‘So, I belong with the freaks, huh? I’ll fix you so even the freaks won’t look at you.’
Slacker Jerry takes his girl to the local carnival, with his best friend along for the ride. She wants to have her fortune told by the mysterious Madame Estrella but the trio get more than they bargained for when they visit her tent. Estrella likes nothing better than disfiguring people with acid, a bit of hypnotism and random murder…
A legend in the world of bad film, due in no small part to its amazing title. The story goes that it was originally titled ‘The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie’ (which makes a bit more sense) but Columbia Pictures threatened to sue because it was too similar to ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964). Producer/Director Ray Dennis Steckler always maintained that he defused the situation by agreeing the new title with Stanley Kubrick personally!
This is zero budget filmmaking at its finest. On the plus side, we actually have some decent shot framing and camera moves, although when our heroes have their fortunes told, the edit makes it look like they’re playing musical chairs. What technical expertise is on display, though, is no doubt down to camera operator William Zsigmond and assistant Leslie Kovacs. Some quick name changes later and Vilmos Zsigmond was winning the cinematography Oscar for ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) and getting nominated for ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1979), while László Kovács was doing principal photography for Scorsese’s ‘New, New York’ (1977) and ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984) among many others.
Sadly, that level of professionalism isn’t evident anywhere else in the film. Brett O’Hara usually worked as a stand-in for Susan Hayward and her scenery-chewing performance as Madame Estrella is her only ‘major’ acting credit. Worse still, the rest of the cast are hopelessly stilted, sucking all the life from the bland, unrealistic dialogue. Jerry, our ‘hero in a hoodie’ is played by producer/director Steckler, acting under the name ‘Cash Flagg’ (one of his 18 pseudonyms!) His performance doesn’t seem too bad at first (at least in this company), but being hypnotised by the fortune teller turns him into one of the worst actors in cinema history. Heroine Sharon Walsh was picked out of the chorus when original lead Bonita Jade refused to film her first scene because she wanted to go and meet her boyfriend. If you look closely, you can see Walsh in some of the musical numbers. When she was promoted to leading lady, they simply changed her hairstyle.
Ah, yes, and that brings us to the musical numbers. That’s what sets this one apart. The film is set on the midway so we get lots of scenes from the carnival’s ‘Girlie Show’ as well as resident nightclub ‘The Hungry Mouth’. The club segments feature the lamest compere/stand up ever (‘When me and my wife argue, there are two sides: hers and her mothers’), some drippy ballads and the director’s wife (Carolyn Brandt) as an alcoholic dancer. It also brings us what is arguably the ‘highlight’ of the whole picture: Don Synder and his guitar – you have been warned. The ‘Girlie Show’ is almost a relief after that; a series of inept ‘big’ dance routines, apparently shot in one day. It’s not hard to believe.
We also get a brilliantly random and pointless dream sequence, where Steckler is doubled by another cast member with his face painted. It’s so badly done that, at first, I didn’t even realise it was supposed to be him. Estrella has a weird sidekick whose identity is hidden under some bizarre hairy makeup for reasons never explained and the climax on the beach seems to go on for at least a week. Several cast members don rubber makeup to play the monsters in the shocking finale.
My only other previous exposure to Steckler’s work was superhero ‘comedy’ ‘Rat Pfink A Boo Boo’ (1966), a film he was shooting in sequence as a straight thriller, until he got bored halfway through. His solution? To have two of the characters leap into a closet and come out in capes and tights.
In later years, he gave the world ‘The Horny Vampire’ (1971) and ‘The Sexorcist’ (1974) (possibly the greatest movie title in history).