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Ed Wood - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

March 2007

Films by Ed Wood on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Common knowledge has it that Ed Wood is the worst director of all time ... but, as I frequently point out, common knowledge is an idiot. It is true that Ed Wood lacked several skills concerning the craft of filmmaking, and he made most of his films on a shoestring (or less than that), and the films look it too ... but then again, filmmaking is not so much a craft as an art, and the quality of a film simply cannot be measured by a high budget (even if Hollywood tries to tell you otherwise, while stuffing one piece after another of mediocricy down your throat).

In my book, how can a guy be the worst director of all time if his films are still readily available (and repeatedly re-released) half a century half a century after they were made, and if they are still enjoyable (if sometimes for the wrong reasons) after all that time and fondly remembered even by those who (like myself) were far from being around when they originally played ? It is true of course that Ed Wood was no big craftsman, and he was certainly not the next Orson Welles, the man he most frequently compared himself to - but when watching his movies back-to-back one can't but register a personal style permeating almost all of his films, be it his fascination with pulp motives, with macabre details and with surrealism done on the cheap, be it his tendency to let his characters lose themselves in long and preachy but also utterly silly monologues and dialogues, be it his boyishly great ambitions paired with an incredible lack for detail, be it the transvestites who turned up in his films decades before this became cool, or be it simply his predilection for angora sweaters his female (and occasionally male) characters tend to wear ...

 


The career of Ed Wood though was a tragic one, he was a man full of ideas and full of ambition to make them reality, but for some reason or another, he never found the proper outlet to do so and all of his life worked for cheapskate producers and sleazy distributors who did not care much for a man with a vision but more for someone who could deliver the goods on Tuesday ... add to all this chronic depression, chronic (and increasing) alcoholism, and the fact that he was a (heterosexual) crossdresser in a time way before the general public accepted transvestitism (does the general public even now ?), and you have a career that spells failure - and yet, almost 30 years after his death Ed Wood is still a household name, books are written about him, websites are dedicated to him, a big budget motion picture (Ed Wood) was made about him in 1994 directed by Tim Burton, several films of his are remade, unfilmed novels and screenplays are finally cast into celluloid, and - most surprisingly and weirdly enough - he has become the official saviour of his own church - The Church of Ed Wood - in 1996, 18 years after his death.

Unfortunately, Ed Wood did not witness this late fame and glory, he died in 1978, on the eve of his rediscovery, and he died a poor man ...

 

But I'm getting way ahead of myself now, let us - as usual - start at the beginning:

Ed Wood was born Edward Davis Wood jr 1924 in Poughkeepsie, New York, as the son of a postal worker. Young Ed soon developed a love for comic books, pulps and the cinema, and growing up during the 1930's, he witnessed a golden age in all these media. Of special mention might be the early films of the Universal horror cycle - especially Dracula (1931, Tod Browning), Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), The Mummy (1932, Karl Freund) and The Black Cat (1934, Edward G.Ulmer), the last of which Wood actually wanted to remake as Doctor Voodoo in 1954 starring the leads of the original, Borid Karloff and Bela Lugosi - and the myriad of B-Westerns that came out during that era, which all had a huge influence on Ed's own films.

There is a rumour that his mother made him periodically wear girls cloths until age 12, which in later life caused him to be a transvestite, but this sounds like a way too simple explanation for a way more complex phenomenon.

 

In 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the USA subsequently entered World War II, Ed was 17, and he was drafted by the United States Marine Corps the next year and stationed in the South and Central Pacific. During his war years, he proved himself to be quite a tough guy, taking part in combat in the Marshall Islands and Naumea and being one of only 400 American survivors (out of 4,000 GIs) of the invasion of Tarawa, where he got most of his front teeth knocked out ...

Later he served as an intelligence agent in the South Pacific until one of his legs got machine-gunned and he caught gangrene, forcing him to serve the remainder of his stint at the army doing office duty - where he learned how to use a typewriter, a talent which would come handy in his later life. Wood was discharged from the army in 1946 at the rank of Corporal and was during his service decorated with the Bronze and Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and the Sharpshooter's Medal. This is all in harsh contrast to his claim that he frequently went into battle wearing bra and panties under his uniform ... which might just as well be a slight exaggeration (meaning friendly lie) on his behalf , but it has since become the stuff of legend.

 

After the war was over, Wood started to study the Dramatic Arts in Washington DC for a little while, but soon his - shall we say - darker side got the better of him and he went touring the country with a freak show , playing first the geek who bites the heads off live chicken, then Half Man/Half Woman, a role that might have been very much after his taste.

 


Wood eventually arrived in Hollywood in 1947. His enthusiasm and his good looks (he was a very handsome man in the 1940's and 50's, which is hard to believe when seeing him on later photographs) soon helped him to find acting jobs in various stage productions.

 

In 1948, Wood directs his first (short) film, Crossroads of Laredo, a Western starring Duke Moore. However, the movie, which was shot silent with music, sound effects and dialogue later to be added, was never quite finished during Ed's lifetime as producer John Crawford Thomas - whom Ed had talked into producing it in the first place - ran out of money (which was provided by his parents) and Ed Wood made a disappearing act. Actually, Ed had already filmed all the footage and edited it together when it turned out there was no money left for dubbing. For the longest time after that, John Crawford Thomas was left with a silent Ed Wood film ... until in 1995, the odds had turned in his favour and he and former Ed Wood actress, girlfriend and protegee Dolores Fuller found backers to dub the film after all - with at best mixed results.

The film itself certainly shows its limitations: It was obviously done on the dirt-cheap, on shoddy outdoor sets, and without much re-shooting (when in one scene a horse steps in between two men fighting it out in a duel, the duelists just move a couple of steps to one side rather than get the horse out of the picture or even reshoot the whole scene - then again though, this might be realism for you). In defense of the film it has to be noted that many independently shot B-Westerns of the 1930's and 40's (and even some done by the smaller established companies like Monogram and PRC) shared Crossroads of Laredo's shoddy looks and budgetary restraints, so Wood was in good company.

 

With Crossroads of Laredo not being released, Wood's Hollywood career seemed to go nowhere before it had actually begun, but that didn't deter Wood from going on, and going strong: In 1948, Wood formed his own drama group and brought to the stage The Casual Company, a play about the Marine Corps written by himself. The play however proved to be a failure and closed after only one week. Fortunately for him, other theatre work proved to be more successful to keep him in employ the next year or two ...

 

In 1950, Ed Wood found work as a stuntman on Sam Fuller's The Baron of Arizona, a job that required him to be - much to his amazement - in drag.

 

In 1951, Wood directs his first finished movie, The Sun was Setting, actually a half-hour TV-drama about a dying woman who wants to see Chinatown one more time before her death starring Angela Stevens, Tom Keene and Phyllis Coates, but the film was certainly less than memorable.

 

In 1952, Ed co-wrote the Western The Lawless Rider with that film's star, veteran cowboy Johnny Carpenter. The film, directed by stunt legend Yakima Canutt, was however not released until two years later. Eventually, Johnny Carpenter would pop up again in Wood's Night of the Ghouls (1958), but more of that later.

 


1953 marked the year of the first classic Ed Wood film, Glen or Glenda, a film that on one hand desperately tried to cash in on the then recent sex-change operation of Christine Jorgensen, the ex-GI turned glamour girl - which was big news at the time -, on the other hand though it was also Ed's most personal film: basically, the film is about a transvestite - played by Wood himself under the alias Daniel Davis -, whose girlfriend (Dolores Fuller, who also was his real-life girlfriend at the time) has to come to terms with his crossdressing - with a second story about a man having a sex-change added on at virtually the last minute. In writing, this all sounds like a dull drama full of phony psychology, but in Ed Wood's hand, the story of the poor transvestite turns into a totally spaced out piece of (undenyably cheap and corny) surrealism - heck, Wood even found a way to work both the devil and Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], playing a godlike scientist/puppeteer, into his film.

Actually, Ed had met Bela Lugosi, the idol of his childhood, only a few weeks earlier, and when he learned how washed-out poor Bela - who at the time was unemployed and addicted to morphine - was, he offered him a job in his film, which Bela gratefully accepted. The friendship of Ed and Bela lasted until Bela's death in 1956. In later years, Bela's son Bela Lugosi jr would often claim that it was Ed Wood's fault that his dad's career has reached a dead end - which is not quite fair, it is pretty safe to say that his drug addiction got Bela to where he was, at a point where he had to be happy to be hired for even cheapskate productions like the Ed Wood-films he was in. And apart from that, Ed was known to help Bela frequently with stage- and TV-appearances during the remainder of his career, as a director, a dialogue coach, an errand boy, or whatever Bela needed - which in my eyes is far from exploiting him.

Besides Ed himself, Dolores Fuller and Bela Lugosi, Glen or Glenda also featured the first performance of Conrad Brooks in an Ed Wood-film, in not one but several peripheral roles (hardly more than bit-parts actually). Brooks would from here on appear in every Ed Wood feature up until The Sinister Urge (1961) and in later years (circa from the mid-1980's onwards) turn himself into a cult figure of the independent-scene, mainly thanks to his association with Wood. He would also wind up playing a part in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, by the way.

 

Glen or Glenda was produced by George Weiss, a young small-frye producer who back then had only a few films under his belt - one with the irresistible title Test Tube Babies (1948, W.Merle Connell) - but would go on to produce a variety of films that can be easily identified as sleaze even by their titles: Key-Hole Varieties (1954), Nudist Life (1961, Maurice H.Zouary), White Slaves of Chinatown and Olga's House of Shame (both 1964, Joseph P.Mawra), to name but a few. It's rather obvious that Weiss did not care much about the compelling portrayal of a transvestite but was betting on the exploitation angle of the subject. It is not known what he personally thought about the final film, but basically Weiss was a moneyman, and as long as something could get made quickly - principal shooting on Glen or Glenda did take no more than 5 days - and cheaply and could be sold, it was ok with him. 

At the time of its release, Glen or Glenda did only just break even though, the subject proved to be too ahead of its time, Christine Jorgensen or no Christine Jorgensen. It wasn't until much later that the film was picked up by lovers of the bizarre who simply loved the film for what it was - a far-out exposé on a still obscure subject - and saw to it that the film was released and re-released on video, DVD, and got played time and again on TV and even in the theatres (I personally caught my first glimpse of the film in a movie theatre in the mid-1990's). So eventually, the film did become the cult item it deserved to be even upon its initial release ...

 

The same year as Glen or Glenda, Wood also made Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid (1953) a half-hour pilot for a TV-series that was never realized (according to Wood himself, Crossroad Avenger was passed up in favour of Wild Bill Hickock starring Guy Madison). At this point it has to be noted that Western TV-series were in the early 1950's - very unlike today - in constant demand, with popular Western series of the day being The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show and The Roy Rogers Show, to name but a few. So if you wanted to sell a TV-series, it'd better be a Western ... or at least that's the theory. The downside to this theory is of course that the market was oversaturated with Westerns back then and that unless you had something really special on the hand, chances of turning the pilot into a series would be slim.

That's not to say that Ed Wood's pilot was bad, it was pretty much standard TV-Western fare about the adventures of an insurance detective, and it was competently enough done for a TV-Western of its time, it was just pretty much run-of-the-mill fare that (unlike most other Ed Wood-films) would leave no lasting impression. And whatever you expect, don't expect this one to be the Plan 9 of cheap TV-Western.

Crossroad Avenger starred Tom Keene, a veteran Western actor at the tail-end of his career who had been around since the late 1920's (sometimes using his alias Richard Powers or George Duryea) who was also in Wood's The Sun was Setting and would later pop up again in Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), incidently his last film. Supporting Keene were another veteran Western actor, Tom Tyler [Tom Tyler bio - click here], whose career at the time was definitely going nowhere, who badly suffered from arthritis, who badly needed the paycheck his involvement in Crossroad Avenger promised, and who died shortly after Crossroad Avenger was finished, and the prolific B-movie villain Kenne Duncan, whom Wood had first met on the set of The Lawless Rider and who had become a personal friend of Wood who would show up time and again in his films.

 


In 1954, Ed Wood would hook up with Alex Gordon, who was the executive producer on The Lawless Rider and later became a producer with AIP, and the two co-wrote Jail Bait, a sort-of film noir. 

With the film noir genre, Wood felt a little like a fish out of water: The rather gritty realism of the genre was rather ill at ease with Wood's overboarding fantasy made up of pulp mainstays, transvestites, and horror and sci-fi motives. The film about a killer forcing a plastic surgeon to give him a new face only to get the face of a man he originally framed for one of his murders still features some gruesome details one has come to expect from Wood, but by and large it lacks the typical over-the-top Ed Wood-quality, instead resembles the then contemporary straight-forward cop TV-series Dragnet.

The film was decidedly shot on the cheap and in a rush - in a mere four days, actually -, and it shows: Since Ed himself spent most of his time setting up the camera, he had little time to give the actors any direction - which shows especially in the stiff and insecure performance of Mister Universe 1950 and first-time-actor Steve Reeves (as a cop) [Steve Reeves bio - click here], who was then another 4 years away from fame as Italy's first (and most famous) Hercules. Other actors in Jail Bait were Wood's girlfriend Dolores Fuller as the heroine, veteran actor and Wood's personal friend Lyle Talbot (who was also in Glen or Glenda and Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid and would eventually pop up again in Plan 9 from Outer Space) as the inspector, and silent screen star and later character actor Herbert Rawlinson as the plastic surgeon. Originally, Rawlinson's role was intended for Lugosi, who had to turn it down though due to other engangements. In a macabre footnote, Rawlinson allegedly died the very night after his final day of shooting Jail Bait ...

How Jail Bait was financed remained pretty much a mystery to this day - rumours have it that Alex Gordon paid for most of it out of his own pocket - but it was eventually picked up for distribution by small-time distributor Howco, which also furnished the film with its score - music by Hoyt Curtin that was previously also used in the trash classic Mesa of Lost Women (1953, Ron Ormond, Herbert Tevos) that made about as little sense in that movie as in Jail Bait (incidently, Dolores Fuller, Lyle Talbot and Mona McKinnon from Jail Bait all also appear in Mesa of Lost Women - which would all suggest that Howco was involved with the production of the film as well, but on matters like this nothing can be said for certain).

 


Alex Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay for Jail Bait with Wood - and with whom Ed shared an appartment back then - also gave Ed the idea to his next feature, which would eventually turn out to be one of Wood's most fondly remembered and most laughed at films: Bride of the Monster (1955) !!!

Bride of the Monster was quite an ambitious project - by Ed Wood's standards anyways - as it featured a plot that required some elaborate sets - above all a convincing and convincingly futuristic laboratory -, some advanced special effects - it features a man who grows into a giant and who has a hand-on-hand fight with a giant squid -, and thus it would need a reasonably high budget. And it would need an actor like Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] to play the villain.

The good news first: Ed did get Bela Lugosi for the villain/mad scientist role. The rest though was mere improvisation the typical Ed Wood way ... but let's not get ahead and let me give you a rundown on the story first:

Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist who hides out in a presumably abandoned house somewhere in the swamps that is guarded by both his strongman Lobo (Tor Johnson who would soon become a fixture of Ed Wood films) [Tor Johnson bio - click here] and a giant octopus. There he conducts experiments to create a race of giants. However, both an East European spy and a nosey girl reporter (leading lady Loretta King) have caught up with him, and before you know it, Bela has fed the spy to the squid and strapped the reporter to a hospital bed to use his super-gro-rays on her to make her a giant woman ... which is when Lobo, who has fallen in love with the lady, decides to rebel against his master ... but when the two fight, Bela is exposed to his own super-gro-ray, becomes a giant and kills Lobo. By that time though, the police has already caught up with him until he ends in the tentacles of his own giant squid ...

Now this synopsis alone might sound trashy enough, but how Ed Wood achieved it is the really fun part of the film, actually: Ed could not afford a set desiner or even decent props for his laboratory set, so he simply took everything that looked remotely technical that he could find and used it as a backdrop, and instead of having real, dungeon-like brick-walls a set like this would have called for, Ed just used a brick-wallpaper, and not a very convincing one, too. Even worse are the special effects though, when Bela is turned into a giant the only thing that changes is that he is all of a sudden wearing plateau shoes, which add a mere few inches to his height, and when Bela has to wrestle the squid, he is basically sitting in a puddle in front of a rubber squid and tries to wrap the squids otherwise immobile tentacles around his body, desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to make it look like a real fight. Of course these scenes don't work at all (especially when you compare the squid-in-the-puddle to the real-life squid footage spliced into the film earlier on), but at the same time they are funny as hell. Plus, one can't help but feel the boyish ambition Ed has put into this little project, and his (erroneous ?) conviction that he was making something more than just another drive-in sci-fi-flick (and wouldn't you know it, over the years the film has actually turned out to be something more ...).

The only thing unfunny about Bride of the Monster is probably its comedy relief character, Kelton the Cop, as played by Paul Marco, an inept cop who tries himself in a bunch of (slapstick-)situations ... but even he is so unfunny it's kind of endearing again. By the way, Kelton would also pop up in Ed Wood's next two films, Night of the Ghouls (1958) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

(By the way, Kelton the Cop, again played by Paul Marco, eventually made his return in the 2005 film The Naked Monster [Wayne Berwick, Ted Newsom].)

 

Shortly after finishing Bride of the Monster, Ed Wood and his girlfriend and frequent leading lady (though she only had a very small part in Bride of the Monster) Dolores Fuller split up, allegedly because she - unlike in Glen or Glenda - could not come to terms with his crossdressing (other sources though blame Ed's increasing alcoholism). Shortly after that, Fuller gave up acting for good - which might be all for the better, because on one hand she was not much of an actress, on the other hand she was a very talented songwriter, which she eventually made her profession, writing number one songs for several artists of the day, including several hits for Elvis Presley himself, Nat 'King' Cole and Peggy Lee. It's somehow ironic that she nowadays is much more famous for her involvement with Ed Wood, which back then led to nowhere, than for her very successful career in music.

Around the same time, Ed also broke up with his friend, roommate and frequent collaborator, Alex Gordon, mainly because Gordon started producing for AIP, being a personal friend of that company's co-president Samuel Z.Arkoff, and Wood felt betrayed because he was left out of the deal - which was mainly because Arkoff did not have a too high opinion of Ed Wood's talents, and perhaps rightly so. In later days, Wood would claim that Arkoff stole the story for How to Make a Monster (1958, Herbert L.Strock) from a script he had submitted - which might be a blunt exaggeration given the run-or-the-mill quality of the film's plot (meaning you don't need any kind of inspiration to come up with a story like this).

 

The year 1956 is marked by a series of failures for Ed Wood: He starts filming The Vampire's Tomb with Bela Lugosi - as the vampire, of course -, but then Bela dies from a heart attack - with Ed Wood allegedly being one of the last persons to have ever seen him alive - and the project has to be abandoned (but shots of Bela as the vampire were later incorporated into Plan 9 from Outer Space).

The death of Bela Lugosi also brought to a definite end various other projects Ed Wood planned for/with the actor, including Dr.Acula, a TV-series in which Bela was to have played an investigator into the supernatural, above mentioned Doctor Voodoo, and The Phantom Ghoul aka The Ghoul Goes West, a horror-Western starring Lugosi, Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here], John Carradine, Tor Johnson and as hero Gene Autry, and after he bailed out either Bob Steele or Ken Maynard. Wood only planned to write and produce this film with Harold Daniels handling the direction. The film was to have been in colour and widescreen.

Then Ed Wood tried his hands on teenage action with Rock and Roll Hell aka Hellborn, which is another project he had to abandon when producer George Weiss bailed out. Eventually, Weiss sold the existing material to actor Conrad Brooks, and he and Wood reportedly tried to finish the film for the next decade or so ... but it didn't see the light of day (or rather the darkness of a projection room) until 1993 as part of the anthology-film Hellborn, but only in fragmentary form. Segments of Rock'n'Roll Hell by the way found their way into both The Night of the Ghouls (1958) and The Sinister Urge (1961).

 




On a friendlier note, one of Ed's scripts, Teenage Girl Gang, was turned into a film, The Violent Years, in 1956, directed by William Morgan and produced by Headliner Productions. The film was an enjoyably silly and exploitative film about a teenage girl gang that roams a small town raping (!) and killing whoever gets in their way, it was made on a shoestring, and it features some typical Ed Woodian dialogue, so it's definitely worth checking out for all fans out there. Some of you might note that the plot of this film has striking similarities to Russ Meyer's girl-gang movie Faster Pussycat ... Kill ! Kill ! from a decade later - but in direct comparison The Violent Years is no match for Meyer's masterpiece.

 

Finally, in late 1956, Wood starts filming his script Graverobbers from Outer Space, which would eventually turn out to be his magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Basically, Plan 9 from Outer Space is about a bunch of aliens arriving in UFOs who want to take over our earth by raising the dead (actually just 3 dead, them being Vampira, Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi/Lugosi's double Tom Mason). But as these films go, the earthlings strike back and prove to be the better fighters in the long run ...

 


As with Bride of the Monster before it, Ed Wood totally lacked perspective about the budget needed for an elaborate science fiction film like Plan 9 from Outer Space, and once again special effects, sets and costumes looked it. Especially the UFO-interiors are so poorly done they are wonderful, a studio-set of a graveyard looks so unreal it almost hurts and the idea of having an airplane cockpit represented by a mere shower curtain is, well, daring. Add to this UFOs being impersonated by plain old Cadillac hubcaps with a mothership that's clearly a mediocre painting, some very bad alien outfits, effeminate Bunny Breckinridge as the alien leader and Criswell - a popular if untalented psychic of his time - popping out of his coffin when you least expect him to, and you have a wonderful piece of trash that defies description. And to top it all off, Wood incorporated scenes of Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] shot for The Vampire's Tomb into the film that make no sense in Plan 9 from Outer Space (after all, Bela was supposed to play a vampire, and there is none in Plan 9), and Bela is doubled in several (linking) scenes by Tom Mason, a man who doesn't in the least look like him but constantly hides his face behind his cape, and you've got ... wow, you've got a film you are not likely to ever forget !!!

Of course, the film was made on the dirt-cheap, but that didn't keep Ed Wood to run out of budget eventually, and ultimately he came up with the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills as one of the backers for his project - who only financed Ed's sci-fi picture on the condition that everyone in the cast converts to their religion - which led to a mass-baptism in a Beverly Hills swimming pool.

The biggest name in Plan 9's cast - apart from Bela Lugosi of course and maybe psychic Criswell and wrestler Tor Johnson [Tor Johnson bio - click here] - was probably Vampira (real name Maila Nurmi), a former stage actress, model and dancer who had an (alleged) romance with Orson Welles and who was almost discovered for the big screen by Howard Hawks, but who eventually rose to fame when she hosted a TV horror show, The Vampira Show, on ABC in 1954. After she was done with the show, she tried to embark on a Hollywood career, which almost immediately fell on hard times ... so by 1956, she was happy to be hired even by Ed Wood. In later days though she did not have too much good to say about the experience, and even though she is now considered as one of Ed's core players, she actually appeared only in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

On the set of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Ed Wood met Norma McCarthy who had a small role in the film, and he married her before shooting of the film was over - however, their marriage would not last: Like Dolores Fuller, she couldn't cope with Ed's crossdressing, probably even more so. It is said that the marriage was never even consummated, and it was annulled only days after the wedding

 

Plan 9 was previewed in 1957, but it actually took Ed until 1959 to get distribution for the film.

In the meantime though, he wasn't idle: In 1957 he directed The Final Curtain, a 20-minute pilot for a projected horror anthology series to be called Portraits in Terror, but as with The Adventures of Tucson Kid, this series never came into being. Actually, the lead in The Final Curtain was intended for Bela Lugosi, who was reading the script on his deathbed, but with Lugosi gone, the role was eventually handed over to Duke Moore. 

About another horror short Wood made in 1957, The Night the Banshee Cried, next to nothing is known.

Also in 1957, Ed married Kathleen O'Hara Everett, who finally was a woman who could keep up with his crossdressing, his depressions and his drinking habit (which got worse and worse over the years), and who would remain by his side until his death in 1978, which meant living through many a hard time ...

 


In 1958, Ed directed his next feature film, The Night of the Ghouls, a weird horror story about a phony spiritualist (Kenne Duncan) who uses all sorts of tricks and special effects to stage seances in order to extort money from his invariably rich clients. In the end though, he accidently raises the dead (the real dead) - which even he didn't know he could do -, who have their vengeance on him. Duke Moore plays the good guy, a cop, in this one, Tor Johnson [Tor Johnson bio - click here] once more plays a monstruous strongman called Lobo, sweet young Valda Hansen is doing a Vampira impression, while veteran actor Johnny Carpenter plays the chief of police. And of course, Criswell is popping out of his coffin once again, while Paul Marco does his (inevitable) Kelton the Cop-routine.

By fans, The Night of the Ghouls is generally not held in as high regard as Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster or Plan 9 from Outer Space, maybe becasue it lacked a big name like Bela Lugosi, maybe because it's more competently made and above all lacks all-too-obvious technical glitches, or maybe because its story is not quite as over-the-top. Still, taken by its own merits, The Night of the Ghouls - by the way the only feature produced by Ed's own short-lived production company Atomic Productions - is great fun, a film chock-full of overused horror clichés like black and white ghosts, the dead rising from their tombs, seances, skeletons sitting by the table, ... you name it, it's there. Of course, if you are a serious horror fan, this film will mean nothing to you, maybe even offend you, but if you take it with a grain of salt, it's nothing short of a laugh riot - and this time around you are not even sure if you're laughing at the film or with it.

 


Also in 1958, one of Ed Wood's screenplay, The Bride and the Beast, was brought to the screen under the direction of Adrian Weiss. The film was produced by Allied Artists, the sister/successor company of Monogram, which was still a small player even during its heyday in the 1950's - but it was definitely the biggest company Ed Wood was ever associated with during his lifetime ... As a result, the budget for the film was higher and thus the movie has a more polished look than the usual Ed Wood output: The stock footage used at least makes sense within the proceedings of the film, and the film even features two real life tigers who are allowed to interact with the actors (or rather their stuntmen, most probably).

The plot of The Bride and the Beast is pure Ed Wood though, it's about a woman, Carlotta Austin, who feels strangely drawn to the ape of her big game hunter husband Lance Fuller, and vice versa. Under hypnosis, she is regressed to a former life and it turns out that she once was ... an ape. Hubby then is stupid enough to take his newly-wed wife to Africa on a honeymoon, and while he is out to chase two tigers who have been imported from India and escaped upon arrival, the good wife is reclaimed by the gorillas. Add to this some typically inane dialogue as only good old Ed Wood could write it and an angora sweater ... and welcome to Ed Wood-land !!!

Of course, it should be noted that Ron Ormond's Untamed Mistress (1956), a film with a very similar story, beats The Bride and the Beast by a length or two considering sheer outrageousness.

(Interesting trivia: The assistant director on The Bride and the Beast is veteran director Harry L.Fraser, on whose serial Jungle Menace [1937, Harry L.Fraser, George Melford] The Bride and the Beast's director Adrian Weiss served as a assistant director.)

 

The remainder of the 1950's proved nothing but bad luck for Ed Wood, he tried to launch several projects, but to no avail. Actually, Ed did not make another film until The Sinister Urge in 1961. The Sinister Urge tires hard to be a hard-hitting exposé of the smut racket (basically meaning nude photographers) and its influence on crime, namely rape, but somehow, while the conclusions this film comes to are quite outrageous, the film is little more than a third-rate crime picture that tries to be exploitative but comes off as boring more than anything else, despite its sensationalist concept and a (for the time) rather explicit rape sequence, which Ed filmed after the film had already been released in some areas to at least spice up the proceedings a little. The whole thing probably was just too straight forward for Wood's obvious predilection for pulp fiction (and especially sci-fi and horror) to really put his soul into it, and so despite a crossdressing cop and characters endlessly rambling on about things only loosely connected to the on-screen goings-on (one of Ed Wood's trademarks), the film is flat to the point of being unremarkable, in Ed Wood's filmography as in the history of (s)exploitation cinema as such.

 

In 1962, Ed Wood worked as a script doctor (which in itself sounds like a laugh or a contradiction in terms) on Married too Young (George Moskov) for Headliner Productions - the company that also produced The Sinister Urge -, but by and large, Ed's film career was over by the early 1960's, several projects he had during that time simply did not come into being, including Ghouls of the Moon, a sort-of sequel to Plan 9 from Outer Space which was to utilize yet more unused Bela Lugosi footage, The Peeper, a sequel to The Sinister Urge, and Attack of the Giant Salami, a science fiction spoof that was to star veteran comedian Joe E.Brown, horror icon Boris Karloff, and Valda Hansen from The Night of the Ghouls. Ultimately, the disappointing Sinister Urge would remain Ed's only directing effort during the whole 1960's.

 



In 1963, Ed, first out of necessity rather than out of conviction, started writing pulp novels, invariably from the sleazy side of the genre, but soon enough he proved himself to be a prolific and proficient author for hire and he developed quite a talent for it (as well as being an ace on the typewriter). Also, his novels, even though they were almost invariably cheap sex-and-crime novels (in fact the very stuff that is condemned in The Sinister Urge), showed a certain personal touch: they were often about transvestites, (fear of) homosexuality - Ed was never a homosexual, but when you are crossdressing this topic comes up almost automatically - and of course angora sweaters, and the stories were often flavoured with a touch of horror or the macabre.

Some of the racier titles of the books he wrote were Black Lace Drag aka Killer in Drag, its sequel Death of a Transvestite, Parisian Passions, Side-Show Siren, Drag Trade, Devil Girls, It Takes One to Know One, Suburbia Confidential, Night Time Lez, Raped in the Grass, The Perverts, Sex, Shrouds and Caskets, The Sexecutives, The Love of the Dead, Young, Black and Gay, Purple Thighs, To Make a Homo, Forced Entry and Death of a Transvestite Hooker. Occasionally Ed also wrote non-fiction books, which were only rarely less sleazy than his fiction books though, and the titles are telling: Bloodiest Sex Crimes of History, Sex Museum, A Study of the Sons and Daughters of Erotica, Sexual Practices in Witchcraft and Black Magic, A Study of Fetishes and Fantasies, and A Study in the Motivation of Censorship, Sex and the Movies.

 


Also in 1963, Boris Petroff produced and directed a film based on a script by Ed Wood, Shotgun Wedding, a backwoods drama set in the Ozarks, however this film is only mildly entertaining and by now largely forgotten.

In 1965 though, Ed Wood was involved with another movie that would eventually gain cult status: Orgy of the Dead, directed by A.C.Stephen (aka Stephen C.Apostolof), was not only based on a screenplay by Ed Wood, he also served as assistant director. Essentially, the film was little more than a series of strippers doing their routines in a macabre graveyard set, with the rest of the film is filled up with a story about the Emperor of the Dead (Criswell, once more) and two mortals who accidently witness the strippers, who are supposed to be undead, stripping. It all makes very little sense, and at least from today's point of view the whole thing is very tame (the striptease I mean) and unexciting, but some of the strippers' cheap costumes, an unconvincing wolfman and unconvincing mummy and typical Ed Wood-dialogue make this worth your while nevertheless.

 

For the remainder of his career, Ed Wood, who wanted to be a serious Western-, sci-fi- or horror-director, would never be able to rise above smut level, as even the titles of most of the films he scripted prove, for example For Love and Money (1967, Donald A.Davis), which was based on his novel Sexecutives, Operation Redlight (1969, Don Doyle), based on his novel Mama's Diary.

 


There are two films from the late 1960's however that deserve special mention:

The first is Ed's sexy caveman spoof One Million AC/DC (1969, Ed De Priest), which takes an ironic look at genre cinema like One Million Years B.C. (1965, Don Chaffey) and, despite being little more than a feeble excuse to show naked women, is at times actually quite funny.

The second film worth mentioning is Love Feast/Pretty Models... all in a Row/The Photographer (1969, Joseph F.Robertson), which was not only written by Wood, but in this one he also plays the lead role, a photographer who has invited a seemingly endless string of models to his house to shag, but eventually the models turn the tables on him and force him to submit to their fetishistic fantasies, which include wearing women's shoes and a babydoll nightie - nothing good old Ed Wood wasn't all too familiar with, actually ... thing is, old Ed looks miserable in the film, his face visibly scarred by chronic alcoholism, his body in poor shape, and when he's made to wear women's cloths, it looks nothing short of pathetic - but in an odd way, the sorry state Wood is in totally fits his role, that of a pathetic sleazeball. The girls in this are all pretty hot though and all get naked ...

 


In 1970 finally, Ed Wood was allowed back into the directing chair - but much has changed in the B-movie world since he had directed his last film: The sexual revolution has taken place for better or worse, with the result that small-frye producers now believed the big buck was in sex cinema, and hardcore pornography had been born ... and thus Ed's last films, Take it Out in Trade (1970), Necromania (1971) - featuring Rene Bond and Rick Lutze) - and The Only House (1971) - featuring Uschi Digard - were all sexploitation from the sleazy end of even this genre, with at least Necromania existing in both softcore and hardcore versions. And while these films are odd sure enough, they just lack the sheer outrageousness of Ed Wood's output from the 1950's.

 


Eventually Ed gave up directing feature films, but he kept on directing, even if it was now hardcore loops for the Swedish Erotica-series and a series of sex-shorts called Sex Education Corespondence School (1975), which were sold as a package with sex ecudation books.

 


Still, during the 1970's, producer/director A.C.Stephens of Orgy of the Dead-fame repeatedly requested his services for scripting cheap and cheesy sex-films, often starring Rene Bond. These films include Drop-Out Wife, Class Reunion, and The Snow Bunnies (all 1972, A.C.Stephen), The Cocktail Hostesses (1973, A.C.Stephen), Five Loose Women/Fugitive Girls (1974, A.C.Stephen) - on which Wood also served as assistant director and had a small role -, The Beach Bunnies (1976, A.C.Stephen) and Hot Ice (1978, A.C.Stephen) - which again had Ed as assistant director and actor.

 

Still, life hasn't been kind to Wood, during the 1970's he and his wife ran into continuous financial problems, Ed's alcoholism worsened, his depressions became more frequent, and it didn't help one bit that he and Kathy were evicted from apartment after apartment, and were often allowed to take with them only the things they could carry (if even) ... but during that time Ed never gave up the idea to one day (again) become a respected film director, and from the early 1960's onwards he had worked on a script that against all odds could have achieved just that and finetuned it numerous times: I Awoke Early the Day I Died, a tongue-in-cheek film without dialogue (admittedly never Wood's forte) about a madman escaping an asylum in women's cloths who then roams town encountering one macabre situation after the next until he falls into an open grave and breaks his neck - but unfortunately, during Ed's lifetime the film never came into being.

 



Ed Wood died 1978 a poor man in the apartment of his friend, actor Peter Coe, where he and wife Kathy were living at the time after just having been evicted for the umpteenth time.

What made his death all the more tragic was that his rediscovery was just around the corner: In 1980, Michael and Harry Medved celebrated Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space as the worst movie of all time, with Wood also winning worst director, in their highly questionable book The Golden Turkey Awards. Fortunately though, this tendentious publication did not condemn Ed Wood's films to instant oblivion but on the contrary sparked new interest in his output, and all of a sudden his films were available again, first on film festivals and in theatres, then on home video which had an early boom in the early to mid-1980's, with distributors always looking for more stuff to release on the public (which was repeated in the late 1990's/early 2000's when DVD was taking over). And unlike during his lifetime, interest in the man has not vaned after his death - which eventually led to the definitive book on Ed Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy - The Life and Art of Edward D.Wood jr by Rudolph Grey being published in 1992, and in 1994 his life (or rather the part of his life that concerned his association with Bela Lugosi) was turned into a big budget movie, Ed Wood, by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp as Ed Wood. And wouldn't you know it, the film actually won 2 Oscars - for best supporting role (Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi) and best make-up ... and who would have thought during his lifetime that Ed Wood would ever be associated with the Academy Awards ?

 


Additional to that, both Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space were remade as porn flicks by Caballero, titled Glen & Glenda (1994, Frank Marino) and Plan 69 from Outer Space (1993, Frank Marino), respectively.

Also, Wood's unfinished Rock'n'Roll Hell was finally made available (in fragments) as part of the film Hellborn (Ed Wood, Henry Bederski) in 1994, and in 1995, Wood's very first Crossroads of Laredo was finally released, albeit in less than perfect form. 

 

But the real triumph for Ed Wood came in 1998, when his ambitious script I Awoke Early the Day I Died was made into a film, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (Aris Iliopulos) which starred Billy Zane, who also took production into his own hands - and the film, both paying loving hommage to Ed Wood and showing the potential of his favourite script, is really good, bizarre maybe, but good nevertheless.

(By the way, another adaptation of the script, the short I Awoke Early the Day I Died, was filmed in 1997 by director David Tahir, but with less appealling results.)

 



Further projects to which Ed Wood's name is attached are Devil Girls (1999, Andre Perkowski), an underground film based on Wood's novel of the same name, The Vampire's Tomb (also 1999, Andre Perkowski [Andre Perkowski inverview - click here]), based on his unfilmed screenplay intended for Lugosi, and The Interplanetary Surplus Male and Amazon Women of Outer Space (2003, Sam Firstenberg), which is said to include material from Amazon Women of Outer Space, an abandoned film Wood has supposedly started to shoot in the 1950's  - though I have yet to find a confirmation that Wood ever directed the material in the first place ...

 

All of this gives you a perspective of how alive Ed Wood is even nowadays, almost 30 years after his death, how cherished he is, and not only by bad movie afficionados, and how much of a household name he has become while better directors (meaning better craftsmen) have long vaned into obscurity ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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