Some directors don’t deserve the reputation they eventually earn. While many consider him to be the worst filmmaker in the world, the late Ed Wood was merely a misunderstood visionary. Really. If you don’t believe it, just look at the efforts of one of his unhinged contemporaries. Responsible for such groan-inducing drek as Wild Guitar, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, The Lemon Grove Kids, and most memorably, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, the former legitimate cinematographer became the kind of bad movie icon that all half-assed directors strived to best. Under the pseudonym of “Cash Flagg”, he acted, worked with fellow b-movie producers, and attempted to keep his creative dreams alive via a wealth of less than successful drive-in fare. When the passion pit finally dried up and drifted down movie memory lane, he started dabbling in porn.
So when it was announced that the 70 year old had died 7 January from a heart attack, few except the most ardent of outsider film fans probably noticed. Unlike similarly styled grindhouse legends like Herschell Gordon Lewis or Doris Wishman, Ray Dennis Steckler didn’t have a considered cult following. Heck, few probably even recognize the name. There were those however who championed his amateurish outrages, and others who merely shrugged their shoulders and went about their web-surfing business. Most probably did know that, at the time of his passing, he was finishing post-production on a sequel of sorts to ISCWSLABMUZ (entitled Incredibly Strange Creatures: One More Time).
Certainly no news services eulogized his loss. No major 24 hour cable channel called upon his supporters and well wishers to remember his life. Film Comment probably won’t write up a retrospective, and when Oscar puts out its annual cattle call of corpses, his visage will surely be missing. It’s not that Steckler was forgotten so much as how forgettable his output was. He fell into filmmaking by accident. Like most men of his generation, Steckler was called to the medium because of military service. He was an Army photographer for a brief bit during the ’50s. Unlike many of his ilk, however, he decided to pursue the celluloid visions the armed forces placed into his impressionable adolescent head and headed out to Hollywood.
He got his start working for the big names, like Universal. But after an incident involving an unsteady set and Alfred Hitchcock (so rumor/tall tale/ripping yarn tells it), Steckler needed to leave LA. He ended up finding a home with wannabe mogul Arch Hall Sr. and his Fairway Productions. Determined that his pasty faced son Arch Jr. could be the next big teen idol, Pops put his unctuous offspring in several low rent disasters. Working camera, Steckler made a brief stunt appearance in the now immortal Eegah! (as a partygoer tossed in a pool by lead behemoth Richard Kiel) and ended up directing the Halls’ Jailhouse Rock ripoff, Wild Guitar. He even played the part of Steak. While the movie had its moments – especially the mesmerizing song and dance sequences featuring an atonal Arch as an ersatz Elvis – it was nothing short of awful. Undeterred, Steckler decided to head off on his own. Raising $38,000, he decided to stay within the musical genre, and came up with a title he was sure would sell his storyline.
Unfortunately, Columbia took umbrage with newly minted The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie. To them, it was highly reminiscent of their upcoming Stanley Kubrick comedy Dr. Strangelove. With the slightest of name changes, a lawsuit was avoided, and Steckler went about completing the project. Using Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park as a backdrop, and fashioning a story that mixed showtunes, juvenile delinquency, gypsy curses, doughy businessmen, and lame latex monsters, he was convinced he had something that would make him famous. Instead, ISCWSLABMUZ made Ray Dennis Steckler infamous. For a long time, the film was thought to be nothing more than a joke. Michael and Harry Medved even wrote in their Golden Turkey Awards book that, while the movie seemed to actually have a release (there were marquees to prove the title), no one could confirm that it actually existed.
In fact, it wouldn’t be until the advent of home video before many knew of Steckler’s work – and even then, he was typically relegated to the junk shelf at the local Mom and Pop. For his acclaimed UK documentary series, The Incredibly Strange Film Show, presenter Jonathan Ross stole the moniker and even interviewed Steckler. For many, it was their first introduction into the age of exploitation, drive-in dive cinema, and what would later be referred to as ‘psycohtronic’ moviemaking. Of course, by then he had more than moved on.
The ’70s saw a rash of quickie smut statements, grimy little exercises with names like Perverted Passions, Teenage Hustler, and Sex Rink. Even with their racy content, Steckler had a hard time raising money for his movies. 1979’s Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher had to resort to a Wishman style of sound recording thanks to budgetary concerns. Instead of actually capturing dialogue on film, he simply filmed the actors at various angles where the mouths couldn’t be seen. He then dubbed in their lines later.
By the late ’80s, early ’90s, Steckler was in semi-retirement. He owned a small mail order video business, with one of his hottest sellers being a six volume compilation of actress outtakes/auditions from his Hollywood Strangler sequel – the Las Vegas Serial Killer. The commercial catch? The clips were rife with nudity. Steckler eventually sold the business to one Dan Wayman and watched as labels like Something Weird Video introduced a hungry generation to the abject pleasures of underground cinema. His biggest moment in the limelight came in 1997, when Mystery Science Theater 3000 used one of its initial Sci-Fi Channel shows to mock and make fun of Steckler’s zombie stomp. It would later appear on DVD as part of the Volume Nine set for the series.
Naturally, there are those who continue to call Steckler an unheralded motion picture auteur, someone misunderstood by the mainstream and de-legitimized by a critical community unable to appreciate his genius. To them, the stream of consciousness craziness of ISCWSLABMUZ is what makes it so magnificent. They worship the retarded East End Kid conceit of Steckler’s “Flagg” persona. In this wacked out world, The Incredibly Strange Creatures is not some unknown quantity, but a brilliant deconstruction of the entire old school Hollywood moviemaking myth. Sure, he was seen by many as nothing short of mediocre and for others, he’s much, much worse than Ed Wood. But unlike many in his particular grade-z schlock field, Ray Dennis Steckler found a way to stand out. He may be gone, but one has to imagine he will not be soon forgotten.