The Thrill Killers (1964)

I have a bottomless affection for the kinds of vintage Z-grade horror pictures that were regionally marketed under different titles depending on what drive-in double bill they were plugged into, like how Shivers is also known as Blood Orgy of the Parasites or The Exotic Ones is also known as The Monster and the Stripper.  Few—if any—of those regional re-brands can compete with the marketing strategy for Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Thrill Killers, though, which was re-released a couple years into its run under the title The Maniacs Are Loose!.  I don’t know if the title change itself was much of an improvement on Steckler’s original vision, but the re-brand also included an incredible theatrical gimmick of William Castle proportions.  The Maniacs Are Loose! opens with a “professional hypnotist” named The Amazing Ormond who puts the audience under a spell so we can hallucinate axe-wielding maniacs stalking our very theater while the movie plays.  The Amazing Ormond’s hypnosis technique involves a red-spiral “hypnodisc” that re-appears throughout the new edit of the film, the only flashes of color in the otherwise cheap-o black & white print (and also a callback to the hypnotic spirals of Steckler’s calling-card film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies).  Whenever that image flashed during screenings of The Maniacs are Loose!, Steckler himself would run around the theater with a prop axe to scare the freaked-out, teenage audience, reprising his onscreen maniac-killer role (under the All-American pseudonym “Cash Flagg”) in the flesh.  Now that‘s entertainment!

Besides helping to pad out its meager 70min runtime, that Criswell Presents-style framing device makes a lot of sense as a cheap way to accentuate The Thrill Killers‘s best qualities.  Steckler is absolutely horrifying as a cold-hearted skinhead killer, looking like a straight edge punk scene prototype for Michael Myers.  As a director, Steckler tries to top the proto-slasher grime of Hitchcock’s Psycho by releasing three violent escapees from “The State Asylum for the Criminally Insane” to stab, shoot, and decapitate the citizens of Los Angeles at random, just for the thrill of it.  All three of the main killers are intimidating brutes but are so generic in their menace that you remember them by their weapon of choice rather than their character names: Knife, Gun, and Axe.  Steckler himself makes the biggest impression as Scissors, the gang’s rogue, wordless accomplice who mostly operates outside the main plot until its action-packed finale (which oddly shifts away from cutting-edge horror to Old Hollywood Western territory).  As a whole, The Thrill Killers is sloppy & sluggish but impressively mean as a cheap echo of Psycho in an urban setting.  It’s a decent genre picture but doesn’t offer much that you couldn’t find better executed in The Honeymoon Killers, Spider Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even smutty roughies like She Mob.  The one major exception is Steckler’s deeply creepy performance as one of the on-the-loose maniacs, and I imagine seeing him emerge in the flesh during his kill scenes only heightened that terror (despite the goofy novelty of the hypnodisc gimmick).

The theatrical gimmickry of The Thrill Killers‘s maniacs-on-the-loose rebrand not only accentuated Ray Dennis Steckler’s terrifying performance, but it also accentuates his adorable enthusiasm for filmmaking as a profession.  For all its decapitations & stabbings, the most shocking aspect of the film is how much of it is directly about the self-fulfilling joy of making bad movies.  Its maniacs are specifically on the loose in Hollywood, California, allowing Steckler plenty of room for metatextual jokes & jabs at the expense of his own drive to make movies that no one else really cares about.  The film’s square-jawed hero is a failed actor whose slow path to success is testing his wife’s patience & his own sanity, so that an omniscient, Ed Woodian narrator can explain how years of trying to “make it” in the film industry can destroy your relationships with family & reality.  There’s some obvious frustration in Steckler’s dialogue about the unrelenting “hunger to be a movie star” and Hollywood’s function as “the world of non-reality”, but he stops short of suggesting that the killer maniacs on the loose are all failed actors who never quite made it in the industry.  By the end of the film, it’s clear that he has way too much fun making his dime store genre pictures to disparage the industry that way.  And if even if it weren’t clear then, it must’ve been clear when he traveled with a print of the film, dressed in-character, waving around a prop axe to scare local crowds in-person.  The Thrill Killers itself is only a moderate delight as a sickly, sloppy proto-slasher, but Ray Dennis Steckler’s enthusiasm on both sides of the camera is so infectious that I can’t help but be charmed by it (especially in the loose-maniacs version).

-Brandon Ledet

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