Saturday, December 1, 2007

30th November 2007: Ed Wood triple #3

30th November 2007: ED WOOD JR triple #3!

Glen Or Glenda

The Ed Wood story now goes all the way back to 1953. Ed was a bit-player in Hollywood B films but entertaining seemingly crackpot ideas of becoming a writer and director. In the headlines was Christine Jorgensen, the scandalous story of a man becoming a woman via a sex change operation in Europe. Exploitation producer George Weiss wanted a movie about the Jorgensen saga, but Chris (or Christine) refused to be a part of it. In walks Ed with a script exploiting the sex change angle – and much more. Little did Weiss know that, by handing control of a movie to the ambitious Ed Wood Jr, he was unleashing a monster on an unsuspecting world.

For Glen Or Glenda, Ed sits the frail and failing Bela Lugosi in an armchair surrounded by test tubes and plastic skeletons to play one of the film’s narrators. Is he God? The Devil? The Creator AND Destroyer? Or some omnipotent coot with his own laboratory? It’s never quite clear, but Bela does have the enviable position of seeing everything. “Pull the strink! A story must be told!” a leering Bela pontificates, transposed over stock footage of running bison. Ed’s wonderfully na├»ve babble continues: “A new day is begun.” Meaningful opium-fuelled pause. “A new life hass begun!” But with life comes death – ah, that old battered unicycle - of an unhappy transvestite. Cause of death: suicide, due to a world that doesn’t understand. The investigating officer Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot, later in Jailbait and Plan 9…) asks his old friend Dr Alton (Jailbait’s main crook Timothy Farrell) for a lesson in tansvestism. Remember, this is the early Fifties, and perversion was something that Masons did behind locked Temple doors.

Dr Alton relates the case of Glen, a sensitive young man who is engaged to nice girl Barbara, who is blissfully unaware her and Glen are anything but “normal” people about to begin “normal” lives together. What she doesn’t know is that Glen has another side to him: “Glenda”, who likes to dress in a blonde wig, high heels, and has a yen for Barbara’s angora sweater. What we the audience don’t know is that Glen is played by Ed Wood himself, and Barbara is his girlfriend at the time, Dolores Fuller, and that Glen Or Glenda plays out the real story of their bizarre courtship. And just in case you were wondering: “Glen is NOT a homosexual,” Timothy Farrell’s narration points out more than once.

And so begins a long and protracted nightmare sequence – I hate to use the analogy but it IS very Lynch-like – in which Glen faces his inner demons, with added scenes of bondage, nymphomania and all manner of mild perversions for “commercial” appeal. I’d hate to think which one of the bound cupcakes is meant to represent his mother. Creepy. Also making an appearance is the Devil (or is that Ed’s personal demon?) as an old guy with his frizzy hair shaped into horns. Upon waking, Glen tearfully confesses to Barbara about “Glenda”… all the while fingering her Angora sweater. Will she understand, or will she be like the rest of society and toss him and her soiled sweater out of the door forever? And by the rest of society, I mean US the viewers? Just keep in mind the opening quote: “You are society – judge ye not!”

Producer George Weiss wanted a simple Reefer Madness style shockumentary. Instead, Ed Wood delivered a ragged patchwork of racy anecdotes, burlesque loops, Bela’s baffling monologues (“Bevare…take CARE…”), performance art, and an infomercial-slash-confessional for Ed’s own strange desires. Ultimately it’s Ed’s own autoerotic odyssey on the screen and a genuine plea for understanding. Remember, “judge ye not” as we enter the strange and angora-lined mind of Ed or Edna, or Glen Or Glenda.

The Sinister Urge

The Sinister Urge is vintage Wood, harkening back to his pulp crime preoccupations in 1954’s Jailbait and his script for The Violent Years (1956) from Headliner Productions. Headliner bought the script for The Sinister Urge and gave him the chance to direct – for the last time, it would transpire, on a picture that would play outside of porno fleapits.

Cop: She doesn’t look like a kid now.
Lieutenant: Maybe she grew up at the moment of truth… When she died.

The film opens with a dastardly sex crime committed by wide-eyed psychopath Dirk Williams (Dino Fantini). It seems he’s not high on dope, but SMUT. The cops suspect a link between a local porn racket and the murder of the girl, also a skin flick model. Mr Taxpayer bursts into the cop station demanding the cops focus their attentions on REAL crimes, and not just a few “innocent” dirty pictures. “It’s WORSE than dope!” says Lieutenant Carson (Night Of The Ghoul’s Kenne Duncan). “Show me a crime, and I’ll show you a picture that caused it.” Could it be THIS picture, Lieutenant?

Heading the local arm of the smut operation is Gloria Henderson, an old boiler who spends most of her screen time sprawling across her furniture dressed like an off-duty stripper, and with a voice like she’s deep-throating a broken shaving mirror. She’s just a front for the sprawling Syndicate, a shadowy organization which demands Henderson start making the “harder stuff” as most of their local customers are high schoolers, increasingly jaded and craving the more “European” stuff. “Let’s make our school kids happy,” says Gloria, and sends her hawkers with bundles of nudie 8 by 10’s to innocent-enough Ice Cream Parlours and Pizza joints. It’s a bizarre vision of Happy Days era teens – surly no-goodniks, bored, listless, and doped up on porn. Two sellers start a turf war at the pizza parlour, to see who’s top dog, “or should I say top rat?” And there in the middle of the rumble is Ed himself – mustache, slicked hair, and looking, at 36 years, like the world’s oldest juvenile delinquent.

The knife-wielding Dirk, meanwhile, continues his reign of terror offing models when they get too close, and is paid in porn by the Syndicate. At one point we see Dirk’s modus operandi – first tempts a girl with cigarettes, then plays hard to get. Then it’s on, and the clothes are off… A policeman in drag is sent to the park to nab the killer – ANY excuse for Ed to put a guy in drag onscreen – and Dirk is caught, but then freed. We’re never sure why, but it makes for a hell of an ending.

Director Johnny Ryde (as in taken for a Ryde) is Henderson’s right-hand flunky and creative brains behind the cameras. A former player in Hollywood, he has one moment of regret, in this prophetic line from Ed-Baby: “I look at this slush and try to remember – at one time I made GOOD movies.” Well no, that’s not entirely right in Ed’s case, but it’s poignant nonetheless. Johnny’s eye for talent lands on Mary, a young innocent who soon learns what it means to make fifty bucks in Hollywood the HARD way. She scans the walls lined with lobby cards for Ed’s other movies and says, “Is that all you make, gangster and horror films?” Ed’s obviously having the time of his life behind the camera sending up the film industry AND himself.

Shot in just five days on a pittance of a budget, it’s rough going. And yet the film’s bottom-of-the-barrel aesthetics, with footage alternating between washed out and twilight (and sometimes within the same shot!) makes the film that more seedy, and Ed’s re-enactments of girly loops are hilarious. Smut was obviously a subject close to Eddie’s heart – after all, he spent the next two decades in the business – which makes lines like “Pornography, a nasty word for a dirty business” sly to the point of self-parody. It’s Ed’s swansong to Hollywood and hola to hubba hubba with the 1960 The Sinister Urge.

Orgy Of The Dead

After The Sinister Urge, Ed could no longer find any directing jobs, so he started hammering out a long series of pornographic novels. Sandwiched between the covers with such salacious titles like “Night Time Lez” and “Death Of A Transvestite” were Ed’s usial preoccupations with fetishism and verbosity. “Orgy Of The Dead” was only one tawdry paperback that may number in the hundreds, no-one really knows for sure.

The script was turned into a feature in 1965 by Stephen A. Apostolof, born in Bulgaria but whose career in nudies, usually credited as “A.C. Stephen”, flourished in America. Ed was brought in as production manager, which also meant occasional assistant director and general dogsbody – that is, if he could keep his drinking under control on the set. It is, for all intents and purposes, an Ed Wood film, with the majestic presence of Criswell reprising his role from Night Of The Ghouls as Lord of the Dead.

Ed does more than recycle ideas from Ghouls, he even has Criswell sit up in his coffin, wearing one of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula capes, to reiterate his opening speech about the Threshold People – “Monsters to be pitied… Monsters to be despised!” Criswell’s ability to read cue-cards without effort was never his strongest point – see his intro to Plan 9 From Outer Space - but even that had eroded somewhat over the intervening years. His eyes are constantly roaming to below the camera, where Eddie’s sitting with his cue cards.

Cut to a couple in a car. Bob’s a horror writer heading to a cemetery for inspiration, much to the horror of his mediocre girlfriend Shirley (played by Pat Barrington). The car suddenly careers out of control, Car takes a tumble, and their bodies end up outside the cemetery somewhere, it would appear, in the twilight between living and dead. The sounds of exotic music and Criswell’s bombastic voice bring them closer to the gates – where they’re grabbed by the Mummy and the Wolfman! Time for another vodka.

They’re brought to Criswell, Emperor of the Twilight who demands the souls of the demented and the damned dance for him nightly for his amusement – and ours, let’s not forget. Shirley and Bob are tied to a post and forced to watch a seemingly endless parade of topless dancers in odd semi-costumes. And WHAT topless dancers: one’s dipped in gold a la Goldmember (that’s ALSO Pat Barrington, who was also in Russ Meyer’s Mondo Topless), one dances with her husband’s skeleton, another comes out as a topless cat and proceeds to lick herself clean. There’s constant cuts to approving looks from Criswell and his Vampira stand-in, the buxom figure of Fawn Silver as the Princess of Darkness, and to the Wolfman and the Mummy trading cheap one-liners (in the Wolfman’s case they’re real howlers…)

The Empress of the Night takes a shine to our Barbara. “No. No. No.” she protests unconvincingly. “She wants her pleasures,” booms Criswell, so he may watch and have his. It’s really teeth-grating time listening to non-actors delivering such a flat, uninspired reading of Ed’s unhinged screenplay. Criswell, on the other hand, is always a pleasure to watch, and it’s great to see him dominate a film in his one and only lead role, uttering the most lurid and florid passages of Eddie’s dialogue. “Torture! Torture! It pleasures me!” Criswell ejaculates, almost falling off his throne.

Orgy Of The Dead can be summed up in one word: padding. And I’m not talking about the dancers. It’s a slight idea stretched to breaking point at 90 minutes, and nailed to a single cemetery set shrouded in fog and filled with joke store skeletons. Still, it’s one of the oddest films we’ve yet screamed… I mean screened….It’s as if the Rocky Horror Picture Show was a burlesque variety hour sponsored by Famous Monsters of Filmland. In the 70s, Ed teamed up with Apostolof for at least seven more features, with Ed writing and occasionally as actor or assistant director, and those one’s we definitely NOT going to be screening those any time soon on Schlock Treatment. But for now we bid farewell to the wonderful world of Ed Wood Jr with the nudie monsters a go go of Orgy Of The Dead.

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