Fred Olen Ray may be no Nicholas Ray, but as producer-directors go, he's accidentally become a rebel with a cause: He's built a following mainly with works that will never come to a theater near you or anybody else direct-to-video cheapies such as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Bad Girls From Mars.
In the two dozen horror, science-fiction, slapstick, and action films he has directed, at the rate of about two a year, Ray's highest budget was $1.75 million for Deep Space (1988); the average Hollywood movie costs more than $20 million. Yet there's something so oddly appealing about Ray's energetic, cheerfully awful movies that he's become a cult figure among video buffs. ''I'm disappointed with the way they turn out sometimes,'' Ray, 36, admits. ''But what I'm doing in a few days for little money others do for weeks and much more.''
At least nine of Ray's films have gone straight to video, but that wasn't always by design. A sudden cash drain killed the theatrical prospects for his post-nuke David Carradine adventure, Warlords (1989). The Julie Newmar-Bo Svenson epic Deep Space was consigned to video when the studio, Trans World Entertainment, changed direction. ''They decided they wanted to buy respectability and do Gene Hackman movies,'' Ray says.
Still, he has his compensations. He makes a good living, is married to exploitation-film cutie Dawn Wildsmith (Surf Nazis Must Die), and has a rep as a fast, proficient filmmaker whose movies earn money and occasionally even respectful reviews. And as if that weren't rewarding enough, Ray adds, ''I get on really well with Erik Estrada.''