Edward D. Wood Jr.
Usually, bad movies are just boring. It takes a special film to cross over into that realm of so totally awful on every level, that you sit and wonder in awe at how it ever got made. Plus, you can't intentionally set out to make a so-bad-it's-good-movie - the quest to make a decent flick but failing is part of the appeal. Was there ever a film that you've watched that you knew - deep down in your heart - was so irrevocably wretched and terrible that you nevertheless still got a perverse level of entertainment value out of it? In other words, have there ever been films that you've sat through that, afterwards, you thought they were so bad that they were, in fact, kind of good?
Bad used to be a bad word. This was decades ago, when the creators and consumers of popular culture shared a notion of quality. A good movie possessed wit, style, coherence - competence. It had a story and stars that persuaded the viewer to get lost in the fiction. Movies did what entertainment was meant to do: suspend disbelief.
Bad movies - cheap horror films, dingy porno, old instructional pictures on dating technique - suspend belief. They become documentaries of people trying to make a good movie. With their preposterous narratives, fractured editing, tatty sets and monotonous line readings, they play like doomed dress rehearsals. First you are drawn into the catastrophe of the filmmaking process, like a rubbernecking motorist passing a road kill. Then you notice that these movies are doubly subversive: they not only subvert themselves, they rebel against the timid rules of traditional filmmaking. In this sense, bad movies are the first modernist movies, as the French long ago realized. "Learn to go see the 'worst' films," wrote Ado Kyrou in the 1957 Le Surrealisme au Cinema. "They are sometimes sublime."
The films of Edward D. Wood Jr. used to be just the old kind of bad. Wood's transvestite tale Glen or Glenda (1953) made a stir with "The Strange Case of a 'Man' Who Changed His Sex!" -- though actually Glen only wanted to change his frocks. But Jail Bait (1954), Bride of the Monster (1955), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956), Night of the Ghouls (1958) and The Sinister Urge (1961) went right into the commode. "Ed was a loser in my book," says the B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff. "Fundamentally, there were just too many things deficient."
Deficient? The word does no justice to Wood's work - to Bela Lugosi's mad monologues in Glen or Glenda ("Bevare of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep!" he intones between stock shots of atom-bomb blasts and buffalo herds. "He eats little boys! Puppy-dog tails! Big fat snails!"); to Bride of the Monster's rubber octopus with a broken tentacle, which Wood stole from Republic Studios; to Lugosi's double in Plan 9, who is a head taller than the star (who died during the filming) and must cover his face with a cape; to the thespian exertions of 400-lb. ex-wrestler Tor Johnson in Night of the Ghouls; to the rantings of TV mystic Criswell in the 1965 nudie horror musical Orgy of the Dead ("Torture! Torture! It pleasures me!").
Wood was, no question, a stupefyingly inept director. But he also had to make his movies in no time (three, maybe six, days) on weeny budgets (Jail Bait cost $22,000). He got Plan 9 financed by some Southern Baptists; he gave leading roles in Bride of the Monster to anyone who would fund the movie. "Eddie paid me off in cash," says actor Lyle Talbot, who was in Plan 9, "and sometimes it was a lot of singles."
In Wood's life, though, as limned in Rudolph Grey's new biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (published by the aptly named Feral House), there is a lot of American tragedy. For Wood carried a triple burden: he was a transvestite, an alcoholic and a dreamer. As a Marine during World War II, he made beach landings wearing bra and panties under his uniform.
Demobbed, he played a half man-half woman in a carnival before arriving in Hollywood to satisfy his twin obsessions: filmmaking and angora sweaters. The confessional Glen or Glenda, in which he played the title roles, was the apex of Wood's career. Later he was reduced to writing trash novels (Night Time Lez, Hell Chicks, Purple Thighs) and shooting porno shorts. In 1978, at 54, he died of a heart attack - spent for his art.
And just at this time, movie revisionists discovered Ed Wood. For the 1980 Golden Turkey Awards, Wood was voted "The Worst Director of All Time," and Plan 9 "The Worst Film of All Time." Critic J. Hoberman, in the book Midnight Movies, proclaimed Wood "the ultimate cult director, the terminal manifestation of 'expressive esoterica.' " Glen or Glenda showed up on the late-night circuit, and soon much of the auteur's awful oeuvre was available on videocassette. Now Wood, anonymous in life, is notorious in death. He wrote but did not direct Orgy of the Dead; yet the video box ballyhoos it as "Ed Wood Jr.'s Masterpiece of Erotic Horror - from the Creator of Plan 9 from Outer Space."
Grey calls those who treat Wood with benign contempt "jackals of bourgeois sensibility." And he's right. As critic Jim Morton notes, "If there is a 'worst film ever made,' it is one that is boring - a sin Ed Wood Jr. is rarely guilty of." But there is a more melancholy irony to be found in Grey's interviews with the director's colleagues. Unlike most trashmeisters, Wood had radical messages for his audience: about sexual tolerance (Glen or Glenda), nuclear madness (Plan 9), parental smugness (The Sinister Urge). He was as dedicated to filmmaking as Welles or Kurosawa. He just wasn't any good at it. Not by any standards: the old solemn ones of craft and glamour or the new giggly ones of condescension and camp.
So hail to the man whose films were too bad to be bad. He has finally inspired a work worthy of his ambitions. Delirious and horrifying - and All True! - Nightmare of Ecstasy is better than any Ed Wood film. No, the book deserves a higher compliment: it's worse!
Edward Davis Wood, Jr. was born on October 10, 1924 in Poughkeepsie, New York to Edward Sr., a postal worker and Lillian. It is said that Lillian always wanted a girl and until Ed, Jr., was 12-years-old she dressed him in girls' clothing.
Young Ed loved movies and eventually found a job as a cinema usher. He also learned several musical instruments and formed a singing quartet called Eddie Wood's Little Splinters. Ed Wood received his first movie camera on his 17th birthday and his first "film" records the crash of an airplane. When he was 17, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Wood enlisted in the Marines.
Upon his discharge from the Marines, Ed Wood pursued his love of the bizarre by joining the freak show of a carnival. At times, he played the part of the bearded lady and created his own prosthetic breasts. During the 1950s, he wrote, produced, and acted in a number of very low-budget science fiction, horror, and cowboy films. These films are celebrated today for their many obvious errors, cheap special effects, strange dialogue, miscasting, and crazy plots. Wood often struggled to make ends meet and was sometimes forced to churn out film scripts in one night to keep to schedules.
When his movie career began to wane, mostly from lack of funding, Ed Wood turned his prolific creative nature to the printed page, turning out sex novels, pulp fiction, and horror stories. The lack of money took its toll and Wood struggled with health issues, including an alcohol addiction. Eventually kicked out of their apartment, Wood and his wife, Kathleen O'Hara, moved in with a friend in North Hollywood. It was there that Wood died of a heart attack on December 10, 1978 at the age of 54.
Wood's legacy and cult following lives on with, for example, the University of Southern California holding an annual "Ed Wood Film Festival" for which students are charged with writing, filming, and editing an Ed Wood-esque short film based on a predetermined theme. His movies has been spoofed on Mystery Theater 3000 and many have been remade as pornographic movies. Additionally, many of his bizarre transvestite-themed sex novels have been republished.
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