Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Ed Wood (1994)

This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.”— Ed Wood commenting on his film Plan 9 From Outer Space

Inspector Clay’s dead. Murdered. And somebody’s responsible!

Future events like these will affect you in the future! ” —from Plan 9 From Outer Space

It’s not a big list. I’m talking about the list of genuine American war heroes (decorated for bravery in the bloody island-hopping South Pacific campaign) who later admitted to enjoying wearing women’s clothes and went on to feature 400-lb Swedish ex-wrestlers and chi­ropractors in some of the worst movies ever made. Well, actually, there’s only one name on that list: Edward D. Wood Jr. Ed Wood’s life is almost a perfect barometer of pessimism. Was it a life half empty, or a life half full? In most hands, we’d get the biography of a spectacularly untalented man whose inability to make even a mediocre film ended in a descent into alcoholism and pornography. A career so without honor that Wood’s name was pointedly absent from the original editions of such standard cinematic refer­ence works as David Thompson’s A Biographical Dic­tionary of Film and Ephraim Katz’s massive The Film Encyclopedia. Boxed sets of Night of the Ghouls, Shot­gun Wedding, and Orgy of the Dead will probably not be readily available anytime soon. Plan 9 From Outer Space is unlikely to lose its now near-mythic status as the Worst Movie of All Time.

Is it possible to salvage anything out of this seeming wreckage of a human soul, this celluloid scrap yard? Yes. Yes, indeed. Ask Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Martin Landau. Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s best movie. It was one of the best mov­ies of 1994. Burton & Co. saw a life half full and over­flowing. Watching Ed Wood is like seeing through Don Quixote’s eyes as he rode against the windmills he thought were giants. Forget for a short while what the dispassionate world sees—a foolish old man and an inept young one—and share the one thing which unites them across four centuries: enthusiasm. They were out to make a better world for us all. Don Quixote would have been Sir Galahad; Ed Wood would have been Orson Welles. Absurd ambitions? Without a doubt. Mean ones? Not at all. How’s this for optimism:

Hey, it’s [describing a review of his play The Casual Company] not that bad. You can’t concentrate on the negative. Look, [the reviewer’s] got some nice things to say here. ‘The sol­dier’s costumes are very realistic.’ That’s positive! I’ve seen reviews where they never even mentioned the cos­tumes…Don’t take it seriously. We’re all doing great work!” (Johnny Depp as Ed Wood))

What else but enthusiasm could persuade an ailing 66-year-old Bela Lugosi to wade into a pool of cold water at 2 a.m. to fight a giant rubber octopus? What else but enthusiasm would allow Ed Wood to convince a group of earnest Baptist businessmen, looking to make a series of films on the Gospels, that they could finance their project by bankrolling something caller Grave Robbers From Outer Space? As a mystified colleague remarks, “How do you do it? How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?”

Ed Wood was a great believer in the suspension of disbelief. So what if a few cardboard gravestones fell over during shooting. So what if an actor ran into a fake wall and caused the whole set to shake. So what if the cameraman was colorblind. After all, “Film-making is not about the tiny details. It’s about the Big Picture!’ Here was a man for whom four days was a complete shooting schedule. Ed would shoot 20 scenes in the time it would take some directors to set up a single take. Was there some old footage available (bison stampedes, frogs, war scenes)? Use it all! “This is fantastic! What are you going to do. with it? I could make an entire movie using this stock footage!”

It’s tempting to end half of Johnny Depp’s lines with exclamation marks (“Wow! Real camels!”). He plays Wood as a perpetually burning fuse that refuses to be snuffed out no matter how thoroughly it’s doused. And usu­ally with scorn. His smile is a miracle of rare device, both heartbreakingly vulnerable and as irrepressible as the sun. Johnny Depp is extraordinary. A role which could easily have degenerated into caricature in less talented hands becomes instead an ode to joy.

One can only guess what Bela Lugosi thought of it all. The Hungarian actor, who had become an interna­tional sensation as Dracula, was a forgotten man when he first met Wood: “I haven’t worked in four years. This town, it chews you up and spits you out. I’m just an ex-bogeyman….Today it’s all giant bugs.” Lugosi had made a hundred films, almost none of them memo­rable. Most people in Hollywood thought he was dead, He was foundering under the combined weight of pov­erty and a heroin addiction. Wood didn’t revive Lugosi’s career, but he offered him respect, adulation, and friendship when he needed it most. The relationship between the two men was like that of a grizzled, ill- tempered old German shepherd and a pesky pup. Mar­tin Landau deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lugosi.

Hats off to Tim Burton for lovingly stealing every B-movie cliché of the 1950’s. To Stefan Czapsky for the “authentic” black & white photography. To Howard Shore for a wonderfully idiosyncratic musical score fea­turing Lidia Kavina’s theremin solos. And to the stellar supporting cast.

Ed Wood died of a heart attack, December 10th, 1978, at the age of 54. Everything he owned fitted into a suitcase. Three days prior to his death, he and his wife had been evicted from their apartment. Seven­teen years later, thanks to Tim Burton, he is back from the dead. His friends are still loyal. It turns out that Ed Wood’s life is the best Ed Wood movie of them all.

 

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

I’m taking a little different approach with this second look at Ed Wood. I’ve spent a few days watching the “classic” Ed Wood movies, which are all available for free streaming, and reading Rudolph Grey’s excellent oral biography, Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy. I wanted to get my thoughts down here before I went back to Tim Burton’s take on the man often called the world’s worst filmmaker.

Although images of poor old Bela Lugosi struggling with a fake octopus might not be on a par with Death playing chess in The Seventh Seal, Ed Wood was the real deal when it came to being a filmmaker. He never had much money, and he probably didn’t have a whole lot of talent, but his entire life revolved around putting stories on the screen the best way he knew how. If he had to steal a rubber octopus from some studio’s prop department, so be it. If he had to hire a financial backer’s son as a lead actor, why the hell not. If he ran out of flying saucer models, a Cadillac hubcap would do just fine. Nothing ever stopped him from making movies, in the same way nothing ever stopped him from writing a long string of sleazy sensationalistic or pornographic dime store novels with titles like Orgy of the Dead and Purple Thighs. He was an author. He was a director. He did the best he could with what he had. I don’t know if he actually ever scared anyone with his horror pictures, awed them with his science fiction, or riveted them to their seats with film noirs, but we’re still checking in on his creations and we’re still talking about him.

He paid for his notoriety. He died of a heart attack at 54. There was too much booze. Too much partying. Too much womanizing. Too many worries about where the next dollar was coming from. Maybe too much tension trying to reconcile the man who performed medal-winning heroics as a Marine in the Pacific War and the man with an uncontrollable fetish for women’s undies and angora sweaters. I suspect he would have fared poorly under the current scrutiny of the treatment of young women in the entertainment industries.

Given the chance, though, I don’t know that he would have done anything differently. He lived his life as if it were a headline story straight out of one of the Men’s Adventure Magazines whose lurid covers were actually tamer than some of the stuff he wrote and filmed. I’m not saying that we don’t have every right to laugh at his dumber-than-dumb aliens, stock footage rip-offs, cardboard sets, and voice-of-doom narrators. In Wood’s memory, we should be partying with triple bills of his films, throwing popcorn at the screen, shouting out lines of dopey dialogue, and laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. But—and this an important “but”—we should also pause every now and then to acknowledge that occasionally Ed Wood hit on themes that other directors in the late 50’s wouldn’t dream of tackling. No one acknowledged this more frankly than movie critic Danny Peary. In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Peary wrote of Glen or Glenda (1953), Wood’s debut as a director, “Surprisingly, the picture’s treatment of transvestism is serious and sensitive. Indeed, the film dares defend transvestites, saying that if allowed to wear women’s clothing they’ll be credits to their communities and government….one must be impressed by this film for the very reason that it takes a stand on a subject that surely was in 1953 not even acceptable enough to be considered controversial.” Talking about the speech that’s given by the alien Eros near the end of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Peary wrote (in Cult Movies), “Don’t let the fact that Eros is a maniac throw you off—at rare moments, he is as sound a visionary as is Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Wood just had to make Eros crazy to camouflage his political message so that he wouldn’t have trouble with censors. I believe that in this one scene (in the spaceship), in this one godawful, terribly made, poor excuse for a picture, Edward D. Wood is more critical of America’s government and military strategy (that calls for an arms buildup and further nuclear experiments) than any other director dared to be….Plan 9, dreadful as it is, is something far more significant, and therefore better, than ‘The Worst Film of All Time’ could possibly be.”

Ed Wood came out of the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. Could it be that the current Trump era is birthing its own cinematic paragon of bad taste and subversive content? Looking at Wood’s life and oeuvre, it’s hard to know if he would have celebrated Trump’s America or been appalled by it.

Movie Information

Genre: Biography
Director: Tim Burton
Actors: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Vincent D’Onofrio
Year: 1994
Country:
Original Review: November 1995

Cyberspace:

Black Hole

http://blackholereviews.blogspot.ca/

If you’re a fan of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine or Fangoria, this site’s for you. “One man and his blog – recommending horror films and offbeat cinema without spoilers.” The blogger in question is Mark Hodgson. The feature article when I last looked was “Zombie! Catastrophe! Freaks! – 1970’s movie books from Lorrimer.” Other articles: “H.P. Lovecraft movies – the older ones” and “The Case Files of Kindaichi – six decades of detection.” There’s a massive number of reviews and links to anime, Japanese horror, Giant Monsters, Barbarella’s Shagpile Cockpit, movie magazines, and the list goes on an on. Not going to be bored anytime soon….

Classic-Horror.com

https://classic-horror.com/about

From the introduction: “Classic-Horror.com is a website dedicated to exploring and celebrating the history of the horror film, through reviews, articles, and biographies of artists who have contributed to the genre. The site first opened in 1999.” The editor-in-chief was Nate Yapp. The site stopped adding new material in 2012, but everything’s archived here: reviews, biographies, news articles, feature articles, and interviews.

Films Worth Talking About:

Four Weddings and a Funeral, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? In the Name of the Father, Minna Tannenbaum, Shadowlands, Backbeat, Serial Mom, The Crow, Speed, Pulp Fiction, Three Colors: Red, Queen Margot, Little Buddha, Forrest Gump, True Lies, The Lion King, Quiz Show, Ed Wood, Bullets over Broadway, Heavenly Creatures, Le Fils préféré, [The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert], Immortal Beloved, The Madness of King George, The Last Seduction, The Mask, Wolf, Nell, The Shawshank Redemption, Disclosure, The Client, Nobody’s Fool

The Bigger Picture

Sidebar #45c: The Bigger Picture

Films: Glen or Glenda (1953), Jailbait (1954), Bride of the Monster (1955), The Violent Years (1956), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956), Night of the Ghouls (1958), The Sinister Urge (1960), Gods and Monsters (1998)

Music:

Books: Rudolph Grey, Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy

The Word on the Street

What came out of Tim Burton’s fascination with the `Worst Director of All Time’ was something very rich and strange – perhaps the most un-Hollywood Hollywood picture of the 90s.
I see two main themes in ED WOOD. The first is the dreadful fear that hovers over everyone who enters the creative arts – `Am I any good?’ `Is my work any good?’ `How do I know if it’s any good?’ `What if I think it’s good, but everybody else thinks it’s rubbish?’ Artists use all kinds of strategies to deal with these fears – some become eccentric, others arrogant, others diffident. Without the right to fail, no artist is likely to take the sort of risk that sometimes, just sometimes, leads to great work. Tim Burton knew this.
Edward D Wood Jnr believed himself to be a creative artist. Oh, how he believed. But he still failed to create anything worthwhile. And this leads to what I believe to be the second theme of the movie, and the reason why I think it failed commercially.
Look at all the things Ed did right. He believed in himself. He followed his dream. He worked hard. He was an entrepreneur – he did his best to make others believe in his dream and help him to turn it into reality. In short, he did all the things that the self-help books, the daytime TV shows, the junk ballads and the feel-good movies tell us will give you success. Just wish upon a star, work all the hours there are to turn your vision into reality and you will succeed. Ed did all of these things. And still he failed. He died short of his 60th birthday, living in a crime-riddled apartment building, drunk, broke, supporting himself and his loyal wife Kathy by writing formula pornography and making sex instruction flicks on 8mm.
America doesn’t want to hear this. Hollywood doesn’t want to tell America this – that you can try and try and try and still get nothing but heartbreak. This is why ED WOOD is such an un-Hollywood film – and why it’s one of the best Hollywood films of the 90s.”

Peter Kendell

When he has a chance encounter with horror film legend Bela Lugosi, now a 74 year-old, foul-mouthed morphine addict wrecked by his lost fame, Ed sees his meal-ticket. Quick for his next fix, Lugosi doesn’t seem to mind that Wood is also an out-and-proud transvestite with a particular fondness for Angora sweaters, and soon begins starring in Wood’s features. Lugosi, played by Martin Landau, gives the story its biggest jolts of energy.”

JawsOfJosh

“…the love that Burton has for Wood and his movies shines through in every frame. Though I find Burton needlessly artsy as a director, here that tendency serves him frightfully well, as he manages to do the near-impossible; make a film about someone that plays like one of their films….Shot entirely in black and white, we see all of Wood’s weirdos not as they were, but rather as Ed probably saw them, through the bizarre filter he must have viewed life with.”

oshram@aol.com

Also delightful is a brief appearance by organist Korla Pandit, 1950’s television personality once billed ‘The Prince of the Wurlitzer’.”

Scritzy

Martin Landau . . . well . . . Martin Landau simply left me awestruck. Depp is all over the screen doin’ his best wacky movie guy and chewing the scenery, Parker, Arquette, Murray, and the rest are obviously having a real fun time backing him up, and Martin Landau is shuffling around in the foreground muttering in Romanian and writing a book called “How to Steal a Movie.” Mind boggling performance, and absolutely deserving every award it got him in 1995, which included a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Awards, and the American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. (Incidentally, his daughter Juliet, better known to millions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans as the vampire Drusilla, is one of the supporting players.)
If I weren’t already a Tim Burton fan this movie would have made me one. He here makes an almost perfectly crafted period piece (anachronisms noted–see the “goofs” page–and dismissed), half cheesy fake scifi B movie and half period noir thriller, as a cinematic biography about the quintessential cheesy fake noir scifi thriller B movie guy. This film goes beyond pastiche, and beyond homage to a genre, although it is both. With this film Burton genuflects–no, prostrates himself–before the gods of 1950s low-budget black and white, and the gods are pleased indeed. It seems like he must have watched every movie made in America for under a million dollars between 1948 and 1962. I lost count of the echoes and parodies and pastiches and mini-homages that fill, I think, every darn frame of the movie, and which by no means are mostly of Wood and his work.
As with, I think, every movie biography, there’s the odd gratuitous fact changing (see the “goofs” page again)–you know, the “Why’d they do that when the truth wouldn’t make any difference?” kind of stuff, and as glowing as this review obviously is I must also say that it is in some ways an imperfect film–it glosses over Wood’s later career, for example. But it it so obviously a labor of love and joy for all involved that in my opinion its imperfections are inconsequential. Ed Wood stands proudly, with that slightly odd gleam in its eye, with the best movie biographies made.”

editorbob