by Sean Axmaker
Is Ed Wood the worst director who ever lived? Harry and Michael Medved crowned the cross-dressing auteur with that dubious honor in the their backhanded tribute to trash cinema The Golden Turkey Awards, and his reputation has since grown to mythic proportions. No director has become more famous, even beloved, for bargain basement sets, laughable special effects and surreal dialogue, to say nothing of the sheer weirdness of his stories: Grave robbers from outer space! Zombies calmed by the touch of angora! Transvestites are people, too!
War hero and one-time carnie Ed Wood Jr. kicked around Hollywood as an actor and writer, picking up bit parts, staging theatricals and directing a couple of short films before he landed his first feature: the jaw-dropping “documentary” Glen or Glenda, a bizarre confessional starring Wood himself as a misunderstood transvestite. Initially intended to cash in on the famous sex-change operation of Christine Jorgensen, Wood brought in horror icon Bela Lugosi (whose career was at rock bottom) as a smirking god-like narrator to watch over this mix of mock documentary and hoary melodrama, with a mad bondage-and-babes-filled dream sequence tossed in for good measure. “Pull ze strings!” shouts Lugosi, and Wood (under the pseudonym Daniel Davis) reveals his angora fetish and love of women’s underwear to the world.
Jail Bait (1954) followed, a wooden dime store crime thriller with inspired moments of grimy film noir tension amidst the slapdash set, flat performances, and awful dialogue (“How can a great doctor have such a jerk for a son?”), but it’s the howler of a horror picture Bride of the Monster (1956) that Wood fans hold near and dear. Bela Lugosi returns as a mad scientist revenging himself on the world (“Home? I have no home!”) and Tor Johnson, the hulking Swedish wrestler turned B movie icon, made his first Wood appearance as the lumbering beast Lobo (he almost knocks over the set in one scene!) who is tamed by the touch of angora.
The clumsy, nearly incoherent and ridiculously cheap “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1958) remains Wood’s cult masterpiece. Bela Lugosi died after a few days of shooting and was replaced with his wife’s tall, skinny, blonde chiropractor who looks nothing like Lugosi (“He had the same skull structure as Lugosi,” Wood explains - almost - in an interview). Cardboard gravestones wobble as Tor Johnson and Vampirella zombie-walk by; the flying saucer is a Cadillac hubcap hanging by a string and doused with lighter fluid for its fiery exit; and night and day randomly come and go within the same scene. “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives,” declaims the platinum-coifed “psychic” Amazing Criswell, rising from his coffin to introduce the picture with an absurd gravity. “And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you... in the future.” If it was made in France in the 1920s, it would have been called surreal. And yet it looks better than it has any right to - Wood’s cinematographer William C. Thompson had a gift for composition and lighting when given the opportunity and could offer the worst set a little style - and the amateur hour theatrics and prop gaffs are all part of the fun.
Tor Johnson’s lumbering Lobo returns in the Bride of the Monster semi-sequel Night of the Ghouls (1958). “For many years, I have told the almost unbelievable, related the unreal, and showed it to be more than fact,” drones the Amazing Criswell in his introduction. More than fact, possibly, but less than coherent. Shot on cramped sets the size of a closet and filled with unrelated stock footage (the prologue is dedicated the dangers of juvenile delinquency because Wood had leftover scenes from an unfinished film), this story of a two-fisted, opera-loving investigator (Duke Moore) on the trail of phony spiritualist (Keene Duncan as Dr. Akula) doesn’t make any sense, and would we have it any other way? The film was unseen for over two decades because Wood couldn’t come up with the money to pay off the processing lab!
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