By (guest writer) Matthew Coniam
Ray Dennis Steckler lost out twice. He made films in an idiom sure to be ignored by serious critics, who for most of the time he was working weren’t looking for the kinds of things he was offering anyway, even if they knew he was offering them. Then, by the time the big paradigm shift happened, and everybody on Steckler’s side of the tracks was suddenly up for maverick genius status, he got a bit of the attention he was due but it didn’t stick, because what he had to offer wasn’t so easy to label as the stuff Russ Meyer or HG Lewis were selling.
“I’m not saying I’m a great filmmaker or anything; I try to just be different,” he explained in Vale and Juno’s Incredibly Strange Films. “It’s so easy to copy someone else, and I just don’t do that.” Therefore it is insanely reductive to describe his films as exploitation, because exploitation, if it is anything, is the art of sublimating or even repressing one’s personal instincts in the interests of saleability. The trouble with Steckler was that he was different from everyone.
Ed Wood might have been the closest comparison, but Ed Wood, for all his instinctive artistry, was essentially delusional. The effects he achieved were the accidental alchemical consequence of filtering ordinary Hollywood aspirations through an extraordinary psychological prism, on not enough money (a bit like a meth high). Alter the balance by changing any of the variables and the effect would be lost. With a proper Hollywood gig his unique qualities might easily have been submerged in generic conventionality, and what’s more, he’d have been the happiest man in the world. In a sense, his greatest dream as an auteur was to make a film that nobody could instantly identify as an Ed Wood movie. His signature was his burden.
Though he never got the chance to prove it, it is surely beyond question that the same could never have been said of Steckler. Note his own attitude to Wood’s work: a staunch defender of it against the Golden Turkey bullies, as alert to the psychological nakedness with which Wood personalised stock genre material as to the poetry of the result, he nonetheless knew better than to make any grandiose claims for the man in terms of advance planning.
Steckler himself was different: he loved cheap movies, he loved western serials and PRC horrors and the Bowery Boys, but it was life’s irony alone that forced him to recreate his ideas in the same basic industrial conditions. Given the breaks of a Bogdanovich, a Coppola, or even a Lynch, the whole world might have been talking about the guy who made Poverty Row mainstream and took a chunk of the zeitgeist along with him.
He would certainly have shown just how technically competent he was (and my God he was: a great photographer, a great framer, a great composer of imagery) but the films would have been thematically identical, and he would have balked at not being able to shoot and plan them the same way too. There have only been a few times in Hollywood’s history when the big studios truly gave away the kind of freedoms he took for granted: Hopper’s Last Movie, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, possibly Heaven’s Gate. (And note that on those rare occasions, whatever other faults or merits they possess, the results always seem to be elephantine, where Steckler’s are tight as a drum: the lesson may be that self-indulgence is a luxury permitted only to those who can’t afford it.)
That’s probably why the writers and critics behind the reclamation of exploitation cinema as alt-art only ever really flirted with him: he was too unusual to fit in any of the traditions being exhumed and venerated. Furthermore, those elements of his films that did slot neatly into the exploitation framework were plainly not the essence of him.
Unlike Wood’s his vision is deliberate, the effects he achieves are the effects he wants to achieve, and if he was ultimately every bit as eccentric in thinking that what he had to offer might tally with what the greater public went looking for, he was vastly more articulate and convincing when it came time to make a case for his legacy. Asked in a TV interview to define the essence of his contribution to cinema, he replied disarmingly: “I hope it’s originality.”
Steckler’s films are fun, but he’s not laughing at us when he makes them: the biggest difference of all from Lewis. He’s creating real work, which just happens to adopt an incurious attitude to the range of materials and ideas through which that work can be created. That made him tricky; because the first rule to being an artist in the exploitation arena is don’t really be one. But Steckler comes on unashamedly like an auteur; he makes claims for the work. (“I look at it every two or three years, and there are two or three scenes that are probably as good as anything ever done in the movie industry,” he says of his rarely seen detective movie Body Fever in Incredibly Strange Films.) His eccentricities sounded great in précis, in a big book about the wonderful wacky world of exploitation films, but he never got to single volume status: it takes too much work to pin his films down.
Plus, he doesn’t play any of the expected exploitation games. The most shocking thing about his signature titles may be the self-imposed restraint with which they mask nudity and shy from bloody violence. (The lurch to pastiche that characterises both Thrill Killers and Rat Pfink may well have resulted in part from his unwillingness to sustain their initial grim intensity.) On one of his DVD commentaries, he says how a viewer came up to him once and said that he liked his movies, but that they were surprisingly un-gory, and he’d like them a lot better if he put more gore in. But Steckler didn’t much care for gore, and for the squarest possible reason: he didn’t think it was necessary. Hitchcock never needed to use a lot of gore, he explained, and it’s hard to think of any line better able to alienate him from the fraternity that was poised to hail him as a counterculture hero. (When they asked him what his favourite films were, he would often talk about Casablanca, too!)
Doubtless Lewis had no burning passion to dismember people and tip their guts on the carpet either, but his commitment was to lowbrow demand. Steckler is following a vision that, even if it runs contrary to demand, will not be contained. He did do porno, towards the end, to make a buck, and he certainly wasn’t ashamed of it, but there’s no way of incorporating it into his legit oeuvre, because it’s not the same man behind the camera. He’ll be anonymous if there’s no hope of being himself, but the pure Steckler is only ever his own man: a true artist, though he fools around with junk concepts.
The proof of that is in the filmography: there aren’t a lot of titles there. Raising money wasn’t easy for Steckler because he didn’t have much to sell: he cheerfully recounted stories of how real chances to get into Hollywood movies were frustrated because he clung obstinately to his bizarre story ideas (he once tried to get the rights to Batman so as to turn it into a musical); even in his own domain he baffled potential backers with idiosyncratic decisions, like switching casts mid-movie, or opting to shoot a slasher movie as a silent because he had decided it didn’t really need much dialogue. But if a big studio had offered him big money to do it the same way, of course he’d have taken it.
He’s an ideas man; and his films are more subversive than anybody’s (except perhaps Paul Morrissey’s) because they deny those who swim only in the mainstream the standards they demand, but also the out of towners the hooks they need to be at home in the wilderness.
He may have just sounded pragmatic when he said he had to improvise because circumstances demand that kind of flexibility when you’re on next to no budget - until you remembered the kind of decisions he was actually talking about. Steckler changed entire plots, and switched the whole mood and style and genre of the piece mid-production, if some opportunity emerged to go another way or because the intended path had been denied by circumstances. And those circumstances can be anything, right down to and very much including changes in the weather.
He thought of himself as a nuts and bolts realist because he had the idea to turn a kinky crime thriller into the adventures of Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, to perk up a narrative that had run its course too early. He never quite saw that only an insane filmmaker would do that, that what he took for practicality was a species of creative lunacy that no other filmmaker – no matter how strapped or compromised – would even consider.
The unspoken heretic truth about outsider art is that once you start calling yourself an outsider it gets much easier. It’s one thing to hide ideas within a commercial milieu, the way Hitchcock and Welles and suchlike are supposed to do, and it’s one thing to challenge mainstream standards within an exploitation frame, the way all those you-know-whos are supposed to do. But when the ball is kicked so far off the pitch that a Herschell Gordon Lewis can be hailed as maverick for giving them what they want exactly how they want it, and not even with an audible voice, then clearly a man like Steckler is not playing by either criterion. This is the nowhere his films inhabit: they are not layered; they are what they are, but what they are is something nobody else was doing, or asking for, and in the end, you run out of artistic criteria they piss on, and have to start inventing new ones.
Actually, there is one, just one, that they don’t violate: they look gorgeous. Thrill Killers, Incredibly Strange Creatures and Rat Pfink – the triumvirate on which his reputation primarily rests, or should - are beautifully photographed and beautifully composed films. They contain some of the most astounding imagery, and not just on the conceptual level: they are realised cinematically with rare but conventional precision too. They have great title sequences. And they are blessed by the presence of Steckler’s muse, Carolyn Brandt (above), an actress of true Hollywood luminosity content merely to shine on her husband’s ante-world, stunningly if untypically attractive, and never more so than in Rat Pfink.
Ultimately, any discussion of Steckler settles down to the subject of discontinuity and of juxtaposition. This is his defining element. If Hitchcock is the master of suspense, Steckler is the master of WTF.
I have this dilemma when introducing newcomers to his films: how much do you tell them first? Take Rat Pfink. Do you show it to them totally cold, so that they get that incredible feeling of shifting tectonic plates when it gets to halfway: that strange unease when a heretofore tense, pretty sexy, pretty creepy, pretty rough crime thriller (with rock and roll numbers) has now, at a crucial moment, shown the two male leads going into a cupboard… and now he’s showing the doorknob turning ineffectually, and there’s comic dialogue about the door being stuck and each of them standing on the other’s foot… and now – with the unimagined inevitability of death – the door is opening and they are dressed in the cheapest, stupidest home-assembled approximation ever of a Marvel superhero costume. And then the film doesn’t even switch into superhero adventure mode, but daffy comedy, with a near-endless chase as our heroes pursue the villains in a motorcycle and sidecar, an encounter with an escaped gorilla, and consciously spoofy dialogue. (“Remember, Boo Boo, we only have one weakness.” “What’s that, Rat Pfink?” “Bullets.”)
And yet it’s not a betrayal, it’s not a collapse, and it’s not even lazy: it’s just a different way of doing things. And it has you: the damned thing has you gripped. It works, just the way the crazy fucker thought it would. You can’t look away; you don’t want to. You know you are in the presence of something unprecedented, in the mind of someone unique.
But if you come to the film, as most people these days must, knowing what’s going to happen, and knowing how definingly Stecklerian it is that it does, and knowing what the title means and how it ended up that way, and loving and digging and looking forward to all that, you’re not quite having the cinematic experience that Steckler had in mind for you. You’re watching it as a cineaste, not as a punter.
It’s hard to get a grip on where his immense ingenuousness ends and his immense sophistication starts. The title both gives away the fact of its narrative leap and at the same time withholds it, because the actual on-screen title is not the strange but plainly anticipatory ‘Rat Pfink and Boo Boo’ but the entirely meaningless ‘Rat Pfink a Boo Boo’. But again, there’s Steckler’s innocence: he’s not playing games with us. Rat Pfink a Boo Boo is a simply magnificent title, one of the finest ever coined, but there’s no need to doubt Steckler’s explanation as to how it came about: the guy designing the titles got it wrong by mistake and it was too expensive to change. (Regardless of the fact that the expense would be irrelevant to every other filmmaker on the planet with a new film in their hands that they are trying to sell to the public: it’s simply not an option to risk putting it out with such a meaningless title.)
As with the title so with the movie. It’s very difficult to guess what kind of an experience Steckler wanted his audiences to have, or thought he was giving them. He thinks he has made a super hero comedy, because that’s how it ended up. How it ends up is what it is. Never mid that there’s no hint of any of that stuff for the first forty minutes, never mind the tonal shifts so severe they’re more like tonal ruptures.
This isn’t just a plot that doesn’t make any sense, the way his beloved Poverty Row and exploitation horror plots usually don’t make sense. Neither is it simple juxtaposition, in the way that Thrill Killers begins as scary psycho horror and turns into a horseback chase movie, or Incredibly Strange Creatures splices horror film and musical as if so weird a forced marriage was in itself a selling point. It is the conscious rejection of narrative convention, a kind of experiment in how far you can get it right by deliberately doing it wrong. These are ‘what if’ movies, and they are intoxicating.
In that cult directorial twilight, where so many discrete careers and trajectories jostle for attention in one glutinous assembly, some names loom larger just because they were bigger personalities, or did something first, or with wildest abandon. Few really cut their own track like Steckler. That’s why he’s a great loss. He would never have stopped surprising us. And he was a wonderful raconteur, and an articulate advocate for his vision.
DVDs of his films, with their extensive interview and commentary supplements, preserve more of the flavour of the man than we have of most directors, far more than we have any right to demand, but it’s obvious that this is a guy you could spend forever listening to. He had some great stories: about nearly killing Alfred Hitchcock, getting sued by Stanley Kubrick, being asked by Harpo Marx why he was shooting Eegah on his private property… I don’t condescend to Steckler’s movies: I venerate him the same way I venerate Antonioni and Fellini and De Mille. No Steckler movie is worthless, a lesson I taught myself on a film-by-film basis, always assuming that I had now seen all the good stuff, and that what remained would be a pale shadow. But Body Fever and The Chooper and The Lemon Grove Kids are all essentials, all feeding into the same single self-reflective oeuvre. There are in-jokes, allusions and endless cross-pollination that are played not for the joy of recognition but because that’s what total immersion in a world apart breeds in a man like Steckler, a kind of heroic, bloody-minded insularity entirely at home in its own dream world. Steckler may be the least famous director to ever act as if he was playing to a captive analytical audience; one that he knew didn’t exist even in his own backyard. And yet that is his future, of course: playing to just that audience.
Matthew Coniam also writes for Movietone News