Wild Guitar &
The Choppers

Wild Guitar. Year: 1962. Directed by Ray Dennis Steckler. Starring Arch Hall Jr., Nancy Czar, Cash Flagg, Marie Denn, and Arch Hall Sr. The Choppers. Year: 1961. Directed by Leigh Jason. Starring Arch Hall Jr., Bruno Ve Sota, Robert Paget, Marianne Gaba, and Arch Hall Sr.
DVD release: Something Weird Video

Review by Derek Hill

When one thinks of independent filmmakers rarely do the names Ray Dennis Steckler, Russ Meyer, Jess Franco, H.G. Lewis, Doris Wishman, Ted V. Mikels, Al Adamson and Andy Milligan (to mention only a few) arise. If the conversation does stray into the morass of independent psychotronic filmmaking maybe, maybe people like Ed Wood Jr. or Russ Meyer may turn up. But usually they'll be relegated to the sideline of the conversation, a footnote to the more serious matters at hand. They are names to be dropped to appear hip and cool, but God forbid we actually take them seriously as filmmakers.

Okay, perhaps taking these cinematic odes of Trash Culture "seriously" is stretching it. Call them trash cinema, psychotronic, b-movies, cult or just plain bad, these films are windows into the surreal underbelly of American pop culture. As with the classic period of film noir -- which exposed the seething darkness beneath the American post-WW II dream -- these neglected indie-productions also exposed a skewed worldview antithetical to the status quo. Today, these types of films are still around (straight-to-video fodder and the like), and directors such as John Waters still fly the flag of sleaze proudly. But it just isn't the same. Only the real deal can satiate the savage, unrepentant trash culture beast.

Fermenting in the shadow of the Hollywood movie machine (he was originally from Reading, PA), filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler came to the land of tinsel and broken dreams working on numerous low budget productions as a cameraman before getting a chance to direct his first feature, Wild Guitar.

Steckler's movies are unlike anything you've ever seen before. Made fast and cheap (The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies was filmed in eleven days and cost roughly $38,000, his biggest budget ever!), Steckler infuses his productions with wit, anarchy (he rarely worked from a finished script), and a carny-like desire to keep the viewer watching. His movies have been vilified by film critics over the years as excruciating tests of endurance because of their supposed lack of technical skill, bad acting, and continuity errors (just to name a few things). But this kind of reactionary film criticism never takes into account (and this pertains to all trash culture films) that, to paraphrase Aldous Huxley: A "bad" film is just as much a labor to make as a "good" one.

Wild Guitar is ostensibly a story about a young naïve kid (named Bud Eagle) from the "sticks" who comes to Hollywood to make it big as a rock 'n' roll singer. As played by Arch Hall Jr., Bud is almost too stupid to be true. With his white pompadour and pug-nosed hayseed looks (which would later be utilized to great effect in 1963's The Sadist), Bud is the archetypal fifties vulnerable rebel, although he's pretty white bread to be considered a rebel in the James Dean or Marlon Brando mold. Hell, even Montgomery Cliff is tougher than poor Bud Eagle. Probably the closest approximation would be Val Kilmer from the film Top Secret! (1984), wherein Kilmer played a dumber-than-dumb rock 'n' roll crooner who got involved in a Cold War spy plot. Bud unfortunately gets involved with a scummy music promoter named Mike McCauley (played by Hall Jr.'s real-life father) and his shady assistant Stake, played by Steckler himself (billed as Cash Flagg).

Arch Hall Sr., the brains behind this little shindig of a movie, is probably best known as the director of other Trash Culture epics such as Eegah! (1963) and The Choppers (1961), and he produced the previously-mentioned The Sadist under the name of "Nicholas Merriwether." Before he started making pictures, Hall Sr. was also a test pilot. His life story during that time was eventually turned into a movie scripted by Jack Webb titled The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961) and starring Robert Mitchum as the future elder statesman of b-movies himself.

As with The Choppers, Wild Guitar was meant as a star vehicle for Junior to sing his silly songs, comb his hair, and woo the girl. But the film does have more going on than just that. Hall Sr. is great as the sleazy, manipulative mogul, and Steckler's turn as the droll, twitchy henchman is likewise memorable.

The film also has a rather acidic bite to it, as it uncovers the subtle and not-so-subtle compromises one must deal with if you want to be a star. The film also boasts some deliriously strange musical numbers by Junior, including a stage-bound show stopper with a dancing Carolyn Brandt (Steckler's real-life wife) whirling around the crooning singer. Wild Guitar also includes a fabulous scene where Stake (under the guidance of Mr. McCauley) brings a voluptuous stripper to Bud, in the hope that he'll eventually leave his girlfriend who has too much of an influence on the young singer. Much of the film deals with how Bud has to surrender all of his connections to his life before he became a star. McCauley controls not only the songs Bud has to sing, but he also tells his protégé what to wear, what to eat, when to sleep, and who to hang out with. Bud is a virtual slave under McCauley. But if Bud wants to remain a star, then he'll just have to play the game.

The Choppers, which was made a year before Wild Guitar, is a far more single-minded affair. Directed by Leigh Jason and written/produced/starring Arch Hall Sr. (with Junior trailing not far behind), The Choppers is a JD film with the heart of a moralist. Chronicling the exploits of a gang of over-achieving "choppers" who strip and sell automobile parts to a local shady auto-parts dealer (played by the always reliable and scummy Bruno VeSota), the film is thoroughly entertaining and suspenseful. Junior plays the mastermind of the gang -- a hot rod driving punk who doesn't know when to call it a day. Arch Hall Sr. plays a local news reporter who just can't understand why the greatest minds of their generation are stealing auto parts. Ah, the humanity!

The film is exactly what it is -- a fast-paced gearhead teenage-rebellion picture, with some rather shaky moralizing and even shakier script (the police detective, who is investigating the rash of car strippings, cracks the case thanks to a chicken feather found at each crime scene).

At the end of the day, though, neither one of these combustible cool-cat films will ever win any "prestigious" awards. They're trash, no doubt about it. But they're our trash, and that's all that matters at the end of the day. The folks at Something Weird Video (a company that has done more than its fair share of keeping the sweaty memories of exploitation films alive and kicking) have paired these two features onto one disc, making it a great double-feature treat for a night in front of the tube. The prints for both films look great (way better than they should) and the soundtracks are suitably mono. Also included on the disc are numerous theatrical trailers to other sleaze classics (including a hilarious one for Rat Fink), three lengthy featurettes covering the Dance Craze, the Twist Craze, and one dealing with the horrible injustice of car chopping, entitled appropriately enough, Hot Car. A cool gallery of trash film art and radio spots is also included on the disc. So what are you waiting for? Go man, go!

Wild Guitar & The Choppers are available on a double-feature DVD from Something Weird Video. Special features: two Twist-O-Mania short subjects -- "Dance Craze" and "Twist Craze"; Anti-Choppers Police Science short subject; trailers for The Beatniks, Married Too Young, Rat Fink, Teenage Zombies, Wild Love, and Wild Ones on Wheels; and a gallery of Trash-O-Rama exploitation art, with radio spot recordings. Suggested retail price: $24.99.