Last year, Ed Wood‘s Plan 9 From Outer Space(1959) saw 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 infamously 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 Brideare 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 endings 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.
Before the terms Art Brut, Outsider Art, and Naïve Art were bandied about freely, Ed Wood, Jr. personified those concepts. Of course, Wood himself had to die first before being canonized as one of outsider art’s patron saints. Predictably, with that canonization came an institutional sheen of sorts, and Wood became the proverbial yardstick of “so bad it’s good” filmmaking.
Orgy Of The Dead (1965) was written by Wood and directed by Stephen C. Apostolof (AKA A.C. Stevens). This was Wood’s first of many collaborations with the soft-core porn director. Orgy stars TV-psychic Criswell in what has to be his biggest role. Our lounge lizard clairvoyant serves as a bloated and clearly inebriated host called “the Emperor.” He eccentrically delivers dialogue recycled from Night of the Ghouls (1959) straight off of cue cards: “Once human, now monsters! Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!” William Bates is horror writer Bob. Bob’s girlfriend, Shirley (Pat Barrington) just has to ask “Why Bob? Why those horror stories?” We’ll never forgive her for asking that after being made to suffer through Bob’s response: “My monsters have done well for me. You think I’d give that up so I could write about trees or dogs or daisies? That’s it! I will write about my creatures pushing up the daises!” Shirley plants a kiss on him. “Your puritan upbringing sure doesn’t hurt your art of kissing.” “My kisses are alive!” (she sure told him!) “Who’s to say my monsters aren’t alive?” Bob and Shirley are looking for an old cemetery so Bob can get inspired when, lo and behold… a car crash! “Aah!”
As our victims lie unconscious, in the very cemetery they were looking for, Criswell intones: “Time seems to stand still. Not so the ghouls!” Bob and Shirley wake up to the sound of music. But, no, Julie Andrews is not on hand and as Shirley perceptively says, “I can’t believe anything dead is playing that music.” On their way to find the source of the music, they spy a nubile lass doing a lethargic striptease. Bob can’tbelieve his eyes: “Nothing alive looks like that!” Bob and Shirley are caught by a comedy relief team made up of a werewolf and a mummy. The monsters take the hu-man couple before the Emperor and his buxom vampire companion, the Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver, who is a clear prototype for Elvira). “Are they alive ones?’ the Emperor asks Wolfie.”Yes master!,” answers our lycanthrope, aided by an echo box. “Alive ones, where only the dead should be?” Now, with dialogue like this, it would seem we are in for another Woodian masterpiece. Unfortunately, the too-brief priceless chatter (about 20 minutes worth) gives way to endless scenes of nudie monsters doing the dullest strips imaginable to pseudo jazz (70 bottomless minutes). When Wood avoided erotica, he was able to concentrate on his loony tune non-plots, thus avoiding boredom. However, Wood was always at his least inspired with titillation. Too bad, because in-between all the PG monster porn is some choice, peppery bits such as the mummy’s dialogue, delivered while watching a writhing Bettie Page lookalike: “Snakes. I hate snakes. I remember the one Cleopatra used. Cute little rascal! Until it flicked out that red tongue! Slimy, slinky things! When I was alive, they were the things that nightmares were made of!”
Criswell alone saves the movie–sort of. He’s hilarious, and his animated, red-faced exchanges with his female co-stars are utterly priceless, although it borders on miraculous that Criz managed to stumble all the way to the non-ending. Orgy Of The Dead is something akin to experiencing a Criswell hangover. You can almost smell his breath.
Pretty Models All in a Row (aka Love Feast-1969) is a sexless orgy of pseudo-porn. Wood is photographer Mr. Murphy, whose ambition is to bed “Lots and lost of girls! All kinds of girls! Fat girls, skinny girls, tall girls, short girls.” He lures wannabe models to his bed chamber, gets them out of their clothes, and gets interrupted by another model at the door. Mixed in with the incoming parade of ladies are a couple of plumbers (?!?) A great orgy begins in Ed’s bed—although “great” is a poor description since no one actually has sex and the sight of pimply, unattractive white trash types writhing senselessly is hardly arousing. Ed must not have thought so either, because he breaks away repeatedly to hit the sauce. Method actor that he is, Ed does not fake it, and by the end of the film he is completely wasted and dressed in a pink nightie, licking a girl’s boots. This is an hour-long voyeuristic witness to an unbearable decline.
Take It Out In Trade: The Outtakes (1970) is exactly what it says it is. These are outtakes from a supposedly lost film, although Rudolph Grey (who wrote the Wood biography Nightmare of Ecstasy) claims to have seen the film in its entirety. Of course, no one is, understandably, making much of an effort to find an original print. The plot, as much as it can be deciphered, involves a private eye (Wood regular Duke Moore) hired to find a missing girl. In his search the detective ends up in a cathouse and witnesses sexless sex acts performed by unattractive couples. An odd gay couple hangs out in the kitchen, kisses, and chops lettuce. Ed throws on a blonde wig, a lime green dress, and gets his wig knocked off. In his description of the complete film, Grey took note of Wood’s use of psychedelic reds, but, in this truncated state, it is virtually impossible to find anything of value.
Although Wood continued writing until his death in 1978, he would only direct two more films after Take It Out In Trade, one of which, the porn film Young Marrieds (1971) was though lost, but was found in Vancouver in 2004—although it has yet to be released.
Necromania (1971) was Ed’s last directorial effort, and here he moved from soft-core to hard-core. He could not have sunk lower.
Snow Bunnies (1972) is another Stevens/Wood collaboration that is hopelessly boring pseudo-porn.
Drop Out Wife (1972): exactly the same as above, except drop the “pseudo.”
Fugitive Girls (1974) is probably the collaborative trash masterpiece (!) of Wood as writer and A.C. Stevens as director. It has everything: a prison escape, a pimp, smugglers, a trailer trash blackmailer, a liquor store robbery, a dyke, an uppity black-power chick, hippies, a criminal genius, a disgruntled Vietnam vet, biker dudes, Ed Wood as a sheriff and classic Woodain dialogue: “Honey child, remind me to remember that remark!” Fugitive Girlsis on the A.C. Stevens/Wood DVD collection and the Big Box of Wood collections, both from S’More. Quentin Tarantino has nothing on this highly watchable, energetic garbage! Sure, there’s a bit of skin, but it’s comparatively minimal for this period, and it’s no coincidence that the shift away from almost reunites us with Ed in his full glory mode. Now, if only Ed could have worked with Divine here! It’s a delight amongst a decade of unbearable Ed drek.
Beach Bunnies (1976) is another (yawn) soft-core opus with trashy-looking, bruised nurse sex educator.
Hot Ice (1978): dull soft-core jewel heist that actor Ed did not even receive credit for. Alas, Wood went out with a whimper.
By the time of his death, in 1978, Wood was a violent, homeless alcoholic. Kathy Wood, Ed’s widow and herself an alcoholic, describes horrifying abuse at Ed’s hands in the last years, although she remained fiercely loyal to him. A few days before Ed’s death, he and Kathy had lost their home. They had been camping out at a good Samaritan’s house when Ed was discovered dead on the couch.
Ironically, many of today’s indie filmmakers unwittingly seem to be imitating Ed Wood’s latter day output, as opposed to his earlier, charmingly naïve work. In his Wood biopic, Tim Burton decided not to focus on Ed’s final, dilapidated years. Instead, Burton paid almost perfect homage to a beautifully brief period of Ed Wood’s life and career. Thanks to Burton, Wood will be forever enshrined in the public mind in his flower of youthful enthusiasm. It’s something Wood himself could not have done. No, it took the consummate craftsmanship of a Tim Burton, in his best period, to pull it off.
If Burton never makes another worthwhile film, and it’s beginning to look like that is indeed going to be the case, he too will be remembered for having a beautiful, brief and intense period of inspiration that could never be duplicated (although, I would be ecstatic if Burton could pull it off again, perhaps even in a film about Wood’s last years, which although tragic, they were not without humor). Ironically, Burton crafted a master work, inspired by a uniquely mediocre artist! How cool is that?