by Steve Habrat
In the 1950s, moviegoers looking for a terrifying thrill were treated to some real flimsy basement efforts. There were science fiction films made with almost no money whatsoever, monster movies that featured atomic creatures with visible zippers up their side stalking a shrieking teenage girl, and then there were Ed Wood horror movies, which occupy a league of their own in the land of cringe-worthy B-movies. Wood is largely remembered for being one of the most incompetent directors of all time and the man who gave the world Plan 9 from Outer Space, a film that is widely considered the worst film ever made. Looking back on Plan 9 from Outer Space, we can now smile and acknowledge that this was a film made by a man who was determined to show the world his vision, even if they laughed it right off the screen. While casual horror fans may know Wood simply for Plan 9 from Outer Space, if you dig deeper into his catalogue of work, you will find another hidden gem in the form of 1955’s Bride of the Monster, an equally goofy, flawed, and downright hilarious attempt at being scary. Featuring lots of gothic castles, humid swamps, lightning flashes, giant rubber squids, and Bela Lugosi’s final speaking performance, Bride of the Monster manages to overcome the endless amount of flubs that comprise it and becomes a true labor of love that you just can’t resist, even if you desperately want to.
Bride of the Monster begins with two men, Jake (played by John Warren) and Mac (played by Bud Osborne), out in Lake Marsh when a nasty storm hits. Desperate to find shelter, the two men make their way to an old abandoned mansion that is rumored to house a monster. As they get closer to the mansion, Jake and Mac realize that the mansion may not be abandoned at all. As the men attempt to enter the mansion, they come face to face with Dr. Eric Vornoff (played by Bela Lugosi), who tells them to leave the property at once. When they protest, Dr. Vornoff’s mute assistant, Lobo (played by Tor Johnson), shows up and scares them away. In all the confusion, Mac falls into Lake Marsh and is attacked by a giant octopus and Jake is captured by Lobo and taken back to the old mansion where Dr. Vornoff begins performing a grotesque experiment on the terrified man. A few days later, police captain Robbins (played by Harvey B. Dunn) meets with Lt. Dick Craig (played by Tony McCoy) about the growing number of disappears in the swamp. Craig and Robbins decide to meet with Professor Strowski (played by George Becwar), who speaks of the Loch Ness Monster and claims to want to help with the situation. Meanwhile, feisty newspaper reporter Janet Lawton (played by Loretta King) grows tired of the slow response of the police and decides that she is going to do a little investigating of her own. It doesn’t take long for her to bump into Dr. Vornoff and Lobo, who slowly reveal their plan for world domination.
In true 50s fashion, Bride of the Monster is brimming with atomic paranoia, a staple of most horror and science fiction films of that period. Wood fills his picture with talk of an army of radioactive supermen, atomic bombs affecting the weather, and adds some out-of-place stock footage of mushroom clouds rolling into the atmosphere. One of these mushroom clouds can be found near the end, when one character shoots one of Vornoff’s attacking creatures. Conveniently, none of the characters are turned to ash even though they are extremely close to the blast. Wood clumsily attempts to send chills by using the fears of the day, but where he really excels is in the atmosphere, especially around Vornoff’s mansion. Sadly, he doesn’t seem to realize that he has outstanding stuff. The exterior shots outside the home are eerie and there are a few moments out in the swamp that show promise, but you have to wonder if the atrocious camera work wasn’t inadvertently lending a hand in creating a moody landscape for Wood’s mayhem. Though it’s hard to tell, the looming mansion appears to have a gothic touch and the looping lightning strikes call to mind Universal’s early films. Even his giant octopus is chilling in small doses, but naturally, Wood overdoes it and holds the shots for way too long, revealing the fact that it is just a giant rubber prop.
Surprisingly, Bride of the Monster features some above average performances, a shocker considering that this is Ed Wood we’re talking about. The standout is Bela Lugosi, who really lays his Lugosi-ness on thick here as Dr. Eric Vornoff. In his last starring role before his death, Lugosi whips out all his old Dracula tricks and puts them on full blast. He contorts his fingers into hypnotic claws and he bulges his eyes for Wood in extreme close-ups. He savors every single cheesy line of dialogue that Wood hands him and in one of the film’s shining moments, appears to almost forget the name of his character. Tor Johnson is a perfect fit for the lumber beefcake Lobo, the mute muscle that brings Vornoff his test subjects. This is a far better role for the Swedish wrestler than the police inspector one that he was given in Plan 9 from Outer Space. McCoy seems like the routine good old boy as Craig, an average guy out to protect his ladylove from the comic book evil that lurks out in the swamp. Early on, King is a ball of energy as the determined newspaper reporter Janet, but by the end, she is stuck on an operating table and struggling to look scared. Dunn largely remains behind a desk with a bird on his shoulder as the dry police captain and Becwar is forgettable as the suspicious Professor Strowski, who has a plan all his own.
Just like Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bride of the Monster is chock full of hilarious one-liners that are meant to be taken seriously and mistakes that you just can’t turn a blind eye to. The film is flatly shot, a stationary camera positioned to pick up the entire set as the actors fumble around in poor lightning. The sets that Wood has here are infinitely more convincing than anything you will see in Plan 9 from Outer Space (absolutely NOTHING beats that airplane cockpit and the cardboard graveyard in Plan 9 from Outer Space), but they are by no means perfect. It is also clear that Wood was settling on the first take of each scene, as characters stumble through certain lines of dialogue and at times, almost seem to be chuckling to themselves over the poor writing. One could almost fill a book with the amount of clunky lines of dialogue that the characters fire off (“There is always something suspicious going on in a swamp!”). But it really boils down to the amount of passion that Wood puts into his vision. He is pouring his blood, sweat, and tears into the project and simply relishing the fact that he has a camera in his hand. Overall, Bride of the Monster never hits the lows that Plan 9 from Outer Space does (I say that in the most lovingly way possible), but this is still an amateurish and confused effort from a man who simply wasn’t born to make movies. Yet it is ultimately Wood’s belief in his own imagination, his off-screen enthusiasm, and Lugosi’s final bow that makes Bride of the Monster truly something special and permits it to be a seriously entertaining hour and ten minute ride.
Bride of the Monster is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In 1956, cheeseball writer/producer/director Edward D. Wood Jr. began work on a small science fiction horror film that would become famous among horror fans and cinema buffs for being absolutely terrible. That film would be Plan 9 from Outer Space, which would go on to be released in 1959 and become the most famous film of Wood’s outlandish career. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a glob of bumbling acting, some of the worst dialogue your ears may ever hear, felt costumes that look like they were made in a twelve-year-old boy’s garage, generous amounts of stock footage, flying saucers made of spray painted plates, and sets made from construction paper, glitter, and super glue. It’s hilariously awful. It’s also probably one of the most enthusiastically made motion pictures you may ever see. Plan 9 from Outer Space is the work of a goofball, that I will not deny, yet there is something to be said about this sloppy B-movie that burst forth from the Atomic Age. It’s not particularly smart or skilled and it is made by a bunch of amateurs, but Plan 9 from Outer Space actually works in a so-bad-it’s-sort-of-good kind of way. It also works its way into your heart because Wood stands tall by his picture from beginning to end, telling this absurd story about saucer men, UFOs, and the living dead without ever cracking a smile, even if we are in tears the entire time. You really have to hand it to this guy. Plus, to be honest, he does deliver a resurrection scene that is just way too cool to be in a movie like this.
Plan 9 from Outer Space begins with an unnamed old man (played by Bela Lugosi) grieving the death of his wife (played by Vampira). After the funeral, two gravediggers begin working on filling in the woman’s grave but are spooked after they hear several strange noises. Just as they are about to flee the graveyard, the gravediggers are attacked and killed by the resurrected corpse of the woman. A few days after the attack, the grief-stricken old man is killed in a freak automobile accident. While burying the old man, the mourners stumble upon the bodies of the two gravediggers. A team of police officers led by Inspector Dan Clay (played by Tor Johnson) show up at the graveyard to investigate the bodies, but soon after their arrival, Inspector Clay is attacked and killed by the resurrected woman. Meanwhile, airplane pilot Jeff Trent (played by Gregory Walcott) and his co-pilot are in midflight when they suddenly spot what they believe is a flying saucer. The two men report their sightings but the government swears them to secrecy. One evening while sitting on their back porch, Jeff breaks down and tells his wife, Paula (played by Mona McKinnon), what he witnessed in the skies, but his story is interrupted by strange lights and a strong wind that knocks them both to the ground. As the days pass, more and more reports come in about strange sightings in the sky and eerie activity in the local graveyard, which forces the government to begin an investigation. As the investigation deepens, the government realizes that the events in the cemetery and the UFO sightings may be linked.
Honestly, it is extremely difficult to try to summarize Plan 9 from Outer Space for someone. The plot is extremely convoluted and disjointed to the point where it isn’t even worth trying to really pay much attention to it. Basically, aliens are raising the dead to get the attention of the humans so that the aliens can warn the humans not to develop a weapon that would destroy the entire universe (go ahead, you can giggle). Plot aside, the real reason to watch Plan 9 from Outer Space is to catch all the goofs that Wood makes along the way. Every shot in the entire film is static, with actors shuffling and bumping their way through cramped sets that look like they were filmed in someone’s basement. To make the film seem bigger, Wood cuts the wooden scenes he filmed with about twenty minutes of stock footage of soldiers firing rockets, airplanes flying through the air, traffic in Los Angeles, and unused footage of star Bela Lugosi, who had passed before Wood decided to make Plan 9 from Outer Space. Then we have Wood’s makeshift graveyard, complete with crumbling cardboard headstones and black tarps doubling for crusty ground. He pumps in some fog, drops a black backdrop down, and single handed manages to construct a few semi-atmospheric shots of Johnson, Vampira, and Tom Mason, a chiropractor who stands in for Lugosi with a Dracula cape over his face, wandering around looking for victims. The graveyard scenes really make this movie, but that isn’t saying much.
When you’re not cringing over the DIY set design, you’ll be doubled over laughing at some of the absolute worst acting you will ever see. If the acting isn’t getting you (believe me, folks, it will), wait until you hear some of the dialogue that Wood hands them. The stock footage of Lugosi is pretty breathtaking, that I must admit, and Vampira is campy fun as she shuffles stiffly around the graveyard with wild eyes and outstretched arms, but nearly everyone else is absolutely horrible. Walcott is trying so hard to be believable as the brave hero who stands up to the martians, but you will just laugh him off rather than root for him. Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler, is asked to play the no-nonsense Inspector Clay and he fails miserably. You won’t be surprised that he excels at playing a mouth-breath ghoul though. McKinnon is simply asked to shriek in horror at Mason, who only reveals his eyes to his victims. Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee shows up as Eros and Tanna, the two aliens who shout classic lines of dialogue like “you see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” Also on board here is Criswell, the narrator who first tells us that the events we are about to see are set in the future and then completely contradicts himself by saying that this story took place in the past. Riiiiiight…
Even at a brief seventy-nine minutes, you could honestly fill a book with everything that is wrong with Plan 9 from Outer Space. Nearly every single scene has some sort of flub, yet that is precisely why the film is so much fun. You’re watching it to make fun of it and laugh your head off right in its face. Given that the film was created out of the radioactive paranoia of nuclear war, Wood certainly doesn’t shy away from slipping in a few comments of his own about the bomb, even if they do get tangled up in a unintentionally hilarious showdown between aliens and humans. They don’t particularly stand out from the countless other Cold War science fiction drive-in movies but they certainly are here, if you can believe it. The film is also worth checking out for Tor Johnson’s resurrection sequence, which is dramatically lit and, shockingly, shot with some sort of artistic vision. It is a brief moment of brilliance and it certainly is cool. Overall, if you’re even slightly interested in science fiction and horror, then Plan 9 from Outer Space is certainly worth checking out on a hot summer night with a cold beer in your hand. It may be the furthest thing from high art, but this is the work of a determined man who completely believed in his own ridiculous vision. Our hats are off to you, Wood.
Plan 9 from Outer Space is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Next to Edward Scissorhands, the other must-see collaboration between gothic auteur Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp is their 1994 film Ed Wood, which follows the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the man considered the worst filmmaker of all time. Pushing aside much of his gloomy gothic aesthetic (at times, Burton just can’t resist), Burton makes a comical film shot in black and white to resemble the B-movie sleaze of the 1950’s. A man who sometimes sacrifices story for an image, Burton’s Ed Wood spryly hops along with an always-charming story and equally striking images. Much like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood is about a misunderstood artist who also happens to be an eccentric misfit who enjoys cross-dressing and paling around with a ragtag film family who sticks by through all of Ed’s ups and downs. Yet just like the character of Edward Scissorhands, Ed also works his way onto our charm list and ends up carving out his own little place in our heart.
Ed Wood introduces us to failing theater director Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Played by Johnny Depp), who is waiting for the press to show up to his World War II play The Casual Company. After receiving a scathing review with only one compliment, Wood complains that his hero Orson Welles was twenty-six when he made Citizen Kane and he is nearing thirty and has nothing he can be proud of. After a number of attempts to snag a project that he can direct, he snags a job directing a bio-pic about sex-change personality Christine Jorgensen. Wood wrestles with the head of the small studio that is producing the film and out of their negations, Wood ends up making his first film Glen or Glenda, which costars his current girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Played by Sarah Jessica Parker) and addresses the subject of crossing dressing, which Wood himself often partakes in. Around this time, Wood also meets washed up horror movie star Bela Lugosi (Played by Martin Landau) who quickly becomes a close friend of Ed’s. After Wood discovers that Lugosi is broke and suffering from a crippling drug addiction, Wood sets out to find projects for Lugosi and to aid him in kicking his habit. Wood ends up directing many of these projects, which are met with negative reviews and angry crowds. As Wood’s career hits more lows than highs, the people around him are faced with sticking by him or moving on.
It won’t be hard for you to sympathize with Depp’s Wood, who is always laughed at by people who don’t understand him or watching his vision get crushed on right in front of him. Despite his optimistic surface (he finds the one compliment in a scathing review and clings to it), down below there is doubt and self-consciousness. He is constantly and painfully forced to reveal that he enjoys cross-dressing even though it is hard for him to discuss out loud. He hides this from Dolores who obviously fakes her understanding and acceptance of this. A scene during a wrap party in which Wood gets all dressed up in lingerie and dances for the crew shows Wood at one of his happiest moments until Dolores erupts in disgust over the spectacle. The scenes in which the studio heads and producers laugh at his films are the ones that will really leave a welt on your emotions. The film shows us the growth within Wood, the growth that gives him the confidence to battle for his vision and to make the art that he wants to make. Granted, it may not be the best product but his genuine enthusiasm over his work is what really allows us to root for him.
The other misfit of Ed Wood is Landau’s Bela Lugosi, who is all but forgotten by the Hollywood system, most people under the impression that he died. Broke and hiding a nasty drug habit, Lugosi still clings to his glory days when he was a major star in Universal horror pictures. The relationship that Lugosi forms with Wood is touching, neither one really bothered by the other’s lifestyle. When Lugosi’s drug habit really begins to plague him, Wood stands by with heavy eyes and loyally plants by his idol’s side. Landau, who snagged an Oscar for his role as Lugosi, is a ball of emotions himself. At times, he can be wickedly funny, especially in scenes where he discusses the curvy Vampira (Played by Lisa Marie), who joins Wood’s crew later in his career. Then there are moments where he is just a tragic as Wood, collapsing into a heap in a chair on the verge of tears over his unemployment getting cut off. It also pierces the heart when he discusses his disgust over Boris Karloff. Ed Wood really hits its stride whenever Landau steps into frame and interacts with Wood.
The rest of the supporting players in Ed Wood are also an absolute joy. Bill Murray shows up as Wood’s friend and actor Bunny Breckinridge, who is consistently bragging about a sex change he is supposedly getting. To be honest, there just wasn’t enough of Murray for me in the film. The few scenes that we get to see Bunny are absolutely hysterical. Jeffrey Jones shows up as the “psychic” Criswell, another character that we don’t get enough of. Jones gets to introduce the film in the same way that the real Criswell introduced Wood’s film Night of the Ghouls. Patricia Arquette shows up as Wood’s future wife Kathy O’Hara, who faithfully stands by Wood despite constant failure. Lisa Marie is a perfect ten as the curvy horror personality Vampira, who Wood constantly chases and ends up casting her in Plan 9 From Outer Space. There is also a neat cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio who uncannily portrays Orson Welles in one of the strongest sequences of the entire film.
Ed Wood is one of Tim Burton’s coolest films both visually and musically. The film is shot to resemble a 50’s B-movie, which constantly slaps a smile on your face. The film throws in multiple nods to Wood’s body of work and tips its hat to B-movies and Lugosi’s Dracula through the beautiful and quirky score by Howard Shore. Ed Wood turns out to be an affectionate and hilarious story about one man’s love for cinema and his affection for his film family. It’s about sticking together through the best and worst of times and how this camaraderie can affect a person for the better. Ed Wood is still a film that woven with tragedy throughout and these tragic reveals are expertly and unexpectedly delivered, blindsiding us when we least expect it. The film hits a few minor bumps near the end, especially when one character departs the film, but Ed Wood is the Burton film that stuck with me the longest out of all of his offerings. It’s a shame that Ed Wood seems to be the Burton film that flies under the radar. Much like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood is a real treasure of a film, one that wins on multiple levels.
Ed Wood is available on DVD.