Friday, July 1, 2016


Image result for the thrill killers 1964 movie

Ray Dennis Steckler conceived The Thrill Killers (1964) to cash in on the horror craze that had been kicked off by Psycho a few years earlier. He was 26 when it was released, having earned his bones as a cameraman and sometime actor for drive-in movie mogul Arch Hall. By the time of this, his third feature, Steckler had established a style that mixed violence with rock 'n' roll and cornball comedy. His penchant for unusual faces would’ve pleased Diane Arbus, and his movies rarely featured a frame that wasn’t gorgeously composed. Still, few directors have been so cavalier about plot and pacing. His movies don’t end; they collapse. They’re like children who spin in a circle until falling to the ground from dizziness.
This is a "maniacs on the loose" movie (The Thrill Killers was also known, fittingly, as The Maniacs Are Loose).  It’s a genre that tends to be indestructible. They’re still made now, usually by new moviemakers trying to create some scares without spending much money, but were at their height in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, likely inspired by the Manson Family murders. Wes Craven’s Last House on The Left is probably the best of them. Steckler's movie doesn’t quite match Craven's for outright nihilism, but The Thrill Killers has unexpected flourishes that were beyond what Craven was doing. Steckler’s narrative moves along by crazy leaps, to a point where one of the lunatics, after killing several people, tries to escape on horseback with a motorcycle cop in pursuit. We’re at Steckler’s mercy; if he brought out an Apache tribe to battle the maniacs, we’d go along.
The scattered nature of the story is partly due to Steckler’s habit of throwing out the script in the middle of filming. He was also known to make movies based on what he had handy, whether it was an isolated stretch of beach, a carnival, or a surplus of chorus girl costumes. For The Thrill Killers, having stumbled across an abandoned house in Topanga Canyon, Steckler was struck by its eerie atmosphere and wrote a scene to include it. This practice of creating on the fly gave his movies a schizoid quality, but the unexpected changes in scenery, which usually included a rock band playing an impromptu gig, pop like fireworks.
A newly married couple (Steckler’s real wife Carolyn Brandt, and Ron Burr) are inspecting the decrepit house when they’re attacked by a trio of escaped mental patients hiding upstairs. The axe-wielding Keith (Keith O'Brien), fast-talking Herbie (Herb Robbins) and claustrophobic Gary (Gary Kent) annihilate the pair quickly and brutally, but Steckler breaks the scene up with moments that would come from the mind of a kid, such as a decapitated head bouncing down a flight of stairs, a radio broadcast of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ and the manic patter of Herbie and Keith. (Robbins and Kent went on to work regularly in low-budget films, but the fact that O’Brien never acted in movies again is a shame; he reminds me of 1930s Buster Keaton, and could handle an axe like he was born to it. I love how he shines the blade, lamenting that one of his victims had dandruff.)
When Steckler realized he didn’t have enough for a feature, he added a new character: “Mad Dog Click.” Played by Steckler under the screen name “Cash Flagg,” Mad Dog is thin and bald, with a thousand mile stare that can freeze the blood. The first time we see him he carjacks a poor man (Atlas King), shoots him, and dumps the corpse on the side of the highway. (In a 1980s interview, Steckler would say that King’s English was bad, so it was helpful to get rid of him early.)
Then we follow Mad Dog to the apartment of a prostitute. With an obvious nod to the shower scene in Psycho, Mad Dog stabs the woman to death with scissors. The scene is shockingly grim and, in its way, strangely artful, with lights from the street below illuminating the actors’ movements. Steckler must’ve been proud of the scene because he’d try to recreate it years later in a filmed called Blood Shack.
Another part the story has to do with a struggling young actor (Joe Bardo) and his wife (Liz Renay, fresh off a 27-month prison sentence for perjury). To escape for a weekend, the couple drive out to their friend’s diner in the middle of the desert. By then, of course, the three mental patients have arrived and are robbing the place. More mayhem follows, climaxing with the actor and one of the escapees brawling on a mountaintop, while his wife copes with the bloodthirsty Mad Dog.
Jumping from the streets of Los Angeles to the California Desert brings us Steckler’s two recurring motifs – the clutter and disrepair of Hollywood, and the wide open spaces. Steckler would return to these spots throughout his career, mostly because it was easy to shoot there, but also because a filmmaker couldn’t ask for better backdrops. A scene early in the movie shows a broke and depressed Bardo wandering down Hollywood Boulevard. Enormous billboards for blockbuster films like Cleopatra and Mary Poppins hover above him, taunting his failures.
This theme of murderers lurking in the underbelly of show business was visited by Steckler again in films like The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979), and Las Vegas Serial Killer (1986), but those were tired, uninspired projects made by a director past his prime. By then, Steckler had squandered his best years  directing soft-core porn for the adult market. It was a living, but the sort that grinds your talent down to a nub. Steckler remained a jolly sort, appearing at special screenings of his early work (particularly The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies), and gladly giving his time to people interested in cult films. Not surprisingly, he ended up in Las Vegas, blending in with the various crackpots and has-beens who wouldn't think twice about a once promising director who ended up shooting titles like Teenage Massage Parlor and Weekend Cowgirls.
It’s not that Steckler didn’t try. When The Thrill Killers was originally released, he barnstormed the country with it as a roadshow engagement, playing it at midnight showings and drive-ins. During the murder scenes, Steckler - and others wearing masks designed to look like the sinister Mad Dog Click - would run into the audience with prop knives. Steckler even added a color prologue with famed hypnotist Ormond McGill ("The Amazing Ormond"), who offered to put the audience in a trance so the movie would be even scarier, as well as extended color sequences of a spinning, psychedelic "hypnodisc" during the moments where Steckler and company would terrorize the audience. (Steckler once claimed that a frightened customer shot him with a pellet gun!) This was right out of the William Castle playbook, but it didn’t translate into success. Ultimately, Steckler learned to accept the niche he’d created for himself, that of being the most well-known of unknown directors.
Steckler (1938-2009) was an indie filmmaker in the truest sense. In his salad days, he’d cast movies with his wife and kids and friends, and slept in his car rather than a hotel to save money. His later movies feel dull because the joy is gone; all that remains is the cheapness. But the early ones feel inspired and unique, starting with Wild Guitar (1962) right up to Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966). Watching them is like being inside the head of a creative little boy making up stories to amuse himself, a boy who feels it’s perfectly normal for a serial killer to escape the cops on horseback.

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