The Films (1/5)
Grade-Z auteur Ray Dennis Steckler has amassed a loyal cult following for the genre-bending, low-budget, often self-distributed epics he produced and directed in the 1960s. Like his contemporaries Ed Wood and, especially, Andy Milligan, Steckler’s movies had that combination of technical and narrative ineptness and over-the-top showmanship that pushed them into the realm of inadvertent surrealism. The most famous of Milligan’s films is undoubtedly the horror musical The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, thanks to its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000; it’s also notable for being the beginning of the careers of cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs, who worked as cameramen on the film. Like Wood and Milligan, Steckler’s career turned towards adult films in the 1970s; the three titles collected in this triple feature are sleazy and crudely made even for low-budget porno movies of the time, though without the charm of Steckler’s earlier work.
The first film included here, 1975’s Red Heat, was directed by Steckler using the pseudonym Cindy Lou Sutters, who also serves as the movie’s offscreen narrator. The movie cuts between Sutters making a porn movie with her cameraman, Habib, and a thriller subplot involving her would-be star, “Red Heat,” who murders her philandering boyfriend early on and embarks on a killing spree. The thriller aspect of the movie is pretty lackluster, and the sex scenes are worse - “Sutters” mentions having to hire local prostitutes to act as the movie’s stars, and judging by their less-than-enthusiastic performances, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were at least partly true (one woman actually appears in three different scenes). None of the performers here have any chemistry, and Steckler’s camera favors literal anatomical detail over any attempt at eroticism. Eventually, Habib gets in on the action in a couple of POV scenes, and his comments to his female partners are disgusting. While I’d guess that Habib was an actor, as the performers aren’t connected to their “characters” in the credits, I don’t know for sure that Habib wasn’t Steckler himself. Frankly, I don’t want to know. In any case, it’s not good when the most entertaining parts of a porno are the vintage location footage of 1970s Las Vegas.
Steckler called himself “Sven Christian” for 1971’s The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire, which begins with an introduction by Dracula’s wife (played by Stecker’s then-wife and frequent star Carolyn Brandt, billed as Jane Bond), who tells us we’re about to see the story of what happened to the Count when he moved to Arizona. The movie’s Dracula is laughable even considering that this is a porno - he’s a doofus with a pornstache doing the most half-assed Bela Lugosi impression of all time. After instructing his vampire brides to bang his manservant while he watches, Dracula then sends them out to bring him fresh blood. They do so in a couple of awkward, poorly shot sex scenes that culminate in gory closeups of the brides drawing blood from guess where. These are intercut with scenes where a “Van Helsing” that reminds me more of Colonel Sanders explains to two characters we’ve never met that he’s hunting the Count. They eventually end up at shitty Dracula’s poorly-lit home, and the whole thing ends abruptly. It’s a terrible porno and a worse Dracula movie.
Sven Christian is also responsible for Peeping Tom, which is a series of unrelated sex scenes barely connected by a peeping tom character who spies on each. Again, the sex completely lacks any sort of chemistry, and each scene is visually ugly - most of the scenes look like they were shot in a serial killer’s basement. The most memorable, I guess, involves an arguing couple who taunt each other the entire time; at one point, the guy complains about the smell of his girlfriend’s lady business, and she threatens to pass gas in his face. These are the jokes, people. The last scene is the best by default, because the man and woman involved seem to be enjoying themselves at least a little bit; after that, the movie ends with the promise of a sequel that, thankfully, never came. I really hated all of these movies; even making allowances for the limitations of low-budget ‘70s porn, they’re humorless, unsexy and even actively off-putting. It might sound odd to say they’re a huge step down from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, but there it is.
Red Heat, which was scanned in 2K from a 35mm archival print, is the best-looking transfer included here. Presented in its 1.33:1 original aspect ratio, it isn’t quite as clear as Vinegar Syndrome’s recent Carlos Tobalina double feature, but given the limitations of the source material, it’s still impressive. Colors and detail are surprisingly strong throughout (even when I wished they weren’t), especially in the exterior shots of the seedier parts of Las Vegas. The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire and Peeping Tom were sourced from 16mm prints (also presented in 1.33:1), are considerably rougher, with a lot of noise and print damage visible. However, given the poor lighting and general visual scuzziness of the sources, this is probably as good as these films will ever look.
None, aside from the option to view individual reels from each feature.
Regardless of my feelings about the films included here, I continue to be impressed by Vinegar Syndrome’s commitment to unearthing forgotten artifacts of adult film history. As for the movies themselves, I highly recommend this disc for any Ray Dennis Steckler completists and warn everyone else to proceed with caution.