Hey! Ray Dennis Steckler finally got his New York Times obituary! Close to four weeks after his death, long after we sent off our tribute to the B-movie auteur and low-budget legend, the Times has found room among its death notices for corporate executives, old athletes and eccentrics for the pop culture innovator. And what a rollicking obituary it is!
Better late than never, we say. And more in touch than the Los Angeles Times, which has yet to acknowledge the industry rebel.
The New York Times
February 1, 2009
Ray Dennis Steckler, Low-Budget Auteur, Dies at 70
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
“SEE: the hunchback of the midway fight a duel of death with the mixed-up zombies! SEE: the world’s first monster musical!”
So urged an ad for “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?,” the 1964 cinematic tour de force by Ray Dennis Steckler, a director whose surrealistically impossible plots went beyond zombies to display superheroes, rockers, bikini-clad beach girls — and flourishes of what some saw as inspired moviemaking.
His cultish fans point to scenes like the one in “The Thrill Killers” (1964) in which Mort (Mad Dog) Click stabs a prostitute to death in her dark hotel room, while outside a neon light flashes in perfect counterpoint to the plunging knife.
So when his wife, Katherine, announced Mr. Steckler’s death of heart failure, at 70, in Las Vegas on Jan. 7, the Internet buzzed with comments on him.
“He is not dead,” insisted a blogger on MetaFilter Community Weblog (metafilter.com). “He lives on in every dark glimmering heart of movie maniacs; his soul flickering across the surfaces of corneas and psyches scarred by the brilliance of his fiendishly bloody, brilliant cinema.”
In the 1960s and 1970s Mr. Steckler’s work — he eventually made more than two dozen films — riveted audiences at drive-ins and in theaters with floors sticky from spilled sodas. It then faded so much that Michael and Harry Medved theorized in their 1980 book, “The Golden Turkey Awards,” that “Creatures” never really existed. Some assumed it was only a hoax by the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.
But, like a corpse tossed in a lake, “Creatures” eventually bobbed to the surface on cable television and video, at film festivals and in college film courses. Directors like David Lynch, John Waters and Quentin Tarantino drew inspiration from some decidedly B movies, and Mr. Steckler’s name began to be mentioned with those of genre masters like Russ Meyer and Ed Wood.
In their book “Incredibly Strange Films” (1985), V. Vale and Andrea Juno applauded Mr. Steckler’s films as “weird, individualistic and radical,” exemplifying an “unfettered freedom” impossible in big studios.
“I don’t think I’m allowed in Hollywood — I have to sneak in and out,” he said in an interview for the book. “I’m not saying I’m a great filmmaker or anything; I try to just be different, not to be like everybody else.”
Raymond Dennis Steckler was born in Reading, Pa., on Jan. 25, 1938. His love of films grew from the long Saturdays he spent at the movie theater while his grandmother, who largely reared him, worked at a hosiery mill.
When he was 15, his stepfather gave him an eight-millimeter movie camera, and he drafted friends for a film about pirates. They all nearly drowned on a handmade raft. Then came the Army, where Mr. Steckler studied photography. In 1959, his wife said, he and a friend called Punchie drove west until their car broke down at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
Mr. Steckler found work as a movie prop man, then advanced to cameraman. In 1962 he shot “The World’s Greatest Sinner,” directed by and starring the character actor Timothy Carey, with music by a young Frank Zappa. That film is now considered a cult classic.
In 1963 he began producing and directing “Creatures,” with himself (credited as Cash Flagg) as the star. The picture combines a carnival fortuneteller, disfigured zombies, trigger-happy cops and acid thrown in people’s faces — spiced with Las Vegas-style musical numbers.
Crystal Guillory, vice president of the New Orleans Worst Film Festival, perceived a message in all this. Writing on horror-wood.com, she summarized:
“Don’t go to fortunetellers with huge moles with a sister who works as a stripper, or you will be a zombie. This may not be as important as the Golden Rule, but it is a final point to think about.”
If the movie looks good — and almost everyone says it does — it owes much to those who shot it. The director of photography was Joseph V. Mascelli, who wrote “The Five Cs of Cinematography.” Two Hungarian émigrés who would become pre-eminent cinematographers assisted him: Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs.
Mr. Steckler made “Creatures” for $38,000, the most he ever spent on a movie. The poverty somehow powered his protean productivity.
No scripts. Using relatives and neighborhood children as actors. Somehow squeezing two actors into the same scene. Sneaking into abandoned buildings for indoor shots. Casting the family car. Nervously dodging union regulators. Dubbing in the sound later.
Actors were not paid: one who could not speak English learned his lines phonetically. Mr. Steckler, while making a movie, was once accidentally slugged and lost his front teeth. Rather than lose a day’s shooting, he replaced the teeth with little pieces of Styrofoam.
His “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo” (1966) was a psychological thriller until halfway through the shooting. Mr. Steckler then had an idea: wouldn’t it be fun if Batman and Robin popped out of a closet? So the second half of the film was a goofball superhero parody.
The result of this haphazard approach was intriguing. Michael Weldon, who has written widely on very, very unusual films, said in an interview on Thursday: “He had this way of mixing childish things with really bizarre kind of adult-oriented things. You didn’t know quite where he was coming from.”
Mr. Steckler moved to Las Vegas in 1970 and continued making movies, including soft-core pornography (it was his blue period). Some of this later work was done under pseudonyms. He taught film classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and owned video stores.
Mr. Steckler’s first marriage, to the actress Carolyn Brandt, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Katherine Steckler; two daughters from his first marriage, Linda Arnold of Maui, Hawaii, and Laura Steckler of Sunland, Calif.; two daughters from his second marriage, Morgan and Bailey Steckler, both of Las Vegas; his sister, Judy Conrad of Reading; and two grandchildren.
One of Mr. Steckler’s notorious cinematic inventions was “Hallucinogenic Hypnovision,” which involved ushers’ wearing masks and bounding through the aisles with rubber knives. He himself sometimes joined in, until a patron shot him with a pellet gun. and More than three weeks after his death