R.I.P. Ray Dennis Steckler- King of the Cheapies




   Ray Dennis Steckler was probably the cheapest filmmaker out there (with apologies to Ted Mikels and the late Andy Milligan), and having passed away January 7th I figured that a few words would be in order…



   Just in my teens, I saw my first Steckler movie (and his highest-budgeted at $38,000)- The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies at one of the last Saturday Matinees that was still around in the late ‘70’s in Orlando. I had already loved crappy movies as a little kid; my Mom and I shared very little in the way of interests but we would park ourselves on the couch to watch Tampa’s Channel 44’s “Creature Feature” With Dr. Paul Bearer and his absolutely gonzo double features. But “Incredibly” was something else- my first real “cult” movie; before I would trek religiously to Midnight Movies at least weekly to catch Rocky Horror; Heavy Metal or Dawn of the Dead. From then on I would look for any of his cheesy-yet-fun movies any time they would (very rarely) play on late-night UHF TV, and even called him (after lots of microfiche and out-of-town-phonebook research at the local library) just to let him know that I was a fan (he was curt but semi-appreciative before brushing me off with a quick “Good Luck, Kid”)….



   Eventually I was able to catch most of his films on VHS and later on DVD and became hooked by most of his 60’s output- The Thrill Killers; Rat Fink a Boo Boo (which was SUPPOSE to be titled Rat Fink AND Boo Boo but when the titles were made for the movie someone in the lab goofed and he didn’t want to spend the extra movie to correct them!) and especially Wild Guitar, which is an amazing rags-to-riches rock and roll story…



   Wild Guitar stars the fleshy-faced Arch Hall Jr. as the hayseed “Bud Eagle” a starry-eyed rock-and-roller with nothing but 15 cents in his pocket (he can’t even afford tax on his meal at a diner), a crummy guitar, a giant blonde pompadour and a dream to make it big in Hollywood. Ten minutes after arriving he meets the pretty blonde Vickie (Nancy Czar), who, as luck would have it, is just on the way to her big break- dancing on a TV Variety Show. After her jiggling and writhing, the singer who’s suppose to follow her gets so nervous that he bails, so a stage hand at the urging of Vickie (who, by the way has never seen her new friend sing), lets ol’ Bud go out there to sing- and after tripping onto the stage, regains his composure and belts out a song that, at the end of it, has the girls in the audience go nuts. This gets the attention of a sleazy Producer Mike McCauley (played by his real-life Dad Arch Hall Sr.), who insists that he A) “Call me Mike”; and B) will handle everything. Well, he does and HOW- soon Bud is a huge star on national tours and records but only has a rented apartment, six new suits and a shiny guitar to show for his efforts as fatherly Mike is cookin’ the books and pocketing a chunk ‘o change. After more drama Mike suddenly gets smart and, with a scheme that could only be dreamed up in a movie where someone becomes a national superstar after only being in town for eight hours or so, ends up with the money and the girl (and a recalcitrant Mike seeing the error of his ways). That this was made in glorious Black and White at a cost under $30,000 in 1962 is truly astounding, and a personal favorite of mine as a junk-food movie…



   Ray’s output slowed down in the 70’s on, and the dozen or so movies he did make weren’t quite as fun (he even delved into hardcore porn for awhile) but were even cheaper (it’s said that he never spend anything more than he did for “Incredibly Strange Creatures”!). He ended up getting a divorce from his wife (and featured performer) Carolyn Brandt, opened a video store and make the occasional movie until he died of heart failure in early January…



   As for his output on DVD- you can find a great sample of his best work on 2 boxed sets readily available at places like Amazon or Best Buy for under $20 each: “Midnight Movie Collection”- which collects Strange Creatures…; Rat Fink A Boo-Boo (probably my second-favorite of all his movies); The Thrill Killers and The Lemon Grove Kids (Ray’s take-off of The Bowery Boys with him as the lead “Kid” and looking very much like Huntz Hall); and “Midnight Movie Collection 2”, which has his more recent works like Blood Shack; Body Fever; and his almost-silent soft-core horror dual features The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher and The Las Vegas Serial Killer. Each movie is on their own disc and cased individually, all with commentaries by the engaging Steckler as well as interviews and promotional materials…



   Don’t wanna spend 20 bucks? Break open the piggy bank and spring out 4 quarters and head to your nearest Walmart; Dollar Tree or check cashing store; ‘cause you’ll probably find Digiview Productions DVD of Wild Guitar there (along with a 2nd great feature The Beatniks; another singer-plucked-from-obscurity feature (this time from a dirty beatnik gang) starring a pre-“Big Valley” Peter Breck acting particularly crazed). Granted, the picture isn’t the silvery- B&W you would find on a carefully restored Criterion disc, but some movies, like Ray’s, can be enjoyed through the splices and scratches just fine- thank you very much. RIP Mr. Steckler- I just wished that I had the chance to shake your hand or have something signed; that would have been a true honor …


   PS- One more way to get his movies would be through his web site (http://www.raydennissteckler.com/) but I’m not sure if the Store is operational now that he’s passed- at least you would know if it IS that some of the money would be going to his family…



   Wild Guitar– (4* out of 5)





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