Welcome to Adventures in B-Movie Land, the monthly column where I take a look at some of the strangest, cheapest and worst films ever made ... and explore why you have to see them. Look for new entries during the second week of every month.

The Motion Pictures:

'Glen or Glenda' (1953), 'Jail Bait' (1954), 'Bride of the Monster' (1955), 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' (1958) and 'Night of the Ghouls' (1959).

Also Known As...

'I Led Two Lives,' 'He or She?,' 'I Changed My Sex,' 'The Hidden Face,' 'Bride of the Atom,' 'Graverobbers From Outer Space' and 'Revenge of the Dead.'

Featuring the Talented...

The legendary (and at the time, completely forgotten) Bela Lugosi, the incomprehensible Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, the incredibly inaccurate psychic Criswell, Wood's long-suffering girlfriend Dolores Fuller, Ed Wood himself and a true cavalcade of amazing weirdos.

What Are They?

A collection of some of the worst films ever made, spanning from science fiction schlock to horror knock-offs to staid crime thrillers to semi-educational, exploitative looks at sex change and transvestism. Each of them are awful, unintentionally hilarious and infinitely charming and lovable in their B-movie dopiness, proof that even the worst films ever made can ooze personality and energy.
The Plots:

'Glen or Glenda' is the story of a young transvestite, struggling to find peace in a world where his actions aren't considered normal. Naturally, the movie includes sado-masochistic dream sequences, a narrative device involving a detective investigating a suicide and interviewing a doctor (who tells us the story of Glen's dilemma) and God, played by Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, who sits in his laboratory, "pulls the strings" and watching the world go 'round, commenting on copious amounts of stock footage with a series of bizarre non-sequiturs ("People ... all going somewhere ... all with their own thoughts ... their own ideas ... all with their own personalities"). In the end, Glen's girlfriend accepts his desire to wear her clothing and all is right in the world.

'Jail Bait' is a slightly traditional crime thriller following career criminal Vic and his young, naive protege Don as they rob a theater and barely escape with their lives (after they lead the police in the slowest car chase in Hollywood history). When Don feels guilty and tries to turn himself in, Vic murders him, setting off a chain of events that lead to Don's plastic surgeon father altering Vic's face to resemble the wanted Don's before he is killed in a shoot-out.

'Bride of the Monster' is about the crazed Dr. Vornoff (Lugosi, again), who buys "the old Willows place" and proceeds to experiment on living subjects in an attempt to create a powerful mutant army. When a pesky investigative journalist falls into his lap, her police officer boyfriend is not too far behind and soon enough, Vornoff's lab is in flames and the evil doctor falls victim to his own pet octopus -- which is then struck by lightning and explodes in an atomic mushroom cloud. The survivors look on and shake their heads: "He tampered in God's domain."

'Plan 9 From Outer Space,' easily Wood's most famous film, is the tale of an alien race who venture to Earth to raise the dead and form a zombie army that will force the governments of the world to acknowledge their existence so they can warn humanity that our thirst for power will lead to the destruction of the universe through the creation of a "solarmanite bomb" that causes sunlight to explode. The alien plan fails when they only manage to resurrect three corpses and get overpowered by two cops and a middle-aged military man.

Finally, 'Night of the Ghouls' follows a "ghost hunting" police officer as he investigates a phony psychic who pretends to call upon the spirits of the deceased to cheat people out of their hard-earned money. Naturally, nothing is as it seems and soon enough, real ghosts arrive to seek vengeance. In the end, nothing is accomplished, no one knows exactly what happened and the narrator has speak quickly to let us know the necessary information before the credits roll. A notable film because it remained unreleased for twenty years because Ed Wood couldn't afford to pay the bills at the film processing lab.

Shocking Acts of Violence!

Ed Wood's films are by no means gruesome or bloody -- this is the 1950s after all -- but the violence has its own unique signature. A death in a Wood film tends to go something like this:

1. A character notices zombie and/or ghoul and/or alien and screams, cowers in fear and sinks to the ground.

2. Zombie/ghoul/alien slowly approaches its victim, towers over them and falls on top of them, covering the body with its cloak (the monsters in Ed Wood movies always have cloaks).

3. A quick, canned screaming sound effect!

4. A messy wipe to a police station where the cops discuss the gruesome murder they just investigated and wonder what kind of man could do such a thing.

Then there's the infamous scene in 'Bride of the Monster' where Bela Lugosi falls into his octopus pit and meets a sticky, tentacled end. Lugosi is essentially puppeteering the beast himself, squirming and screaming while he flails the tentacles about, desperately trying to make it look like the incredibly stationary creature is operating of its own accord.

Sexual Deviancy and Mindless Perversity!

The romantic aspects of Ed Wood's filmography are generally traditional by Hollywood standards. Tough man loves his wife/girlfriend, fights to save her and they share an embrace as we fade to black and so on and so forth. Wood is attempting to replicate the language of classic Hollywood films and that often includes gender roles, sadly meaning that most women in Ed Wood films are simply objects that exist to be abducted by monsters and saved in the climax (in fairness, Wood's male characters aren't exactly three-dimensional, either).

However, the notable exception to Wood's traditional handling of sex and sexuality is 'Glen or Glenda,' which follows a male transvestite as he struggles to decide whether or not he should inform his girlfriend that he enjoys wearing women's clothing. In addition to playing this role in the film, Wood was a transvestite in the real world (his fetish for angora sweaters actually makes its way into 'Glen or Glenda'), lending the out-of-the-ordinary sexuality of his first film a frank, raw and honest reality. In fact, the film's message of tolerance and acceptance for cross-dressers and transgendered people feels remarkably ahead of its time, masked by the fact that it's surrounded by one of the worst films ever made.

Is There A Robot?

Although these films contain monsters and mutants and zombies and aliens and UFOs, there is not a single robot to be found. But come on, who needs a robot when you have Tor Johnson, the hulking, marble-mouthed wrestler who plays the henchman in three Ed Wood films? In 'Bride of the Monster,' he's Lobo, the mute, brutish servant to Bela Lugosi's Dr. Vornoff who calls in love with the beautiful Janet Lawton (the stunningly awful Loretta King) and apparently sacrifices his life to prevent the mad doctor from transforming her into an "atomic superman."

In 'Plan 9 From Outer Space,' he's Detective Clay, the detective who falls victim to a couple of zombies (and yes, all four items under the Shocking Acts of Violence! section do occur to him) and is resurrected by aliens as part of their hair brained scheme. In 'Night of the Ghouls,' he's Lobo again, miraculously alive but hideously scarred after the events of 'Bride of the Monster.' Rather than receiving the redemption he was seeking in his previous adventure, Lobo is mercilessly gunned down by police officers.

Although a terrible actor (his dialogue scenes in 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' are literally impossible to understand due to his out-of-breath, heavily accented delivery), he is definitely a sight to see. A massive, imposing and even potentially frightening figure, Johnson has a strange presence that's undeniable in its goofy effectiveness. Not to mention, no actor has ever had more hilarious trouble hitting his cues. Watch how many times Johnson bumps the wobbly set or reaches for a doorknob and misses. Seriously.

Just How Cheap Do They Look?

The police station in 'Night of the Ghouls' is only shot from one bizarre angle in a sad little attempt to mask the fact that they seem to shooting in a hotel room. The laboratory in 'Bride of the Monster' looks ready to topple over at any moment. However, it's 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' that provides the real embarrassment of riches. An "alien beam" (i.e., spotlight) knocks a group of police officers over, ripping the cloth floor of the cemetery set and toppling the cardboard gravestones.

The alien spacecraft is literally a pie pan on fishing wire. A plane's cockpit is a bare room with a doorway and the pilot's controls look to be a box on a stick. At least 25% of the film is comprised of stock footage, including certain shots that are repeated in different contexts at least a dozen times (the same footage of a speeding police car driving during the day is shown every time the police officers arrive...at night). To call these productions "thrown together" would be an understatement.

Quotable Quotes:

"Beware! Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys... Puppy dog tails, and BIG FAT SNAILS ... Beware ... Take care ... Beware!"

"The world is a strange place to live in. All those cars. All going someplace. All carrying humans, which are carrying out their lives."

"This swamp is a monument to death. Snakes, alligators, quicksand ... all bent on one thing: destruction."

"My dear professor Strowsky, twenty years ago, I was banned from my home land, parted from my wife and son, never to see them again. Why? Because I suggested to use the atom elements, for producing super beings, beings of unthinkable strength and size. I was classed as a madman, a charlatan, outlawed in a world of science which previously honored me as a genius. Now here in this forsaken jungle Hell I have proven that I am alright. No, Professor Strowski, it is no laughing matter."

"Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. Remember, future events such as these will effect you in the future."

"That's the most fantastic story I've ever heard."
"And every word is true!"
"That's the fantastic part."

"From all I've seen tonight, guns won't do any good. Clay's dead, and we buried him. How are we gonna kill someone who's already dead? Dead! And yet there he stands!"

Scholarly Thoughts:

There is something very special about Ed Wood films. I'm not just talking about their unintentional hilarity, although their flimsy sets, atrocious acting, unnatural dialogue and head-scratching plots can easily hold their own against the greatest of comedies. If you pick any random cheap-o B-movie produced in the 1950s, chances are pretty strong you'll be able to squeeze a few laughs from it. What sets these films apart from their schlocky, grade Z brethren?

Well, it all boils down the fact that Edward D. Wood Jr. was a movie geek.

Nowadays, we're used to seeing people who grew up nuts about movies sitting behind the camera. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright wear their film nerd labels proudly on their sleeves and their movies are fueled by their love of the medium. This was far less common in the 1950s. Most directors (including respected cinematic figures like John Ford) didn't have a particularly strong love. Making movies was a job. It wasn't art, it was work.

But Wood was different. Like Tarantino and Wright, here is a guy who grew up watching and loving movies, soaking them up like a sponge. Making movies wasn't a means to pay the rent -- it was his greatest desire, it was living a lifelong dream. Of course, the big difference between Wright and Tarantino and Wood is that the former are among the most talented and beloved filmmakers operating today and the latter has been regularly voted as the worst director of all time, but in all of their films -- even Wood's -- you can detect that pure, undiluted love of cinema.

This is the decade that saw French film critics (the early equivalent of modern movie geeks) putting down their pens and picking up cameras, using what they had absorbed from years of watching movies to make their own, often highly personal, films. The result is the French New Wave and the creation of the auteur theory, which suggests that a filmmaker is the author of his film and that his creative voice can clearly be seen from film to film.

Ed Wood is clearly one of the earliest American auteurs. His artistic voice is evident in every shot, in every line of dialogue and every stilted performance. You can tell an Ed Wood production apart from countless other B-movies with a single glance. Sure, these are bad films, but they are a special bad, a unique bad, the bad that can only result from a filmmaker pouring his heart and soul into his work. A disinterested craftsman could never create the reckless, sloppy, artistic anarchy of 'Plan 9 From Outer Space.' A work-for-hire director could never create something as raw and revealing about its creator as 'Glen or Glenda.'

Wood is a fascinating man. Despite his penchant for wearing women's clothing, he was by no means a "sissy" and his heroics during World War II won him a Silver Star and lost him his front teeth in a hand-to-hand fight to the death with a Japanese soldier. Operating entirely outside of the studio system, Wood recruited fringe actors and newcomers, building a ragtag company of crew members to make movies that were funded independently. If digital cameras and the cheap technology that accompany them had existed in the 1950s, Wood probably would have never stopped working. Heck, he's easily one of the godfathers of modern independent filmmaking.

Eventually, money woes led to his drinking, which led to him directing pornography, which led to his premature death at the age of 54.

Still, I like to think of the Ed Wood of the 1950s. The excited movie nerd, ecstatic to actually be making movies. I like to imagine him geeking out when working with Bela Lugosi, who Wood, being a huge fan of Universal horror movies, idolized even though he has long since fallen out of the spotlight. I like to imagine him finding true power in the socio-political messages of 'Plan 9 From Outer Space,' probably completely unaware that he was practically remaking 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' a film that he most likely saw a dozen times at the cinema. Even though he was constantly on the fringe of the industry, I like to think he found comfort by surrounding himself with other fringe folks, forming a group that may not have been living the Hollywood dream, but they sure were trying.

Next time you pop on an Ed Wood movie for a drunken party (and yep, they're ideal for tat situation), take a moment to listen to the dialogue. Bad movie dialogue is a dime a dozen, but there Wood's writing is a special kind of awful. There's a cadence to it, an unnatural stylization. Most bad dialogue is bland and forgettable, but Wood's dialogue -- well, I think I'll just let Bela Lugosi's incredible mad scientist rant from 'Bride of the Monster' do the work for me:

Previous Adventures:

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Warriors of the Wasteland

tags ed wood
categories Columns, Cinematical