Friday, November 23, 2007

16th November 2007: Ed Wood Jr #3!

ED WOOD Jr TRIPLE #3: Plan 9 From Outer Space/Night Of The Ghouls/The Violent Years!

Plan 9 From Outer Space

Welcome to another Ed Wood triple bill in our Invasion of the B-Kings month, starting with Ed’s best-known and most beloved creation: Plan 9 From Outer Space, hailed as one of the Fifty Worst Films of All Time, if not THE Worst, by unimaginative cretins and patronizing rubes who no doubt won’t recognize themselves in this opening harangue.

Apparently Plan 9 was Ed’s favourite film, with Glen Or Glenda (1953) running a close second, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s the most perfect realization of Ed’s scattered universe, and that makes it the most memorable. Not least is the fact it’s the great Bela Lugosi’s last screen appearance; after endearing clunky roles in Glen Or Glenda and Bride Of The Monster (1955), it seemed our auteur in angora was the only filmmaker in Hollywood willing to work with Bela, a shadow of his former self spending his final three years in and out of hospital for morphine addiction. Ed had written a number of scripts for Bela, including The Ghoul Goes West, but Bela by this stage was too ill to sit on a horse. Nevertheless, Bela needed the cash, and Eddie just wanted to make a movie. So they headed to a cemetery in the midst of a relocation sale, Bela wandered around the cemetery in his Dracula cape, picked a flower outside Tor’s house, and with only two minutes of screen time in the can, the project languished. And then, sadly, Bela passed away. Eddie looked at the cans of film he’d assembled – military stock footage, newsreels of Hollywood premieres, and Bela of course, and through sheer chutzpah wrote a script somehow linking it all together.

The result was Plan 9 From Outer Space, an ambitious tale of aliens, zombies, vampires, flying saucers, and the possible end of the world. Then there’s a frail Bela Lugosi at the grave of his recently deceased wife. Cue off-screen accident sounds, and Bela’s joined her in the hole. But not for long – they both rise zombie style and emerge from the cemetery undergrowth. The wife is played by Vampira, aka Maila Nurmi, a striking TV horror hostess straight out of the Addams Family crypt, and “Bela” is now Dr Tom Mason, wife Kathy’s chiropractor, taller and younger but, with a cape over his face, notable for the same “skull structure”. Amidst reports of grave robbing and flying saucers, the bumbling Kelton the cop (Paul Marcos), returns from Bride Of The Monster as first on the scene, along with Bride’s Lobo, the bald mountainous Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as Inspector Clay. Thankfully his almost impenetrable Scandinavian accent only gets a few lines before he’s taken down by the husband-and-wife tag team of Vampira and “Lugosi”, emerging from the ground with blank eyes and clown mouth minus the ping-pong balls…before his gravestone falls into the hole. Genius.

It’s part of a dastardly plan to destroy the earth in order to save the universe, courtesy of aliens played by Dudley Manlove and failed transsexual Bunny Breckenridge. “Ah yes, Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead,” says Bunny without missing a beat. The living are too controlled, he argues – make the dead walk and you’ll confuse the living. With only three zombies to take over the world, Plan 9 might be considered a failure, but not before Dudley Manlove as a petulant Eros delivers one of the finest soliloquies in the Ed Wood canon: “Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” Take that, critics.

It feels old-fashioned, even for 1956, and as everyone’s so deliriously deadpan in delivering Ed’s crackerbox dialogue, thankfully the film is without a trace of self-awareness. So much of Plan 9 has entered Ed Wood-lore: from cast members knocking over cardboard tombs, to using kids’ plastic UFO models – and when they ran out, filming flaming hubcaps over stock footage of Hollywood. There’s also the story of the cast being baptized by the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, who sank around $5000 of their parishioner’s savings into the film; the idea was to roll the huge profits (ahem) from Ed’s silly sci fi movie into a series of Christian movies. They weren’t keen on Ed’s title, “Graverobbers From Outer Space”, and changed it to Plan 9. Until his death, Ed claimed it was HE who’d been robbed by those thieving Baptists.

Plan 9 also marks the first appearance of the narrator Criswell, a self-styled mystic who did the rounds of newspaper columns and TV shows in the Fifties, whose wonderfully pompous and portentious voice fits perfectly into Ed’s deranged pulp culture masala, and whose CRISWELL PREDICTS segment bookending the movie is yet another stroke of genius. Among Criswell’s scattershot predictions over a long career included the Kennedy assassination and, horror of horrors, Ronald Reagan as governor of California. He predicted the end of the world on August 18, 1999, but unlike most doomsayers, he didn’t live to see his predictions go up in flames, passing away quietly in 1982.

He did survive to see the curious Ed Wood revival, spearheaded by Plan 9 which, after a reasonably wide cinema release in 1959, became a TV favourite on all-night schlock marathons, and even did the revival cinemas late 70s with Glen Or Glenda (1953) around the time Eddie passed away.

Viewers, email us YOUR votes for the Worst Film Of All Time, and I’ll bet it’s not this one. This is Ed Wood Jr, one of the most eccentric filmmakers but far from “bad”, hitting his stride. Are YOU ready for the tale of graverobbers from Outer Space? Ah, yes, Plan 9

Night Of The Ghouls

LEAVOLD PREDICTS: "My friends, you are concerned about the next feature because that’s where you will spend the next seventy minutes. I predict a tale about the Twilight People… Not living… Nor dead… The Twilight People.”

And now to a film that was considered lost to the sands of time until after Ed Wood’s death. Night Of The Ghouls, or its shooting title Revenge Of The Dead, was filmed soon after Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956/59) over two weeks for $50,000, almost half of Bride Of The Monster (1954) and Plan 9’s budgets. A work print was assembled and screened once in 1958, but then sat languishing at the lab, as Ed had never paid the bill for processing. For years it only existed as photos, and as a fevered vision in the minds of B-movie fans everywhere.

Night Of The Ghouls is Ed at his roughest AND most abstract. His recurring themes of reincarnation and spiritism are all in the script, along with a growing awareness of his own filmic universe, referring to both Bride Of The Monster AND Plan 9 From Outer Space. As such, it’s a direct semi-sequel to one, and a pseudo-followup to the other. Which one’s which? What do I mean, and do I mean what I say? And furthermore, which way is up? Night Of The Ghouls answers none of these questions, and more.

And what a semi-sequel it is. Once again Criswell delivers the opening monologue from inside a coffin: “The threshold people…Monsters to be pitied…Monsters to be DESPISED!” An elderly couple are spooked by the appearance of the mysterious “White Ghost”, the silent apparition of a young girl shrouded in mist, on the road by Willow’s Lake, which coincidentally is the site of Bela Lugosi’s laboratory in Bride Of The Monster. An expert in such matters, Lieutenant Bradford (Duke Moore) is forced to shed his tuxedo to go on “special assignment” (ghost hunting, that is) with the vaudeville schtick of Kelton the cop in tow – thus providing the only tangible link with both Bride… and Plan 9...

At Willows Lake he finds “Dr Acula” (played by legendary tough guy Kenne Duncan), a smarmy turbaned swarmi who’s set up shop in a new house built on the ruins of Bela’s laboratory next to a graveyard, and complete with resurrection chamber. Also on the payroll are the scarred but still familiar bald features of Tor Johnson as Lobo, the miraculous survivor of Bride Of The Monster’s lab fire AND nuclear blast, and “The White Ghost” aka Valda Hansen, a pretty but slightly off-kilter young Hollywood starlet whose thick waxy eyebrows remind me of a mad woman on my bus who’d put on her makeup without a mirror. During a crazed séance sequence, Dr Acula throws every trick in the book at the skeptical Lieutenant, including a disembodied trumpet and a guy under a sheet. The swarmi seems like a con artist, but is he really capable of raising those disembodied souls trapped between the living and the dead?

Technically it’s below-par, even for an Ed Wood film: night and day shots don’t match and nor do the cannibalized portions from other unfinished films, master shots seem to go forever, and the audio is patchy at best. But as a film rescued from the dust bin in 1983, it holds up pretty well. Sadly, it’s the last real meeting of minds for the Ed Wood Players; Kenne Duncan and Duke Moore returned for Ed’s last “real” film The Sinister Urge (1960), and Criswell plays almost the same Lord Of The Dead in the Ed-scripted Orgy Of The Dead from 1965, a role it seems he was born to play, growing up in the back of a mortuary and spending most nights sleeping in a coffin. However it was the end of the road for Ed and his regulars Tor, Kelton, and even newbie Valda Hansen, a real-life psychic and future skin flick performer looking to the world like the perfect replacement for his previous muse Dolores Fuller.

One can only imagine the further adventures of Ed and co, as we ponder the fate of “the Threshold People” in the long-lost but never to be forgotten Night Of The Ghouls.

The Violent Years

“I shot a cop….So what?” So misquotes the poster for one of the sleaziest of juvenile delinquent exploiters, the Ed Wood-scripted The Violent Years from 1956. Even if most of the action is just outside the frame, Ed’s salacious ideas are still rubbed in your face, and as the legendary showman Kroger Babb used to say, “Sell the sizzle – not the steak.”

The Violent Years is a pert little potboiler with the added attraction of all-female delinquents. Jean Moorhead, one of the first ever Playboy Playmates of the Month, plays Paula Parkins, a Good Girl who leads a double life as a Bad Girl. In fact, a VERY Bad Girl. While her mother, a preening, aging coquette consumed with charity work for needy families and blissfully ignorant of her own family’s needs, and workaholic father are glaringly absent, she and her girl gang of high school hellcats dress up as boys in Levis and leather jackets, rob gas stations, crack skulls, and even abduct a boy from Lover’s Lane and put him screaming out to stud – to the horror of his girlfriend. “Criminally Attacked” the papers euphemistically call it – the same paper edited by Paula’s father, who’s blissfully unaware he’s telling his daughter the cops’ next moves.

Their fence is a vicious middle-aged woman – possibly a lesbian, but definitely a communist, as her “connections” seem decidedly anti-American – who pays them to trash a school, and soil a few American flags in the process. It’s enough to get our middle-American Protestant blood boiling! After a jazz-soaked grope session for her eighteenth birthday, the girls tear up their classroom but get caught mid-mission by the cops. One takes a bullet, and that kick starts a trail of dead bodies – mostly the girls themselves.

Paula, Georgia, Geraldine and Phyllis are the ultimate American Nightmare – cold-blooded rich kids who have everything, and even sound like normal people; conspicuously absent is the downtown jazz-joint gibberish from most pseudo-Beat fare. Their downhill slide is framed with a seemingly endless “Good Citizenship” sermon from a humourless judge. Children with no self-restraint become thrill seekers with over-inflated egos, the judge concludes, just like a dope fiend looking for the ultimate fix – MURDER! He blames the tide of juvenile sewerage on the parents, to which the mother belatedly laments she gave her daughter “a new dress instead of a caress”. Religion is the answer, the judge concludes, a good old fashioned Bible revival, and hammers the point home with his gavel. I say: less charities. Mothers – spend more time at home listening to jazz records with your kids and teach them how to drink responsibly. Oh, and if you drink and drive, don’t forget where you parked the jalopy.

The Violent Years was a successful exploitation title for Headliner Productions, who later bankrolled The Sinister Urge (1960), Ed’s last non-porn movie as director. Like Ed’s other script-only affairs like The Bride And The Beast (1958), it’s slicker and faster-paced than his own films but there’s no mistaking Ed’s voice: “These aren’t kids. They are morons!” With teen pregnancy, illegitimate babies, life imprisonment, premature death, and all under the hour mark, it’s a fast ride for us increasingly jaded thrill seekers. Religion ISN’T the answer – instead us Schlock Fiends need a good hit of Ed-Baby with the 1956 The Violent Years.

1 comment:

John Milton said...

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