Wednesday, 13 December 2017
Fire Down Below (1974)
Over the years the title ‘Fire Down Below’ has lent itself to everything from a 1978 Tina Charles single to a Steven Seagal action movie, but who wants to talk about them, when we can instead talk about 1974’s Fire Down Below (aka Perverted Passion), an adult movie in which a man with a remarkably small penis strangles women because…well, he does have a remarkably small penis. Now, if you were to pursue the actual credits of Fire Down Below, you’d be duped into believing this film was directed by a woman, Ms. Cindy Lou Sutters, but your experienced smut and cult film aficionado knows that Ms. Lou Sutters was in fact a mister, and not just any old mister either, but Ray Dennis Steckler, a cult film legend on account of his 1960s movies like ‘The Thrill Killers’, ‘Body Fever’, ‘Rat Pfink a Boo Boo’ and most famous of all ‘The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies’.
In the years between arguably his last great film, 1969’s Body Fever and his rediscovery as a cult figure in the early 1980s, Steckler took the step down to making hardcore films. Now, you get the distinct impression that Steckler wasn’t particularly proud of his adult movies, as far as I’m aware they were never discussed in any interview he ever did, and he was said to shut the conversation down if the subject ever came up, some rumours even have it that the making of his hardcore films took such a toll on his psyche that he ended up seeking psychiatric treatment because of them. Whatever the case though, the hardcore films Steckler made do outnumber the legit films he is famous for directing, and represent over a decade’s worth of his career, so it would be quite an oversight to dismiss them out of hand.
Despite the distance he’d later put between himself and his adult movies, and the fact that he directed all of his pornos under false names, Fire Down Below still displays plenty of examples of Steckler’s directorial hand. This film clearly exists in the same cinematic universe as the skid-row film noir of Steckler’s Body Fever and The Thrill Killers, and shares those films’ interests in the seedier side of LA, the losers and misfits that walk those famous streets, and sudden and senseless death. Fire Down Below is also the obvious blueprint for Steckler’s later legit films like The Las Vegas Serial Killer and The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skid-Row Slasher, films which attempt to put you behind the eyes of misogynistic serial killers, with live dialogue passed over in favour of interior monologues.
The unnamed lead character of Fire Down Below is a sight to behold, an obese, heavy drinking misogynist, he cruises downtown LA, leering at women’s asses, hanging around porno cinemas and massage parlors, and occasionally retiring to his filthy apartment, which is adorned with hooker ads and posters of his idol, Bruce Lee. However a voiceover, purporting to be from this guy’s former probation officer, blames you the viewer for voting in favour of LA tax-cuts which have resulted in nutjobs like this guy being released back on the streets to terrorize women.
This could be perceived as a phony ‘socially redeeming’ aspect to the film, keeping in mind this is a relatively early American hardcore film. Deep Throat had only come out two years previously amidst considerable controversy and legal troubles, and should this film have ever needed to be defended in court it does have this rather limp defence that this film isn’t just an excuse for fucking and sucking, rather it is a well-meaning expose of how cuts to the treatment of the mentally ill in America has put dangerous men back on the streets. This voiceover is though also in keeping with this film’s rather sour view of humanity, we the audience stand accused of being crooked bastards, happy to fill our pockets with money intended to cure men like our short fused, short dicked friend. Everything that this guy does in this film is therefore your fault, and it is not long before this guy is making a nuisance of himself, peeking in on horny 1970s couples, and quickly graduating to stalking and strangling. Developing a particular obsession for a lonely redhead played by Steckler’s then wife Carolyn Brandt, who all these years on from Rat Pfink a Boo Boo gets to once again be the subject of unwanted male attention.
The voiceover from the probation officer soon gives way to a voiceover from the lead character himself, allowing us to hear his predictably toxic opinions. All women are money grabbing whores and bitches according to his often amusingly crude and lewd running commentary, he is also suffering from delusions of grandeur, believing himself to be god’s gift to women and a ‘real man’. Despite being a mouthpiece for his misogyny, Fire Down Below does have a sadistic way of constantly ridiculing his claims to male greatness. The women he checks out either don’t give him the time of day or pass him by in favour of other men. Forcing him to retreat back to his apartment and a delusional sex fantasy in which he imagines himself revisiting a couple he’d been peeking in on earlier, waving his cock in the woman’s face, only to find her being distracted by her more well- endowed boyfriend, so even in this guy’s fantasies he is losing out to younger, more well hung men.
The only time this guy can get a woman’s attention is when he is paying her, and his visit to a prostitute leads to a supremely unerotic sex scene in which this guy strips off, revealing a horrendously out of shape body as this poor prostitute tries in vain to get him hard. It is an excruciatingly awkward scene, made even more so by the returning voiceover by the probation officer who points out the root of this guy’s problems lies with his lack of endowment and inability to get it up. That they found an actor willing to play such a demeaning and humiliating role is astonishing, and leads you to the conclusion that this guy must have really, really wanted to get laid onscreen, even if in the event he couldn’t make the most of the opportunity.
As with Steckler’s legit films, Fire Down Below subscribes to the idea that location is as much a part of a film’s character as the narrative and the actors, and here Steckler’s camera obsessively takes in all the dirty bookshops, porno cinemas and massage parlors his location had to offer. Making Fire Down Below an authentically sleazy portrait of a down n’ dirty town. The hardcore sex in the film is also unmistakably early 70s LA porno, with skanky, tanned blondes and sweaty, hairy guys with sideburns getting it on in what looks like a succession of cheap motel rooms. As with Steckler’s other pornos there is a particular favouritism towards fellatio here, whether this was a personal preference or whether the success of Deep Throat just made the blowjob holy in early 70s American hardcore is unknown, but you have to hand it to Steckler there are some fine displays of all-american cocksucking in this film.
Even when he is delivering hot porno action though, Steckler can’t seem to resist throwing some rotten eggs at his audience, and even the good sex in this film has such an uncomfortably voyeuristic edge, with these swingin’ couples inevitably being peeked at through doors or windows by a perverted slob. A character no one would want to identify with, but which this film forces us to do, since like him we spend much of this film illicitly watching other people having sex.
Steckler actually seems more interested in bad, traumatic sex than good sex. Never is this more evident than in the mini-drama that plays out when the peeping tom gets an eyeful of the activities within a cat house, where an agitated and constantly yakking prostitute is giving a customer a hard time, berating him for his S&M inclinations and lack of manhood (choice lines: “you expect to fuck with that”, “if you can’t get your prick up, you shouldn’t come to a cathouse”). It is a strangely involving and compelling scene, one in which you’ve no idea how it will play out. At one point the john seems on the verge of blowing his top and beating the prostitute up, but then starts crying during sex and calling her ‘mommy’, leading you to wonder whether she will finally display some kindness towards him, or choose to continue to emotionally cripple him.
As if there wasn’t enough going on in this film Steckler also throws a second villain into the mix in the form of a psycho biker who is also prowling around LA, but unlike the main character is a completely asexual figure, who breaks into a massage parlor then later in on a balling couple, but in both instances demands money rather than sex. At which point the probation officer returns to voiceover duties in order to once again guilt trip the audience, since….you guessed it…the biker is yet another nutjob who has been released early due to the public voting in favour of those tax cuts to the treatment of the mentally ill.
I will admit to preferring Fire Down Below to Steckler’s later legit films. At just over an hour the film doesn’t overstay its welcome and the mixture of hardcore sex, stalker horror movie and biker film ensures that Fire Down Below is always busy, and free from the repetition and boredom that sinks both The Las Vegas Serial Killer and The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skid-Row Slasher. This is also a porno that isn’t afraid to explore the dark side, with its themes of misogyny and sexual inadequacy, plus the casting of Steckler’s real life wife as a strangulation victim, suggesting a film made in an unhealthy frame of mind, and that directing pornos had caused Steckler to stare into the abyss for a little too long. It is amusing to contrast the actual movie to its deceptively cheery poster campaign, which sells it as “an older man’s search for a teenage lover in Hollywood, California” but Fire Down Below isn’t some zany May to December sex fantasy, it is a sexual nightmare, as seen through the cynical lens of the Incredibly Strange Filmmaker who needed the money and became a mixed up Pornographer.