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

 

steckler

 

   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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That Gang of Mine (The East Side Kids Double Feature)

   Today’s review is for a disc I picked up at Dollar General from a company called “PC Treasures, Inc.” (http://www.pctreasures.com/home/cons_websites.htm) . They’re a budget label that’s been around for a few years, and you can usually find their product in Target (in their $1 area) and Walgreens (around Halloween- PC Treasures puts out various “Halloween- themed” DVDs of public Domain titles), as well as Family Dollar (the sister store of Dollar General). This one I got for 30 cents (they had some on clearance for 70% off)…

 

   The company’s packaging is distinctive, if ultra-cheap- instead of plastic cases their product is sold in DVD case-sized cardboard boxes. It’s pretty chintzy; up until recently at least they would put the discs in a paper sleeve but not any more- now they just glue the face of the disc to the inside of the box. And once you open the box, it makes it hard for you to shelve it nicely so you either keep the opened case and the disc loose inside or you have a boxless disc. Either way is pretty dumb…

 

   This disc is marked “That Gang of Mine Starring The East Side Kids” with a blurb in the lower right corner that says “Also Includes Clancy Street Boys” and if you flip it over you’ll see that they throw in a cartoon- “There Auto Be a Law” (which is a limited motion “New Three Stooges” cartoon that also features color live-action footage of the Stooges. The thing is, it doesn’t really fit with the ‘40’s era feature movies that this is pared with as the cartoon was made in the 60’s)…

 

   For those who aren’t familiar with them, the East Side Kids (along with their previous incarnation The Dead End Kids and their final version (and probably most famous) The Bowery Boys) were a group of actors paired in various mixes for almost 20 years. They started off as the side story of “Dead End” (1937) which was first a play then a movie. They were a tough New York street gang that would lie, cheat and steal for extra scratch. The more movies they made apparently softened them; by the end of their run (1956) the ”Boys” were well into their 40’s, still acting like street thugs but for comedic effect- almost Three Stooges-style of goofy. The quality of their productions vary wildly; Angels With Dirty Faces was one of the most memorable, with the kids starring with Jimmy Cagney (and his memorable turn as a crime idol who fakes being scared as he’s dragged to the gallows to burst the bubbles of the “Kids”; while later flicks like Crashing Las Vegas had the boys hitting up Vegas with a ‘sure way’ to beat the system in a cheap and cheesy style. I liked ‘em as a kid and will still watch if I run across one of their movies cannel surfing, so I figured I would give this disc a try…

 

   That Gang of Mine (1940) is the higher quality and closer to their better studio-made product. It has the gang leader Muggs (Leo Gorcey- the ‘star’ of most of their adventures) wanting to be a horse jockey. Why an inner city juvenile delinquent feels they have what it takes to be a jockey never having ridden before isn’t really explained, but hey- anything can happen in the movies. Anyway, the gang runs across a poor guy and his racehorse so the Boys come up with a scheme- to enter him in a race (with Muggs at the helm) and win a bunch of loot…

 

   This one I didn’t care for at all- for some reason I like the ones that stay in the city; having the Boys at the racetrack is pretty forced. Nothing really happens, and at 62 minutes it feels 10-15 minutes too long. Also, the transfer is really bad; it was dubbed from a video tape so there’s all kinds of ‘rainbow’ banding and is dupey and fuzzy. Even the back of the packaging shows screenshots from the film and THEY are blurry. Anyway, you can skip this one (and the cartoon- I’m sure that I’ll be reviewing Three Stooges cartoon DVDs in the future) and go right to…

 

   Clancy Street Boys (1943) may have only been made three years after the first one, but some of the Boys look like they’ve aged a decade. Start right off by suspending disbelief; Muggs is celebrating his 18th birthday (yeah- RIGHT… Leo Gorcey was 27 when he mad this one and looks to be in his mid-thirties) but all’s not right- his Mom has been fooling their Uncle by implying they had 7 kids when actually Muggs is the only one… and the Uncle is coming into town to pay the clan a visit! So the hijinx include faking a family; cross-dressing; kidnapping; and horse-riding through the boroughs of the Bronx. This one is goofy but in a fun way; it sticks to the tried-and-true formula closely and even though it screams ‘cheap’ (it was only shot in six days by legendary schlock director William “One Shot” Beaudine) with static scenes and flubbed lines, it’s an entertaining way to spend an hour…

 

   This one is actually in better shape than the previous one as well; at least it was taken from a 16mm print so there’s no annoying video strobe or artifacts. This is not exactly an archive version (you aren’t going to be showing off your impressive home theater system with THIS one); with lots of scratches and splices- but the B/W is clean enough to not be distracting; think of it as about the quality you would see on late night TV pre-cable. So I guess for 30 cents this is a pretty nice grap; at that price it’s almost disposable media- watch it once then throw it away…

 

   That Gang of Mine– 1-1/2* of 5

 

   Clancy Street Boys– 3* of 5