Ed D. Wood Jr.’s legacy as the Holy Grail of cinematically challenged is unfair. Writing in the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards film critics Michael and Harry Medved singled out his movie Plan 9 from Outer Space in the Worst Movie Ever Made category while also hanging the title of Worst Director around his neck. Since then his name has been synonymous with failure and ridicule.
To be sure Mr. Wood was no Cecil B. DeMille, but he doesn’t deserve the critical sneers leveled at his work. Certainly movies like Glen or Glenda and Jail Bait were restricted by their über-low budgets and appear hopelessly amateurish, littered by ridiculous special effects and melodramatic acting, but they are entertaining and isn’t that what it’s all about? Many directors have spent a lot more money and not come close to delivering the same kind of giddy fun that The Sinister Urge pulsates with.
Take Michael Bay for instance. His movies make loads of money at the box office, but never fail to put me to sleep. Visually his films are spectacular feasts for the eyes. The former commercial director has a knack for making everything look shiny but having great taste doesn’t make a great film director any more than great taste makes a Snicker’s bar a gourmet meal.
To my mind the difference between Ed D. Wood Jr. and Michael Bay is simple. Wood’s films are inexpertly but lovingly made by someone who is desperate to share his vision. Bay’s big glitzy movies feel like cynical money grabs more concerned with the bottom line than personal expression. I’m quite sure that if Bay had to undergo the trials and tribulations Wood had to suffer to get his movies made he would run to the hills, or maybe just back to his big house in the Hollywood Hills.
Even though his enthusiasm usually trumped his capabilities Wood was a true artist, a true pioneer of the indie spirit; someone who fought tooth and nail to present his vision and no matter how cockeyed that vision may have been he believed in it and his ability to capture it on film. In time this Hollywood-outsider developed a unique Do-It-Yourself style akin to folk art; crudely crafted pieces that radiate with the passion of the artist.
One of his lesser known films, 1955’s Bride of the Monster, predates Plan 9 from Outer Space, but is cut from the same cloth.
Wood claimed the idea for the film came to him in a dream. “I keep a pencil and pad beside my bed at night because many a dream turns out to be a good plot,” he said. “That’s where Bride of the Monster came from, although it was first called Bride of the Atom.”
The story is credited to Wood and producer Alex Gordon, who disputes Wood’s dream-state inspiration for the film, claiming it was his script and he “got Eddie involved to polish” to make it more appealing to its star Bela Lugosi. Whatever the case, it contains all the earmarks of a Wood production, the strange stream-of-consciousness dialogue, bizarre editing, inappropriate use of stock footage and a story that almost, but doesn’t quite make sense.
Lugosi, in his last speaking role, plays Dr. Eric Vornoff, a mad scientist trying to create a race of atomic supermen. With his beefy assistant Lobo (Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, who at 6’3’’ and 300 pounds was so large that when he was on the road he frequently stole toilet seats from hotels to replace the ones he broke at home) the doctor has been terrorizing the woods around Lake Marsh, kidnapping people to use as guinea pigs in his twisted experiments. He needs a steady supply of victims because the high dose of radiation needed to transform them into mutants usually kills them. (His success rate might have something to do with the equipment he’s using. His “high-tech” radiation zapper looks suspiciously like a photographic enlarger hanging from a mike stand and topped with a salad bowl.)
There’s a twist when an old colleague of Vornoff’s shows up to kidnap him and take him to the USSR. It seems Vornoff first hatched his plan to raise an army of nuclear giants while he was working for the Russian government. They thought the plan was outlandish and ran the mad scientist out of the country. Now they want him back and he doesn’t want to go. When the Russian pulls a gun Lobo saves his master’s life by subduing the agent and feeding him to a giant octopus.
The Russian isn’t the only unwelcome visitor. Janet (Loretta King) a cub reporter has been snooping around. Worse, she’s the girlfriend of Lt. Craig (Tony McCoy). Lobo finds her and brings her to Vornoff who prepares to experiment on her. He’s interrupted by Craig who has been searching for his lost girlfriend. Once again Lobo uses his muscle to diffuse the situation when he grabs Craig from behind and chains him to a wall.
Vornoff continues his evil experiment on Janet, but something has changed. Lobo has developed a crush on the girl and just as the scientist is about to pull the switch that may well kill Janet, Lobo pounces on him and straps him to the table and zaps him with the lethal juice. Instead of killing the doctor the rays work and he is turned into an atomic superman. The experiment is finally a success! The doctor overpowers Lobo, grabs Janet and makes a break for the woods. With the police in hot pursuit he must avoid capture, but he really should be more worried about that giant octopus.
Like all of Wood’s movies Bride of the Monster seems a little disjointed. Continuity is non-existent, the editing is peculiar and the ending is a bizarre non sequitur that involves a massive nuclear explosion. All of these shortcomings can be explained away, however, by Wood’s budgetary problems — one colleague said that Ed Wood made Roger Corman look like a big spender — and fractured production schedule.
The movie, which should have taken the director no more than 20 days to shoot, actually became a sprawling start-and-stop marathon which dragged on for just over a year. Wood would raise enough cash to shoot ten or fifteen minutes of film, run through that money and shut the production down. Every few weeks he’d move to a new studio leaving behind a trail of burned investors. Finally, a man named Donald McCoy stepped in with enough funds to complete the film. McCoy’s money, however, came with two caveats. First he wanted his son Tony, an actor Wood later called “the worst I ever had,” to play one of the leads and he insisted that the movie literally end with a bang.
The money man convinced Wood to include the from-out-of-the-blue nuclear blast ending as a message against the American-Russian Nuclear Arms Race. Wood, desperate to finish the movie, agreed on both counts.
Despite the film’s weaknesses the presence of Bela Lugosi elevates the proceedings. Lugosi, who, in 1931 had become a major movie star — it was rumored that after the release of Dracula he received more fan mail from females than Clark Gable — was on the skids. Drug addicted, near broke and frail he was working for $750 a day, a sum, Wood pointed out, that was more than he made for Dracula. He may have been in poor health, but the 73-year-old came alive when the camera rolled.
Wood utilizes some of the classic Lugosi moves from past movies — the tight hypnotic close-ups of his eyes and the sinister double-jointed finger movements are pure Dracula — and takes full advantage of Lugosi’s menacing aura. Parts of the performance are, of course, ridiculous. For instance, the platform shoe–wearing body double who battles Lobo clearly isn’t Lugosi.
The famous octopus battle scene, Lugosi’s final scene in the film, has become the stuff of indie film legend. According to legend Wood “borrowed” the cephalopod (originally seen in the John Wayne film Wake of the Red Witch) from the props storage vault at Republic Studios. Trouble is he forgot to liberate the motor which operated the giant beast’s tentacles. When it came time to shoot Lugosi was simply lowered down on top of the creature in freezing cold water and told to wave the tentacles in the air, simulating a life-or-death struggle. Lugosi heroically thrashes about with the gigantic beast, but the limitations of a 73-year-old man trying to manipulate the octopus puppet are painfully obvious. “When we got through with the scene, he drank a whole bottle of Jack Daniels just to get warm,” said Wood.
Another often cited gaffe, however, is unfounded. It’s been widely suggested that Lugosi, saying his lines through a haze of alcohol and drugs, says in one scene that Lobo is as gentle as “a kitchen.” Actually, the line is “gentle as a kitten” and that’s exactly what he says, though filtered through his heavy Romanian accent.
Lugosi’s legacy suffered over the years. His low rent work with Wood and others tarnished his reputation, but it was a film made after his death that may have left the most lasting and erroneous impression about the man.
Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood sees Martin Landau play Lugosi as a bitter, foul mouthed man with a grudge against Boris Karloff. In the film he calls Karloff a variety of names, including “limey cocksucker.” Never happened, according to Forrest J. Ackerman. The founder of the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and a friend of Lugosi told me in 1995 that “he was a real European gentleman. I never heard him say so much as a hell or a damn and they [Ed Wood filmmakers] had him uttering these scatological things about Boris Karloff that he never would have uttered in real life. I don’t think he even knew the term ‘limey’.”
Bride of the Monster isn’t as well known as Wood’s masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space, but is equally enjoyable. Michael Bay fans may not get it, but connoisseurs of outsider art certainly will.