Will the Thrill Interviews Incredibly Strange Filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler


Recently Ray granted me a little interview exclusively for The Parkway Planet from his own video store in Vegas. (He left LA for Vegas years ago for a simple reason: "I couldn't find a place to park!" Now that Vegas has exploded commercially, catering to the middle-class and families, he's finding it just as insufferably overcrowded as his former residence.) Ray is a true rebel, a real outsider, and was long before "independent film" became this chic, trendy media buzzword for any grungy geek with a camera. Ray got his break when he was in early twenties, co-starring in and directing Arch Hall's Wild Guitar (1962), where he introduced his screen persona "Cash Flagg," and then he went right into his most famous work: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. As Cash Flagg - an acting alias he chose from making checks out to "cash" - Ray created a low-budget exotic world of carnival horrors in the "first monster musical"! I remember seeing this flick when I was a kid on TV, and it freaked me out, man. It is a weird, surreal little wonder, an obvious precursor to the films of David Lynch, John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowsky and many more mad movie mavericks. Ray himself cites such diverse influences as John Ford and Fellini. His next film was thrillkillers-tn.jpgThe Thrill Killers (dig that crazy title), and many of his millions of fans consider this to be Ray's masterpiece. While I am not generally a fan of serial killer stuff, this gruesome gem is such a trippy time capsule it is irresistible, and while not nearly as graphic or sick as modern day gore-fests, it remains a disturbing little wonder. Ray went on to make several more B movie benchmarks like the notorious Batman spoof Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (the title designer left out the last two letters in the word "and" and Ray couldn't afford to fix it so he left it, making it even more memorable) and the Bowery Boys inspired comedy The Lemon Grove Kids meet the Monsters. Today Ray, originally from Reading PA, is still active in his lifetime passion for filmmaking while he oversees his own video store: "I needed a place like this to hang out, or I'd go crazy."

I asked Ray if back in the day he considered himself - or was accepted by the establishment - as an "independent filmmaker," or just dismissed as an outsider. "I guess that is a good way to put it: I was an outsider. Independent? I don't think the work independent was very strong then. I think we were just low-budget filmmakers. In my case, it was practically no-budget. I'm not sure I would have fit into the system anyway, because I kinda grew up on the streets myself, and I was always on my own, so it was always hard for me to take orders off people. Even though I photographed a lot of movies, a lot of TV shows most people don't even know about - most people don't know all the music videos I did - even though I did this stuff, I was trying to basically do something that I wanted to do. I really hated working for other people, I'll be very honest." Ray's director of photography credits include ABC's Wide World of Sports and a TV show called The Professionals for Warner Brothers. "Once I became tuned into directing, the directors would not hire me as their camerman anymore, they were very insecure. The majority of people I met in Hollywood have big ego problems, it didn't matter who they are. The majority of them, not all of them." Someone he did meet that he really respected was Gregory Peck, who had "class and style," which we both agreed is a thing of the past.

One of the coolest things about Ray's films was the presentation: guys in monster and Cash Flagg masks with rubber knives would run around scaring the audience during a showing, either indoors or at the drive-in. This was back when going to the movies was a real experience, an inexpensive thrill ride, not just a way to kill two hours at the mall. But you can re-live this spirit of cinematic fun weekly right here in Thrillville Theater.

I told Ray another thing I admire about his films is the gritty realism, even in a surreal context. He couldn't afford to build big sets, so he shot on real locations, giving the contemporary viewer an almost eerie view into a vanishing culture, sans the Hollywood artifice of big studio productions. Check out the real gone now-gone Santa Monica pier scenes in strange_creature-tn.jpgCreatures, which also features footage of the old Angel's Flight cable car in Downtown LA. All of this is gorgeously photographed by famed cameraman Lazlo Kovacs. Ray actually made two versions of Creatures - the original in lurid, saturated colors, and a second one in film noirish black and white, the same tones employed for Thrill Killers. "I liked the way John Ford captured locations," Ray said. "I think some of that came to me. I also was a fan of Antonioni and Bergman. I hate to drop these great names, but I loved their films, and they were my influences."

While making Creatures in January of 1963, Ray ran into some copyright problems when a similarly titled film was also being made - by Stanley Kubrick. It was the studio, and not Kubrick himself, Ray hastens to say, who made Ray change his title slightly, so the public would not be confused when Kubrick released Dr Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. So Ray was forced by the courts to slightly modify his original title, which was The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or, Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-Up Zombie. It turned out to be a boon of free publicity.

Of course I wound up asking the banal question, "Do you have a favorite of your own films?" And I got the patented response from a filmmaker with as many diverse credits as Ray: "It's like somebody has a dozen children, how do you choose? In all honesty, in every one of my movies, every one, there's a few moments that are as good as anything that has been created in the movie industry. I'm not going to cry I didn't have money, because maybe if I'd had a lot of money, they'd have been terrible movies, who knows? Some people think they're terrible now. Some people live by them!" I told Ray that a truly terrible movie is one you forget as soon as you leave the theater, which for me is ninety-five percent of all Hollywood output nowadays, no matter how big the budget, whereas Ray's films have been haunting me for over thirty years.

Ray talked about another maligned B movie master, Ed Wood, who also had to be more inventive and creative than the average hired hack in order to compensate for a lack of money (if not talent). Ray often gets lumped in with Wood as part of the pantheon of classic cult directors, along with Russ Meyer, Jack Hill and Ted V. Mikels. "I admired Ed Wood more than people realize. He kept more people alive (on screen)…not just Bela Lugosi, the most famous example, but also Kenne Duncan (former cowboy and serial stuntman, star of Night of the Ghouls), who was just incredible." One of Ray's Lemon Grove Kids, Tony Cardoza, produced Night of the Ghouls. "He (Tony) told me a wonderful story: Somebody was drowning in a pool, and Ed Wood jumped from a second story window in the motel and jumped right into the pool to save this guy. Ed Wood was quite a guy. His biggest problems were cigarettes and booze, and the rest of it, his personal problems - like wearing angora sweaters - that's nothing compared to Hollywood today." Like many of the people he rescued from either obscurity or drowning, Ed Wood lives.

I think Ray sums up the enduring appeal of his own incredibly strange films with this statement proclaiming a lost commodity in Hollywood: individuality. "What I did in those films was just be myself. And the people I met in Hollywood, they were never themselves." Do not miss these rarely-screened cult classics straight from the voodoo vaults of a bargain basement visionary.