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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966)

Director: Ray Dennis Steckler
Stars: Carolyn Brandt, Vin Saxon, Titus Moede, George Caldwell, Mike Kannon and James Bowie
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

When you kick off your directorial career at 24 shooting an Arch Hall Jr musical, Wild Guitar, you're definitely on the road to cult stardom. When you name your first solo film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?, you've arrived, but while that's still Ray Dennis Steckler's most famous picture, it's not his most memorable work. For me, it has to take a back seat to Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, a film so amazing that it's going to be impossible to do it justice here. Put simply, you have to see this film to understand it, because it occupies a space comfortably outside the realm of expectation. It's one of those rare movies that remain unique in the history of cinema, however long it's been since they were made, because nobody would dare to attempt to copy them and wouldn't know how anyway. It takes a special mind to make something like this. The only thing comparable is The Monster of Camp Sunshine.

More than anything else, Steckler is known for two things. Firstly, he never had enough money to make the movies he wanted, so he had to make the movies he could. Secondly, and because of this, he didn't work with scripts. He's explained in interviews that any time he started a movie with a script, the film never got finished because he could never afford to do so. Working without a script means filming whatever seems like a good idea at the time given the funding available. Next week might bring more money, in which case something else can get added. Add a fertile imagination in the editing room and, hey presto, there's a movie. The budget for Rat Pfink a Boo Boo ended up under four or five thousand dollars, and that amount didn't stretch so far as the thirty bucks needed to fix the opening credits. Thus Rat Pfink and Boo Boo lost a couple of letters and became Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, which is really just icing on the cake given what's in the film.

It's an exercise in growth. Steckler started out with two rolls of film and twenty bucks, not even enough to develop the footage, but it was a beginning and he had energy, passion and abiding confidence that he'd end up with enough to finish the movie. Like any Steckler picture, it didn't have a script, just a set of inspirations. Even the name came from a song, You is a Rat Pfink, by Ron Haydock, who had played a state trooper in Steckler's The Thrill Killers and was elevated to the lead here as both Lonnie Lord and his alter ego. Initially it was a straight crime film, taking inspiration from the obscene phone calls Steckler's wife Carolyn Brandt was getting every time he left her apartment. She plays the lead here but that's not her as the film opens, being chased by the Chain Gang through a succession of blue tinged noirish settings and eventually strangled. It's all surprisingly effective, given that Steckler was handling the cinematography himself.

Steckler isn't in the same class as Roger Corman for providing cinematic beginnings for half of the great names of Hollywood, but there are a surprising number that went on to greater things. Incredibly Strange Creatures featured cinematography by Joseph Mascelli, who wrote The Five Cs of Cinematography, still one of the key textbooks on the subject. His cameramen for that film were László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond, both future greats. Kovács shot Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and New York, New York; Szigmond won an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and was nominated for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia. The sound on Rat Pfink a Boo Boo was by Keith Wester, who went on to rack up no less than six Oscar nods in that department, for films like Black Rain, Armageddon and The Perfect Storm. This was his first experience in that realm. He also edited this film and provided the narration, as Dean Danger.

He introduces Lonnie Lord, who sold ten million records last year but carries his guitar around with him everywhere, because he just loves to sing and wants to be ready whenever it's called upon. He's Ron Haydock, acting under the pseudonym of Vin Saxon, and he promptly gets that opportunity, as the film stops to become a rock video, with him serenading Cee Bee Beaumont, our leading lady. She's next on the list of the Chain Gang, a trio of young thugs who pick her at random out of the phone book, then annoy her with phone calls and follow her with links of chain to jangle. I think this scene is as long as it is only because Steckler liked shots of his wife's backside walking away from the camera, because we get that for six full minutes. Any attempts at suspense are ineffectual, so all we really have is a few capably framed shots and a constant reminder of Carolyn Brandt's ass. Not that that's a bad thing but it's ten per cent of the film!

Just when we think the suspense might kick in, that night as the Chain Gang rattle Cee Bee's windows, we switch back to Lonnie Lord singing the film's theme tune while girls jiggle in leopard print bikinis and horror masks. Like most of this movie, in fact most of most of Steckler's movies, this feels like a home video, which it really is. Like many low budget filmmakers, Steckler used sets he had immediately to hand, like his house or his neighbour's house or the park just down the road. He also used his own family as much as he could, casting himself as the lead in many of his films, under the name of Cash Flagg, acting alongside his wife and daughters and whoever else was willing to get in front of the camera. At least here we get a segue from this home movie back to the plot, as Cee Bee gets another phone call and drives home frantically, only for her to be kidnapped by the waiting Chain Gang. One valid segue is good for an entire film, right?
Well we're coming up on something that is far better than any segue, one of the most legendary scenes in all of exploitation film history. We're halfway through the film by this point, the picture only running 66 minutes, and we find ourselves stuck in Cee Bee's apartment while Lonnie Lord sings a mopy song and Titus Twimbly, her mild mannered gardener, recovers from the beating the Chain Gang gave him on her lawn. It feels like the movie has stalled, because I Stand Alone doesn't compare well to up tempo songs like You is a Rat Pfink or Big Boss a-Go Go Party and Titus Moede, who plays Twimbly, looks like nobody less than a retarded Anthony Perkins in dungarees. Obviously something is needed to seriously shake the film up, and the ransom demand from the Chain Gang just isn't it. They want $50,000 in a black case before dinner. Nah, what we want is what happens next, except you won't believe it unless you've actually seen it.

'Titus,' says Lord, 'there's only one thing we can do: this is a job for You Know and Who!' Well, we have no idea what he's talking about but Titus perks up and off they go into the closet, only to emerge as the comedy hero double act of Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. If you didn't see this coming, don't despair, because neither did anyone else, including the people making the movie. Steckler had merely got bored with his story and didn't feel it was going anywhere. Adam West's Batman had been a massive hit since it began in January and Steckler was a Batman fan from way back, having sneaked out to see one of the serials at a very tender age, probably 1949's Batman and Robin. So he got Moede into his Halloween costume, complete with a jester's hat with flashing lights, he cobbled together an outfit for Haydock with a ski mask and a cape, he slapped an R and a B onto them and turned this movie on its head into something completely different.

I'm convinced I have dreams where I try to fathom just what audiences thought when they first saw this on initial release and had to deal with this scene. Talk about a blatant attempt to grab the attention of necking couples at drive ins across the country to focus their eyes on the screen instead of each other! It's emphatic and impossible to ignore. The narration goes like this: 'Rat Pfink and Boo Boo! Friends to those who have no friends! Enemies of those who make them an enemy! Champions of women and children everywhere! Rat Pfink, mysterious masked nemesis of hoodlums and rackeeteers the world over; and Boo Boo, by day a mild mannered gardener, by night the scourge of the underworld! Rat Pfink and Boo Boo! Together they blaze a four fisted campaign against the enemies of truth, justice and the American way of life!' They have only one weakness. What's that, you ask? 'Bullets. Now, let's go to fight crime!'

This scene more accurately provides the feel of being transported into the Twilight Zone than any actual episode of that show. Everything that happens from this point on is beyond surreal. They deliver the case, but it doesn't contain money, it contains copies of Variety, Screen Trade Illustrated, some DC Batman comics and an issue of Monster World, with exclusive first photos of The Munsters. I'd take it, but the Chain Gang aren't happy. They even dare to fight Rat Pfink and Boo Boo when they show up, prompting a seemingly endless chase on the Ratcycle, a motorbike with sidecar, upon which Haydock tries desperately to keep his footing during the pursuit. This isn't greenscreen, folks, they just shot at 35mph to abide by the speed limit and to help Haydock to avoid certain death through such a stunt. He often lies down when on the open road, but this isn't the usual way to build suspense. We're not fearing for Rat Pfink, we're fearing for Haydock!

Now if you felt that the six minutes of Carolyn Brandt's butt early on during this picture was an overlong scene, this chase beats it hands down. We get another six minutes on vehicles as they chase on out into Topanga Canyon, but when the Chain Gang's truck gets stuck in the mud, it all carries on by foot. While Steckler began spoofing Adam West's TV Batman, which was a spoof to begin with, this all hearkens back more to the old serial days. We even get a gorilla, one of the staples of low budget exploitation in classic Hollywood. Kogar the Gorilla was an opportunity for Bob Burns to get into a gorilla suit. He's a world renowned archivist and Hollywood prop collector whose basement museum contains such gems as the time machine from the George Pal movie and the original King Kong armature, among many others. As Kogar he also appeared in Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters and a number of fan films and homages to the golden era.

So, just in case you're keeping track, this has run through most genres already. It began as a crime picture, though a schizophrenic crime picture that wants to be on MTV. We watch Carolyn Brandt walk for six minutes, but we don't mind too much. Halfway through the film, it turns into a Batman spoof, but promptly forgets about the TV show to become a cliffhanger serial. Now we have a gorilla added to the mix like it's been a Monogram adventure comedy all along. Once we get past that, Steckler hijacks a random parade to celebrate, with Rat Pfink and Boo Boo waving to the crowds as if it was all being held in their honour. What these folks thought of a couple of nutjobs in bizarre costumes, I have no idea, but what we hear isn't real because Steckler shot on a silent Bolex and Keith Wester added all the sound in later. And we finish off as a beach movie. Yeah, a beach movie. Is there anything that Steckler didn't cram into this 66 minute trip?

So what's the draw of this picture? I don't think anyone's been able to explain it in terms other than Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. That's it. It's a home movie, a record of what Steckler and his buddies got up to over a summer. All these folks knew each other and it shows, because even the most overt nastiness is devoid of any real danger, like it's just a bunch of friends messing around. I've seen a lot of low budget films premiéred with cast and crew in attendance but I've never got that feeling myself in real life, even when watching the one movie I've been in. I spent four hours at a location one day doing extra work but was never really part of the project. Yet I feel I was part of the project when I watch this film. I feel like I'm part of the Steckler household, along with him and his wife and his friends. James Bowie, one of the Chain Gang, was his best man. Mary Jo Curtis, the first victim, was Ron Haydock's girlfriend. I was... well I wasn't but I feel like I was.

Ray Dennis Steckler never did get to turn Batman into a Broadway musical, but he did get to do unspeakable things to Bob Kane's creation with this film. Unfortunately while Steckler made a lot of movies over four decades, he didn't make any more like this, though to be honest, neither did anyone else. He did make a few other amazing B movies around the same time and anything he put out in the sixties is fascinating. When the seventies came along he ended up making strange porn movies, often under pseudonyms like Cindy Lou Sutters or Sven Christian. Many had horror themes, like The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire, The Sexorcist or The Horny Vampire, but some were as bizarre as roller skating porn flicks like Sex Rink and Plato's Retreat West. One day I'll see a Steckler movie that was made after I was born, but it's likely to be the dialogue free The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher. It'll take something unique to follow this.

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