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
If you happen to be a horror nostalgia nut and are looking to relive the glory days of the genre, you most certainly have heard of or seen Fred Dekker’s 1986 nod to 50s science fiction, zombie flicks, and B-movies Night of the Creeps. Basically a Heinz 57 mash-up of everything including zombies, the slasher genre, the hardboiled detective, 50s alien flicks, and Ed Wood’s schlocky classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Creeps is a fairly satisfying, if a bit flawed, tribute to the horror genre. Wearing its influences on its bloody sleeves (the characters are all named after legendary horror directors), if you’re a diehard fan of horror (or 80s movies), you’re going to find plenty to chuckle over for 90 minutes. Night of the Creeps puts quite a bit of emphasis on its zombie angle and Dekker knows how to deliver the zombie action, but in places, the film appears to be juggling too many references and some fall flat. Still, Night of the Creeps stands as one of the stronger efforts in the zombie genre, and it also gets by on its nifty black and white opening sequences and some truly memorable performances from Steve Marshall as the handicapped J.C. and Tom Atkins as the heartbroken detective Ray Cameron who shouts “Thrill me” when he arrives at a crime scene.
Night of the Creeps begins in 1959, with a deadly alien experiment accidentally being unleashed from a UFO and crashing to earth. Meanwhile, a young college man picks up his date and the two head to a local make out spot to gaze at the stars despite warnings of an escaped homicidal maniac roaming the woods. As the two stare off into space, they spot an unusually bright shooting star that crashes into the woods. The young man dashes into the woods to investigate and leaves his date alone in the car. Naturally, the homicidal maniac stumbles upon the girl and hacks her up with an axe and the boy is exposed to strange alien-like slugs that attack him. 28 years later, nerdy college students Chris Romero (Played by Jason Lively) and James Carpenter “J.C.” Hooper (Played by Steve Marshall) are prowling Corman University’s campus searching for girls. Chris sets his sights on cool girl Cynthia Cronenberg (Played by Jill Whitlow), a sorority sister who seems to only be interested in fraternity guys. To impress Cynthia, Chris and J.C. decide to join a fraternity. As part of their pledge, Chris and J.C. are forced to steal a cadaver from the university medical center and leave it on the steps of Cynthia’s sorority house. While snooping around the medical center, Chris and J.C. stumble upon a mysterious cadaver that has been frozen and sealed off in a top-secret room. Chris and J.C. attempt to steal the body but they are scared off when the cadaver wakes up and tries to grab them. As Chris and J.C. rethink how to impress Cynthia, the mysterious cadaver begins prowling the campus and unleashing the alien worms, which infect the students and turn them into zombies. Meanwhile, Detective Ray Cameron (Played by Tom Atkins) investigates gruesome deaths around the campus, slowly realizing that he may be battling the walking dead.
As a tip of the hat to horror subgenres, Night of the Creeps is pretty solid but some of the tributes don’t gel like they should. The film attempts to work in a slasher angle that seems glaringly out of place and it is sort of left dangling at the end. However, when Dekker remains in the science fiction/zombie realm, the film is really a lot of fun. Being mostly a zombie movie, you naturally expect the violence to be cranked up to eleven but Night of the Creeps never gets too out of hand with its carnage. The zombies have some nasty wounds and there are a few glimpses of dead bodies with their heads split open, but Dekker never embraces Romero or Fulci levels of zombie violence. Still, that doesn’t mean that Dekker is soft on the viewer and doesn’t deliver the zombie mayhem. There is a fun little siege on a sorority house that finds Atkins storming in and announcing, “I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is they’re dead.” It is morbid little gems of dialogue like this that really make up for the lack of gut munching and blood slurping. The lack of overly elaborate special effects has helped Night of the Creeps age a bit more gracefully than some 80s horror movies but the film does shoot itself in the foot when it tosses in a few zombie pets. Sure, the viewer is supposed to take them with a wink and a big slice of cheese, but they certainly are not convincing. At least Dekker uses a zombified kitty to pay respect to Lucio Fulci’s blood-soaked classic Zombie.
As far as the acting goes, Night of the Creeps turns out to be a mixed body bag. Atkins does most of the heavy lifting as the massively entertaining Ray Cameron but his character does suffer a bit because he is linked to the slasher side story. It adds depth to his character and it allows him to connect with Lively’s Chris, but it still seemed unnecessary. Marshall is also a stand out of the sarcastic J.C., the handicapped best bud who does everything in his power to get his best buddy laid. He gets in a number of good jabs at the obnoxious fraternity brothers that torment them. Lively tries his best to hang with Marshall but his Chris is lacking the feisty personality that J.C. possesses. Still, he gets by and we do sort of root for him to pull the girl. Perhaps the worst of the main players is Whitlow’s Cynthia, a pretty girl who just can’t seem to stop flirting with beer chugging goofballs and flashing her boobs. Her character seemed a bit too whiny at times and there simply for eye candy, but she does step up in the final stretch of the film. I suppose a flamethrower can make anyone look cool. Alan Kayser also shows up as the ultimate bully douche bag, Brad, who enjoys tormenting poor Chris and J.C. He shines as the dimwitted oaf and he is even better as a cloudy-eyed zombie who shows up at Cynthia’s door.
While Night of the Creeps is never very scary, the movie does have more than enough raunchy teen comedy to go around. The exchanges between Chris and J.C. are pretty great and Atkins is hilariously over the top as the hardboiled detective. There are a few tense moments here and there, especially when Chris and Cynthia get trapped in a garden shed as zombies attempt to get in from every side. Fans of 50s science fiction will also be giddy during the marvelous black and white opening sequence. Every horror fan will also have a blast with the names of the characters and spotting references to their favorite classic horror film. Make sure you stay alert for references to George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), John Carpenter (Halloween), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), James Cameron (Aliens), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), David Cronenberg (The Fly), and Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part 2). Overall, Night of the Creeps is more of a big college party than an all out horror fest and there are plenty of surprises to keep you hooked, but some shaky acting and clunky tributes prevent the film from reaching a classic status. It doesn’t matter though, because you’ll keep coming back and screaming “thrill me” right along with Atkins.
Night of the Creeps 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.