Since the release of his debut film, Wild Guitar, in 1962, director Ray Dennis Steckler has shown just how much unfettered creativity and unparalleled resourcefulness can accomplish. Steckler's movies embrace all the great elements of schlocky fun -- zombies, superheroes, rockers, serial killers, bikini-clad beach-party girls -- and couple those with deliciously improbable plots. But what really endears Steckler to his fans is the sense that his movies are being made up on the spot -- and that's largely true. These films are light on script and heavy on improvisation. At the heart of a Steckler movie are creative solutions to snafus that would send lesser directors running for the hills. No budget? No problem: Steckler is a man who gets things done.
A fast talker with an even quicker wit, the 66-year-old Steckler remains as energetic as ever. This weekend he takes a breather from movie-making to visit St. Louis, where three of his most notorious works are screening courtesy of the Webster University Film Series.
The celebration kicks off Friday, October 21, with 1964's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Steckler himself stars (under the nom de cine Cash Flagg) in this, the world's first "monster musical." Originally promoted as The Incredibly Strange Creatures or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-Up Zombie, Steckler ran into trouble when Columbia Pictures threatened to sue over a perceived title infringement.
"After I'd shot my movie, Stanley Kubrick was filming Dr. Strangelove, or Why I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb," Steckler says. "I'd met Stanley a few times, and we'd always gotten along well.... I offered to change the name, and the problem was solved. It worked out for the best -- people would've assumed I stole the title from Stanley. All I wanted was a big title to fill up the theater marquee!"
The Thrill Killers (a.k.a. The Maniacs Are Loose) keeps the good times (and heads) rolling on Saturday. Released in 1965 and also starring Cash Flagg, Killers weaves the intricate tale of a washed-up actor, his trophy wife and a gaggle of psychotic killers that culminates in a thrilling motorcycle-and-horseback chase through the Topanga mountain trails. Upon its release, Killers was promoted as the first horror movie made in Hallucinogenic Hypno-Vision, "where horrors appear all around -- not only on the screen, but in the audience!" To achieve this effect, Steckler had legendary mask-maker Don Post manufacture Cash Flagg masks so that, at a predetermined time, Steckler "himself" could terrorize the patrons.
"I went out with a lot of the showings, but when I couldn't, we had the masks -- so we'd have guys running around looking like me," Steckler recalls. "They'd glow in the dark and just looked great." At least one showing ended with a woman rushed to the hospital, having collapsed in fright.
Sunday brings the final film in the series, Rat Pfink A Boo Boo (1966), and no film is a better example of Steckler's maverick approach. Rat Pfink unfolds as a (relatively) straight psychological thriller during much of its first half. The beautiful Ceebee Beaumont (played by Steckler's then-wife, Carolyn Brandt) is terrorized by three stalkers who picked her name out of a phone book at random.
Steckler explains that the situation was lifted from a real-life incident. "At the time, Carolyn was getting these bizarre phone calls, and I just knew it had to be this weird guy across the street," the director says. "So I waited until the next time he called, ran across the street, rang his doorbell and told him I was with Western Union. When he opened up, his phone was off the hook. I picked it up, and there was Carolyn on the other end!"
In the film, Ceebee is kidnapped by the thugs, leaving her rocker boyfriend, Lonnie Lord, and his gardener behind to field the ransom call. Then, in a broad surreal stroke, the film makes a 180-degree turn.
"We got halfway through the movie, and I said to the guys, 'What if we had you go into a closet and come out as Batman and Robin?'" Steckler recalls. "So that's what we did. Only we didn't have a closet in the room [where] we were shooting, so we had to use the bedroom door." In true Steckler fashion, the superhero costumes were cobbled together from what was available.
And why the name "Rat Pfink"? Quips the filmmaker: "There was a sale on "R" patches at the store."
Like any good showman, Steckler loves to keep everyone guessing. Legend goes that the film's intended title was Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, but, owing to an error on the part of the guy handling the title credits, it showed up onscreen as Rat Pfink A Boo Boo. The budget didn't allow for a fix, so the name stuck. When asked about this curiously fortuitous mistake -- the phrase "A Go Go" had recently entered the vernacular with the opening of West Hollywood's Whiskey A Go Go nightclub -- Steckler insists that the "title gaffe" story is false. Other published interviews with the filmmaker tell a different story, so best to ask Steckler yourself. You'll have the perfect chance to do so this weekend.
The films of Ray Dennis Steckler screen at 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday, October 21 through 23, in the Moore Auditorium on the campus of Webster University (470 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-968-7487). Each evening concludes with a Q&A session with the filmmaker. Tickets are $6 per night or $12 for a weekend pass (just slightly more than it cost Steckler to make feature films).