I will say this much to start with: I am a fan of the films of Ed Wood. In fact, Ed Wood‘s work can be considered a reason to be grateful for the joys of home video and film preservation. Without either of those things, we, the plebs of the later twentieth and early twenty-first century would not be able to enjoy his work. But this also provokes a myriad of questions. Like every celebrity that walks or walked an unusual path, Ed Wood‘s work and life prompts a number of questions that one can learn from by answering.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to talk about some of the Ed Wood films that I remember seeing, as well as a couple of films that have been made about him. The first of those is a documentary entitled Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion. The other is a semi-fiction (aka biopic) piece simply titled Ed Wood.
The first film of Ed Wood‘s that I saw was, predictably, Plan 9 From Outer Space. Plan 9 From Outer Space is a tricky film to describe. People who have never seen it before, or are lazy, or both, proclaim it to be the worst film that has ever been made. This is oversimplifying to a degree comparable to the damage left behind by a nuclear disaster. Yes, it is a bad film. Yes, it is ineptly made. But it is also one of the most entertaining films you will ever watch.
In order to understand that statement, you have to understand something about why people watch bad films. There are ordinary, mediocre films that are simply boring. There are awesome films that keep one glued to the screen, waiting to see how they unfold. And then there are films where everything goes wrong, and the results are hilarious to watch. This last position is where Plan 9 From Outer Space resides. One description people have given it is as the greatest of all unintentional comedies. Let us qualify that description a bit. There are two kinds of comedy in this world. Intentional and unintentional. Consider these two funny scenarios:
- Man tells extremely funny joke, causing everyone to laugh.
- Man walks into a bar that, unbeknownst to him prior to entry, is full of bikies, mercenaries, and other rough types. He is wearing a pair of pink tights. Everyone laughs.
Unintentional comedies like Plan 9 From Outer Space are the latter kind of comedy. You laugh yourself senseless, often missing vital things in the process, but the person making you laugh had no intention or anticipation of doing so. From the get-go, Plan 9 From Outer Space is the equivalent of the man walking into a rough-house wearing pink tights. The film begins with a monologue by Criswell, the ridiculous television psychic who made a name for himself by giving predictions that were so transparently bullshit that I am sure he himself was incredulous that anyone believed a word. He begins the film by telling us a few things, including that “future events such as these will affect you in the future”. Only he says it in a manner that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. He tells us that “future events” (moves head back noticeably) “such as these” (moves head forward more noticeably) “will affect you” (moves head back a little more subtly) “in the future” (moves head forward again). This brings to mind two possibilities, especially given that Criswell was by this time an experienced television celebrity who had been making speeches in front of the camera for years at the time.
- Criswell rehearsed his lines and decided that this manner of delivery was best for the monologue he was meant to deliver.
- Ed Wood specifically asked him to deliver the monologue in this manner.
There are numerous factors that make either explanation just as likely. In order to understand what makes the former explanation, that Criswell simply decided to deliver his opening monologue in this manner, likely, it is necessary to relate a story about the making of the film. During the film, one of the men playing a police detective, Duke Moore, points his prop gun at himself a number of times. In point of fact, he scratches himself with it at one point in a manner that suggests one twitch of the wrong muscle at the wrong time would result in said detective blowing his own head off. Duke has said in more recent times that he did this in order to test whether Ed Wood would notice.
Now, the IMDB offers the statement that needless to say, Ed did not notice. But I prefer the kind of explanation that is offered by Tim Burton‘s biopic, Ed Wood. In a scene depicting the shooting of Bride Of The Monster, Tor Johnson as portrayed by George “The Animal” Steele attempts to cross a room through two doors. He bumps into the second wall, and the entire hastily-built set shakes like like… well, like paper-thin fibro walls shake when a four-hundred pound giant of a man stumbles into them. The Ed Wood portrayed to perfection by Johnny Depp instructs the crew to cut and print the shot. Someone on the set, I forget who, asks Ed if he is serious about that shot being in the final cut of the film. After it is pointed out to him that Tor walked into a wall and made it shake like I do after trying to watch a particularly bad video transfer, the film’s Ed comes back with a rationalisation that is priceless. You know, Lobo (Tor‘s character in Bride Of The Monster) would have to deal with that problem every day.
You see, in the wacky world of Ed Wood, men who live and die by professional use of firearms may well scratch themselves, in both the most literal and figurative senses, with their firearms all the damned time. Boredom, exasperation, frustration, pick your favourite motivation for a professional police officer to scratch at themselves with a gun. For all that Duke Moore knows to the contrary, someone may have pointed out to Wood that he was scratching himself with what is ostensibly a loaded revolver. And Wood may well have stated that a police officer standing around a graveyard for hours on end might well start to scratch his nuts with anything handy, including his gun.
Ed Wood was just that kind of guy.
Another hilarious moment in the Ed Wood biopic comes when Johnny Depp‘s portrayal of Ed is reviewing reels of filmed stock footage. Stock footage, for those who do not know, is basically footage that has been shot with no clear purpose in mind, and is kept in a vault to eventually be spliced into other films. For instance, during films like Damien: Omen II, any time you see extreme close-ups of ravens flying about or looking into the camera, that is more than likely stock footage. Now, the trick with stock footage is to carefully edit it into the destination film so that it does not look too obvious. Not only does Ed Wood not do that, in the biopic named after him, his impersonation by Johnny Depp says that if he had half a chance, he could make an entire film using the stock footage that he is looking at. Glen Or Glenda? has had a number of different issues and edits with different running lengths, but the version available at present on DVD is around sixty-eight minutes in length. Of that, somewhere around fourteen minutes is either entirely stock footage, or stock footage with Béla Lugosi‘s rambling narrations superimposed over part of it. Fourteen goes into sixty-eight 4.85 and change times. In other words, Glen Or Glenda? is 20.58 and change percent stock footage.
Okay, so Ed did not make an entire film out of stock footage. But he deserves credit for coming closer than any director before or since. And I have great certainty that this record, now some fifty-nine years in the holding, is not going to be challenged by a commercial feature film anytime soon.
Now, I have mentioned Tim Burton‘s biopic, Ed Wood, a few times already. It plays fast and loose with a lot of facts about Wood‘s life and those of the people he knew. But where it excels is how it celebrates the life, triumphs, and tragedies of a kindred spirit. Tim Burton clearly loved Ed Wood and his work. And the cast that Burton used to portray Ed Wood and the people he worked with is pretty much spot-on.
Of the people portrayed in said biopic, the surviving member that has raised the biggest stink about being portrayed inaccurately is, not surprisingly, Delores Fuller. Delores appears in two of the three films that are covered in the biopic. In chronological order, these are Glen Or Glenda? and Bride Of The Monster. I have seen both of these films. Whilst Wood did his level best to write her characters in a sympathetic, endearing manner, there is a small hint that she is thinking “what in the hell am I doing here?” every time she appears before the camera. Every time. Given that Fuller would later find success writing songs that have been recorded by Elvis Presley, amongst others, I think there is a certain justification for thinking such things. But good actors like Béla Lugosi know how to hide such thoughts from the camera to a great degree. From watching her in those two films, I can tell you that Fuller quite clearly did not. Perhaps Fuller was upset by the manner in which she was portrayed in Ed Wood the film is because when one sees her performances in Ed Wood the man’s earlier films, the portrayal is perfectly believable.
Glen Or Glenda?… apart from the whole stock footage thing that I have already talked about, there is no nice way to put this. It is a mess. There are two basic stories in the film. One is about a man who likes to wear women’s clothes. The other is about a man getting a sex change. The latter is the original script idea that was meant to be about Christine Jorgensen, the first person in history to both undergo a sex change and tell the public about it. Producer George Weiss had originally attempted to get the rights to Jorgensen‘s story, but widespread publicity for said story prompted Jorgensen to demand a high fee for it. So Weiss‘ idea was to make a knock-off story that was sufficiently different to pass muster with copyright lawyers. Wood‘s idea, on the other hand, was to make a film about a man who struggles with the idea of admitting to his girlfriend that he likes to wear women’s clothes.
In the hands of a more competent writer and director, both stories could have been blended together, although it would also been an uneasy fit. Wood, however, writes and directs in a manner that is best summarised by the reason he would never be hired to do the special effects in an episode of Bewitched. In Glen Or Glenda?, he attempts what I will refer to as a paused-shot effect in order to make it appear that Béla Lugosi‘s character makes a woman appear out of thin air. In order to make this effect work as it did in Bewitched is a fairly simple thing, as film effects go. One stops the camera right at the point of the shot in which the character is meant to disappear or appear, makes the actor whose character appears or disappears walk into or out of the frame, and starts the camera up once again. The rest is done in editing. In order for this to work, however, everything with the exception of the appearing or disappearing actor must remain exactly the same between the stopping and restarting of the camera. And the editor must also perfectly splice the gap together. There are many shots of this type in Bewitched where the splice is not quite perfect, and there is a small, but just barely noticeable, judder in the shot when this effect is applied.
In Glen Or Glenda?, not only do the props and lighting change in a very noticeable manner when Anne appears, they change a good portion of a second before she appears. The reason for the barely-perceptible judder in such shots in Bewitched is because matching up the final frame of the shot in which the disappearing or reappearing actor is or is not in frame to the first frame in which they are or are not in frame perfectly is not only very difficult, but if the director shooting the raw footage messes up anything to even a slight extent in shooting the footage, it becomes virtually impossible. Ed Wood‘s screw-up in Glen Or Glenda?, in comparison to these very minor judders in such shots of Bewitched, is as a nuclear bomb to a slingshot.
I could go on all day about Glen Or Glenda? alone, but I will not. I simply cannot do justice to how manic, deluded, and deeply flawed a film it is. But I can qualify that by stating that like all of Ed Wood‘s films, not only does the broad story betray a certain noble intent with the story being told, there are some legitimately effective shots that grab the attention of the viewer and keep it.
Bride Of The Monster was originally titled Bride Of The Atom. That should tell you all you need to know about what the story is about. In the mid-1950s, stories about nuclear confrontation and its presumed consequences were all the rage. However, the consequences were almost universally portrayed as involving super-mutant monsters that grew to massive heights and ate people. The Japanese film Gojira, which was released in 1954 as opposed to Bride Of The Monster‘s 1955, is widely held to be the best example of this sub-genre.
At this point, it is worth talking a bit about mistakes, blunders, and screw-ups in films. Every film, no matter how expertly shot, has at least a few of these. There was, at one point, a website dedicated to pointing out every such mistake in the Star Wars films. My favourite example of such a mistake occurs during a Mediabreak segment of RoboCop. Just after the councilman holding the mayor and a number of his staff hostage is knocked out of a window to a fatal fall by RoboCop, the Mediabreak segment begins with a replay of the councilman landing from a news cameraman’s perspective. In this replay, said councilman’s legs can be seen bouncing back up into frame, reflecting that the stuntman who dived out of the window landed on a safety mat. (Bodies that fall from the height shown onto solid concrete, especially after being punched in the face like that, tend to not move much.)
Like Glen Or Glenda?, Bride Of The Monster has at least five feature films’ shares of mistakes. The most talked-about and noticeable occurs toward the end of the film, with Béla Lugosi‘s stunt double wrestling a large fake octopus that clearly has no ability to move independently of Lugosi(‘s stunt double). This scene was also incorporated into Tim Burton‘s biopic, with a story of the production and Lugosi reflecting on the incorrect choices in his career that have led to this moment of him fake-wrestling with a giant rubber octopus. Bride Of The Monster is also the film featuring the aforementioned shot in which Tor Johnson makes the entire room wobble by bumping a door frame.
The basic plot of the film goes something like this. The Mad Scientist stereotype portrayed by Béla Lugosi, one Eric Vornoff, wants to create a superman. In order to do this, he kidnaps a dozen men and exposes them to “atomic energy”. As word of the disappearances spreads, a newspaper reporter starts asking questions and ends up directly confronting Vornoff. The biopic Ed Wood that I keep referring back to has it that the role of the reporter was originally written for Delores Fuller, but Wood gave the role to Loretta King when she “offered” to help “finance” the film. This is based on an allegation made by Fuller, which King has strongly denied.
Irrespective of which side of the story you believe, one thing that comes across very strongly in a shot where both women are in front of the camera is that Ed Wood not only had very little sense of how his finished shots would look to an audience, he also had very little sense of control over his actors. King acts the scene in a fashion suggesting that she wants to play the part well, but does not have sufficient grounding in its reality to convince herself, leave alone the audience. Fuller, on the other hand, transparently cannot give a shit, and the scene in the biopic where she tells Wood that she just finished the film so he can be done with it and she can leave rings very true after seeing the actual film.
Incidentally, there is a scene early in same biopic where the character of Delores Fuller, being portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker, after reading a review of a performance she puts on in theatre for Ed Wood and his company, asks if she really does have a face like a horse. Although the real Fuller and Parker have slight similarities in facial structure, I have no problem believing that this was a jab at Parker on Tim Burton‘s part. She really does have a face that could frighten guard dogs.
In the same biopic, during a factual-error-riddled representation of the premiere of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Johnny Depp‘s portrayal of Ed Wood excitedly states to himself that this is it, this is the film he will be remembered for. I doubt that any director in history, be he one as hilariously incompetent as Wood or one as stupefyingly awesome as Verhoeven, has actually said this whilst watching their own work. But if I were making a biopic of Verhoeven, a shot in which Paul tells his wife that RoboCop is the film he will be remembered for would be very close to the ending.
The last film covered in Tim Burton‘s biopic of Ed Wood is indeed the one he is best remembered for. Interestingly, of the ones I have seen, it also comes the closest to anything remotely approaching technical competence. And when I say closest, I still mean that overall, the distance between it and what you would call a well-made film compares favourably to the distance between planets.
Plan 9 From Outer Space is often called the worst film of all time. It is not. Oh sure, it is technically incompetent, the script resembles something a kindergarten child would write, and exactly what Ed Wood is trying to say with the story is anybody’s guess. But Plan 9 From Outer Space, in terms of badness in the sense of being unenjoyable or pissing away money, is nothing compared to the like of Highlander II, Eegah, Prayer Of The Rollerboys, or Battlefield Earth. Plan 9 From Outer Space may not have been intended as a comedy, but it is easily one of the funniest films ever made.
Much has been made of the fact that the film was built around existing footage of Béla Lugosi that had been shot a short time before his death. Essentially, Wood decided to use this footage and employ a double for scenes involving Lugosi‘s character that had not been shot yet. In a typical Wood-ian example of result blindness, the double in question looks nothing like Lugosi. The double, a dentist by the name of Thomas Mason, is more slender, taller, and differently-structured in the face, compared to Lugosi. No problem, Wood said, Thomas, just hold the cape up in front of your face when you go and stalk the “victims” in the film. Of course, this only attracts more attention to the fact that the man we are watching in Plan 9 From Outer Space is quite clearly not Béla Lugosi.
Plan 9 From Outer Space concerns itself with alien visitors who reanimate the corpses of people who have recently died, with the intention of talking to the world’s leaders about research being conducted on Earth that they claim could end all life in the universe. Of course, the one area where the film touches upon reality is that the plan they adopt, this resurrection of the dead to scare people at what looks like one of the smallest towns in rural America, does not get the aliens a sympathetic hearing.
As discussed in one brief segment of Flying Saucers Over Hollywood, there is a scene at the end of Plan 9 From Outer Space in which several Humans confront the aliens inside their flying saucer. The man talking about this scene states, correctly, that in “better” films, the aliens come to the Humans and calmly explain how superior they are and how we must mend our ways and blah blah blah. Ed Wood‘s aliens lose their cool so quickly that it would almost be endearing if it had been expounded upon a little further. In spite of the daft writing, Ed Wood‘s aliens somehow manage to seem more Human than the actual Human characters.
As the biopic states at the end, Ed Wood continued to work for years after Plan 9 From Outer Space was released, but mainstream success continually eluded him. Not only did film executives have a problem believing he was serious about the films he was making, but he died long before watching bad films for comedic value became a hip thing amongst film buffs. Hell, the watching a bad film to laugh at it thing did not really pick up steam until I was nearly in my teens. And it really did not grow beyond being a splinter, cult idea until after the advent of the DVD-Video specification.
If Ed Wood were alive today, he would be eighty-eight years old. I think on the one hand, the fact that outsider art like his is being appreciated and studied would make him happy. On the other hand, I think that the manner in which the politics and discourse of today have changed would have him shaking his head in despair.
I have mentioned two films that were not made by Ed Wood, but rather about him. Both are essential viewing not only to understand Wood the artist, but also the art form he was trying to make a name for himself in. The first, a biopic titled Ed Wood, is worth watching just in order to get an idea of how one of his most successful and ardent fans saw him. The other is a documentary entitled Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion.
Ed Wood has nothing, stuff all, in common with the work of its subject. In fact, the opening titles of this biopic cost more to make than all of Wood‘s films put together. Presumably, when people in trivia departments say this, they mean the films he made before the 1960s found him turning to pornography in order to pay the rent. But Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion is a fact-based post-mortem on the life and times of Ed Wood. At near to two hours, it is considerably longer than any of his feature films. And whilst it was clearly shot with a VHS camcorder using well-balanced but noticeably low-fidelity sound, with a host that looks as if he took his appearance fee in beer, it still reaches a level of professionalism that Ed Wood never even aimed for.
Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Compaion (referred to as FSOH going forward) starts with tidbits about Ed‘s childhood, his early career, the period in which he made his best-known films, and what happened after. I will not reveal a whole lot about its content here. If you can get a copy on whatever medium suits, watch it as many times as you can, then watch it some more.
There are many specific examples of where FSOH offers unparalleled insight into how the film industry really works. But I will talk about two, and only two of them, in order to make readers understand why I think so highly of it. I will go in the reverse of the order they occur within the documentary. In one interview with a man who teaches filmmaking in tertiary school, said man states that that one of his teaching techniques is to show his students an example of when filmmaking is not done well, and have them write notes about everything they spot as being “wrong” in the example. He does not normally show students entire films, but in Plan 9 From Outer Space‘s case… anyway, in order to give the exercise a solid basis, he also makes lists of examples he notices of things being done not-well. As seen in FSOH, his list occupies at least several A4 pages.
The other example of FSOH’s awesome insights comes a little earlier. The person saying this might well have been the same man as in the example I just cited. I plead that it has been a while since I last watched it. The statement made by this person is that unlike his critics who really put him down and say that he was a worthless filmmaker, Ed Wood actually made these films. I forget the exact wording, but the man starts by saying that some say Wood was not merely a bad filmmaker, but a worthless one. He briefly pauses to highlight the fact that as filmmakers go, bad and worthless are two different things.
Ed Wood never made a film in which he took an existing story, mangled it into something a polar opposite of what its creators intended, inserted masturbation references so crude and yet so childish that they make me ill just to think about, and then put the result into circulation with a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to bully its intended audience to think it was somehow “cooool”. Regardless of how amateurish they are, Ed Wood‘s films trusted in the audience to see the very hidden wisdom in his message.
So if you were wondering if there was a point to all of this, here is the most obvious one. To paraphrase words from Martin Landau‘s award-winning impersonation of Béla Lugosi, Michael Bay is not worthy to smell Ed Wood‘s shit.