Saturday, October 14, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: I is for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? (1964)


We open at The Pike: an amusement park located on the pier in Long Beach, California. We then cut to a midway that I believe we’re supposed to think is part of the same seaside attraction despite it being a completely different time of day. Cut again to the inside of one of those midway tents; this one belonging to Madam Estrella (O’Hara), a gypsy fortune teller, currently giving a palm reading to some lush who suddenly wants to play grab-fanny, mistaking Estrella for her sister, Carmelita, who we find out later is a stripper in one of the other sideshows. (Well, thee WORST stripper of ever, maybe, but we’ll be getting to her in a sec.) With that, she calls on her hunchbacked assistant, Ortega (Russell), who quickly subdues the drunk, holding him down so Estrella can pour acid all over his face to “make him look like all the others."



And who are these “others”? Patience, dear readers, as we cut again to some kind of lounge, where we dig in and watch a wildly disjointed dance number between Marge Nelson (Brandt) and Bill Ward (as himself), which ends a little prematurely due to Marge being slightly under the influence; much to the chagrin of the venue’s manager, who arrives at her dressing room just in time to see the superstitious Marge try to hide the bottle she’d been draining and then freak out over the appearance of a black cat. And while she promises to sober up for the next show, the minute the manager is gone the high strung Marge takes another long pull off that bottle.


And then, say it with me, cut again to the next day, where we finally meet our protagonist, Jerry (Steckler -- as Cash Flagg), and his best friend, Harold (King), a couple of free-wheeling slackers, who decide to round up Jerry’s girlfriend, Angela (Walsh), and spend the day goofing off at the pier, leaving her mother and brother behind to shake their heads in mutual disappointment over her choice of boyfriends. And as it just so happens, one of the first attractions they visit is Madam Estrella’s tent, running into Marge as she flees the premises as fast as her long, fishnet-stockinged legs will carry her.


Seems our girl Marge got so soused between shows she wound up flat on her rump in the middle of her act. And so embarrassed by this was she, and perhaps in an effort to avoid the manager, she fled the building, an astrology magazine clasped in her hands, seeking professional psychic help for some peace of mind. But all Estrella sees in Marge’s future is a violent death; not quite what she wanted to hear, which is why she blindly ran away, accidentally discovering Estrella's caged up secret before bouncing off Jerry, Angela, and Harold as she barreled out the exit. And, turns out, Estrella is just full of good news today, predicting a “death near water” for someone close to Angela. But Jerry, rather bluntly, tells Estrella she’s full of crap and herds everyone back outside. None too happy with his attitude, Estrella gets word to her sister to be on the lookout for this knob and starts scheming on some deadly payback on the unbelieving Jerry.




And so, as the trio pass the stripper’s tent, Carmelita (Enyo), manages to catch Jerry’s eye, apparently puts some kind of hypno-whammy on him, and begins to lure him inside. But Angela has no desire to see a bunch of hoochie-coochie girls, and so, Jerry pawns her off on Harold, who promises to get her home safe. Now, the peep show that follows can be best summed up by a riff from Mystery Science Theater 3000, who proclaimed “the minors who snuck [into this show] with their fake IDs are probably sorely disappointed right now.” I mean, is it possible to actually wind up with more clothes on the more you strip away? Anyhoo, during the ... ‘performance’, anti-striptease, whatever, Ortega slips Jerry a note from Carmelita, inviting him to join her backstage. And so, an eager Jerry complies, only to find Estrella, Ortega and Carmelita waiting for him. And not only are they waiting for him in ambush, as soon as he opens the door Estrella fires up some kind of spiraling hypno-wheel contraption that immediately enthralls Jerry to the gypsy’s will, who turns him into a mindless zombie that must obey her every whim.


Cut to the next morning, where Jerry wakes up in his own bed drenched in sweat after a disturbing, phantasmagorical nightmare that involved an extended interpretative dance number, where his subconscious was trying to tell him something. And what it was trying to tell him is that Jerry killed two people in cold blood last night in compliance with Madam Estrella’s orders. Who did he kill? Well, he ambushed Marge and her partner in the middle of their dance number and stabbed them both to death. And while Jerry struggles to unlock his memories and uncover what really happened and come to terms with what he did, turns out the highly psychotic Estrella isn’t done messing with this unbeliever just yet because she has several more people on her hit list just waiting for her unwitting assassin to bump off...


On January 25, 1938, schlock-cinema auteur Ray Dennis Steckler was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and the world of exploitation flicks had no idea what was about to hit it. Seems ever since he was a kid, Steckler was always fan of carnivals, where he hung out with the hucksters and roustabouts and absorbed all he could. And then, as the legend goes, he was officially bitten by the film bug when his stepfather gave him an 8mm camera for his fifteenth birthday. Several home movies about cowboys and pirates soon followed. And then, like a lot of other burgeoning filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s, Steckler would hone his craft as a cameraman in the Army Signal Corps; and after his hitch was up he moved to New York City to study photography for a few months until he got a call from an old army buddy in desperate need of a cameraman for Timothy Carey's tour-de-demented, The World's Greatest Sinner (1962), when the original cinematographer was fired.


Thus and so, Steckler moved to California, shot the film for Carey, got his union card, and kept stringing jobs together as a catch-all prop man and grip, including several TV gigs at Universal, where, as the legend continues, Steckler was fired by Alfred Hitchcock himself after he nearly ran the director over while recklessly moving several heavy A-Frame flats around a set for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Thus ended Steckler’s affiliation with mainstream Hollywood. But never fear! Fringe Hollywood and cinematic infamy were just around the corner -- well, make that a couple of arches.


See, Steckler first met Arch Hall Sr. while he served as an assistant cameraman on Secret File Hollywood (1962), where Hall played an uncredited bit part in this dirt-cheap sleaze noir that finds an ex-detective digging up dirt on celebrities for a tabloid scandal sheet. Hall was a former stuntman, bit player, and Air Force pilot -- and his time in the Air Force was later satirized in a feature film, The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961), starring Jack Webb and Robert Mitchum as Archie, which chronicled Hall’s experience when he was declared too old to fly fighters, too inexperienced to pilot bombers, which only left the option of flying troop transport gliders.


After getting out of the service, Hall formed Fairway International Pictures in 1961, based out of Burbank, California. Targeting the burgeoning drive-in theater market, Hall’s first production was the nudie-cutie, Magic Spectacles (1961), where a a medieval scientist devises a pair of x-ray specs that allow the wearer to see beneath the clothing of others, which was written by his son, Arch Hall Jr. But after that, Hall Sr. moved Hall Jr. in front of the camera, determined to make his son a singing sensation, starting with the juvenile delinquent picture, The Choppers (1961), where Junior rocked out with tunes like “Monkey in Hat Band” and “Congo Joe” while running a stolen car ring. 


Both Halls starred in Fairway’s next feature, the caveman epic, Eegah! (1962), whose origin can be traced back to one of Senior’s tenants being several months behind on the rent. That renter? Richard Kiel, who played Eegah the caveman to make up for the delinquent payments and who would later go on to infamy playing the James Bond villain, Jaws, in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). For the production, Hall Sr. hired Steckler to run the camera and direct second unit on Eegah; and Steckler would also put in a couple of cameos in the film, volunteering to be thrown into the pool by the rampaging caveman for the climax, appearing with his future wife, Carolyn Brandt, as a couple of necking teenagers who get peeped on by the curious caveman. (And we’ll have a little more on Steckler’s relationship with Brandt in a sec.)




Steckler was then promoted to director on Fairway’s next feature, Wild Guitar (1962), another singing vehicle for Arch Hall Jr. Here, Steckler was forced into taking the role of the lead villain’s top thug, Steak, when the original black actor was nixed at the last moment due to racial concerns. Seems Hall Sr. was afraid ticket-buyers in the south weren't all that interested in seeing a black actor in any role. And so, to save that potential peckerwood box-office, Steckler first adopted his infamous alias, Cash Flagg, for the first time. (The origin of the name had to do with Steckler’s refusal take checks and would only be payed in cash upfront. Where Flagg came from will, alas, forever remain a cinematic mystery.) And honestly, his performance isn’t half bad as the greasy and twitchy little psychopath.


And it was while filming Wild Guitar when Steckler first met George J. Morgan, who was interested in getting into the picture producing business. And together, those two would concoct a wild film where some psycho gypsy turns a slacker into a mindless zombie who goes on a killing spree for her that was -- wait for it -- also a musical, tentatively titled, Face of Evil, before settling on the more provocative, The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie.


Now, Morgan was able to muster just under $40,000 to shoot the feature -- the largest budget Steckler would ever have. Still, money was tight and the production faced many hardships, including avoiding the unions, who had a habit of sabotaging non-union pictures. But the biggest threat came courtesy of a five million dollar lawsuit slapped on them by Columbia Pictures, who felt their title was too close to and impinging on their forthcoming Stanley Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964). And while the litigation dragged on, Steckler finally managed to talk to Kubrick directly on the phone and offered to change the title to the marque-busting, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? (1964). Kubrick said that was fine and the lawsuit went away.


Now, there has been some debate on what film bore the longest title of all time. Some say it’s Creatures while other say it was the full title of Roger Corman’s Nordic adventure, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent -- which is usually shortened down to Viking Women and the Sea Serpent on most of the promotional materials. Well, while Viking Women has more words, Creatures uses one more letter, which, to me, makes it the longest title. There is also some debate as to which was the first horror movie musical, this or Del Tenney’s totally raucous and zombie-stompin’, The Horror of Party Beach (1964). Again, Creatures wins out due to it being released one month sooner.


Speaking of the musical interludes, Creatures sports a staggering total of eleven dead-stop musical intrusions shoehorned into this thing, all of them filmed in one day, which range from passable, to awful, to gawdawful. (That figures to one musical number every seven minutes from beginning to end.) Information on all of the acts is pretty scarce but it’s my understanding all of the background dancers, props and costumes, were rented from the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Both Alan Smith and Bill Turner are credited as choreographers, whose efforts appear for naught as no one ever appears to be in step or in sync with the music. Not necessarily the dancers fault, as I’m sure most of the audio tracks were dubbed in later and, therefore, nearly impossible to match up correctly. Some of the acts actually weren’t too bad; I’m thinking of “Shook Out of Shape” and the torch singer doing the Caucasian scat number. I also kinda dug Jerry’s dream sequence, with Bill Ward subbing in for Jerry in the hoodie and mask, as Steckler kinda gets his Bob Fosse on something fierce. It really is something to behold and is truly quite the trip.


And another interesting tidbit is how one of those background dancers wound up playing Jerry’s girl, Angie-Baby. The part was supposed to be played by first time actress, Bonita Jade. But after a long day of shooting, after wrapping the last of the musical numbers a little earlier than expected, Steckler decided to try to get some other set-ups in the can, knowing he only had about 18 days to shoot the whole picture. And one of those scenes involved Angela but Jade begged off, saying she had to meet her boyfriend, a drummer, at one of his gigs. And when she adamantly refused to stick around and shoot, a flabbergasted Steckler gave up, fired her on the spot, plucked Sharon Walsh from out of the chorus line and immediately promoted her to the role of Angela. And if you look real close in couple of those musical numbers, you can spot Walsh dancing around. Never fear, said Steckler, who changed her hair and makeup and figured no one would notice.


Now, the vast majority of the film was shot in an old Masonic temple in Glendale, California, which was owned by actor Rock Hudson at the time of shooting. Seems at some point, the nine-story building was converted and rechristened as The Film Center Studios, with large sound stages found on nearly every floor -- the largest at the top, where Steckler set up his midway. And when the unions got wind of where they were shooting, Steckler conspired to knock out all of the elevators, making signs saying they were all out of order. And so, figuring no one in their right mind would haul that much equipment up the maze of stairs, the union representatives left without exploring any further.




And then, as shooting dragged on, Steckler, who was not drawing a salary and would only be paid by profits off a percentage of the film after Morgan earned all of his money back, was so personally destitute he thought the whole production was gonna collapse because he couldn’t pay rent or buy food for his family. But when Atlas King got wind of this, he gave Steckler $300 of his own money under the table, insisting he didn’t need to pay it back, to see him through. (As a token effort to pay him back, as the film neared a wrap, Steckler asked King if he wanted to do anything on camera for the film. He did, and that’s why Harold is seen running through the water during the climax just like Jerry did.) As an actor, King is a bit of enigma. Billed as the Greek Fabian, his real name was Dennis Kaestickian, who had recently emigrated from Greece. And after playing a bit part in Steckler’s next film, The Thrill Killers (1964), he kinda disappeared and no one really knows what happened to him. Still, it sounds like he was pretty stand up guy, and he wasn’t that terrible an actor; he was just betrayed by his accent and having to learn and say all of his lines phonetically.


Carolyn Brandt, meanwhile, first met Steckler on the set of the unsold pilot, The Magic of Sinbad, where she played a dancing harem girl. Steckler was instantly smitten with her and chased her for nearly three months before she finally agreed to go out with him. They married in 1963 and their marriage lasted for ten years and produced two children before they divorced in 1973; but the two would still work together after separating. But while they were married, Brandt’s friends often worried about her and Steckler because he always wound up killing her off in his films -- and rather brutally, strangled, stabbed or chopped up with an axe, fearing he was trying to tell her something. Turns out there was a reason for her often early demise, as Steckler needed her more behind the scenes, serving as a continuity director or doing make-up. And while she had appeared in both Eegah and Wild Guitar, Creatures would be her first credited role.


Now, the person responsible for the script trying to tie all of this nonsense together is credited to Robert Silliphant, brother of fellow screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant. And while he was writing social dramas for the big studios like In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Charly (1968) or penning blockbuster disaster flicks for Irwin Allen, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), brother Robert was responsible for two screenplays for two features that are considered to be (one unjustly, the other totally) the worst films of all time: Creatures, and The Creeping Terror (1964) And to get in on the history of that particular turd-nugget, follow this link.


Still, during his whole career, Steckler always felt a script was a mere suggestion -- even a nuisance, and was more into spontaneity and letting his actors or surroundings dictate the action and his set-ups. And the action he captured on film, more often than not, looked fantastic -- and often betrayed by the shitty film stock that he could only afford. And while not too shabby a cinematographer himself, the burgeoning talent Steckler had behind the camera on Creatures is just mind-boggling as the director broke in Joseph P. Mascelli, Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs on the picture before turning them over to the likes of Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, and John Boorman.


Mascelli had also served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, where he shot training films and newsreels. And while in the service, he later gained extensive experience as an aerial photographer for the Army Air Corps. And when the Air Corps. became the U.S. Air Force, Mascelli, now a civilian, was hired to freelance for them on Operation Crossroads, allowing him to film the aerial footage of the first H-Bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1956. In the 1960s, Mascelli tried his hand at shooting features, serving as director of photography for Wild Guitar, Creatures, and The Thrill Killers for Steckler -- but that’s about it for his career. However, Mascelli would write and publish the book, The Five Cs of Cinematography, in 1965, which saw numerous printings over the years, and still serves as an indispensable bible for would-be cinematographers some 50 years later.


Both Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs fled Hungary in 1956 when the revolution against the Soviet Union controlled government heated up when Khrushchev sent in the tanks to quash the dissent. Both were film students at the time and managed to capture the invasion on film; and when they managed to reach the United States, they sold the footage to CBS. After working on Creatures with Steckler, Laszlo Kovacs, working under the name of Lesile or Lester Kovacs, or Art Radford, kicked around the exploitation market, shooting things for Harry Novak -- Kiss Me Quick (1964), Wonderful World of Girls (1965), and Dave Friedman -- A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine (1966), The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966), before moving on to the slightly more respectable American International, where he met Peter Bogdanovich, for whom he shot Targets (1968), What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973). He would also shoot Easy Rider (1968) for Bob Rafelson.


Vilmos Zsigmond, meanwhile, first assisted Steckler on Wild Guitar, and he would continue to shoot films for Arch Hall Sr. throughout the 1960s -- The Nasty Rabbit (1964), Deadwood ‘76 (1965), and his contributions to the truly stellar, The Sadist (1963), cannot and must not be overlooked. Zsigmond also shot for Al Adamson on Satan’s Sadist (1969), Five Bloody Graves (1969), and Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970) before Robert Altman pegged him to lense McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), which led to Deliverance (1972) for John Boorman, and an Academy Award for best cinematography for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) -- a film the studio wanted to fire him off of. And he would be nominated again the very next year for The Deer Hunter (1978).


Their type of guerilla filmmaking and documentary style meant Zsigmond and Kovacs fit right in with the young turks of the New Hollywood system. But I always appreciated how they never really forgot their exploitation roots, thanking guys like Steckler and Arch Hall Sr. for giving them a chance when no one else would, which gave them their union cards and allowed them to move up the Hollywood chain. And again, with their efforts behind the camera, combined with the grainy stock, out of whack soundtrack, the, uh, unorthodox montage editing of Don Schneider, comes together to form something both rather peculiar and kinda fascinating as Jerry confronts Estrella over his scattered memories. Wanting answers, alas, he only winds up hypno-whammied for a second time and is sent out to kill again; this time taking out a rival of Carmelita’s and a carnival barker, who, like Bill Ward, was nothing more than collateral damage.





After that deed is done, a confused Jerry almost strangles Angela to death, too, before he remembers everything and returns to Estrella’s tent; only she’s grown tired of him and decides to just add him to her menagerie of deformed ghouls caged up in the back. But after scaring up Jerry’s face, while Ortega opens the cage, the other creatures decide to make a break for it and escape, killing Estrella, Carmelita, and Ortega before spilling out onto the midway, where they kill several other patrons before crashing the last musical number and unleash a massacre just as the cops arrive -- called in by a concerned Angela, who is there with Harold searching for Jerry. And as the cops shoot down all the other ghouls, Angela finds Jerry, who, still under a homicidal influence, warns her to stay away as he flees to the beach, where the cops shoot him dead in front of Angela and Harold. And as his body falls into the surf, Estrella’s prediction for poor Angela is finally fulfilled.




When the film was finished, it was originally distributed by Fairway International, who sent it out on a double-bill with What’s Up Front (1964), a comedy about the world’s greatest brassiere salesman. Dissatisfied with the box-office results, Steckler wound up buying the film back, secured the rights to Coleman Francis’ The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) and road-showed the twin-bill across the country, arranging for theaters to have people in zombie costumes to roam the aisles during the climax -- and they even had people dressed up as Jerry to fake knife a girl planted in the audience whenever he went on a rampage. Steckler himself even got in on the act whenever he could. And while it is rumored that he stopped doing this because someone had a heart attack during one of these live-action interludes, the truth is surly audiences tended to beat hell out of his extras, beaning and beating them with all kinds of things. (According to Steckler, he stopped doing personal appearances after someone shot him with a pellet gun.) Still, the film kept circulating over the years as Steckler kept sending it back out under different titles: The Incredible Mixed Up Zombie, Diabolical Dr. Voodoo, and most famously as Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary.


And, you know, it really is too bad that Steckler’s notorious reputation as a bad filmmaker is usually based on his film’s titles alone. For on top of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies?!!, you had Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966) and The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979). Turns out when the Medved's put Rat Pfink in their Golden Turkey Awards book they hadn't even seen it. And upon viewing it later, they actually reversed course and championed that absurd little bugaboo of a movie.


Look, I won’t go so far as to say Steckler was a great filmmaker -- a certifiable wingnut, maybe, but the man had some genuine talent that always showed up in his films. Not constantly, or consistently, but these nuggets of brilliance stick out starkly amongst all the dreck. Steckler's greatest strength was always with the camera, and his greatest weakness has always been his scripts. As I noted in my review of The Thrill Killers, his films, as a whole, lack a certain cohesion and never really gel. All the made-up-as-we-go subplots don't fit together and relied heavily on improvisation from his actors or the whims of the director. And this lack of discipline was usually compounded by the fact Steckler didn’t feel the need to hire professional actors as he was mostly interested in faces, which is why most of his casts were always just one and dones aside from his usual stock players: Brandt, King, Titus Moede, Ron Haydock, and James Bowie.


And that leads us to the fatal flaw in most all of Steckler's films: omigod, are these things ever padded out with repetitive or irrelevant sequences that go on and on -- seemingly, forever. And if you thought Jerry's final sprint into the ocean in Creatures went on forever, Boils and Ghouls, you haven’t seen the interminable chase to end The Thrill Killers yet. And that is how I understand why these flaws are too much for some viewers to overcome. Sadly, Steckler did little to expand on or fix his notions of cinema and spent most of the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s directing or shooting a lot of softcore porn under several aliases, including Sven Christian, Sven Hellstrom, Harry Nixon, Michael J. Rogers, Wolfgang Schmidt, and Cindy Lou Sutters.


Still, there were a few bona fide films made in between. And apparently, Steckler was working on a long promised sequel to Creatures when he died back in 2009. And one of the biggest regrets of my life is when I was in Las Vegas back in the 2003 and, on a whim, thumbed through the phonebook at the hotel I was staying at and found a listing for R. Steckler and a yellow page ad for Mascot Video over on Tropicana Avenue, where Steckler had set up shop after abandoning Hollywood in the 1970s, but never had the guts to call and express how big a fan I was of his work.



Thus, lampooned by most but rabidly championed by a loyal and perhaps foolish few, in all seriousness, I’ve always been a fan of Steckler and try to defend him whenever I can. His films are a far cry from good but are nowhere near as bad as their reputations. There was just something especially surreal, absurd (-- on purpose or not is up for debate), and dreamlike about the look and feel of his movies that a lot of other one-lung filmmakers couldn't come close to matching. (I always felt he was a poor man’s Michelangelo Antonioni.) His films always had an organic nature to them that I can't quite quantify but I likes 'em. Sue me. And if you could just distill his movies down to the bare essentials, and cut out the fat, I think you can honestly appreciate the man's talent behind the camera -- if not the wonky weirdness of his art. And in the end, the man left his mark and a wonderfully weird oeuvre for us to enjoy for all perpetuity.

Other Points of Interest:


What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's nine down with 17 left to go! A third of the way there already? Wow. Up next: Looking for some deliverance while lost in the woods with a deranged killer.


The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? (1964) Morgan-Steckler Productions :: Fairway International Pictures / EP: George J. Morgan / P: Ray Dennis Steckler / D: Ray Dennis Steckler / W: Gene Pollock, Robert Silliphant / C: Joseph V. Mascelli, László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond / E: Don Schneider / M: Libby Quinn / S: Ray Dennis Steckler, Carolyn Brandt, Brett O’Hara, Atlas King, Sharon Walsh, Erina Enyo, Don Russell

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