Pull the String!

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Greetings, my friend.  We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.  And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.   –  Criswell

If the primary purpose of a movie is to entertain, it makes sense that a film can be “so bad it’s good”; some movies are just so incredibly, amazingly, jaw-droppingly bad that we can’t help finding them funny.  So it’s not surprising that people are still watching the work of the late Edward D. Wood, Jr., arguably the worst filmmaker of all time.  There are bad writers, bad directors and bad producers, but Wood managed to be outstandingly bad at all three:  his scripts make no sense and are laden with ludicrous dialog and wholly illogical plots; his direction ranges from the incompetent to the incomprehensible, and his production values are practically nonexistent.  Wood’s dedication to keeping costs down is exemplified by his commitment to exposing as little film as possible, and his employment of stock footage even when it was wholly inappropriate.  And though it’s not unusual for directors to favor certain groups of actors, it is highly doubtful that any such regular cast was as completely devoid of talent as Wood’s stable, which often included the director himself.

The clip above is from Wood’s first full-length film, Glen or Glenda (1953), a semi-autobiographical piece in which Wood revealed his transvestism to the world.  Like all Wood’s early work it gave a prominent role to the destitute, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi, seen here as a narrator mumbling incomprehensible commentary of his own devising.  Lugosi died just as Wood was about to start filming his magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, but the would-be auteur was undeterred; he incorporated silent screen tests of Lugosi into the movie and cast his wife’s chiropractor as a stand-in for the rest.  The fact that the doctor looked nothing like the deceased horror icon was disguised by the simple expedient of having him walk around with his Dracula cape over his face.  Plan 9 is certainly Wood’s best-known creation, and was probably responsible for the resurgence of interest in his work after it was named “Worst Film of All Time” in Harry & Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards (1980); however, it lacks one of Wood’s characteristic cinematic elements: lesbian bondage scenes, which appear in most of his movies from Glen or Glenda to Orgy of the Dead (1965) (possibly NSFW if your coworkers are very uptight):

Wood was only responsible for the script of this one, but it serves as a harbinger of his later work directing soft-core (and eventually hard-core) porn; in it, the “Emperor of the Dead” (Criswell) presides over a ceremony in which ten undead topless dancers perform in a graveyard.  My cousin Alan and I rented it one Saturday afternoon in ’96, and this scene became a running joke for us; for years afterward he might suddenly hold up some random object and say, “And what is this?”  To which I would reply, “A symbol, Master!”  Anyone who hadn’t seen the flick probably thought we were complete morons, but that’s half the fun of a private joke.

I first discovered Wood’s oeuvre in high school, but I only recently found out that he also tried to break into television via several series pilots, all of which were thought lost until one of them was discovered in a private collection.  Less than a year after filming Plan 9 Wood wrote, produced and directed “Final Curtain”, the pilot for a horror anthology series to be called Portraits of Terror.  It’s as absurd, pretentious and just plain bad as anything Wood ever did, but is less than 23 minutes long; the star is Duke Moore and its narrator Dudley Manlove (both from Plan 9), but look for Wood himself (under a pseudonym) as the only other on-screen character.

Rod Serling it’s not, but if poor Wood hadn’t drank himself to death just two years before the renaissance of interest in his work, he might’ve at last found the fame he craved on the talk-show circuit, and perhaps even made a good living directing kitschy music videos in the 1980s.

(By Maggie McNeill, cross-posted on The Honest Courtesan)

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21 Responses to “Pull the String!”

  1. #1 |  Ted S. | 

    Be kind to Ed Wood. He had extremely low budgets, and as you mentioned, his work is “so bad it’s funny”. If you want a movie that’s so bad it’s not even “so bad it’s good”, get a copy of Dondi.

    And no, I won’t apologize if you actually watch Dondi; you’ve already been warned. ;-)

  2. #2 |  PubDef | 

    OK, you just weirded me out. I watched Plan 9 From Outer Space last night and the first thing I see this morning is the opening quote from Criswell.

  3. #3 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    When it comes to film, there’s bad, and so-bad-it’s-good, and then below that there is Ed Wood. Why didn’t they just turn the
    camera on the director talking to the actors over Scotch about world politics: it would have been more much interesting and they could have saved $100,000 on the cheesy special effects.

  4. #4 |  marco73 | 

    In 100 years, film students, or whatever they are called, will still be looking at Ed Wood’s work. And enjoying his work.
    Can anyone say the same about some of the flotsam in theaters today? (Looking at you, Expendables 2)

  5. #5 |  Wrongway1965 | 

    I Honestly Couldn’t give a Fart who this guy or any other hollywood schmuk was.. or any Celebs of today & what they’re wearing.
    This truly isn’t why I follow this site.
    Slow News Day Eh?..

  6. #6 |  Bill Beyer | 

    Unrelated, but here’s a headline for you:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/newzealand/9404669/Traffic-signs-in-New-Zealand-destroyed-by-prostitutes-performing-stunts.html
    It looks like one Radley would post, anyhow…

  7. #7 |  David Cox | 

    Ed Wood (the Tim Burton biopic) is easily my favorite movie, and I was one of the 10 or so people who saw it in the theater. I even wanted to go back the following weekend for a second viewing and drag a few friends along but it had already been pulled.

  8. #8 |  ClubMedSux | 

    I Honestly Couldn’t give a Fart who this guy or any other hollywood schmuk was. . . . This truly isn’t why I follow this site.

    I Honestly Couldn’t give a Fart who this Wrongway1965 guy is.. or what he does and don’t like reading.
    This truly isn’t why I follow the comments section.
    Slow Work Day Eh?..

  9. #9 |  el coronado | 

    Never really understood the deal why movie – no, not “film” – buffs like to talk about Ed Wood. In what other line of work/endeavor to entertain or amuse or impress is crappiness celebrated?

    Baseball nuts don’t talk wistfully about Mario Mendoza’s ‘awful greatness’. Beauty pageant buffs don’t make movies or blog posts about Miss Bulgaria 1948’s ‘remarkably thick & abundant arm hair’. People don’t sigh nostalgically over their old Pinto, Gremlin, Vega, Yugo, or Chevette. Nobody lines up at restaurants featuring the ‘undisputedly worst food ever!’.

    So WTF?

  10. #10 |  Dead Lenny | 

    To paraphrase an interview from MST3K’s DVD of ‘Bride of The Monster:’

    “Ed Wood didn’t make bad movies. If they were so bad, why are they still being watched and talked about fifty years later?
    “If you really want a bad movie, try to think of any romantic comedy from the 1990s, or a disease-of-the-week movie on Lifetime starring Meredith Baxter-Birney. Those are bad movies.”

    And from a different interviewee: “I don’t think of [Ed Wood movies] as ‘bad.’ I think of them as ‘professionally challenged.'”

    Me, I’m a fan of cinematic cheese, thanks to a long-time addiction to Mystery Science Theater 3000. I still have a working VCR in my house so I can watch ‘Werewolves on Wheels’ (a biker movie which only has one werewolf — and just the head; they couldn’t afford the whole costume) and ‘Monster From Milpitas’ (don’t even ask). IMHO, the true king(s) of enthusiastic-but-incompetent film-making are Tony Cardoza and Coleman Francis, the artistes who gave the world ‘Beast of Yucca Flats,’ ‘Red Zone Cuba,’ and ‘The Skydivers.’ After Francis died, Cardoza soldiered on by producing ‘The Hellcats’ (another biker film) and plenty of others: check his IMDB page and you’ll see he kept pretty busy through the years.

    But if we’re gonna banter about bad movies, a salute and moment of prayer must be given to the ruler of them all: ‘Manos, The Hands of Fate.’ This one needs no explanation to my fellow MSTies out there, and the rest of you can look it up…
    … In fact, there is good news, hallelujah! Some film collector managed to get a hold of an undamaged 16mm print of ‘Manos’ and is in the process of restoring it:
    … And, as the rights fell into public domain a while back, is going to release ‘Manos’ as an HD DVD once he’s finished.

    Yes. This IS the sort of thing that makes me happy in life.

  11. #11 |  croaker | 

    Ed Wood movies were a staple at Evecon and Castlecon back in the day. We even had him as a guest one year.

  12. #12 |  Bobby Black | 

    You want so bad its …well…still bad? Check out R.O.T.O.R….my father was the screenplay writer, art director and bit part actor…the director, Cullen Blaine had only made a milk commercial before this dog’s breath of a film…for real…look it up.

  13. #13 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    As usual: http://www.policeone.com/officer-shootings/articles/5827342-Fla-deputies-shoot-kill-wrong-suspect/

  14. #14 |  RT | 

    I dunno. It’d have to be pretty bad to be worse than “Kill Squad”. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082611/

  15. #15 |  Windypundit | 

    I second the nomination for Manos, The Hands of Fate. That was pretty damned awful.

  16. #16 |  croaker | 

    @13 And stoop to character assassination after the fact.

  17. #17 |  supercat | 

    Many people attack Ed Wood, but he demonstrated a certain level of competence as a director. When someone tossed a matchbook toward one side of the screen into a grave, the shot of the people in the grave catching it had it come from the proper direction. Ed Wood did many things as well as he could do then with the budget he had. His primary failing was that when confronted with things he could not do well, he opted to do them badly rather than substitute things he could do well.

    For example, there is a notorious scene in Plan 9 in which really cool stock footage of military rockets firing is intercut with a general standing against “sky” which is obviously a blank wall. To have shot the general’s footage outdoors would have been more expensive and difficult, since the sound would have had to have been looped in afterwards, and making a decent looking sky indoors would have also added cost. A better approach might have been to get a medium-dark sheet and suspend it in such a way as to form the canvas top of of an army truck, but that would be a case of doing something different (filming the general against an army truck) rather than just doing something better but without adding cost.

    Likewise, the infamous continuity problems posed by the daytime graveyard footage of Bela Lugosi weren’t just a result of carelessness. They were the result of a major difficulty Ed Wood faced: lighting his graveyard set for “day” would have made it look hideous (even more so than it already did), but he didn’t have nighttime graveyard footage of the real Bela Lugosi. I’m not sure what he really could have done to solve that problem, short of spending enough money to get a set which could be lit for “day”.

    Plan 9 is hardly great cinema, and Ed Wood had nowhere near the talent of people like Robert Rodriguez who could turn the challenges he encountered into opportunities to improve his film (e.g. problem: he was planning to achieve shots of Azul shooting himself out of the jail by using a squib belt fastened to the guard’s chest, but the real guard of the jail turned out to be a woman; rather than hiring a male actor to play the guard, he simply borrowed some cash long enough to have Azul toss it in front of the guard. That change wouldn’t have happened if the real guard simply been a man, but having Azul bribe himself out of jail rather than shooting made the film better.) Still, I think he at least had some concept of what a film should be.

  18. #18 |  r.l.s.3 | 

    Ed Wood movies make you want to grab your friends and a camera and go make a hilariously cheesy movie. High tech, big budget, super special effects flicks sure do entertain, but they don’t stir up the same level of personal imagination.

  19. #19 |  DamnthatDE | 

    I have been a fan of Ed Wood for ages and own most of his movies on VHS and/or DVD. It is awful but it is great to watch for all the mess ups. I would rather watch those movies, and other cheesy ones like that, then see Michael Bay blow things up for two hours without even worrying about the story line. At least Wood would try where as people like Bay flat out ignore it. Though I have never seen Dondi; I seriously doubt any film can be worst than Manos: The Hands of Fate. The only way to make it through that whole film is to watch it on MST2K, if not I think the 5 minutes of dead air all the time would drive you nuts.

  20. #20 |  Randy Oldgoat | 

    No conversation about bad movies is complete without mentioning Phil Tucker’s “Robot Monster.” So unbelievably bad, it’s awesome: stilted dialog, atrocious acting, and a robot monster consisting of a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on his head.

  21. #21 |  Trent Darby | 

    Great video. They pulled the string really well. Keep up the good work.