Low-budget superhero

No Johnny Depp-style Hollywood hipster has done a biopic on the life of outsider filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler. Perhaps someone should start working on it.

Rat Pfink fights crime and poses even better.

Rat Pfink fights crime and poses even better.

Your average superhero movie does not come cheap.

And, to make matters worse, the giant, synergy-oriented entertainment conglomerates that crank these superhero films out every summer are constantly upping the stakes. Movie moguls know that star power plus the most outlandish special effects that Industrial Light + Magic can muster plus more star power, in the form of surprise cameo appearances by big-ticket celebrities, still does not guarantee that the multiplexes will stay packed beyond opening weekend.

Thus, bets must be hedged. Tie-in promotions, involving cheap plastic toys manufactured in China, must be developed with the appropriate fast-food merchants, then slam-dunked into the craniums of impressionable young moviegoers. Commercials for any number of products featuring the superhero tie-in must be laser-cannoned into consumer brains via television.

In fact, the entire process of developing a superhero property and bringing it to market is so utterly calculated, with precious little left to chance. And it isn’t at all surprising when the resulting film, after committees and focus groups are done shaping the outcome, is a bit of a letdown, as they say.

In 1965, a Hollywood filmmaker named Ray Dennis Steckler released Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. It did not cost millions of dollars to make.

Filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler: His joy and ambition are obvious.

Back then, superheroes were popular, too, but they were more likely to turn up on TV—as reruns of the ’50s-vintage Superman, or new network prime-time series like Batman. And coming from Hollywood, spy flicks à la Ian Fleming’s James Bond were far more common than anything sprung from the pages of D.C. Comics.

Anti-hero comic-book characters were starting to turn up, too: Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink, Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog.

Steckler—coming off whatever underground and “Starts Friday at drive-ins in your area” buzz was generated by a horror musical he’d cooked up in 1963, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, and its slightly more conventional follow-up, The Thrill Killers—was not thinking “superhero.” Instead, he’d decided to make what would today get called a music video. He’d already cast Ron Haydock, a bona-fide rock ’n’ roll singer who had been cutting sides for the Cha Cha label since 1959, as a cop in The Thrill Killers.

So Haydock, playing a teen idol named Lonnie Lord, recruited a young band and taught them a song he’d written, “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Rat Pfink.” Then Steckler rounded up some extras who’d appeared in his earlier films—the two mentioned above, plus Wild Ones on Wheels and Wild Guitar—for some twistin’-by-the-pool action. The resulting scene combined the happy-go-lucky nature of Hal Wallis’ less consequential Elvis films and Federico Fellini’s nods to hedonistic abandon in La dolce vita with, well, the impromptu filmmaking spirit of Edward D. Wood Jr. in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

“For $10 worth of film, we shot the ‘Rat Pfink’ scene,” Steckler recalls. “We had no idea we were going to do a costumed hero picture at the time. The ‘Rat Pfink’ was just—that’s what the song was.”

Which is to say that they were improvising, pulling it out of their butts, just making it up as they went along. Steckler, at the time, was married to Carolyn Brandt, a strangely beautiful brunette who appeared in several of his movies. Brandt had been getting creepy phone calls, with heavy breathing and muttered obscenities. And even though they caught the culprits, Steckler was not one to turn down a gift from chance. As he puts it, “I talked to Carolyn and said, ‘Let’s shoot this for the plot—that you’re being called upon at all times of day and night by somebody weird.’ ”

So all of a sudden a lightweight teenxploitation twist-party movie was morphing into a much darker stalker film, with three ruffians pursuing Brandt through the underbelly of Hollywood to a canned-jazz soundtrack that sounded like a low-budget attempt to approximate music from some ’50s Otto Preminger thriller.

We see Steckler’s three villains—one with a length of chain, another with a small hammer—follow Brandt as she sashays in high style to the supermarket in shiny pedal pushers, a tight sweater and Foster Grants, then kidnap her after she races home from the twist party. We watch Haydock (alias “Vin Saxon,” as he’s billed in the film), commiserate with the not-so-smart gardener—played by Titus Moede, who would go on to film such adult classics as Beach Blanket Bango. We grasp that they’ve utterly run out of ideas as Haydock mopes his way through a ballad, puts down his guitar and tells Moede as they both climb into a closet, “This is a job for you know and who!”

When they emerge, they are Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, and it’s all downhill from there. Haydock’s ski mask is what one might imagine O.J. Simpson wearing while skulking around Brentwood at night, and Moede is sporting battery-powered harlequin headgear straight out of a bad parody of a foreign film. And off they go, careening around the seamier parts of Hollywood, with Boo Boo riding a BMW motorcycle while Rat Pfink poses, chevalier-like, on the sidecar.

By this point Steckler’s film more closely resembles one of the weirder story lines from Daniel Clowes’ alternative comic-book series “Eightball” than anything that should be shown in theaters. (Although an argument can be advanced that Steckler would have done a much more appropriate job directing Clowes’ Ghost World than Terry Zwigoff did.)

And after an interminable backyard fight sequence, followed by the appearance of “Kogar”—you’ll have to see the film to understand—and the guerilla-filmmaking parade sequence that closes it, the viewer is left with a head-scratching conundrum: Either Rat Pfink a Boo Boo is a raving pile of crap, or it is some kind of genius filmmaking.

I’m inclined to give Steckler the benefit of the doubt.

See, the thing about an outsider filmmaker like Ray Dennis Steckler is, you can tell he’s a true film fanatic. He owns and operates a video store in Las Vegas, where he’s lived since 1969. He talks wistfully about his favorite director, John Ford, whom he credits with creating a sense of community around him, or at least a steady company of actors—something Steckler emulated, to a lesser degree, with the casting of Brandt, Haydock, Mike Kannon and others in many of his films. He’s even making a special trip to Sacramento this Saturday, to emcee a midnight showing of Rat Pfink a Boo Boo as the final installment of this summer’s Trash Film Orgy at the Crest Theatre.

And while it’s easy to glance casually at, say, Incredibly Strange Creatures or Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and dismiss them as low-budget hack filmmaking, if you watch these films more carefully, you can tell there was a certain amount of joy and ambition that went into them. Not to mention that they look like the people involved were having a really good time—something you can’t say about a lot of current Hollywood product.

“I was a big Fellini and Antonioni fan,” Steckler admits. “They were two of my favorites. I also like Bergman, which I tried to do a Bergman-type film when I did Sinthia, the Devil’s Doll—I don’t know if you ever saw it or not. That was my Bergman film. Fellini, when you say La dolce vita and 8 1/2, what filmmaker couldn’t love it? It’s impossible. How could you not walk away without feeling some love and taking it with you? Fellini, God, he was just so loose, and free—to do what he was feeling at the moment … ”

Steckler’s voice trails off in reverie, before jumping back. “I got away with a lot of that, but to a smaller extent. Without a budget, your imagination can only go so far.”

And without a budget, what you’re left with is the celluloid equivalent of punk or indie rock—far less polished, but way more interesting.

Steckler cranked out lots of films—from his Bowery Boys homage series The Lemon Grove Kids to such grisly titled fare as Chooper, Blood Shack, Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher and Las Vegas Serial Killer. But he may have made the best film ever about the music business—early in his career.

Wild Guitar was a 1962 babysitter in which Arch Hall Sr. hired Steckler to direct an ill-fated attempt to propel his lunkhead son Arch Hall Jr., who looked like a young Boris Yeltsin and sounded like a whiny Wally Cleaver, into international Elvis Presleyhood. Hall Jr., as “Bud Eagle,” rides from South Dakota to Hollywood on a motorcycle, meets a dancer in a diner, literally stumbles onto a TV variety show and becomes a huge star overnight. Hall Sr., who wrote the script, plays evil record-company honcho Mike McCauley, who ensnares Bud, and Steckler—alias “Cash Flagg”—plays his thuggish, fake-tanned sidekick, “Steak.” Even though Steckler didn’t write McCauley’s hard-boiled rants—“Payola, buzzola, it’s all just ‘ola’ to me!”—Steckler looks like he’s suppressing laughter through the entire film, like he can’t believe the stuff coming out of Hall Sr.’s mouth.

Like he was having a really good time.