Bright Lights Film Journal

Ed Wood Blogathon: Screwy Details in THE NIGHT OF THE GHOULS

It’s a shame that Ed Wood’s last non-skin film, NIGHT OF THE GHOULS (1959), had to go unseen all through the prime time of Wade Williams’ TV horror package. It was also never released theatrically, so there’s no original movie poster, just video cover art. Williams coughed up the lab fee Wood could never afford and resurrected it in time for the age of video and the Image DVD is too clear. The print looks amazing so you can examine every detail of the sound stage electrical wiring and dingy prop and dressing rooms; you can follow along with Criswell’s eyes as he looks offscreen right to the cue card, reads it, winces, and then, pulling himself together moment by drunken moment, endeavors to read and address the camera at the same time, uttering in his honeyed tones the story of “The Threshold people” who dwell in “twilight time.” You can see the sheer flimsiness of the plywood panel walls that make up every set (aside from the actual sound stage walls), and the bags under the eyes of the vet players.

Once Valda Hansen shows up as “The White Ghost,” in a beautiful white gown and long blonde wig, all is well. She’s like the collapsing point between Vampira and Dolores Fuller and she’s hotter than…. well, Fuller anyway. When she acts in close-up it’s like watching a whole dramatic theater group in action — her eyebrow twitches, eyes bulge, mouth does pirouettes and flashes long beautiful canine teeth. There’s even a link to MESA OF THE LOST WOMEN in her awesome fingernail waving action. The top acting honors go to Kenne Duncan–a Republic western heavy–as Dr. Acula, a bunco squad’s wet dream of a phony spiritualist employing all the old gags: trumpets on wires, slide-whistles, audio hum, guys dancing in sheets, and a blackfaced member of Devo going “Mongo Mongo Mongo” in a low pitch-shifted voice. Awesome.

Anyone who remembers making haunted houses in the rec room basement and leading cocktail-addled parents through them blindfolded on Friday nights, or going to the Jaycees haunted houses, or trick or treating, or those haunted house rides with the dinky chicken wire covered cubby holes that light up to show a scary mask and emit a loud laugh at local carnivals, anyone in short who knows the giddy thrill of wearing a sheet and waving a skull around going “wwowooooo” will love NIGHT OF THE GHOULS. All others, bevare… take… care.

Where the sun is seen to rise
and the sun is seen to set.

Often called an uofficial sequel to PLAN NINE, NIGHT OF THE GHOULS is really a sequel to BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, with the random exterior of a house (possibly a corner of the sound stage?) standing in for “The Old Willow’s place.” Paul Marcos as Kelton the cop returns however from PLAN NINE. But the Tor Johnson zombie is from BRIDE, not PLAN NINE. Are you confused? This isn’t rocket science, it’s motion picture magick! Let us go the resurrection chamber, where the sun is seen to rise. And the sun is seen to set.

GHOULS also contains one of my favorite Wood moments, the infamous iron railing. Anyone whose done acting at cheap old sound stages or theaters knows that railing as leading up to the group dressing room. Criswell breathes down the cautiously investigating Lt. Bradford’s neck with his helicopter parent narration:

A staircase he remembered from long ago.
(touches railing)
He remembers the cold, clammy sensation of the railing. Cold, clammy, like the dead!
(holds railing and looks pensive)
Yes, it really was as he remembered it. Perhaps colder, more startling!

The old soundstage where GHOULS occurred had a set “not much bigger than a phonebooth” according to assistant Ronnie Ashcroft, which perhaps explains why the action moves into prop rooms, janitor closets, dressing rooms and dubbing booths. Ever a man for detail, Ed makes sure each room has at least one skull, full skeleton, or in the film’s one truly creepy and original scene, a mannequin. Dr. Acula’s phony seances–it turns out–revive the actual dead, which he’s quite shocked about, since they all resemble used car salesmen.

This is impossible! I hired actors to play my dead. You’re not actors!

He was so right. But the bad acting here is uniform and therefore Brechtian/good as well as bad. This is truly the “Twilight Time” picture for Wood and his shaggy crew. His last waltz, awash in poverty row defeat, with 16-year old Valda Hansen providing the only glimmer of hope for Z-Hollywood’s future as she screams and waves those magic fingers. The nervous, whiny cop so touchingly played by Paul Marco on the other hand, empties his cowboy revolver at her and another unarmed woman–the black ghost. Two ghosts in one movie–shot at without cause–and that’s not even mentioning Lobo, his face scarred from the fire of the last film, not unlike the AMAZING COLOSSAL BEAST! Later, after getting knocked out by Lobo and put in a coffin, Kelton is reborn, his initiation into manhood complete with the symbolic tap out, smoking a cigarette and hanging out backstage all mellow, like a real rock and roller. It’s his spiritual rebirth and now he’s a cop unafraid of girls in white dresses. A fitting epilogue for the story of a cop called Kelton.

Now I will tell you a tale of the threshold people… so astounding some of you may faint. This is a story of those in the twilight time. Once human, now monsters in the land between the leaving and the dead. Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!

No, Criswell, not despised. These fleabitten troupers win our hearts the way that scrawny Xmas tree wins Charlie Brown’s. The love of cinema is the love of the dark, after all, giving up a sunny afternoon in the park for a cold, dark matinee without a second thought, and these monsters reflect that unhealthy habit. Picked last for teams, pushed into the mud by older kids, rejected f
rom central casting, stripped down to the poverty row bone but all the more beautiful for it. We take comfort in each other and for Wood’s part, he delivers the goods: ghostly girls with long nails, deformed Swedish wrestlers, old cowboys in turbans, skeletons, skulls, and the best stock footage the man called Wood can steal.

For my other Ed Wood posts click here
For the Full Ed Wood Blogathon roster at Cinemastyles, click here.