Spookshow Sideshows: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)
Many films that deal with carnivals and amusement parks—which have the word “amusement” right there in the name—will eventually run into the Paradox of Hedonism, the idea that the pursuit of pleasure is ultimately counterproductive, leading to less enjoyment than is found in more selfless or productive activities, and even a sense of emptiness.
This theme increases in cultural relevance during the midcentury time period, when the United States grew richer, and the average person began to enjoy unprecedented amounts of physical comfort, spending money, and free time, all of which led to a material culture that many have taken for granted. These factors elevated the importance of entertainment, as the desire to escape from reality and normalcy, with its work ethic and need for respectability, developed into a far-ranging money-making industry, and an important medium for transmitting society’s ideas about itself.
Directed by Ray Dennis Steckler, who also stars under the pseudonym Cash Flagg, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies depicts some of the drawbacks of a hedonistic culture. The film begins with the contrast of an amusement park looking inevitably bleak by day but alluring in the neon-lit night, and its menacing aspect is immediately revealed, as a fortuneteller uses an apparently acidic potion to turn anyone she doesn’t like into the “strange creatures” of the title.
A scene-setting panorama of the amusement park’s arcades, cafes, and games abrupt shifts to a shabby apartment where two bachelors, rebellious Jerry and his good-natured, heavily-accented buddy Harold, discuss Jerry’s problems with his girlfriend.
“Her mother doesn’t like anything. Especially me.”
“Well, if you get a job or something, she might change her mind, you know?”
Jerry, openly contemptuous of the idea, responds with a thesis statement for life that could apply to much of the developing 1960s youth culture: “Why? The world’s here to be enjoyed, not to make you depressed. That’s what work does … It makes you feel depressed.”
This central conflict is immediately advanced at girlfriend Angie’s suburban home, where she’s turning down a date with someone who isn’t as “fun” and “exciting” as Jerry, even though her mother (rightly) sees there’s no future in it. He arrives to pick up her up, and when asked about college, smugly says “The world’s my college.” Angie, with a nice home and a comfortable middle-class life, is drawn to Jerry’s aimless, vaguely philosophical qualities. His life, focused on leisure and pleasure, represents a sense of freedom, and a diversion for her from the path that leads to a stodgy, boring life of domesticity.
For Jerry, a figure created for restless, anti-authoritarian youth to identify with (according to an interview with Steckler on the Guilty Pleasures DVD), the nearness of the amusement park fits in with his passively rebellious rejection of work, college, and the approval of the older generation, and that’s where he takes Angie directly from her straight-laced suburban environment.
There’s more impressive footage of the park and its rides, including first-person views of the rollercoaster, as the young people light-heartedly explore the locale. This sequence depicts the positive side of entertainment: the characters are truly having fun, and if they’d only known when to stop, they’d have avoided pain and tragedy. Instead, their day of pleasure, in a world “here to be enjoyed,” is extended into the nighttime, when the misrule grows darker.
Behind the curtain of what the customers see, a subplot follows dancer Marge, played by Steckler’s wife, Carolyn Brandt. Fearfulness and paranoia have led her to drink, so she stumbles, screwing up her act, although the audience doesn’t seem to enjoy it any less. She is compelled to visit Madame Estrella, the murderous fortuneteller; stating that “I only know that something evil lies ahead for me,” she seeks answers to her sense of impending doom, After turning up the ominous Ace of Spades in her reading, she runs right into a closet full of monsters, then out the door, just as the young people are going in to get their fortunes told. She never tells anyone about this experience, but instead resigns herself to her unlucky fate.
“Sometimes the crystal sees things it is better that we do not know,” Estrella tells Angie.
The amusement park as seen in Incredibly Strange Creatures hearkens back to the era before the rise of Disneyland, which is everywhere identified with a sanitizing effect. Historian Lauren Rabinovitz refers to the role of vice—more adult, illicit forms of hedonism—in luring customers to their attractions in the pre-Disney age. The newer versions “ have eliminated many of the defining features of the turn-of-the-century electric park—its entertainments and audiences who breached social and sexual mores, its more vulgar attractions of gambling and drinking, its enthusiasm for defining the exotic and the sensational, its excessive visual spectacle” (from Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity, p. 172).
This element of enticing seediness is on prominent display in Steckler’s film, with montages that highlight the presence of cocktail lounges, and a lot of time is spent at the girl show, symbolically named the Garden of Eden, which becomes the site of conflict between the young couple. When Jerry is strongly attracted to the girl show and its featured dancer, Angie shows her backbone by refusing to join him.
At this pivotal point, the young woman realizes her mother may be right. Seeing her boyfriend fascinated with a stripper leads to questions about the future of their relationship. For the young man, her concerns represent a push into a committed relationship, a path that could lead to adult responsibility, opposed to the kind of liberty he has as a bachelor to go to all the strip shows he wants.
Jerry’s desire to visit the Garden of Eden is almost a compulsion, much the way Marge was drawn to the fortuneteller. In a world given over to the pursuit of freedom, they are victims of their unconscious impulses, and follow them right into danger. As he becomes a “Mixed-Up Zombie,” his situation is similar to those in exploitation scare films about drug use and juvenile delinquency, in which the desire to test the boundaries and break the rules, leads characters into a more blatant kind of slavery to drugs or crime. Giving in to the temptation of the girl show, he is separated from his friends, rendering him more vulnerable, and, lured by a fake note from the star dancer, walks right into a trap, hypnotized by spinning spirals until he is ready to kill at Estella’s command.
His crime blending into a surrealistic nightmare, Jerry doesn’t realize at first what he’s done. In the morning, he goes to apologize to Angie, but begins to strangle her in a trance. Pulled away from her, he escapes to wander the streets of a shabby neighborhood, where a passing elevated train shows reality echoing the amusement park, with its rollercoaster on similar raised tracks.
Realizing he needs help, Jerry’s friend and girlfriend track him down back at the park, where the zombies have been unleashed. While they have been indulgent of his bad behavior, they were not invested in his countercultural attitudes, so they are left behind to mourn when he succumbs to his literal dead-end existence.
Most films in the amusement park/carnival genre focus either on the lives of the workers (Night Tide and the iconic black and white Freaks come to mind, along with the TV show Carnivale and non-horror films like Carny), or on the people who come to a carnival and have unpleasant experiences (as in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse). Incredibly Strange Creatures is unusual in being equally split between the two. The villain is fortuneteller Estrella, taking advantage of the transient rubes, but dancer Marge, certain she’s been cursed by bad luck, is more sympathetic. The trio of paying customers is presented as the main characters, but the most prominent, Jerry, is almost as unlikeable as the villain, and it’s hard to feel too sorry for him when things go wrong.
As with Night Tide, this film takes advantage of Southern California’s existing amusement parks for location shooting. In this case, footage of the park was filmed at the Pike, a park in Long Beach, California, which would close in 1979. The Cyclone Racer rollercoaster, featured heavily in the film, would close in 1968.
A lot of interesting history about the Pike is available online, including (this link: https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/taking-peek-pike-long-beachs-oceanfront-amusement-zone) and (this link: https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/a-walk-along-long-beachs-gaudy-tawdry-bawdy-pike), that appropriately calls it gaudy, tawdry, and bawdy.
The Sinister Cinema DVD has an enlightening interview with Steckler, who reveals, among other details, that Jerry and Harold’s depressing apartment is where he and Brandt lived at the time, in real life. While Brandt was a professional dancer, there was no time to choreograph or rehearse the performances, so Marge’s drunkenness was written in to cover those flaws. Mocked on the otherwise superlative Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode for her masculine appearance, she and Steckler himself are the only notable members of the cast with experience beyond a few exploitation films.
Things were different on the other side of the camera. Laszlo Kovacs, the assistant cameraman, was later Director of Photography on films like Ghostbusters, and camera operator Vilmos Zsigmond has many notable credits, including an Academy Award as the Director of Photography on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Steckler also reveals that the film’s musical numbers were all shot in one day, which explains a lot. There are nine such numbers in 80 minutes, including three nightclub sequences with Marge and her dance partner; a male balladeer with a guitar; a female torch singer, who made me wonder if David Lynch has seen this movie; and four performances at the girl show.
One of these is a group dance number, a sort of fashion burlesque, in which women in tights and feathers perform for an audience full of older women in hair nets. MST3K points out that the tune is very similar to “Little Drummer Boy,” which is hard to get out of your head. One is a PG-rated striptease by star dancer Carmelita, who’s supposed to be a fiery dancer, but just strolls on the stage, full of ennui. Then there are two more group performances: something with a rock-n-roll feel that sounds like they’re singing “Schick out of Shake,” but is titled “Shook Out of Shape,” and a strange faux tribal number that’s disrupted by an all-out attack of the incredibly strange creatures.
The end credits include “Music released by Rel Records,” but I can find no evidence of an existing soundtrack, which is, frankly, a terrible shame. I’d order it in a second.
-Karen Joan Kohoutek