Alfred Eaker has the day off. This is a reprint of a classic column originally found here.
This month, Ed Wood‘s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) sees its Blu-ray release; posthumously, Ed is thoroughly enjoying his last laugh. He can thank those smug, condescending, hopelessly unimaginative thugs posing as establishment critics, the Medveds, for resurrecting him from the dead and catapulting him into a cult Valhalla. As everyone knows by now, the Medveds awarded Wood the honor of “Worst Director of All Time” in their infamous Golden Turkey Awards. Today, of course, we know that award could go to someone far more deserving, such as Mel Gibson, Tony Scott, or Mark Steven Johnson. Why pick on the genuine tranny auteur of outsider art? But, thank John Waters, the Medveds saw fit to bestow their award on Ed! There is a sense of divine justice after all, because we have rightly canonized him.
Plan 9 was already colorized for DVD a few years ago, and there wasn’t a single complaint about a legendary film being subjected to this much-maligned process. Probably because we all realized Ed simply would have loved the extra attention it gave his magnum opus. According to his biographer, Ed Wood said that while Glen or Glenda? (1953) was his most personal film, Plan 9 was his proudest accomplishment!
Wood’s appeal and fame continues unabated. Yes, he was a trash filmmaker, but he was a trash filmmaker delightfully of his time, simultaneously encased in and fighting against the naiveté of the 1950s. Naturally, that phenomenon is something that cannot be repeated, despite the countless attempts to do so by clueless contemporary indie filmmaker who—incredulously and vainly—seek to imitate Wood’s dated incompetence.
It is Wood’s bio, replete with nostalgia, his zeal, his idiosyncratic stamp, which endears him to us. At his best, Wood’s vibrant personality carries itself into his films, regardless of genre. At his worst (which unfortunately is not his worst) Wood is merely an incompetent commission B-director. Still, Edward D. Wood, Jr. is our fallible pope of naive surrealism, and his debut on Blu-ray is cause enough to celebrate the Ed Wood in all of us.
Now, let us commence into that glorious future where all Ed Wood films will still be celebrated, in the future. It is safe to say that, in the future, there will always be the aspiring film geek who discovers his patron saint, Eddie, in the future. For you, for me, for those in the future, we now present “THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD, JR!”
Jail Bait (1954) begins promisingly. Wood girlfriend Dolores Fuller is at the police station putting up bail for her brother, Don (Clancy Malone). Inspector Johns (dependable Wood extra Lyle Talbot) warns our heroine of the risk she is taking. When Dolores tries to assure the mean authority figure that her baby sibling is trustworthy, we are set-up for Woodian dialogue that could rival the classic exchanges in Casablanca (1942): “Inspector, Don is no criminal.” “He was carrying a gun.” “There are much worse crimes.” “Carrying a gun can be dangerous business.” “So can building a skyscraper!” Muscle man Steve Reeves is on hand in the small part of Lt. Bob, but he probably would have been more animated as an extra in a George Romero film. This one came on the heels of Ed’s masterpiece, Glen or Glenda, but it lacks that film’s compelling haphazardness. Jail Bait unfortunately descends into standard fare that could have as easily (and as blandly) been directed by Ron Howard.
Bride of the Monster (1955) is Ed’s only film to actually “star” the actor with whom he is most associated, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is horrifyingly emaciated here but he pulls off one of his best late career performances. He evokes pathos, as opposed to horror. His monologue includes an infamous, telling slip; he is supposed to say “Hunted, despised, living like an animal, I have proven that I’m right!” but the star’s delivery ends with: ” I have proven that I’m alright!” Loretta King plays the buxom, ace reporter as if she has overdosed on one too many Lois Lane magazines. Complimenting her performance are beautiful Z-grade sets, super-alligators in the swamp (?), a Russian spy, and an atomic explosion. All ripe material for colorization, which makes it even cooler. The smitten Dolores Fuller is reduced to a hilarious walk-on (she was supposed to play the lead, but rival Loretta King reputedly paid Wood to play the part). Tor Johnson is also on hand as the hulking brute Lobo, who is moved by the sight of a pretty girl wearing angora. His reward for a sympathetic libido is a whip cracked on his back! The behind the scene anecdotes about Bride are classic (the octopus was stolen from the leftover sets of a John Wayne movie, Ed’s lackeys forgot to steal the creature’s motor, and the film was financed by Wood’s butcher). Although the film itself is almost as zany as his other two Lugosi features, Bride of the Monster gives one the feeling of striving to be conventional. Thankfully, it doesn’t succeed.
Ed wrote and William Morgan directed The Violent Years (1956). It’s a (sort of) typical 50’s juvenile delinquent film. A spoiled girl joins a gang who get their kicks out of vandalizing! Judge Clary (I. Stanford Jolly) is tired of all these JD types: “It’s always difficult for an old friend to sit in judgment of an old friend, but the law is the law!” Profound words indeed.
Bride and the Beast (1958) was directed and produced by Adrian Weiss, and written by Wood. Since this is the only film Weiss is credited with directing, it is almost impossible to ascertain how much Wood might have “helped,” but the film does feel entirely Woodian. Charlotte Austin and Lance Fuller are the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Fuller. Mr. Fuller is a big game hunter and he has a gorilla named Spanky. Spanky has some mean blonde-dyed Elvis sideburns and has taken a fancy to the new Mrs. Fuller. Could it be her angora sweater? Or… You see, gorillas excite Charlotte! And, after a bit of hypnosis, the terrible truth is revealed! Charlotte is the reincarnation of a Queen Gorilla!!! Acting abilities be damned, Charlotte looks great in angora and jungle neglige! And, yes, hints of bestiality abound. The ending has to be one of the most inspired, jaw-dropping conclusions in celluloid history.
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959): There is little to add to what has already been said. With Glen or Glenda, this stands as one of Ed’s two masterpieces of naïve art. Few films can boast such genuine, dissident style. No wonder the ever-constipated Medved boys were offended. Best line in a film of great lines: “Inspector Clay is dead! Murdered! And somebody’s responsible!” Pay St. Ed the homage due him by watching it with a rambunctious audience. If you haven’t seen it, if you don’t own it, you simply are too uptight. Period.
As Wood’s sequel (of sorts) to both Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Night of the Ghouls (1959) should almost come with a guarantee of bouncing off-the-walls high octane lunacy. Alas, it falls short, and a feeling of fatigue washes over the film. Perhaps Wood was feeling one rejection too many, but Night of the Ghouls is sort of the breaking point for Wood, the film in which he began to lose his mojo. The previous, imaginative level of intense enthusiasm is dissipated and Wood never fully regained it. Perhaps, the death of his one genuine star (Lugosi) yanked away his inspirational rug; and, of course, increasing struggles with alcoholism compounded Wood’s sense of defeat. However, it could also be said that numerous auteur directors have experienced a similar bottoming out and, almost to a man, continued making films regardless, i.e: John Waters after Hairspray; Tim Burton (ironically) after Ed Wood, the post-80s work of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper). Criswell returns as our horror host: “For years I have told you the almost unbelievable. Now, I tell you a tale of the threshold people. Once human, now monsters!” B western actor Keene Duncan has the enviable role of fake psychic Dr. Acula (In 1953, Wood had made two western shorts with Keene, Crossroad Avenger and Trick Shooting. Neither are stand-outs and the latter is, disappointingly, exactly what it says it is). Keene is joined by Duke Moore as the tuxedo-wearing Lt. Bradford, and Tor Johnson in his return as a heavily scarred Lobo. Valda Hansen is a new girl for Wood, playing the White Ghost. Among Wood’s actors, Hansen was well-liked and an enthusiastic supporter of the director. Her end was as unfortunate as Wood’s. Predictably, her career never took off and she later developed cancer. Destitute and uninsured, she could not afford pain medication and died in agony. Hurrah for the virtues of Capitalism.
The first victims of the Black Ghost (Jeannie Stevens) are a girl in angora (!) and her boyfriend. Paul Marco’s bumbling Officer Kelton almost spooks himself into a coma as he investigates the weird goings on at the old Willow Lake. “I could, I could, I could get killed out here!” Dr. Acula, with the aid of the White Ghost, is milking gullible patrons out of their money. But, there’s real horror afoot: the Black Ghost. The seance scene has some unintentionally surreal bits, but mostly the movie’s repetitive and flat. It was completed in 1959, but was shelved because Wood could not afford the developing fee. It sat, believed lost, until 1983. It’s not prime Woodian weirdness, but it’s probably essential as a sequel to the two previous films and it does occasionally sparkle: “He remembered the cold, clammy sensation of the railing. Cold, clammy, like the dead!”
The Sinister Urge (1960) begins with a blonde in slip running down a dirt road. She is being chased by an unseen assailant. She finds a phone booth and seems shocked to find it’s a pay phone! Before she can scream “Operator! Operator! Would you help me place this call?” in her best Jim Croce drawl, her assailant catches up to her, knocks her to the ground, and wrestles her dead in the park! She turns out to be one of several recent victims. The police shake their head and smoke their cigarettes:”Just like the others. Pretty kid too! Course she doesn’t look like a kid now. Maybe she grew up in that moment of truth, when she died! Same M.O. Killed the same way! The same everything with one big difference… her name is different!” Turns out, the movie is an exposé of the smut picture racket! Gloria (Jean Fontaine) IS the smut picture racket, and the coppers have confiscated cans and cans of “smut, rotten smut!” “You were expecting dancing girls?” “This is no laughing matter!” “I’m sorry. It was in bad taste.” It sure was. Keene Duncan (Dr. Acula himself) as Lt. Carson and Duke Moore as Sgt. Stone head the list of regular Wood non-actors. “You know what pictures like this can cause? Sex scandal headlines!” The gumshoes have their hands chock-full with that bitch Gloria, and you can tell what kind of gal she is: posters of The Violent Years and Jail Bait adorn her walls! The anonymous 50’s rock score accents this purple pleasure. “I’m gonna push that ice cream right down his throat!” This was Wood’s last legitimate (?) film before descending into softcore porn.