Horrible Horror – Four Films By and About Ed Wood

This post first appeared in District of Wonders – Newsletter, Tuesday 17th November 2015

I’ve been a horror fan for as long as I can remember, but recently joining the staff at Tales to Terrify has reignited my forgotten love of scary movies. Thankfully, my boyfriend has more extensive knowledge of film than I do, so he’s been helping me discover some great old movies when I would otherwise likely be content with re-watching episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone on Netflix. When he asked me if I wanted to check out what is commonly regarded as the worst film ever made, which also happened to be a horror movie, I of course said, “Yes!”

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
The worst film ever made, by the worst director of all time, features aliens implementing “Plan 9,” which involves raising the dead to try to stop humanity from destroying themselves and the rest of the universe. This was enough to pique my curiosity, and the movie did not disappoint.

Plan 9 features horror mainstay Bela Lugosi as well as horror host Vampira as zombies. Lugosi had died before the film was conceived, but Director Ed Wood used the final few minutes of footage of Lugosi as a way to attract support and garner interest in the film. The film also features bad cinematography and some terrible acting, the most notable being professional wrestler Tor Johnson playing a detective before the character is also killed and reanimated. Zombie Tor, like the other zombies, remains mercifully silent for the remainder of the film.

The aliens are painted as a more progressive species than the humans of Earth as they attempt peaceful resolution of the dangers facing the universe prior to implementing Plan 9, but they still resort to violence when their requests to Earth’s governments go unanswered. In addition, the aliens include women in their ranks of invaders (although one of many incongruities in the film is The Ruler stating that women are “not for fighting man’s battles”), and the alien leader is portrayed by drag queen Bunny Breckinridge. This was Breckinridge’s only film appearance, and although the character is presumably male, The Ruler sports visible lipstick and mascara.

Overall, Plan 9 is seriously campy and fun to watch if only for its comprehensively poor quality. Billed as a sci-fi/horror film, the only aspect I found to be truly frightening is the message that humanity is rather more likely to destroy itself than be destroyed by aliens or zombies.

Ed Wood (1994)
After watching Plan 9, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit Tim Burton’s biopic of its awful director. The film provides some interesting insight into the director’s life and his films, and unlike the other movies on this list, the acting and directing in Ed Wood are fantastic.

During the course of the film, Wood befriends a number of his films’ actors including Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson,The Amazing Criswell and Vampira, and the loyalty these actors apparently have to Wood is incredibly endearing. Wood himself is an incredibly sympathetic character, and you can’t help but regret that his grand visions were never fully realized due, in all likelihood, to his ineffective efforts at gathering enough economic support for his projects. From gaining unimpressive actors through the nepotism of his backers to his unintentionally humorous usage of stock footage to fill gaps in his stories, all of his films seemed to be doomed from the start.

Ed Wood also explores the director’s transvestism and how it not only affected his personal relationships, but also how it influenced the making of his semi-autobiographical film Glen or Glenda. The film also featured Wood’s friendship with Bunny Breckinridge, and I appreciated the positive depiction of the queerer aspects of 1950s Hollywood, but I couldn’t help but feel like we’ve made relatively little advancement in the more than six decades since the events in Ed Wood. One of the reasons I enjoy speculative fiction so much is its potential to inspire hope and progress, and I am definitely a little impatient when it comes to the destruction of gender norms in our society.

In addition to Glen or Glenda, the film also depicts the trouble Wood had while making Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space, and I would recommend watching Ed Wood prior to viewing these films in order to more fully appreciate them. One of my favorite moments, reminiscent of a horror flick, is when Wood and his entourage of Hollywood misfits run, panicked, from the premier of Bride of the Monster as the audience members chase them into the stormy street.

I would actually recommend Ed Wood as a great film even if it were entirely fictional, but its relationship to B horror movies make it a must-see.

Glen or Glenda (1953)
Upon finishing Ed Wood, I felt compelled to check out the other films which were prominently portrayed in the movie, and I was particularly interested in Glen or Glenda as a film promoting tolerance of those who don’t conform to typical gendered behavior. The psychological explanations of gender non-conformity given in the film are complete bunk, but it helps paint the picture of popular notions that existed at the time.

While not a “horror” movie in the traditional sense, Glen or Glenda certainly includes aspects of the genre, and it is nonsensically framed by Bela Lugosi narrating as the somewhat sinister Scientist. Wood seems to have shoehorned Lugosi into the role in an effort to popularize the film by including a big-name actor, but the overly ominous tone of the narrations are mostly incongruous with the rest of the movie.

About 18 minutes into the movie, presumably another instance of Wood’s usage of stock footage, there is a crowd moving down the street. Without explanation, a character whose face is entirely covered with black cloth crosses the screen. I spent the next several minutes confounded by the mystery of this character, but he never resurfaced.

In the 1950s, the fact that someone might identify with or express characteristics of the gender they weren’t assigned at birth was pure body horror à la William S. Burroughs. Sadly, to some extent, this is still true today. More gravely, the film also shows how terrifying life can be for those who don’t fit into society’s strict constructions of gender. One of the first scenes in the film, in fact, depicts a person who has committed suicide as a result of continued societal pressures on their gender presentation. In addition, the title character experiences anxiety over telling his fiancee about his desire to wear women’s clothes, and a nightmare sequence featuring a devil character explores his internal horror.

I was mostly impressed with the film given its age, and although parts of the ending were wholly unsatisfactory, this was probably my favorite of Wood’s films.

Bride of the Monster (1955)
I finished my Ed Wood celebration with what I feel is the least compelling of the movies on this list. Mostly a cold-war propaganda film warning of impending consequences of nuclear weapons, the movie doesn’t have much going for it. I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out which was the eponymous monster who was to take a bride. Was it the octopus? Like Plan 9, most of the acting in Bride of the Monster is awful, and Wood’s use of stock footage is almost entirely laughable.

The bright spot of the the film is that it features Bela Lugosi in his final speaking role. Lugosi’s performance is stellar, probably the best in the film, although I have to admit that I was not disappointed in Tor Johnson as Lugosi’s (thankfully) mute assistant.

I would recommend watching this movie after seeing Ed Wood. I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much without first getting a sense of Wood’s vision for the film and the challenges he faced during its production. Much of the pleasure I got from the film was in seeing the original scenes which had been reenacted in Ed Wood and in remembering the reference in the biopic which indicated why Bride of the Monster ends with an otherwise inexplicable explosion. That being said, the film’s strength is its terribleness, so you might prefer the simple camp of Bride of the Monster, or any of Ed Wood’s films, without the extra baggage.

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