Rat Pfink a Boo Boo  (1966)NR

CapeTentHalf a tent


Sometimes you get tired of blockbusters and need an alternative — some independent cinema. And not the fake pseudo-independent Sundance bait that gets sold by side offices of the major studios, but some real outsider art.

Nowadays, it’s pretty easy for anyone with a good idea to make an entertaining film with almost no money. But back in the sixties, it was tough. There were some who managed it, though — guys who could make Ed Wood look like a big-time Hollywood insider. One such man was Ray Dennis Steckler. Getting his start working for Arch Hall Sr. making vehicles for Arch Hall Jr. (fondly known to B fans as “Cabbage-Patch Elvis”), Steckler made his debut as an auteur with The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies!?? (1964), a very cheap and incoherent horror film which he “distributed” by personally touring the country with it, showing it in single theaters and regularly changing the title to make it sound new.

In 1966, Batman was big on TV and heading to the big screen. Steckler got the bright idea to make a timely Batman spoof. And he showed his true brilliance as a crapiste in how he made sure that it would be timely. Where lesser men would have just hurried through their current work in order to do the spoof as their next project, he decided to make his spoof out of the movie he was already shooting. The Depraved was to be a crime movie, so just add a crimefighter, and nothing goes to waste. Brilliant!

One small issue was that the spoof parts would be extremely broad and silly, but the existing crime footage was completely grim and humorless. (It was inspired by harrassment that Ray’s wife, actress Carolyn Brandt (not to be confused with the photographer), was undergoing at the time.) This would be bound to create some very jarring tonal shifts in the resulting film. But no worries — it’s gonna be a genre bender even without gag crinefighters, because it’s also a rock-n-roll party movie! We’ve got several soon-to-be-hit songs courtesy of various artists, including three by Ron Haydock, who plays Lonnie Lord under the screen name “Vin Saxon”. (He is also credited with helping invent the Rat Pfink and Boo Boo characters. He and Steckler would be creative partners for more than a decade.)

So take that, Joss Whedon — Ray Steckler mastered the art of the genre mashup when you were in diapers. Mixed-Up Zombies was, in fact, the first ever horror musical, beating The Horror of Party Beach by one month. (It was also the first credit of the great cinematographer László Kovács.)

So our film opens cold with an extended scene of three laughing hoodlums chasing a woman through dark alleys, where they throttle her with a steel chain just to get her purse. Then after the titles (which features a surf tune with some very tasty bottleneck-slide guitar playing, apparently performed by Ron Haydock’s band), we suddenly forget all about that to meet rocknroll star Lonnie Lord, signing autographs on Hollywood Blvd. Then it’s a montage of him and his girl, Cee Bee Beaumont (played by Mrs. Steckler, who is an hottie, and not untalented at acting), running around a park having fun. This accompanies Lonnie’s hit song “Runnin’ Wild”, which is catchy, but in a style about ten years out of date.

The trouble arises when our three hoodlums pick Cee Bee’s name at random out of the phone book. After a campaign of escalating intimidation (during which we get one more Lonnie Lord song: “You Is a Rat Fink”), they discover who she’s connected to, and kidnap her! In the process, they beat up her gardener, Titus. Who’s going to come to her rescue? That’s where our titular heroes come in, natch.

And they come in from completely out of the blue.  The film (which is under 70 minutes long, and at that is heavily padded) is more than half over before it gives the least hint that any such thing as superhero crimefighters, goofy or otherwise, exist within it. 

And who are the secret identities of Rat Pfink and Boo Boo? Lonnie and Titus, of course. But before that, as Lonnie and Titus wait by the phone for the ransom demand, with Titus icing his head, Lonnie whups out a song: “I Stand Alone”. Which is the third song in a row, I notice, that’s throwing angry accusations at the woman in the songwriter’s life — not at all a good fit for our story.

Speaking of what’s not a good fit, the sudden shift from serious crime drama to slapstick spoof must have given the original audiences quite a feeling of whiplash. One imagines people’s heads making a noise like grinding gears when trying to follow such an abrupt shift.

Once our heroes are becostumed, their trusty sidecar motorcycle whisks them to the ransom drop site. (Rat Pfink rides in the sidecar, standing up. Because that way he can strike a heroic pose. (DO NOT try this at home: remember what happened to Indian Larry.)) They track the hoods to the house where they’ve got Cee Bee, and — big fight! In which Boo Boo is so useless (or the villains are so tough, whatever) that two of them get away, still in posession of their hostage. A chase leads into the hills, and another fight... but it’s here that Rat Pfink and Boo Boo will face their greatest challenge:

One of Ray Steckler’s acquaintences was a guy named Bob Burns, a maestro of the gorilla suit. He had his own custom suit, and when wearing it was known as Kogar. (In a later film, Steckler credited him as “Kogar, the Swinging Ape”.) And Burns thought it would be cool to be in the movie. What did Steckler do? In the immortal words of Carolyn Brandt,

“Ray couldn’t pass up a free gorilla.”

Bob Burns went on to be the curator of one of the world’s greatest collections of authentic movie props. Ray Dennis Steckler went on to eke out a scant living shooting low-grade softcore porn. But for a brief time, their destinies were united for a single glorious purpose.

While all the other interested parties are occupied with punching each other in the face, the escaped Kogar walks right up to Cee Bee and carries her off! Rat Pfink must face the mighty beast without even Boo Boo’s help. How does that confrontation turn out? Not the way you expect — I can say that much.

That leaves time for one last song: “Go Go Party”. This one, at least, has an entirely positive theme. Hm, it had different writers. The other three Lonnie Lord tunes are all Haydock’s.

This is a very very very cheap film. It was shot in 16mm black&white on a single windup camera that could only run for 30 seconds at a time, with sound added later (by Keith Wester, who went on to get multiple Oscar nominations for audio on films like Air Force One and The Perfect Storm). Steckler says that when they began shooting, their liquid funds were down to twenty dollars. Getting a few clothes at Sears to make costumes out of counted as a significant production expense. Carolyn Brandt had to divide her time between co-starring and doing whatever menial tasks nobody else was doing. (Decades after their divorce, Steckler would still speak of her with the highest of praise and gratitude. Apparently they remained good friends, and she made appearances in his films as late as 2003.)

One open question is why it’s called Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, instead of Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. Ray says it’s because he heard one of his small daughters (they had twins) chanting “rat fink a boo boo, rat fink a boo boo”, and just thought it sounded cool. But he may be an unreliable narrator — truths have been known to stretch in his general vicinity. The other widespread story is that the title animator got it wrong and they couldn't pay $50 to fix it. There’s no concrete evidence either way, so believe whatever you prefer. I will just note that when Steckler talked about the film in his later years, he would pronounce the “and”.

So, is this a diamond in the rough — a piece of art which transcends its humble origins? Hell no. It’s mostly just as terrible as it sounds. Some bits, like the serious crime footage, are well done when taken out of context — the three thugs are genuinely frightening when they go after someone, for instance — but the other bits around the good parts are as lame as can be. Many of the performers are actors in name only, the jokes in the spoof section are completely weak and lame, the fights are pathetic, it’s slow and every scene drags on too long. It deserves its reputation as a film of epic badness.

But it’s bad in such a cute and fun way that I kind of adore it. What is it that separates good bad movies from bad bad movies — the quality that makes some live on for decades as cult films while others are deservedly forgotten? Sometimes, that quality is the hilarious imeptitude with which a film utterly fails to be what it’s trying to be... but not always. No matter how lacking this movie may be in many areas, it is no failure. It is what it sets out to be. There is some other mysterious quality that creates good badness, and whatever that is, this film has got plenty of it. It may be Steckler’s sloppiest work, but it may also be his best. If you’re a bad-film fan, this is definitely recommended. Ignore the cape and tent ratings — as I have defined them, they can’t capture what makes this, for the right audience, a joy to watch.