Monday, December 13, 2021

"I Wonder If She Saw That Movie Pillow Talk" - The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1980) - Film #219

While we have already appreciated the creepy, minimalist Blood Shack (1971), the cinema of Ray Dennis Steckler includes so many gems it is impossible not to turn our attention back to his oeuvre, which also includes the Steckler-adjacent films Angel of Vengeance (1987) and Blood Frenzy (also 1987). Let us now turn to one of his horror films with an unusually long name, The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1980), a film that combines the two primary genres favored by Mr. Steckler, horror and sexploitation.

Some of your universe's critics are not keen on Mr. Steckler's body of work. For example, the respected critic R0SK0 writes, "This is probably by far the worst movie I have ever seen. I'm not even going to pretend that I enjoyed watching this piece of trash. This is quite possibly the worst movie ever made." Reviewer MartinHafer writes, "A terrible film in every way....It's just nasty and stupid--a rare combination." And reviewer acidburn-10 writes, "Stay well clear it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth and only seek out if you have to." I would add to Mr. Acidburn's review that even if you don't "have to" seek out Mr. Steckler's film, you would be well advised to do so.

Read on for the truth about The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher...

The film begins in a small bungalow in Hollywood where a woman wearing short shorts and an open shirt with no bra switches on a record player. A man photographs her, and she offers to pleasure him for thirty dollars. We hear the man’s thoughts in voiceover, as he perhaps misinterprets her offer: “She wants it. They all want it. They like it. She wants me to do it to her.”

(It must be noted that the filmmakers make the artistic choice to have all dialogue in the film, most of which is the main character’s thoughts, post-dubbed.)

When she gets close to him and asks, “Doesn’t my body turn you on?” he strangles her, apparently having misinterpreted what she wanted him to do to her. The strangulation is disturbing and takes a long time, and it is made more disturbing by her protestations to stop, protestations that don’t match her lip movements.

Meanwhile, in a typical scene at the beach, a warmly dressed red-haired woman (played by Carolyn Brandt, Mrs. Ray Dennis Steckler) watches a scuba diver walk along the sand.

As Mr. Strangler sets up a photo/strangulation session with another “model,” he thinks, “They try to act so cool and different, but I can tell. Marsha tried to act that way when she told me they were just photo sessions. Photo sessions. Yeah. Just photo sessions.” These thoughts are audible over shots of hollywood where middle-aged and elderly men walk along the streets wearing hats of different kinds.

He walks to his appointment, located in a motel, where the model adjusts her set of studio lights. The Strangler thinks, “I know all about the lights. It’s just a cover, just a phony, dirty cover to get money.” Apparently, prostitutes hide their phony, dirty business by posing as photographer’s models and then charging what must be exorbitant prices for sex. As the latest model entices The Strangler by saying, “Nice little shot of my buttocks,” he realizes she is teasing him. He pushes her down on the couch and strangles her. “I’ll stop her teasing like I stopped Marsha’s teasing.”

Then he returns home to his apartment, where he keeps both pigeons and dogs, as well as a large collection of pornographic magazines.

Later, the film follows a hobo as he makes people in a Hollywood used bookstore uncomfortable. We see Mr. Strangler watch through the bookstore’s front window as the red-haired woman from the beach, who runs the bookstore, tell the hobo to get lost. Mr. Strangler thinks, “That girl behind the counter. Maybe she’s different. Maybe. Maybe.”

He enters the store, walking past a cardboard vending machine promising fresh, tasty snacks, though all its windows are empty.

He says nothing, makes a young woman uncomfortable, then leaves the bookstore and continues to stare at the red-haired woman through the front window before she stares back at him. Frustrated but intrigued by the woman, Mr. Strangler stands outside a pornographic theatre displaying a poster for Deep Throat (1972) (a prostitute passing by mumbles, “I can outdo Linda Lovelace anytime”) and watches the red-haired woman walk past.

Seconds later, the bum from the bookstore is graphically stabbed in the throat with a switchblade!

The next day, Mr. Strangler strolls through vintage 1980 Hollywood before setting up another photo session with two prostitutes whose apartment walls are decorated with one-sheets for Ray Dennis Steckler’s x-rated filmed Teenage Massage Parlor (1976) and Teenage Hustler (1976). He photographs the two young women, then, while the other takes a shower, he strangles one of the prostitutes, ironically with her own scarf.

In the film’s most disturbing shot, the young woman taking a shower opens her mouth to the shower stream and spits the water out. In a much less disturbing scene, the strangler enters her bedroom and asphyxiates her with a pillow while thinking, “I wonder if she saw that movie, Pillow Talk?”

At night, another hobo enters the used bookstore, does nothing, turns around, and walks outside while the red-haired woman stares at him. He stumbles past the pornographic theatre and climbs the staircase of a motel, where he passes out…and then is stabbed by the Skid Row Slasher, shockingly revealed to be the red-haired woman!

The next morning, Ms. Slasher runs along the beach in a carefree way.

Meanwhile, Mr. Strangler continues to search for “someone pure, caring like Marsha…was” while he feeds his  pigeons. Continuing his pattern, he photographs a topless young woman in a backyard pool who has the poor judgment to slip into the jacuzzi wearing denim shorts. Of course, he strangles her to death with her discarded bikini top.

Later, he follows Ms. Slasher as she strolls through Chinatown, having closed and locker her bookstore in the middle of the day, but Mr. Strangler is distracted by a young woman parking her Trans Am in a parking lot. This stalking sequence allows the filmmakers to assemble one of the films most strikingly artistic shots as the woman carries groceries through a parking lot in an uninterrupted long shot.

 Unfortunately for the young woman, Mr. Strangler is hiding in the back seat of her convertible Trans Am and he strangles her when she gets into the car, having not seen him for unexplained reasons.

Mr. Strangler enters the bookstore again and stares at Ms. Slasher, who stares back at him. Perhaps they recognize a kindred spirit in each other. Perhaps not. He leaves without saying a word.

At night, Mr. Strangler visits Plato’s Retreat West (a swingers’ club that existed for only 6 months in Los Angeles in 1979, about which Mr. Steckler made another x-rated film), where a topless roller skating party is in full swing.

Back at the used bookstore, Ms. Slasher locks up (yet again) at night and encounters a hobo (yet again) stumbling along the street. She slashes his throat in an alley behind a dry cleaner’s shop, then waits until morning and runs along the beach again. The film continues its pattern, following the Strangler as he assaults topless prostitutes (at one point he thinks, “Too bad I don’t have film in my camera. I’d really take her picture.”) and the Slasher as she opens up and locks her bookstore (and occasionally slashes hoboes), intercutting these activities with shots of Hollywood in 1979 that includes men crossing streets, women crossing streets, and a line of men and women walking down the sidewalk while reading books at the same time. Voiceover and dialogue vanish for a while as the Stranger follows the Slasher around the city.

(In perhaps the film’s most nostalgic look at 1979 Hollywood, Ms. Slasher walks down a street past a Sizzler, a Taco Bell, and the shop Occult Supplies.)

Eventually, the Strangler enters the bookstore, where the Slasher is in the back room, which is duly decorated as some kind of sex dungeon. He locks the door and goes to the back room, where the man and the woman eye each other warily. Then he decides she is a tease like all the other women, so he tries to strangle her, while she pulls her switchblade out and stabs him. In a moment of cinematic parallelism, the two kill each other in the back of the store, dying as they lived (next to a vintage Peanuts wastebasket). 

The End

In terms of narrative, The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher demonstrates Ray Dennis Steckler's interest in minimalist horror instead of the tired tropes to which some of his contemporaries fell victim, such as the investigative procedures of the police. In Mr. Steckler's world, the police do not even exist. Similarly, the press shows no interest in the nightly behavior of two serial killers who stalk nightly the same few blocks of Hollywood, murdering hoboes and prostitutes in parallel fashion. Perhaps Mr. Steckler's narrative is a comment on the tragic disposability of human beings lured to Hollywood for its glamour (rarely glimpsed in this film) but forced to sell their bodies or drink their cares away as homeless vagrants. The long title of the film suggests Mr. Steckler believes Hollywood and Skid Row are in reality the same place, a flat gray world of sidewalks and traffic lights and fast-food joints where nobody cares who lives and who dies. The bleak double-murder ending (somewhat reversed in the sequel, about which more to come...) reinforces Mr. Steckler's nihilism. In Hollywood, even a man and a woman who live near each other and share similar interests cannot understand each other, or even speak to each other. They are only able to slaughter each other in front of a porn theatre.

In addition to showcasing Mr. Steckler's nihilism (not to mention his strong visual style), however, the film is an invaluable document of Los Angeles in 1979, featuring shots of Olvera Street, Chinatown, and Hollywood as they existed in that year alone, particularly with the historic depiction of Plato's Retreat West. The dozens (perhaps hundreds) of shots of real people (mostly old men in hats) crossing streets and walking along sidewalks are priceless historical records. If he were to be remembered for one thing (and he will be remembered for many things), Ray Dennis Steckler should be lionized for his unparalleled contributions to history.