who robs from people and shops, seemingly without a care in the world. The biker is almost exactly the same as the one in Fire Down Below - could these movies have been made at the same time? Brandt's laconic voice over offers no judgement - that's saved for the end when Red and the biker briefly get together before they're killed by a drunk truck driver who takes his eyes off the road; crime does not pay, suggests Sutters/Steckler.

The other plus of this movie is the extensive footage of the streets of Las Vegas, a mid 1970s celluloid time capsule. If our eyes are to be believed everyone was playing on the Strip at the time of filming, from Joan Rivers, through to Frank Sinatra Jr, Tina Turner and Village People! But what makes this film really interesting is Brandt's voice over. It's quite plausible that Stecker and Brandt's marriage ended because of their financial hard times and the director's move into the porn market, but here's Carolyn providing an ongoing narration to the on screen activities that leaves very little to the imagination, and has you wondering just how much involvement Brandt (who frequently narrated his porn output) had in Steckler's adult works?

Like Fire Down Below before it, Steckler re-cut Red Heat as Slashed... in 2003, removing the hardcore elements, reducing it to a half hour movie.

The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979). We now fast forward to 1979. By this point Steckler had behind him some twenty odd porn features and shorts, and it was time time to return to mainstream film making - well mainstream for Steckler anyhow. In interview Steckler said about this movie; "I just wanted to make an unusual, silent film." The flick could be seen as the third in the quadrilogy of 'Las Vegas killer' films from the director, starting with Fire Down Below and continuing with Red Heat. In some ways this is one of Steckler's most straightforward movies. Johnathan Click (named after Mad Dog Click in The Thrill Killers perhaps?) is The Hollywood Strangler, and that's pretty much all he does; identifying young models to throttle, either finding them through ads in sex newspapers or picking them up on the street. Click seemingly isn't able to have sex with these women, but is clearly aroused by act of killing them.

The Strangler himself is played by Pierre Agostini, originally from Brazil, who renewed a 10 year friendship with Steckler when they were both selected - and then turned down - for jury service in 1979. Agostini, whose previous acting roles had included a serial rapist and a hunchback, had also been in Red Heat as Mary's violent boyfriend; while he, like everyone else in the film speaks no lines (Steckler once again recording on his trusty non sound Bolex) his subconscious thoughts are heard in the movie as he goes about his strangling business; and interestingly it's Steckler's voice, not Agostini's. The only thing we know about Click is that a woman called Marsha once seriously did him wrong, and he's out for random revenge

Click sets his sights on a red haired woman who owns a local bookstore. Little does he know that she is in fact the Skid Row Slasher (Carolyn Brandt), a woman who stalks and kills winos (Steckler was presumably originally going to leave the audience guessing as to the identity of the killer but then blows it as he can't stop filming his ex wife). Eventually of course Strangler and Slasher meet, and the mutual destruction is assured. One vaguely interesting fact is that Brandt's character gradually changes her look as the film progresses and her kills mount, from rather downbeat shop worker at the beginning to full on long legged vamp at the end - who says that crime doesn't pay?

Filmed in various Las Vegas locations (including Steckler's own home) and using his home turf of Hollywood for some of the exteriors, the movie features the usual shots of LA and Vegas streets, with accompanying sleazy and easy stock music. There's more nudity than in any of Steckler's previous non porn movies - including a topless roller disco sequence - but as mentioned before a decided slide into misogyny which one can only suppose resulted as a psychological effect of the porn years. As a suitable location backdrop, some scenes are filmed outside Las Vegas's legendary 'Flick' cinema, which reputedly showed Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones continually for ten years. Steckler tried to get theatrical distribution for his movie (he even paid to have it blown up to 35mm) but couldn't create any interest.

In 1986 Steckler got married again - to Katherine, and had two daughters with her; Morgan (named after his producer and friend George Morgan) and Bailey. At this time Ray was also Professor of Film at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and taught there for a number of years, before leaving following a disagreement. In the same year he landed a rare late acting role as a college professor in Dale Trevillion's comedy movie Las Vegas Weekend, rather a lost movie. A year later he started work on a movie called Angel of Vengeance, but was apparently sacked as director after three days of filming by producer Jeffrey C Hogue, in a dispute with the legendary Ted V. Mikels who was serving as Director of Photography on the project. Mikels was Ray's friend, and although Steckler is uncredited in the film, two of the characters wear T Shirts sporting the 'The Thrill Killers' logo - which is probably Ted's way of saying sorry to Ray for what happened.

Las Vegas Serial Killer (1986) After a further 14 or so porn shorts and features, Steckler would return to the Johnathan Click character for his next 'mainstream' film. Now credited as Johnathan Glick, Pierre Agostini reprises his role as the wandering murderer. At the end of The Hollywood Strangler... it seemed that Click had met his end at the hand of the Skid Row Slasher. But in a move redolent of those 1940s serials so beloved by Steckler, it turns out this was a cliffhanger ending; Click/Glick is alive and well, having just been paroled from a life sentence because the prosecutors could only found evidence of one of his supposed seven murders. Huh?

So while Johnathan returns to the mean and murky streets of Las Vegas, two other hoodlums are headed to the same city. They are Clarence (played by Ron Jason, who according to Steckler, in a story more apocryphal than truthful, he had met when Jason came to fix his air conditioning) and Jack (ex policeman Chris Cave). These two ne'er-do-wells are basically muggers, preying on the unsuspecting citizens of Sin City.

Johnathan's first victim is a guest at a celebrity party thrown for the actor Cash Flagg (Steckler's alter ego, although he doesn't appear in the film). She's played by Linda Savage, who would go on to co-run Mascot Video with Ray. From there on in the body count rises, as the newly dubbed Las Vegas Serial Killer works his way through Vegas's lowest rent models and showgirls. Initially gaining access to homes via a job as a pizza delivery man, he steals a camera from one of his victims which enables him to resume his previous method of murder, inviting young girls to photo shoots then strangling them.

It's inevitable that the Strangler and Clarence and Jack will run into each other; their first almost meeting is one of the high points of the film; our hoodlums hold up an executive in his office, steal his money and abduct his secretary, locking her in the boot of his car so she can't blab. Along comes Johnathan, hears the noise of someone locked in a car, opens the boot and strangles the secretary!

Steckler's film has interest value mainly for the extensive street shots of a now largely vanished Las Vegas, filmed when the city was less dense and populated than it is now. Unfortunately the movie is bogged down by some more rodeo footage, lengthy scenes from the Eldorado street parade and a vintage airplane show. Eventually the hoodlums and the Strangler meet - when he gets in the way of one of their robberies and is gunned down as a result - and there is almost an air of Greek tragedy in the inevitability of the confrontation; something shared with Steckler's previous Las Vegas features. The final shot shows Clarence and Jack discarding the murder weapon in a dumpster, only for the pistol to be retrieved by two passing kids, who hold the weapon covetously. Could they grow up to be criminals of the future, poses Steckler?

As well as using the usual Sven Christian/Wolfgang Schmidt pseudonyms, another credit on the film proudly announces Ray's new wife Katherine as producer (she also appears in the movie and does some of the voice over duties). While this suggests that Brandt was now out of the picture, literally and metaphorically, Carolyn would continue to work with Steckler; she narrated three more pornos although remained uncredited on all of them, before retiring from the business altogether in 1983 and rediscovering her first love of dancing. In 1994 Steckler made Carolyn Brandt: Queen of Cult, a 60 minute documentary celebrating his ex wife's career.

Steckler started a third 'Strangler' film with Agostini, possibly to be called 'The Return of the Hollywood Strangler,' but abandoned it less than halfway through as Pierre's heart wasn't in it - presumably he went back to his drywall business. A fourth and fifth were planned but uncompleted;  'The Son of the Hollywood Strangler' and 'The Las Vegas Thrill Killers,' which utilised some of the cast from The Las Vegas Serial Killer.

In the 1980s Steckler also opened Mascot Video, acquiring two stores in Las Vegas, which he used as a base for selling his movies (the shops were named after one of his favourite movie companies). It became a bit of a haunt for fans (and also one of the only places to actually pick up Steckler movies and memorabilia) before he sold it on in 1995. Steckler continued to sell his movies on line until his death, along with taped compilations of actresses and dancers, often nude, culled from audition footage.

As the years wore on Steckler's output diminished. He appeared (uncredited) in another Ted V. Mikels film, Dimension in Fear (1997), which starred Ron Jason. The same year he made the little seen Summer of Fun. Apparently the idea for this movie dated back to the 1960s, when Ray and Ron Haydock came up with the idea of a film featuring two detective characters called 'Flip' and 'Flop.' The detective element was ditched but the character names remained in the movie, a 62 minute silent family film shot around Lake Tahoe, which looked back to the more innocent years of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo and The Lemon Grove Kids, but which very few have actually seen. The cast, assembled by his long time friend and associate Herb Robins, included the then Miss Mississippi, later to make the finals of Miss America as well as his daughter Bailey (drafted in at the last minute while on vacation in the area when the lead cast for the part walked shortly before shooting was due to start).

If Summer Fun is hard to see, then his next movie Long Road Home, 'made' in 2005, is impossible, if it even exists (in fact the only reference I can find to it is a mention in Anthony Curtis's 'Las Vegas Adviser' website, where the film is described as a 'wholesome opus' about 'a couple of old-timers trying to find their way in life.' And on YouTube, credited two years after (2007) there are some shots from a supposed eight part series called Reading, Pennsylvania, a documentary where Steckler interviews people from his past in his home town. In one interview Steckler had also talked about making a forty years on sequel to The Thrill Killers, where Mad Dog Click retires to Reading, but encounters a cop, a relative of one of Click's victims, who wants to frame him for murder. But that one never came to light.

In 2007 Steckler got his final acting credit, as 'The Voice' in a short film Hooligan's Valley, which went on to be included in a feature length collection of shorts called Visions of Horror. Hooligan's Valley was summarised by one critic as featuring "a town chock-full of odd characters and bizarre creatures. Itchy and Lobo must save Kitty from the evil Primo. The story unfolds like an old film noir movie, but one gleefully brimming with clowns, wrestlers, zombies, pirates, and alligator people."

One More Time aka The Incredibly Strange Creatures 2 (2008) Steckler's last film, made just a year before his death, was described by the director as an 'extension' of his first major work, Incredibly Strange Creatures... Despite its rather disjointed story, thrown together approach and threadbare budget (it was filmed using two Digital 8 cameras on a budget of $3,800) it's a poignant film, which in looking back at Ray's most famous work, offers a typically idiosyncratic farewell letter to moviemaking.

Steckler returns to the role of Jerry from Incredibly Strange Creatures... (credited as Cash Flagg, natch). Now 70, Jerry has been having dreams (flashbacks?) which allow him to utilise large chunks of the original film. He confides in a psychiatrist (John G. Waite), who seems to know all about the characters in Incredibly Strange Creatures... and the threat that they may pose to Jerry. Jerry visits a psychic who gives him a tarot reading but also hypnotises him, returning him to the murderous state that was his undoing in the 1964 movie. After a killing spree, Jerry is seated in a pizza restaurant where he's visited by a young woman - Natasha - who is the granddaughter of Marge Nielsen (killed by Jerry in the original movie) and revenges her mother's death by stabbing Jerry.

But then another Natasha turns up, excited about being cast in the remake of Incredibly Strange Creatures... She even thinks that Nicolas Cage would make a good Jerry (an in joke about their facial similarity). So it appears that the flashbacks may have been a fantasy in Ray's brain as he struggles to get the money together for a remake of the 1964 movie.

There's something terribly sad about One More Time, almost as if Steckler knew he wasn't long for this world, and wanted to revisit a happier time. The scenes of an older and out of breath Steckler walking around a Californian funfair, similar to those of his youth, are very poignant. Rockabilly band 'The A Bones' provide a soundtrack which utilises songs associated with Steckler's career, including the Frank Zappa penned theme from The World's Greatest Sinner and Ron Haydock's 'You're a Rat Pfink' from Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. The inclusion of Haydock's 'I Stand Alone' from Rat Pfink takes on a new poignancy watching Ray walking, looking a little lost, while a younger generation enjoy the fair, seemingly without a care in the world.

But perhaps the most touching scene comes towards the end of the movie. Ray has been trying to raise funds for his film, and although a friend has offered him $500, he feels that a trip to Las Vegas with some of his family may provide the project with additional funds he requires. What happens is that, in a piece of unstaged footage, his family wins big on the slot machines to the tune of $5,000. There's no question that the money will be used to give the Stecklers a great Christmas, but if Ray had only been given the funds he could have delivered his remake.

Ray Dennis Steckler, in the final frame of his final film,
One More Time
Ray Dennis Steckler died of cardiac arrest  at the age of 70 after battling heart disease for over 10 years. He is buried in Palm Memorial Park, Las Vegas, Clark County Nevada.

One of Ray's many unrealised projects was a video documentary series on the cast of the B western movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Ray was endlessly fascinated with the directors and actors who made and featured in these low budget quickies. In an interview with 'Cult Movies & Video' magazine, Steckler referred to one of these, Nat Levine, producer at Mascot Pictures, who made over 100 movies between 1921 and 1946. "He worked out of his pocket," explained Steckler. "What made...Levine what he was at Mascot was being an independent. Whatever he had, he knew how to make use of it...everything he did was one of a kind, good, bad or indifferent.The thing is there's a certain magic to all of them...I think a lot of my little movies have that. They'll just keep going on and on and on."

Rest in Peace Ray.


  1. Ray was a very interesting guy. He always gave me the impression that he wouldn't have accepted a large budget if an investor had offered him one.

    1. Thanks for your comment Elliot, and agreed. I'm working on a piece about British director Lindsay Shonteff at the moment. Another guy who walked away from the big money so as not to compromise his unique style.

  2. Apologies for the belated reply- great piece! You give a lot more thought to Steckler's later work than many writers have.

    1. Thanks Greg. Glad you enjoyed it. It was great to deep dive into Steckler's life and piece things together. I'm only sad that a proposed interview with some members of his family didn't come off.

    2. Really excellent article. I have been collecting material for a while in hopes of writing a book about Ray- in fact, I was revisiting some of those materials today and came across this article, prompting a re-read. I've been trying to get in touch with his family, but have overall found it hard to do. I'd love to pick your brain a bit sometime about what resources you used and who you talked with.

    3. Aaron thanks for your comments. If I gave the impression that I interviewed anyone for the article then I'm flattered; it all came from existing interviews, DVD commentaries and bits of stuff online. I am aware that someone (who also read my pieces on RDS) has already written a book on the guy and secured some interviews with Steckler's family and CB. I think it's being published later this year.