Tuesday, December 23, 2008

THE MIDNIGHT MOVIES COLLECTION, VOL. 2: Steckler's dark period

Once you watch this trailer for BLOOD SHACK, you won't need to watch the film. In fact, you'll be lucky if you make it through the trailer.

D: Ray Dennis Steckler
Exploitation Digital/Guilty Pleasures/Media Blasters

Four excretions from the bowels of Ray Dennis Steckler comprise this collection, and one wonders if Guilty Pleasures/Exploitation Digital was contractually obligated to release these in order to get their hands on the superior, better known Steckler opuses (comparatively speaking) in their first Midnight Movies Collection box set. These four films pretty much exemplify the dismal, indifferent remainder of Steckler's "career", at least that part of it during in which he wasn't cranking out pornography. Having viewed the four films in the first MIDNIGHT MOVIES collection, I was compelled to discover what came afterwards. It wasn't pretty.

The most famous "title" in this package is probably THE HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER MEETS THE SKID ROW SLASHER (1979), a wonderful moniker fronting a woeful production shot on the sly on seedy Hollywood locales. Steckler's real-ife housepainter (and a veteran of two dismal Charles Nizet efforts), Pierre Agostino, plays the Strangler, while his wife and regular leading lady, the alluringly paralytic Carolyn Brandt, plays the Slasher. Agostino poses as a photographer and slices up nudie models he picks up in the Hollywood sex papers. Brandt despises the winos who blight the porn-theatre infested neighbourhood in which she has oddly chosen to run a used bookshop and slashes their throats in her off hours. These lethargic "maniacs" never speak, either to each other or to anyone else in the cast, because Steckler was too cheap to rent sound equipment for the picture. When dialogue exchanges are required, he instead utilizes the time-honoured Wishman Method of having one character speak their dialogue while another character is onscreen. This, of course, allowed Steckler to loop in whatever dialogue he deemed appropriate, but since he evidently didn't have a script, the whole thing sounds ad libbed. Poorly. Often by Steckler himself! ("Diiiiieeeee Gaaaarrrrbage, Diiiieeeee") Eventually, these two will meet, but only after Steckler repeats their boring and predictable killing routines ad nauseam. On the plus side, there's plenty of breastage on display from a parade of what are presumably real-life prostitutes from the Hollywood sex papers, and Steckler's modest talents as a cinematographer ensure that his images actually registered on the film stock in a reasonably pleasing manner.

An older, paunchier, and rather sad-looking Agostino reprises his role as Hollywood Strangler Jonathan Klick in THE LAS VEGAS SERIAL KILLER (1986). Thanks to Steckler's ongoing resistance to recording actual sound (which, like the plot, was added in post), the brightest city on earth is also the quietest as Agostino, his character free on a technicality because they never found the bodies of his victims in HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER (!), mopes around Vegas with his camera, crashing creepy "celebrity" parties and looking for fresh meat when he's not working at a pizza joint decorated with posters from Steckler's movies (of course!) and banging the occasional panty-clad delivery customer who apparently can't resist a little pepperoni on the side. By this time, even Carolyn Brandt wouldn't appear in a Steckler film--and this was a woman who appeared in virtually nothing but Steckler films her entire career--so for balance Steckler has a couple of yahoos hit the strip for a little purse snatching and armed robbery, then has them cross paths with the killer Klick in the final moments of the film, in what Steckler presumably thought was a delicious twist of irony but which is actually just lame. As with any Steckler picture, the viewer is subjected copious amounts of padding, including strolls around tourist attractions, down city streets, and even a through a parade, sequences which have nothing to do with the story. As a time capsule of Vegas before the monoliths hit town, this stuff has value. As filmmaking, it's a last ditch effort by a seriously washed-up filmmaker to squeeze a few bucks out of both his own name and the poor souls who would spend their money on it. Like me.

Venturing further back in time, we come to 1971's BLOOD SHACK (aka THE CHOOPER), a gritty, ugly-looking "horror" effort shot in the middle of nowhere (with live sound!) and heavily padded with rodeo stock footage just so it can wheeze toward a one-hour running time. The story concerns a "famous" horror movie actress (Carolyn Brandt, playing herself, supposedly) who inherits a desolate, dilapidated ranch haunted by an evil Native American spirit known as the Chooper. The house and the stained mattress within represent the only real "production value" in the entire film outside of Carolyn Brandt's pants and a few half-customized jalopies driven by various cast members. It's not spoiling anything to reveal that the Chooper, which appears at regular intervals to scare and/or kill people, is not a real spirit at all, but someone with a grudge against the leading lady (so small is the principal cast, you'll figure it out in the first ten minutes). The get-up on this "creature"--plush brown PJs and a ridiculous mask) must truly be seen to be believed. This DVD also contains a "director's cut" of the movie that runs about ten minutes longer than the theatrical version: advisable only if you're a fan of Steckler's unique brand of padding.

Trailer for BODY FEVER.

Finally we have BODY FEVER, presented here under its alternate title SUPER COOL (I'm not sure why the packaging differs), a 1969 detective thriller that, owing to it's chronological proximity to the better films in Steckler's oeuvre (namely, the four films included in the other Midnight Movies box: RAT PHINK A BOO BOO, THE LEMON GROVE KIDS, THE THRILL KILLERS and THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES yadda yadda yadda), actually manages to be modestly entertaining on a typically Stecklerian budget. It even features live sound, to boot! Steckler plays a P.I. wading through an underworld of sleazeballs to track down a sexy thief who absconded with a bag full of mob heroin. Once he finds her, they fall in love, and run through a park tossing the bag of heroin between them like smitten schoolchildren before ultimately facing the drug kingpin himself. There's a charm in this film that would never be seen again in a Steckler feature, and it compensates for the fact that much of the film was shot in and around Steckler's house. The film may be best remembered for Steckler's charity to the seriously down-and-out director/actor Coleman Francis, a Hollywood fringe dweller (and cast member in Steckler's LEMON GROVE KIDS and narrator of his THRILL KILLERS) who was literally found drunk on the street by Steckler and offered a few bucks to clean up and play a rather touching scene in a bankrupt laundromat. Short of a bit part in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS the following year, Francis would never again work on or in film, and would be found dead in his car in 1973.

Each DVD in this set qualifies, more or less, as a special edition, with trailers, interviews with Steckler and Brandt, and commentaries from Steckler on all four features, though these are of questionable value as he provides perhaps 5% insight and 95% narration, and if you've seen a Steckler film, you know the last thing any of them need is narration. The best extras of all are the commentaries on HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER and BLOOD SHACK by drive-in movie scholar Joe Bob Briggs, who seems to know far more about the films than Steckler (!), and has a whale of a time trying to help us understand just how they ever got made, let alone released. Briggs' participation alone makes these two discs worth keeping, since they're much more tolerable in his company. Without it, the whole box would basically be a write-off to all but the most die-hard Steckler aficionados, despite the good-natured participation of Steckler and Brandt in the supplemental features. Of course, at this price, and even moreso when it turns up in various online discount sales, it's a far better value than buying any of these titles on their own.