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.