Cult Director Ray Dennis Steckler Dies

LAS VEGAS - Ray Dennis Steckler, the independent director of cult classics such as The Thrill Killers, Rat Pfink A Boo Boo and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, died of heart failure in his sleep Jan. 7 in a Las Vegas hospital. He was 70.

Born Jan. 25, 1938, in Reading, Pa., Steckler began making 8mm movies as a young teenager. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving with the Signal Corps as a cameraman in Korea. He briefly studied photography in New York before a job offer from actor Timothy Carey brought him out to Hollywood in 1959.

Acting in his own movies under the screen name Cash Flagg, the enterprising film maker established himself as a true master of shoestring cinema with Wild Guitar (1962), The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (1965), and many others.

Steckler's beautiful wife Carolyn Brandt was prominently featured in many of his movies, including The Incredibly Strange Creatures..., which acquired its marquee-bending title in the wake of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures sued Steckler to prevent the use of his planned name for the monster musical: The Incredibly Strange Creature, Or Why I Stopped Living And Became A Mixed-Up Zombie.

A spelling mistake at the film lab created the odd moniker for Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, a poverty-stricken spoof of Batman that featured L.A. porn pioneer Titus Moody as the superhero's sidekick. That film began life as a straight suspense drama, but took a left-hand turn mid-way through production when Steckler arbitrarily decided to recast the protagonists as caped crusaders.

Steckler's showmanship extended to unique promotional stunts. When The Thrill Killers was released as The Maniacs Are Loose!, the director traveled to theaters as part of an ad campaign that promised "live maniacs in the audience!". In the middle of the film, a masked Steckler would run through the auditorium scaring viewers; he retired the gimmick after a moviegoer shot him with a pellet gun.

Like many low-budget genre film directors, Steckler dabbled in skin flicks. Sinthia the Devil's Doll (1968) was a memorably psychedelic softcore feature, while Body Fever (1969) was a hard-boiled detective story with sexploitation elements. Some of Steckler's films were shelved and re-cut to incorporate a jumble of footage shot years apart, adding to the uniquely deranged sensibility of his work.

In the horror genre, Steckler helmed the bizarre Blood Shack (aka The Chooper, 1971) and the wonderfully named Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979). 

Steckler left Tinseltown in the mid-'70s for Las Vegas, where he ran a video store for many years. He also quietly directed hardcore features under the pseudonym Cindy Lou Sutters. Among his XXX credits are Debbie Does Las Vegas (starring disco porn-queen Andrea True), Sex Rink, Indian Lady, Black Garters, Weekend Cowgirls, and Plato's Retreat West. He wasn't proud of his porn movies, but neither was he ashamed of them.

Known to friends, fans and peers as a genuinely gracious and kind soul, Steckler embraced his cult status with good humor and a refreshing absence of ego. His professional associates included actor/musician Arch Hall, Jr. (The Sadist, 1963), cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and Las Vegas stripper Liz Renay, who appeared in The Thrill Killers and later starred in John Waters' classic 1977 film Desperate Living.

"He may have never achieved the mainstream status of a very famous producer or director or anything like that, other than his high cult status, but as far as his intellect and his wit and his understanding of the business, be it in front of or behind the camera, he really knew it all," Arch Hall Jr. told "His career spans so many different genres, so many different periods, and at so many different levels, and he made a living at it, and had fun being part of the industry no matter how crazy and obscure things would be."

Over the years, Steckler earned an honored place in schlock film history books and 'zines. Famous Monsters of Filmland and Michael Weldon's seminal "Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film" were among the first publications to champion the director's movies. Rock journalist Lester Bangs rhapsodized about the experience of watching Incredibly Strange Creatures... in an early essay reprinted in his book "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung."

In the 1980s, the San Francisco-based hipster collective RE/Search titled its essential fringe-cinema compendium "Incredibly Strange Films" after Steckler's warped masterpiece. At the time, Steckler told writer Boyd Rice: "If you can't have any fun, don't make a movie. It's hard work, and if you don't like it, then...[forget it]. Movies today - if they didn't have special effects, they'd die. I've never had one special effect in any film I've ever done." 

Shortly before his death, Steckler managed to complete a sequel to Incredibly Strange Creatures... on a reported budget of $3,800 -- about one-tenth of the original film's cost. The movie will be released later this year.