Spotlight On: Edward D. Wood Jr.
Usually when you were regarded as the worst at something you are not remembered for it. That is what makes filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. so special, often dubbed “the Worst Director who Ever Lived” Wood has developed a cult fandom with his infamously bad flicks. Never having the talent or resources to truly make anything grand or spectacular there is no denying a certain charm and earnestness present in his B and C grade movies. While he never gained much respect in life (aside from his motley crew of frequent collaborators) he has since become revered among many movie fans, especially those who love cult cinema. His strange and unique career has inspired a number of: books, essays, film festivals, and documentaries. In 1994 Tim Burton even made the critically acclaimed film, Ed Wood about the director’s life and career. So let us don our angora sweaters and shine a Spotlight On: Edward D. Wood Jr.
Glenn or Glenda (1953): Something Ed Wood hoped to keep secret for much of his life, was the fact that he was a crossdresser. While serving in the army during World War II he would claim he would rather be killed by an enemy bullet rather than injured. This way could avoid any embarrassing moments with medics as to why he was wearing women’s underwear beneath his uniform. His crossdressing lifestyle is said to have inspired one of his strangest films, Glen or Glenda. Made in the style of a pseudo-documentary, this film tells the stories of Glen, a man who is secretly a cross dresser and Alan a man willing to go through a risky sex change operation in order to become a woman. With Glen or Glenda Wood decided to in a sense have TWO narrators, while Dr. Alton is the one who pushes the story forward, Bela Lugosi is brought in as “the Scientist” to wax philosophically and serve as the color commentator of sorts. Wood included many strange flourishes in the flick including; flashbacks-within-flashbacks, a suicide investigation, and pseudo-philosophical (and often nonsensical) monologues. Despite it all, Glen or Glenda is surprisingly ahead of it’s time as ultimately it encourages tolerance and understanding of those in the transsexual community which could not have been an easy sell in the 1950’s.
Bride of the Monster (1955): Isolated in a swamp, the mad scientist Dr. Vornoff and his hulking assistant Lobo carry out their abominable experiments hoping to create a race of monsters. His work has led to rumors that a monster lives in the swamp and is responsible for a number of deaths, and granted there is a monster but he only exists because Wood got stock footage of a squid. But the Ed Wood staple of utilizing stock footage is best used at the end of the flick, when a lightning strike creates a massive devastating explosion, but do not worry the good guys somehow survive. Despite this being a silly monster movie, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dr. Vornoff is absolute perfection, as he pours his heart and soul into the demented scientist. The Hungarian-born actor was notorious for giving his all in his performances, regardless of the quality of the movie, and Bride of the Monster provides perfect proof of this.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956): The film most associated with the infamous director which has gone on to be seen as Wood’s great masterpiece (loose definition of masterpiece). Armed with stock footage of his dear friend and frequent collaborator Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood was bound to make a spectacular film. As Criswell informs us in the opening of the film in the future (and sometimes past. The monologues do not make it clear) aliens will seek to destroy our planet. From their flying saucers, which look suspiciously like hubcaps on fishing line, they have attempted to gain our attention to no avail. With no other choice, the extraterrestrials are forced to skip Plans 1-8 and go straight for Plan 9 utilizing reanimated corpses to terrorize the human populace!!!!!! Of course with limited budget, this meant only corpses of; Tor Johnson, Vampira, and Wood’s wife’s dentist dressed as Lugosi could be resurrected. The sinister plot is discovered by a dashing airline pilot and his wife, who join with the police and military to save our world. While Plan 9 from Outer Space is synonymous with poor filmmaking, I defy you to not be entertained by it.
Night of the Ghouls (1959): Due to the director’s inability to afford the film lab fees, this flick was stored away until the 1980’s when it was finally released on video. A sequel of sorts to Bride of the Monster sees a new haunted house built on the site of the old laboratory in the swamp. Other than references to the previous flick, from people not in the movie, and the return of Tor Johnson as Lobo, there is no connection between the two. This new house is used by a conman who is pretending to be a medium under the name of Dr. Acula. He hires actors who bear a resemblance to his clients’ dead relatives in order to swindle them out of their money as they think ghosts are being summoned. Night of the Ghouls famously saw Wood’s frequent collaborator Criswell got to pull double-duty as both narrator as well as a charming well-spoken ghost at the film;s climax.
The Sinister Urge (1960): This would be Wood’s final “mainstream” film, but there is no denying he went out with a bang. In a park which seems to be only visited by adult film productions and a serial killer, a serial killer is surprisingly preying on porn actresses and the police are at a loss as to how to stop him. EVENTUALLY they devise a plan to stake out the park, and by stake it out they send a single male officer in drag to lure out the killer with no back-up. The whole movie is naturally an exercise in madness which stands proudly on a soapbox decrying the evils of pornography and it’s corrupting influences. Following the Sinister Urge, Wood’s life tragically went into a downward spiral. A combination of depression and alcoholism plagued the filmmaker, and the only work he was ever able to find again was ironically making weird pornographic films for the early grindhouse circuit.