Written by Greg Barbrick
In analyzing the qualities about two of the most prominent auteurs of the French New Wave, critic Andrew Sarris concluded that while Jean-Luc Godard may have been more brilliant, innovative, and profound than Francois Truffaut – in the end he preferred Truffaut’s more gentle, leisurely insights. There is a comforting “man of the people” attraction to this way of thinking, which is one of the reasons Edward D. Wood Jr. (1924 – 1978) has been so celebrated in the years since his death. For example, one can watch Forbidden Planet (1956) today (as I recently did), and still marvel at it. It is a superior film in every way to Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), yet of the two, Plan 9 is much more celebrated today.
Why is this? In the beginning of the Ed Wood revival, it was simply camp. Of all people, right-wing radio blowhard Michael Medved actually kicked off the campaign in 1980, with his book The Golden Turkey Awards. In it, he anointed Plan 9 as the “Worst Film Ever”, and Wood himself as “Worst Director”. From there the picture became a staple of midnight movies, and Wood’s popularity skyrocketed. All of this newfound attention culminated in Tim Burton’s wonderful Ed Wood (1994). Practically anyone who considers themselves a movie buff has probably seen Plan 9, or Wood’s other “classic” Glen Or Glenda (1953). But the man continued working right up to his untimely death at the relatively young age of 54.
S’More Entertainment has packaged up an incredible career-spanning tribute to Ed Wood with their new six-DVD set, A Big Box Of Wood. In this Wood extravaganza we get 11 films, plus an unsold pilot and a nine-minute promotional short. There are also a host of interviews with surviving Ed Wood cohorts among its bonus features. The only glaring omission is the absence of Glen Or Glenda, which was probably due to licensing issues. In any event, it is quite a set – and the later Wood-scripted seventies soft-core porn entries are in a league of their own. Ted Newsom directed a Wood-biopic titled Look Back In Angora (1994), and offers insightful introductions to each film.
Jail Bait (1954)
The provocative title is classic Wood bait and switch. There are no underage delinquent girls running around here, as one might reasonably expect. Instead, the title comes from a throwaway line where one con says to the other “Don’t take that gun, it’s jail bait.” Feeble justification, but justification nonetheless. The basic story involves two guys robbing and killing a theater owner. When the one who did it confesses his crime to his plastic surgeon father, he is secretly murdered by his partner. The partner then goes to the plastic surgeon and says he will release the son if he is given identity-altering plastic surgery. The father agrees to the terms, but our criminal gets more than he bargained for in the twist ending. As a side note, the blackface minstrel show we are treated to by “Cotton Watts and Chick” at the theater is mind-boggling in its political incorrectness, and worth the price of admission alone.
Bride Of The Monster (1955)
A true Wood classic. This is the director’s first feature with Bela Lugosi, and he does not disappoint as the evil Dr. Vornoff. Professional wrestler Tor Johnson makes his film debut here as Vornoff’s massive assistant Tor, and Loretta King also makes her first film appearance as muckraking newspaper reporter Janet Lawton. As chronicled in Ed Wood, the role of Janet was set to go to Wood’s then girlfriend Delores Fuller, but was given to Lawton when the director mistakenly thought she had money to finance the movie.
The story plays on fears of atomic science run amok, a classic ’50s sci-fi theme. Dr. Vornoff has somehow adapted atomic energy to be used on living beings, creating giant monsters. His first successful attempt was with the Loch Ness monster, and now he has developed a giant, people-eating octopus in the U.S. When Janet goes to investigate, all hell breaks loose. Vornoff sends Lobo after her, but when he touches her angora sweater he falls in love and turns on his master instead. The closing scene of Bela fighting for his life against the octopus is something else. In another “only in a Wood film” moment, the motor to power the prop went missing, so Lugosi had to flail the tentacles around himself to make it look like the monster was devouring him.
DVD Bonus: A recent 38-minute interview with Delores Fuller and commentary moderated by filmmaker David Decoteau.
The Violent Years (1956)
While most people cite Plan 9 From Outer Space as Wood’s finest hour, I disagree. The Violent Years is amazing, it is not only my favorite of the many Ed Wood greats, but the best JD film of all time. It seems that Al Jourgenson of Ministry agrees, their powerhouse “So What” is virtually sampled verbatim from this tale of four teenage girls running wild in the streets.
The dialogue Jourgenson had to choose from is some of the choicest in all of filmdom. During the investigation of the first crime we see the handkerchief-masked girls commit, one cop laments to the other about mixed-up kids these days. The partner replies, “These aren’t kids; these are morons.” When the girls head out to Lovers Lane to cause mischief, they stumble upon a couple making out. After tying the girl up, they turn on the boy. He makes an ill-advised comment, and angora-clad leader Paula Parkins (Jean Moorhead) replies, “You’re very observant for a pretty boy.”
To give you an idea of how delirious The Violent Years is, the girls are sent to trash the local high school at one point. Evidently the thrill-seeking young ladies are being used by Commies to disrupt the good old USA. When the cops show up to stop them from turning over desks in the classrooms, the girls start shooting at them! One of the four is killed right there, and two more will follow – leaving Paula to face the consequences of their actions alone. In court, Miss Parkins faces the stern Judge Clara (I. Stanford Jolley), who gives her a severe tongue-lashing and life in prison. When she discovers she is pregnant at the jail hospital, Paula spits out the immortal line, “So what!” Of course, Paula dies in childbirth, and the parents petition the court for custody of the child. Judge Clara gets another incredible monologue in about the irresponsibility of parents who value their careers over the raising of their children when he denies their request.
The Violent Years makes juvenile delinquency so damned sexy, it is unbelievable. Communist dupes, amateur criminals, and hot pistol-packing young things with a taste for violence all rolled into one – this movie says live for today. If tomorrow ever comes, and you have to account for your actions, well…so what!
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Here is Wood’s most famous work, the brilliant Plan 9 From Outer Space. Yes, everything you have heard about it is true. The scenes in the graveyard are ridiculous, with cardboard headstones falling over, and the paper-plate spaceships look exactly like paper-plate spaceships. Mute zombies Tor Johnson and Vampira walk through the graveyard with arms out like sleepwalkers, and look like the ultimate odd couple. The use of the popular Criswell (who made outrageous predictions on The Tonight Show) as narrator was inspired. And “lead” Bela Lugosi died after just a couple of minutes of footage were shot. This unfortunate event resulted in Wood employing Tom Mason as Bela’s stand-in for most of the picture. His identity is obscured by having him hold his cape over his face every time he is onscreen. But Plan 9 is so much fun, these elements just add to the whole enjoyment of the thing.
The plot is about as flimsy as the spaceships. Aliens have come to Earth to warn the people of the impending doom their arms race is leading to. When nobody will listen, they begin reanimating corpses (the original title was Grave Robbers From Outer Space). This does get the authorities’ attention, and at the end alien leader Eros (Dudley Manlove) delivers his message. Ok, that was about as brief a summary as possible, but who watches Plan 9 for the story anyway?
Some feel that there is a great deal to be gleaned from the Plan 9 plot however. In his 1981 book Cult Movies, Danny Peary argues that with this film, Ed Wood got away with much more than any of his contemporaries ever could. Peary’s contention is that the crazed atmosphere is camouflage for the anti-nuclear sentiment at the heart of the picture, which otherwise would have been pretty inflammatory considering the times. It is a valid point to be sure, although it hardly explains what makes Plan 9 so memorable. For that there is only one reason, this mad director who would do literally anything to get his film made.
DVD Bonus: A short interview with Bela Lugosi as he leaves the sanitarium he had checked into to kick his morphine habit. Also commentary moderated by filmmaker David Decoteau.
The Sinister Urge (1960)
”Pornography, a nasty word for a dirty business,” says Lt. Matt Carson (Kenne Duncan), and he means it. There is a crazed killer in the park, whose bloodlust is inflamed when he sees porn, and it is everywhere. In fact, the killer happens to be Dirk Williams (Dino Fantini) who works for the local smut syndicate himself. His exposure to the stuff is unrelenting. While the cops do not know who is responsible for the deaths in the park, they know where it is coming from. “The smut picture racket is worse than kidnapping or dope peddling, and can lead to the same place for someone, the morgue” says Carson.
It is more than a little ironic that Ed Wood’s first foray into porn would be an anti-porn film, although the message was probably just an excuse to feature some bare breasts onscreen in 1960. In any event, The Sinister Urge the title speaks of is presented as the well known fact that viewing porn will inevitably lead a man to become a serial killer. My favorite Wood moment in this one is when the cops decide to put a decoy in the park to catch the villain. The male cop is (of course) decked out in angora.
Orgy Of The Dead (1965)
It is well documented that Ed Wood’s decline was largely related to his drinking problem, but it must have happened pretty fast. Orgy Of The Dead is the ultimate example of “phoning it in.” First of all, as is the case with the remaining five films in this set, Ed Wood did not direct. His credit is as screenwriter, with A.C. Stephen (Steve Apostolof) credited as director. Writing this one could not have taken more than five minutes. It is almost entirely made up of topless dancing at a cemetery – truly an Orgy Of The Dead!
It is unlikely that anyone but Ed Wood could have come up with this scenario. Two young lovers are headed to the graveyard late at night. The man is a writer, and thinks he will get inspired there, and naturally brings his lady with him. They have an accident and find themselves witnessing what the undead do when it gets dark. And what they do is watch mid-sixties strippers do various dances such as “The Flame Dance,” “Skeleton Dance,” and “Zombie Dance” all night. Criswell is back as the narrator, wearing Bela Lugosi’s black silk tuxedo as he watches the show. His companion is Fawn Silver in a part that was originally written for Vampira. Orgy Of The Dead is a fine excuse to show a veritable parade of bare-breasted women onscreen, but there is nothing remotely erotic about the movie. It is tough to imagine anyone (even in 1965) becoming aroused by this one. Definitely not one of Eddie’s finest moments.
DVD Bonus: There is a 14-minute silent segment filmed on location during the shooting of Orgy Of The Dead.
Snow Bunnies (1972)
The lobby poster called Snow Bunnies “An Avalanche Of Fun!” I’m not sure how much fun it would be to be in an avalanche, but one thing is certain, the titular snow bunnies do find their share of sex on the slopes. This is another Wood-scripted soft-core romp, and one of his quirks this time around was having all of the characters refer to women as “broads.” This Wood-Stephen flick is listed as unrated, which probably translated to X back in 1972. I was surprised to see full male frontal nudity, which may account for the rating. There is also a gratuitous lesbian scene, which was pretty much par for the course at the time.
The plot follows four attractive women on a weekend vacation to the local ski lodge, where they instantly hook up with men. Do we really need anything more? My favorite scene features the model, who has a fling with her ski instructor. After they make it, he tells her that he had just given her a “free ride,” but now they need to make some money. I almost fell out of my chair when he told her to introduce him to her model friends, so he could charge them for sex!
Drop Out Wife (1972)
We call them swingers now, but back in the Nixon days they were referred to as wife-swappers. Eddie’s script has a surprising moral resolution at the end, which is probably the reason this one was only rated R, but it is a pretty hard R, if ya catch my drift. There are two lines that pretty much explain the plot. In the beginning, a jerk husband tells his wife “You’ve aged ten years in a month!” which sends her off to explore her sexuality. Then at the end of the film she reflects on her escapades, “I left my children to be free, but I’ve got to go back.” “Cha-ching” went the register at the local sleaze theatre, and Ed Wood had another screenwriter’s credit under his belt.
DVD Bonus: A recent 30-minute interview with Ed’s wife Kathy Wood, who was with him from 1959 until his death in 1978.
Fugitive Girls (1974)
Of all the Wood-Stephen collaborations, Fugitive Girls is the best. For whatever reason, Eddie was inspired this time around, writing a wild story with lots of action and even making a couple of memorable cameos. Fugitive Girls can even be seen as a sequel of sorts to The Violent Years. Both feature a female gang on the run and doing as they please at every turn – at least until they get killed or caught.
We begin with a liquor store robbery gone awry. Our heroine is unwittingly duped into driving the getaway car while her boyfriend holds up the joint. They are caught, and she is sent to a women’s prison. At this point, I was already hooked – but it gets so much better. The cons decide to break out, and our sweet innocent is forced to take part. The prison is in a remote area, so the girls are camouflaged at first. They stumble on a group of hippies camping and decide to stay with them for the night. The hippie couples offer them civilian clothes, wine and weed – which leads to one of the greatest lines in cinematic history. When one of the stoned dudes is rebuffed as he tries to get an orgy going, he splutters “Good Christ, they’re lesbians!”
Actually, not all of them prefer women. Later when the girls flag down a car for a ride, one of them takes the driver into the bushes first. Only after having her way with him – then tying him up, is it time to go. Naturally, the guy’s car is low on gas, so when they see a station they stop in. Fifty-year-old Ed Wood plays Pop, who runs the station. When he tries to call the police, the girls take care of him most effectively. Ed plays this crabby old redneck perfectly, and the scene is one of my favorites.
Things get more and more desperate for the escapees as they try and outrun the authorities. There is a confrontation with a group of bikers, who the ladies dispense with handily. They also discover an out of the way cabin housing a crippled Vietnam vet and his wife. The situations get more and more brutal, and the final confrontation between the cops and the remaining girls at a quarry is not to be missed.
Fugitive Girls is definitely not one of the usual Wood-Stephen soft-core movies. In fact, it fits right in with the great drive-in movies of the day. Granted, nobody would be much interested these days if not for the Ed Wood connection, but that is what makes it so special anyway.
Beach Bunnies (1976)
Ugh. From Fugitive Girls to Beach Bunnies is a long ways down. Here’s the pitch: Did movie star Rock Sanders get a sex change operation in Denmark? Inquiring minds want to know, and our intrepid editor is determined to find out. Was it Ed Wood’s identification with Orson Welles and Citizen Kane (1941) that made so many of his heroes a part of the fourth estate? Most likely, but in this case the newspaper-woman is going to find out first-hand, and we are treated to another extremely forgettable excersize in soft-core porn. Extra demerits go to Eddie for the scene where one of the editor’s friends is raped, then excuses it with this line, “It was horrible at first, but then I liked it.”
An awful movie.
DVD Bonus: Interview with Steve Apostolof, aka A.C. Stephens, who directed the later soft-core films Ed Wood wrote. Commentary moderated by filmmaker David Decoteau.
Hot Ice (1978)
Ed Wood’s only credit on this one is as assistant director, although he claimed to have written it too. Hot Ice is about a married couple of thieves, who manage to stay one step ahead of the authorities – thanks to questionable morals. Having gotten out of Europe just in the nick of time, the two wind up at a ski lodge somewhere in the US. As luck would have it, “world famous” musician Diamond Jim is appearing in the lounge, complete with his trademark $250,000 necklace. You see, Diamond Jim never performs without this necklace, made from diamonds the size of small animals.
A definite argument in Wood’s favor as the screenwriter is the fact that Diamond Jim has a $250,000 necklace, yet the only gig he can get is in a crummy ski lodge lounge, in front of about 20 people.
The “ice” is stored in the hotel’s safe, which has the secondary security feature of a silent alarm connected to the manager’s room. If anyone should gain access to the safe, he would see the blinking light in his room. This being the horny, risk-free sex days of the seventies though, you can never be sure. The male thief seduces the manager’s wife and cuts the wire to the alarm when she is not looking. Meanwhile, the crooked wife cracks the safe. They take off, get caught with the loot, but claim to have just found it and were on their way back to return it all.
I love how bad behavior is rewarded here. At a dinner to honor the couple’s bravery, they are given a reward check for $25,000. Beautiful! Of course the manager’s wife knows what happened, but she can hardly talk given what went down. Still, they cut her in, and everybody is happy.
By the way, this is the absolute worst print of a film I have ever seen in my life. The color is completely washed out much of the time, tinted blue and green at other times, and so dark as to be almost unviewable at others. Really bad.
”Trick Shooting With Kenne Duncan” (1953)
This is something of a nine-minute extra, filmed by Wood as a promotional tool for his friend Kenne Duncan. Evidently Duncan was pretty big on the carny circuit, showing off his considerable talents with a rifle. The shots here appear to be real, and if so are very impressive. For one, he shoots a 22-calibre bullet through the center of a Life Savers candy, without breaking it – but shattering the small wafer behind it. In another his bullet cuts the string of a helium-filled balloon, then as it flies off, Duncan’s bullet pops the balloon.
Crossroad Avenger (1953)
Another rare item in the Ed Wood catalog is this unsold pilot from 1953. The hero of this proposed weekly half-hour Western was to be the Tuscon Kid, played by Tom Keene. In this episode, the bad guys try to frame stranger Tuscon Kid for the murder of the town’s sheriff. A shoot-out at the end reveals the truth, and Tuscon goes on his way. Crossroad Avenger is really not too bad, and could have just as easily been picked up as not. Of course if it had sold, Wood’s career may have gone in a completely different direction, so maybe it is best that it did not.
DVD Bonus: Interview with Ed Wood acquaintance Joe Robertson, also original theatrical trailers for The Sinister Urge, Married Too Young, Fugitive Girls, and Drop Out Wife.
So there we have it. A Big Box Of Wood contains practically everything one would want to see from this truly one of a kind talent. You really have to hand it to the guy. In the face of so much adversity, he persevered – no matter what the cost. This is a pretty incredible six-DVD set, and priced ridiculously affordably. I say go pick it up right now.