Spending a few minutes with The Thrill Killers is like leafing through a vintage copy of Monster World in your parents’ attic, watching an old VHS of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and firing up the turntable to hear Jessie Crawford’s Pipe Organ Magic in hi-fi just one more time.
Certain relics of decades past have the power to instantly smother you in warm escapism. They’re able to relay an exact feeling, whether it be shared by millions or something that triggers a sentiment in your mind only. When that happens, we know it, and our day is easily made. Case in point: the early films of Ray Dennis Steckler. In my mind, no other director captures the raw enthusiasm of back alley Hollywood filmmaking during the early 1960s. No budgets, no hidden agendas, and no posturing. This is grabbing a Bolex, hitting the (sometimes) sordid streets of Tinseltown, and exercising a true love for the art of creating weirdo films. You can feel it in every manic shot. The fact that Steckler’s first five films were created during the years 1962-1966 only seals the deal. No other group of genre films represents the inherent coolness of the early 60s with such success. Need an example? I’m glad you asked.
Equally intense, humorous, and shocking, The Thrill Killers does the impossible. While radiating innocent charm through its use of bongos and small scale sets, the film pulls off a feat which very few horror films from this era can still accomplish: it’s unsettling. Couple that with a gimmick-spiked theatrical run (“Hypno-Vision! The maniacs are loose in the audience!”) and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be grinning from ear to ear.
“Hollywood, California. Joe Saxon, one of many caught in the web of non-reality…non-reality,” so states our narrator (perhaps Steckler cohort Coleman Francis, replicating the surreal narration he provided in his own Beast of Yucca Flats). The mood is set. Joe Saxon is trying to make it in Hollywood, living the life of a movie star without actually landing roles. His wife Liz (Liz Renay, fresh out of jail in real life) is growing tired of the debt and facade. Meanwhile, a bald, motiveless killer named Glick (Cash Flagg aka Steckler) has been leaving a trail of dead prostitutes and businessmen all over Hollywood. A radio broadcast informs us that three lunatics have escaped from an asylum. A woman (Steckler’s then-wife, Carolyn Brandt) and her husband begin to inspect a new house they’ve just purchased. Suspecting that something is amiss, they proceed to investigate the dilapidated apartment in the backyard. Everyone crosses paths. Things get ferocious.
The plot sounds a little straight forward. And yes, the film tends to drag a bit during the climactic chase scene on horseback. The upside is that any surface-level critique is completely overshadowed by the film’s dark tone and quirky nature. Approaching roughie territory, the kill scenes are explicit and dynamic, filled with odd angles, plays on light, and claustrophobia. The performances range from possessed (Steckler) to pedestrian (Renay) to real life (cameos from Arch Hall, Sr. and Steckler’s producer George Morgan playing themselves), making for an odd mishmash of varying tones. In addition to the opening narration, Ray also peppers the film with plenty of odd touches: a strange opening title card, numerous anti-Hollywood sentiments (foreshadowing the director’s later frustration within the system), a reliance on transistor radio messages to forward the plot, and a truly out-of-context ending. The capper? Steckler’s always sophisticated camera work, helped out by cinematographer Joseph Miscelli (director of the backyard classic Monstrosity aka The Atomic Brain), has never been more polished or appropriate.
As the end credits revealed the too-good-to-be-true names of various Morgan-Steckler stock players (Atlas King, Titus Moede, Brick Bardo), I realized that The Thrill Killers stands for much more than a typical horror film from 1964. Eccentricities have never been so finely tuned; the aura of dirt cheap, yet highly talented, black-and-white filmmaking has never been so concentrated.
The Thrill Killers is more than a simple shock film. It’s a portal into 1964 and a celebration of what makes vintage, low budget horror movies so endearing and comforting.