For Your Consideration: Mr. Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed Wood. The name is infamous. It is synonymous with crap movies. It is also the title of Tim Burton’s best film.

Ed Wood gained posthumous notoriety for being the world’s worst movie director of all time. While I’m inclined to think that he was strikingly inept at his trade, I cannot quite give him that illustrious title. He was not the worst director of all time. He stunk, but there have been stinkier. Coleman Francis for instance. I feel unfair even saying that he stunk as I actually genuinely enjoy some of his movies.

Action!

His films were bizarre yet personal and plagued by financial setbacks. Films Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) may be his most famous and I confess that at some level I do admire these schlock-fests. Tim Burton’s masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994) chronicled some of the life of the notorious filmmaker and the making of these three films in particular. Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) plays Wood and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) got the Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of an aging, morphine addicted Bela Lugosi. Burton’s movie also features folks like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Patricia Arquette (Medium), Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Bill Murray (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Burton’s Ed Wood is a quirky yet affectionate comic portrait of a misguided man struggling in Hollywood and all the baffling trials of putting a movie together, albeit bad ones. Shot in sumptuous black and white by Stefan Czapsky (Batman Returns) and cleverly scored by Howard Shore (The Return of the King) and sporting snazzy production design it is almost ironic that the film is so fantastic and talent-filled.

Bad movies fascinate me because most bad movies are forgettable. It takes talent to make a memorably bad movie. There has to be a perfect balance of delusion and ineptitude to get it to work right. I applaud the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys for keeping bad movies that would have otherwise been forgotten around just a little longer. Ed Wood immortalizes Ed Wood in a way that might have never happened. Glenda, Bride, and Plan 9 are also fun to watch by themselves. But knowing your Ed history (as a floundering cross-dressing film hack) helps make them more interesting.

Are you quite comfortable?

Of his three most famous, Bride of the Monster might be the least interesting, perhaps because it is the most familiar. Mad scientist + monster guy + girl = standard sci fi horror derivative mayhem. A half-dead and quite feeble looking Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Island of Lost Souls) plays Dr. Vornoff (mad scientist) and wrestler Tor Johnson is the manbeast, Lobo. Will Vornoff succeed in creating a race of atomic supermen? Yawn. Not original enough. Still, it’s not bad for a movie that’s awful. It has its points, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is just so much loopier that it blows it out of the water.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is the story of aliens trying to resurrect the dead to scare humanity into not making the Solaranite bomb—a bomb that humanity has never even heard of. Take everything that was good and accessible about The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and make it ridiculous and you got yourself a movie. Awful special effects, obtrusive continuity errors, and hammy bad acting compliment the convoluted plot and unwieldy dialogue. It famously features the last footage the great Lugosi ever shot (about 2 minutes maybe) and was stitched into this film after he died. A double played him for the rest of the movie. Tor Johnson is also in it as well as TV’s Vampira. It’s silly and memorable. Basically great fun and you will laugh.

Joan Rivers on bath salts!

As wonderful as Plan 9 is, out of these famous three my favorite has got to be Glen or Glenda. It was only Wood’s first feature and it’s got it all. Science fiction, mystery, Satan with moth antennae, flashbacks, Bela Lugosi, buffalo, wildly inaccurate science, transvestism, sex changes, S&M…bondage…uh, suicide…okay so having it all might not necessarily be a good thing.

Wood wrote, directed, and starred in this nigh incomprehensible mess of mismatched ideas. I like it because not only is it horrendously done, it actually resembles something special: a movie with a personal—albeit somewhat deranged—touch from Mr. Wood himself. As a real life transvestite he brings us unnervingly close to the subject matter. He also conjectures that hats are the cause of baldness. Lugosi may be our Virgil-like guide on this weird trek but Mr. Wood provides us with a few other narrators trying to explain multiple storylines to different audiences just for good measure (but it’s nothing like The Saragossa Manuscript). The way it’s edited actually makes Lugosi’s narrator seem more like a pervy retired mad scientist suffering dementia in a detached environment than anything else. In addition to the several main plots there is a bizarre ten minute wordless fetish sequence of a woman whipping another woman tied to a couch. . . added in for punch, I guess. It’s a tremendously wretched collage of broken ideas and unrelated sequences that I actually really respect for being so blindingly strange. It’s a movie I can watch by myself and still laugh at.

Just like Orson Wells.

There are some bad movies I can’t recommend enough. Glen or Glenda is one of them.

If you have an attraction toward bad movies than I’m sure Ed Wood is already on your radar. Troll 2, The Room, Ben and Arthur, and Birdemic are great, but sometimes you just crave classic crap. I can’t get into “The Asylum” production company because they know better and purposely make bad movies. I’ve said it before: the best bad movies have incredible deluded passion propelling them. Now Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker ever and he wasn’t even the first truly awful filmmaker, but his films were more than bad. They were weird and that weirdness makes them memorable.

I put it to you. What is worse? Memorable crap or forgotten mediocrity?

Pull the string! Pull the string!

Go watch some Ed Wood movies and then go watch the movie Ed Wood. You’ll get some of the best of the worst along with Burton’s best.

The Eagles Are Coming: Birdemic!

There is a storm brewing on the horizon. Ever so ominously does it gather wind. The dark spectral clouds spread their terrible girth to blot out both sun and hope. Its power will be both awesome and inexplicable…to some. Has cinematic ineptitude triumphed once again? Yes. Yes, it has. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) has arrived and it is gradually picking up steam. I’d grab an umbrella if I were you.

...O...M...G...

…O…M…G…

For those of you who celebrate bad cinema and were wondering what—if anything—could possibly follow Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), wonder no more. I saw Birdemic at a sold out screening at The Silent Movie Theater (a place that has never let me down). There I witnessed firsthand the birthing of a growing cult. And writer/director/producer, James Nguyen, was there to answer questions following the show. It was a night to remember.

birdemic 2

Birdemic: Shock and Terror is the story of a quiet coastal town that is beset by extremely aggressive birds amidst all the human drama of a budding romantic relationship and an impromptu genesis of a makeshift family unit. If it sounds like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), it’s no wonder because Nguyen loves that movie and made this film as a respectful homage to it. Nguyen’s film is decidedly more ludicrous, but, I submit, equally entertaining. Protagonist, Rod (played by Alan Bagh with heightened vapidity reminiscent of Keanu Reeves on a really bad day), is in sales. Rod also has a horny best friend, a hybrid car (that never seems to go more than 12 miles per hour), a plan for inexpensive and efficient solar power, and he just met a girl he went to school with back in the day. Said girl, Nathalie (Whitney Moore who, God bless her, is trying), is a working model that just got a gig with Victoria’s Secret. She and Rod hit it off pretty well despite the absurd awkwardness of their first encounter and their abrasive lack of chemistry. Rod has got it pretty good. Sounds that way, doesn’t it? You’re probably thinking it would be pleasurable enough just watching Rod fill his car up with gas, close ambiguous million dollar sales from his woefully ill lit cubicle, and go on awkward date after awkward date with Nathalie. What more could a movie need? If you’re Birdemic you already know the answer: hordes of psychotically bad CGI eagles and vultures inexplicably dive bombing people (and exploding into flames) that represent a thinly veiled (or perhaps bludgeon-like) plea to stop global warming.

Revelations spoke of this.

Revelations spoke of this.

Soon our heroes (heroes?) are on the lam from their avian attackers. They pick up some new—and just as emotionally and intellectually absorbing—characters along the way. SPOILER ALERT: some will not make it to the end of the movie. FORTUNATELY: all the characters have the memory/attention span/I.Q. of goldfish thus rescuing the movie from getting bogged down in the senseless mourning for the dead. When a little girl can go from crying about eagles mercilessly slaughtering her parents on the roadside to complaining she wants a Happy Meal in only a few hours, you know this movie is not terribly preoccupied with the human condition…unless perhaps it is all a metaphor or scathing social satire (she was all smiles a few minutes after their death when presented with a Gameboy).

The screeching mayhem unravels the town and stretches the wills of all who fall victim to it, until at long last the birds just decide to leave. The end.

Hair?

Hair?

I’m getting sidetracked because it’s not about the plot. The hilarious acting, writing, directing, music, and cinematography all work together (or not) to make something that by all accounts and reasoning should be atrociously unwatchable, yet somehow this movie succeeds. Never before has nothing working together resulted in so much mirth…well, maybe not. Bad movie aficionados will recognize the obvious charm of excessive delusion. Wiseau’s The Room, Sam Mraovich’s Ben and Arthur (2002), Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990), Rick Sloane’s Hobgoblins (1988), Antonio Margheriti’s Yor, Hunter from the Future (1983), Cetin Inanc’s Turkish Star Wars (1982), George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), Harold P. Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), Vic Savage’s The Creeping Terror (1964), Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953), etc. are all watched today by happy movie schlock buffs. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror takes its rightful seat right next to the films I have just mentioned. And I’d rather watch these movies than the perplexingly popular Transformers.

Just hangin' out. Hangin' out. Hangin' out with my family. Havin' ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Just hangin’ out. Hangin’ out. Hangin’ out with my family. Havin’ ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Why do we remember and celebrate names like Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1959) and Coleman Francis (The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1961) while we tend to completely whitewash from our memory names like Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, 1939)? It is because these filmmakers, for better or worse have conspired to say something personal. They put all of themselves into their work. They were earnestly attempting to capture some of the greatness of the films they themselves loved. For some reason their failure is so complete that they achieve a kind of immortality. No one will remember a mediocre or merely bad movie, but everyone will remember the epically awful. There is a greatness and a power in that.  So I ask, did they really fail? They bring happiness and joy to millions of people. Is that not what good films are trying to do? Why do I still watch Godzilla movies? Because they delight me.

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

But what of the filmmakers themselves? Are they not distraught and humiliated that their finest work is presented as a laughable sideshow and monument to their own ineptitude at the craft they have devoted their lives to? Some are, yes. Denial, vanishing into obscurity, devolving into drugs and alcoholism, suicide attempts, etc. are all examples of some of the coping mechanisms of a few of these directors. Some, however, do find the humor in it all. It may not have been the recognition they were searching for, but their films are being celebrated and enjoyed by generations. That’s a magic that can only exist on its own. It’s a magic that cannot be manufactured. They had to believe in their work or it wouldn’t be funny.

James Nguyen

James Nguyen

James Nguyen seems to be taking things well. I’m glad. I don’t know whether he understands everything about his film or exactly what is fueling its mounting popularity. He knows people laugh at his movie. He knows he didn’t have the money he needed to fully realize his vision. He knows it didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Seeing it in the venue I did—a sold out midnight screening—really made the experience too. Like the cult following The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), people jam-pack the theater and shout at the screen. Movie-going becomes much more lively and informal for films like this. It’s a special kind of audience with their own unique electricity in the air. It reminded me of the first time I saw Troll 2. It was with a large group of people, some had seen it already, others were new to it, but we all had a blast. People curled up into balls of mirth and collapsed rolling in the aisles for Birdemic. Mr. Nguyen brought that happiness to us.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

Nguyen is currently winding up for a sequel (set to be released this September). As he grabbed the glasses on my face and jerkily jiggled them, he crazily announced it would be in 3-D. Will it go the route of the Turkish Star Wars and Hobgoblins sequels; too self-aware to duplicate the unexpected magic of the original? Let’s hope not. In the meantime, let us support James Nguyen and his cock-eyed vision that is Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

[Update: The sequel has been completed and I wait with bated breath to see if it will live up to my ambivalent expectations…I have been informed that it is fun, but nowhere near the wondrousness of the original.]

 

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 13, 2010.