The Las Vegas Serial Killer (1986)

In 2019, the ISCFC is going to finish some of the things it started, as we’ve got a few filmographies with review holes, movies we couldn’t get hold of years ago, new releases to long-running series, that sort of thing. So there’ll be more Donald Farmer, Len Kabasinski, Phantasm, and Puppet Master reviews coming your way soon; but we’re starting with Ray Dennis Steckler.

Steckler is bad movie royalty, having been featured in the Medved brothers book “The Golden Turkey Awards” (the grandaddy of every bad movie blog on the internet); “Mystery Science Theater 3000”; and British TV’s “The Incredibly Strange Film Show” – the latter interviews him in the late 80s and finds him a funny, interesting, smart, self-deprecating man. This fame was mostly for his 60s movies, but he carried on, after a fashion.

Between 1971’s “Blood Shack” and 1986’s “Las Vegas Serial Killer”, he made dozens of movies, but only one of them is what you could call “legitimate”, and that’s 1979’s extremely sleazy “The Hollywood Strangler Meets The Skid Row Slasher”. He got into the “jizz biz” in a big way, making such entertainments as “Sex Rink”, “Debbie Does Las Vegas” and “Weekend Cowgirls”. After uncredited directorial work on legend Ted V Mikels’ “Angel of Vengeance” in 1987, he seems to have retired (“The Incredibly Strange Film Show” was around 1988, and whatever he was shown filming at the time of that documentary remains unreleased). We’ve already covered his last movie, 2009’s “One More Time”, which is little more than a home movie made for his friends and family, but we’re here to talk about his last “real” directorial work.

“Las Vegas Serial Killer” is a sequel to “The Hollywood Strangler…”, featuring Pierre Agostino returning as Johnathan Klick, who loves killing prostitutes (helpfully illustrated by liberal use of old footage). Even though he died at the end of that movie, he was apparently revived and admitted to the murders, spending 6 years in a Las Vegas jail before…this is pretty stupid to write out, but they never found most of his other victims, apparently, and the helpful radio guy who acts as a narrator for proceedings informs us was probably just lying in order to be famous. The one victim they can pin to him only results in a 2nd degree murder charge, so he’s back out on the streets and ready for more fun.

There’s another plot, running entirely separately (apart from a very brief coming together at the end), which involves two unappealing-looking fellows, sat in a hotel room listening to the radio guy give us the details of Klick’s crimes. This piece of audio is repeated, as are several others, which indicates Steckler ran out of anything approaching a script and hoped we wouldn’t notice. Anyway, they hear about the newly released serial killer and decide that a trip to Vegas is a good idea. Are they people who kill killers? Assassins paid by the families of his victims? Or are the two events entirely unrelated? Those of you who guessed unrelated, give yourselves a pat on the back. There’s even a scene early on where both Klick and the two guys are sat at adjoining tables in a strip club and don’t look at each other, in case you were confused.

When you’ve got over the trauma of the fakest of the fake 80s boobs at the strip club, there’s a scene which was probably just intended to be a party backdrop for Klick’s next murder, but is inadvertently perhaps the sleaziest scene in the entire movie. It’s sad looking topless women and old men in speedos leching on the women, presumably some sort of fake industry party where the women were enticed with the prospect of meeting producers but actually just met ugly old men. That Klick is able to abduct a woman from this party and kill her in full view of everyone (although the voiceover in the next scene tells us he took her to a nearby field, as if he realised how confusing the editing of the scene was) passes as completely normal in this world.

ASIDE: the one good thing about that scene is that it was a birthday for Hollywood superstar Cash Flagg, aka Ray Dennis Steckler himself (it’s his acting pseudonym). I mean, it’s not worth sitting through the scene for, but it’s there.

Steckler realised at some point in the mid 70s that filming sound along with his pictures was unnecessarily expensive, so he just stopped, and got round this by trying as much as possible to not have someone’s mouth in shot when they were speaking. Obviously, it’s weird, but you sort of get used to it after a while.

Things drift along, for a while. Klick keeps murdering women with shocking ease, firstly as a pizza delivery guy, in one case sneaking into a house where a photo shoot is taking place, killing a woman who’d gone to get a soda, then stealing a camera in the confusion – the garden where the shoot is taking place is gross and ugly, but I guess they weren’t expecting people to check the amount of grass on the ground.

Okay, not fun

Seeing the camera gives him an idea, so at about 58 minutes of this 75 minute film, Klick goes back to his old plan from the first movie, calling “photo models” (aka prostitutes) and then killing them, having been unable at any point to just buy a camera. Heck, why do you even need a camera? You’re only going to kill them! He also loves whispering “die, garbage, die” as he’s doing his thing, but I’m not sure I’m buying his plan to just be cleaning up the streets. I think he might be deranged, you guys. The two guys, who keep running into Klick but paying no attention to him, just keep robbing people and hanging round street corners; and the radio news voice keeps repeating the same set of information for both sets of people. It’s odd. The two guys, by the way, wear the same clothes at all times, despite the movie taking place over, at least, a week.

There’s a couple of wider points about this grubby movie that I wanted to share. Firstly, is that none of it is titilating in the slightest. For a man who’d spent the best part of 20 years shooting porn, you’d think he’d have an idea of what turned people on, but this parade of hollow-eyed misery with an occasional bare breast isn’t anyone’s idea of pleasant, surely?

My favourite, though, is the way this serial killer is all over the media, presumably with photos everywhere, as the radio guy mentions both he and the robber pair are suspects in this spate of strangling murders that started as soon as he got out of prison. But, he’s able to walk the streets, get a job in a pizza place, and stand around photographing people without anyone recognising him. He’s pretty distinctive looking!

The last thing, though, is how this movie seems out of time, as by 1986 (the date of this movie’s release) serial killer movies had moved on quite a lot. When you’ve got multiplexes drenched in gore, it seems like a curious choice to make a movie this way, like Steckler wasn’t really paying attention to the wider world. Perhaps some of it was shot in the late 70s and he had to match to the footage he had available?

Klick never seems happy with his work, the murders bringing him no pleasure, or sexual gratification, or anything like that. It’s just something he has to do, like an itch he has to scratch every few days. Nor do they bring we viewers any pleasure, I suppose.

The ending is genuinely pathetic, like he remembered he had two plot threads and brought them together in the clumsiest, most half-assed way possible. Then the credits list a “psychiatric consultant”, and I’d be interested to know what they did on set.

Steckler seemed like a decent guy. He enjoyed meeting his fans, he enjoyed his work and the interview with him shows him to have a good sense of humour about his place in the world (and that his ex-wife continued to work with him after the divorce and has nothing but good to say about him in the more recent interview footage speaks well of him). But he got worse as a filmmaker! I understand budgets were tight, but that doesn’t excuse the layout of this movie, which repeats the same few beats over and over again to avoid coming in at a running time of about 45 minutes (which is all this story needed, honestly). It doesn’t excuse the dialogue or the fact he couldn’t be bothered to record live sound (which even micro-budget filmmakers like Donald Farmer managed, with largely similar equipment). It doesn’t excuse that back in the 60s, he could make a roughly coherent movie with a beginning, middle and end, and now that’s beyond him.

Its main redeeming feature is showing a side of Las Vegas we don’t get to. Not the flashy casinos and high rollers, but the grime and dirt and people living on the fringes and the exploiters and exploited. You may feel like you’ll need a bath after it, and I’m not sure it’s worth the time investment, but there’s something there. There’s an extra layer of sleaze in knowing that all the people he films on the streets of Vegas 100% did not give permission.

Expect more (non-porno) Steckler reviews, although, honestly, I assume most of them are going to be pretty much like this.

Rating: thumbs down

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The Hollywood Strangler Meets The Skid Row Slasher (1979)

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Ray Dennis Steckler may well have disappeared without trace were it not for two groups of people – the Medved brothers, who featured a few of his films in their “Golden Turkey Awards” books; and “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, who did such hilarious work on “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies”. Like fellow auteur Ed Wood Jr, when the normal film work dried up, he wasn’t averse to dabbling in pornography (although Steckler was much more involved in it than Wood was); but unlike Wood, whose films at least made sense and whose inclusion in “worst of all time” lists seems pretty unfair, he was an absolutely awful director.

We’ve already covered Steckler’s last film “One More Time” at the ISCFC – maybe bottom five ever – but this movie was made in 1979, and judging by titles and rudimentary research, is the only non-hardcore porno film he made between 1968’s “Rat Pfink A Boo Boo” and 1986’s “Las Vegas Serial Killer”. Reading recaps of some of Steckler’s other movies is to really understand what “grindhouse” was all about, as even those porno movies have plots, murders and so on. It’s a weird and sleazy world.

Which is a perfect introduction to this movie. Jonathan Click (Pierre Agostino) phones up “models”, starts photographing them and then, usually when they take their top off (I guess they’re prostitutes, but I don’t understand why the movie is so coy about it), strangles them to death. Due to this movie having no live sound – who can afford to record sound at the same time as images? Come on! – we’re treated to his inner monologue as a voiceover, which seems to be about cleaning up the streets, or finding a pure woman, or something. If he was looking for a pure woman, phoning up “nude models” seems to be an odd way to go about it, but who am I to question his process?

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At the same time, an unnamed woman who works in an adult bookshop (Carolyn Brandt, Steckler’s ex-wife, which must have been weird) waits to find homeless men who wander past her shop, then follows them to a dirty alleyway and cuts their throat. No explanation is given as to her actions, and she gets no voiceover. As the title goes, the two of them sort of run into each other a few times, then meet properly…

It’s a cavalcade of fun! The grime of the streets and locations comes through in every frame, and this is one of the most legitimately sleazy films I’ve ever seen. In between scenes, we’ll just get some random footage of people walking about, everything looks broken down and everyone looks vaguely hung over. It definitely provides a real flavour of the side of LA you don’t normally get to see – whether you’d want to see that side or not is by the by.

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Although the Strangler seems to get no pleasure from his actions, he makes a completely off the wall joke at one point – after killing a woman with a pillow, he says “I wonder if she ever saw that movie Pillow Talk?” with a suppressed chuckle. The only character we see from the Slasher is that she likes to run on the beach after doing a murder (echoes of the final scenes of “The Incredibly Strange Creatures…”). In one scene, there’s a poster for the more famous earlier Steckler movie on the wall, which for another director might have been a fun in-joke, but for this one just means he used his own office to film a scene.

This film could have taken 10 minutes and been EXACTLY THE SAME. There’s no development for either character, no consequences to their actions, so it’s just repeated cycles of murder, footage of LA, and the two killers looking at each other, until the end. Oh, plus weird off-key presumably public-domain easy listening music too.

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It’s awful, of course. But in its awfulness comes something interesting – certainly not “so bad it’s good”, but “so bad it’s curious”. It gives a real flavour of a bygone age and manages to be bad in a new way, a tough thing to manage. While I’m not going to recommend it because I like you all, readers, and want you to be happy, I’m certainly not sad I watched it.

Rating: thumbs down