Bright Lights Film Journal

Graverobbers and Drag Queens from Outer Space! Four Ed Wood Greats on DVD

Dolores Fuller and Ed Wood in Glen or Glenda

Plan 9 from Outer Space; Glen or Glenda; Jail Bait; Bride of the Monster

One of my fondest memories of a communal movie experience is seeing my first Ed Wood retrospective. This was around 1980 at one of Los Angeles’s early rep houses, the Vista in Silverlake. This mini-movie palace, with an Egyptian tomb interior complete with rows of sarcophagi, had an ideal ambience for the resurrection of the cross-dressing auteur, and Hollywood came out in force. Attendees that evening included Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty, but only the theater’s staff took any interest in the laughing, loaded pair, trying in vain to get their autograph. The audience was here for only one thing: Ed Wood. Howls of laughter rang through the rafters, but there was genuine affection too, and a sense of history being made, or remade, as Wood’s return to the cultural firmament began.

This was the era of the dreaded Medveds’ book The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), which forever stamped Wood (1924-1978) in the mainstream mind as the “worst director ever” and his masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space as the “worst movie ever.” Of course, we must be grateful to these sneering dolts for bringing any attention to the film, even as we deride their smugness and, really, stupidity. (“Stupid! Stupid!” as Wood said in Plan 9.) Surely any lousy, boring mainstream movie is worse than the constantly surprising, intensely weird, totally personal, never dull Wood films. (Equally suspect in the Medved mold is the overrated Mystery Science Theater, which should have aimed at bigger Hollywood targets. Why the endearing Teenage Monster and not the “stupid, stupid” Top Gun, for example?) Fortunately, there was an ongoing effort to counter creeping Medvedism. Aficionados who’d worshipped their sleazy idols in private started coming out of the closet, and the seedy glories of such low-budget auteurs as Herschel Gordon Lewis, Al Adamson, Doris Wishman, Joe Sarno, David Friedman, and a host of others were crawling into their rightful place in the culture. Along with Kroger Babb and a handful of other pioneers, Ed Wood stands out as a pioneer of personal, indie, exploitation cinema.

Picasso’s famous dictum that “the chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ taste” could be Wood’s mantra. In fact he had no taste or even “talent” as that term is generally understood. His films are filled with technical mistakes, incongruities, transparent special effects, lousy acting, and an air of naiveté that triggers both audience sympathy and laughter. Through some mysterious process surely unknown even to Wood, these elements coalesce in his best films (Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 from Outer Space) to create classic outsider art. The films have all kinds of recurring themes – the plight of the outsider is a biggie – and motifs – his placement of actors in the frame is unique – for those who care to look. And in toying with – nay, destroying – the very concept of a linear narrative, his major works have a modern quality that belies their age. A Wood film is as instantly recognizable as one by Welles, Fuller, Mizoguchi, or any of the more respected auteurs.

It’s a happy irony that the man who rarely had more than a pittance for his movies should now be presented on the plushest high-tech video format, DVD. But thanks to Image Entertainment, which licensed the films from rights holder Wade Williams, four of Wood’s “anti-classics” are now available to feed the enduring fetish for this director who, in his way, remains a model for the indie director with drive, sensibility, and no money.

Glen or Glenda, aka I Changed My Sex (1953), is the earliest of the four films here. This is to some observers Wood’s masterpiece, eclipsing even the prodigious achievement of Plan 9 in sheer brazen weirdness. It begins as a cheapie problem drama a la Kroger Babb (Mom and Dad), but instead of the birth of a baby, we see here the birth of “the third sex.” Wood’s own transvestism was the spur for this plea for tolerance of drag queens and transsexuals, and he plays the lead, heterosexual tranny Glen, under the pseudonym Daniel Davis. The film is a dizzying mix of philosophical commentary, religious allegory, social critique, exploitation melodrama, and softcore porn.

Bela Lugosi, almost at the end of his life here, plays a bitchy old “science god” (Wood’s term), “the puppetmaster,” who “pulls the strings” – i.e., controls the world and its denizens while discussing them directly with the viewer. Wood visualizes this conceit with avant-garde panache, often splitting the screen so Lugosi is at the top half leering wickedly and screeching with annoyance about “people! all going somewhere!”, while stock footage shots of crowded streets and highways occupy the lower half of the screen. Lugosi speaks for Wood when he says, “Man’s constant probing of things unknown, drawing from the endless reaches of time, brings to life many startling things.” He also delivers cryptic messages about gender directly to the audience: “Snips and snails and puppy dog’s tails and … brassieres”? A question so many of us have asked ourselves.

Again in the Kroger Babb mode, the film presents all manner of outrageous and fetishized images, carefully surrounding them with the respectable scientific and medical commentary necessary to get the film released. Thus we see drag queens prancing up and down the street ogling bra shop windows, or enjoying a quiet moment at home dressed in angora, while a doctor (Timothy Farrell) pompously explains the “truth” about transvestites and transsexuals (“A transvestite is not a homosexual!” he says.) The medical information seems reasonably current for the time, but other images in the film soon eclipse it. There’s the famous scene where Glen confesses his problem to his girlfriend (Dolores Fuller) and, in a stiff, almost ritualized way, she hands him her angora sweater. Strangest of all are the bondage sequences, which have the seedy aura of old porn loops. Here the Wood demimonde emerges in full flower, with scantily clad beauties tying each other up, scary “normals” (parents, priests) attacking poor Glen/Ed, and “the devil” presiding over it all. Wood’s loose structure allows for all kinds of unpredictable fun, including broad humor (a drag queen milkman) and campy dialogue (“Little Miss Female, you should be proud!”). Contrary to the notorious Babb approach of explicit titillation, however, Wood doesn’t show a transsexual operation, only the accoutrements. Still, the film is a startling document for its time, and in its crazy quilt of themes could be screened credibly in a festival of avant-garde films.

A year later Wood made Jail Bait (1954). This minor noir has many of the Wood trademarks – rigid actors who seem more like mannequins than people (“bits of business” seems to be a foreign concept to the director); a pumped-up but misleading ad campaign (“DANGER! These girls are hot!”); a bizarre score in the form of relentless Spanish classical guitar music; stock Wood players like Dolores Fuller, Timothy Farrell, Mona McKinnon, and Lyle Talbot; and of course hokey dialogue (“Love . . . I don’t think you know what love means.”) This is also surely one of the few films to give a credit to a lingerie company (“Chic & Pandora”).

The story is exploitation noir with romantic interludes. It seems Don (Clancy Malone), the son of “world-famous plastic surgeon” Dr. McGregor (Herbert Rawlinson), is mixed up with gangster Vin Brady (Timothy Farrell). During a bungled robbery, Don shoots an old security guard. Repentant, he plans to go to the police, but is killed by Vin. Without being too specific, let’s just say a posthumous revenge is exacted through the miracle of plastic surgery.

Released by Howco (a low-budget company slightly more respectable than Wood’s usual), the film is less interesting than his other work in part because it’s simply too straightforward and coherent. There’s none of that rushed, ragged feel of Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda, where the narrative is skewered with strange, seemingly unrelated interludes that make these works compulsively watchable as we await the next surprise. Inevitably, there are Wood touches. One amusing one occurs when Steve Reeves (in his first film) walks through the police station with his shirt off, and is castigated by his superior for not shaving at home. Reeves is practically catatonic here and throughout, staring fixedly at something the audience can’t see and, in classic Wood style, seeming to have little to do, physically or in any regard, with the other actors. (He doesn’t even look at Lyle Talbot during their dialogue exchanges.)

Next up, Bride of the Monster (1956) reunites Wood and Lugosi. Also released as Bride of the Atom, this was the film that separated Wood from Dolores Fuller, who was furious that she didn’t get the female lead. Lugosi brings his peculiar Eastern European gravitas to the role of a Nazi-like scientist who occupies “the old Willow house” at the edge of a swamp. There he conducts experiments to create a race of “super-beings” who will help him take over the world.

The film is treasured by Wood aficionados for several reasons. One is the monster, a big rubber octopus that’s surely one of cinema history’s most lethargic menaces. It lies limp in a puddle of water outside Lugosi’s lab, waiting for victims to jump on it and wrap themselves in its arms, which don’t seem to move without some help from said victims. This creature was memorialized in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, and it’s quite endearing to watch the clumsy manipulations required to make it do its evil duty.

The second lure of Bride of the Monster is Lugosi, who’s wonderfully affecting in the midst of what looks like a chaotic production. As mad scientist (and crack hypnotist) Dr. Eric Vornoff, he brings an odd, unexpected warmth to some of his scenes – for example, when he’s pretending to be solicitous to the girl he’s captured. In other scenes, he exudes a sense of tragedy, as in a beautifully dramatic speech that starts “I have no home . . . hunted . . . despised . . . living like an animal . . . the jungle is my home!” Bela’s authenticity and soulful dramaturgy are always a pleasure to watch.

There’s also an amusing “Beauty and the Beast” angle, with Wood staple Tor Johnson as Lobo, a slobbering Igor figure for Vornoff. Poor Lobo is in love with the woman his master has picked to be the “bride of the atom” (whatever that is). Vornoff’s plan to create a race of “atomic supermen” seems poorly conceived, to put it kindly; whenever he straps a guy onto his table to be jolted into superman status, the guy dies. Undaunted, Vornoff continues his plan, strapping the “bride” (played by Loretta King) onto his table for electroshock, at which point Lobo rebels and straps Vornoff on said table. Curiously, Lobo, though apparently a moron, is able to work the machinery. So much for the Nietzschean ideal. Minor thrills include Dolores Fuller in a small role and a collection of old radio equipment that doubles for a mad scientist lab.

Two years later came Wood’s crown jewel, and the film by which he’s best known: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958). The “ninth plan” of the title is “resurrection of recent dead,” according to drag-queen-from-space Bunny Breckenridge, who needed no more than his usual makeup to play the head alien. Most of the scenes occur in a dime-store graveyard, with inept cops being chased by easily eluded reanimated corpses. The arrival of the aliens is heralded by hubcaps with wires being yanked in front of a painted backdrop, with a loud voice booming: “Flying Saucers Over Hollywood!” Critic Danny Peary called this film subversive, and it’s true that Wood’s script attacks backward thinking: “Stupid, stupid!” alien Dudley Manlove screams about parochial earthlings who are “playing God.” (The aliens come to Earth to intervene because our scientists are about to explode our own sun, though what that has to do with “plan 9” is unclear. And what were the first eight plans, by the way?)

Subversion is the film’s driving force, and Wood does it with style. Nothing here is what we expect, or what narrative demands. The graveyards have plastic headstones, paper mausoleums, and sticks for crosses. A simple sequence of driving from a police station to the cemetery becomes an existential nightmare as the sky shifts willy-nilly between day, dusk, and darkest night over the course of the drive. Two old gravediggers are “attacked” by the “ghoul woman” played by Vampira; but typical of Wood, there’s no tangible connection between the two. The gravediggers are standing in daylight; the ghoul woman (allegedly a few feet away) is in a pitch-black cemetery. She holds her hands up and shakes her fingers suggestively, which is apparently enough to send the gravediggers screaming to their doom. Wood excels at this unique manipulation of space, having characters talk to each other – or do violence to each other – from seemingly unrelated spaces, an effect that’s both comic and disturbing.

Wood’s stock company is at its peak here: the inimitable Criswell lends a wraparound narration (reprising in lesser form the “science god” of Glen or Glenda); Vampira, in a wordless part, shocks and thrills as the sexy ghoul woman; Bunny (John) Breckenridge rolls his eyes and reads his lines from the floor; and the great Dudley Manlove gets many of the film’s best lines, some of which have a low-rent Shakespeare tinge: “I, a fiend? . . . I a fiend?” or the immortal “You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” Bela Lugosi is more a spiritual presence than a physical one – no doubt because he died before the film was shot. We do get a little footage of him picking flowers outside his tract house, and meandering through a graveyard. The most remarkable thing about the Lugosi-Plan 9 angle is that Wood substituted drinking buddy and chiropractor Tom Mason, who looks nothing like Lugosi, for the dead star. One of the treasures of the film is Wood’s unbelievable strategy of having Mason walk through his scenes with his cape over his face to prevent the audience from making a comparison. When I first saw the film I (and others I talked to) thought these were two different characters!

The pleasures of Plan 9 can be best appreciated with a large, rowdy audience. If that large audience is unavailable, these DVDs make a good substitute (perhaps better than Tom Mason substituting for Bela). The transfers on these four films are clean and crisp, clearly taken from the best sources. This doesn’t preclude occasional artifacts, but overall they look quite good. Three of the discs have only a theatrical trailer as extras, but the Plan 9 disc has both a trailer and a wonderful two-hour documentary by Mark Carducci that explores the film’s production, its players, and Wood’s career, with loads of interviews, commentary, and even a rare clip of Wood directing one of his early westerns.

Wood died penniless in 1978 after he and his wife were evicted from their last apartment in the slums of Hollywood. The two-dollar auteur who never made a dime from his films is now one of cinema’s most treasured outlaws, and rightly so.