Bride of the Monster

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(3/10) In 1955 legendary producer/director Ed Wood released the first film of his sci-fi trilogy, and to his great satisfaction was able to place aged horror icon Bela Lugosi in the lead. Often considered Wood’s ”best” movie, this low-budget schlocker has to be ingested with a good dose of good-will. The inaptly made film is good for a whole bunch of laughs, but Lugosi plays his mad scientist with great gusto and even has some touching moments, and the movie has a very distinct charm.

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Eric Vornoff in Bride of the Monster.

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Eric Vornoff in Bride of the Monster.

Bride of the Monster (1955, USA). Directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. Written by Alex Gordon and Edward D. Wood Jr. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Tony McCoy, Loretta King, Harvey B. Dunn, George Becwar, Paul Marco, Dolores Fuller. Produced by Edward D. Wood Jr. for Rolling M. Productions.
IMDb raring: 4.1/10. Tomatometer: 45% Rotten. Metascore: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

The fifties were a golden age for filmmakers without money, time or any particular talent. If you could raise 30 000 dollars, conjure up a script and stick a monster in the film, you could almost bet that someone would pick up distribution rights and make their money back, no matter how bad the movie was. There were quite a few hacks who tried their hands at sci-fi programmers, such as W. Lee Wilder or Bert I. Gordon. Roger Corman, who was in truth a very good producer and director, made an art out of making films on almost no money. But for some reason the name that has gone down in history as the king of bad movies is that of Edward D. Wood Jr. or Ed Wood for short. Best known for his ”magnum opus”, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), he did once produce and direct a film that had an actual budget and an actual script, and is often considered his best movie, and that is Bride of the Monster.

This is the first Ed Wood film on this blog, and in a way that’s something I’ve been dreading, partly because Wood’s films are almost impossible to rate on any normal standards, and partly because writing about Ed Wood is a treacherous task, since so much of his life and work is mythologised, that it is almost impossible to separate truth from fiction. Anyone with an even casual interest in film should at least be aware of Ed Wood, thanks to his reputation as ”the worst director in history”, the portrayal of him in Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood (1994), and the massive cult following he has gotten in the past three decades. Known as a cross-dresser, an alcoholic, a friend of Bela Lugosi and an utterly sweet and sympathetic man, he has been labelled as both a completely untalented director and as a misunderstood genius. The latter statement is difficult to take seriously, but in truth, one cannot consider a person completely without talent if his work lives on over sixty years later, and is loved by millions of people.

Ed Wood and Dolores Fuller in Glen or Glenda, 1953.

Ed Wood and Dolores Fuller in Glen or Glenda, 1953.

Bride of the Monster was Wood’s third feature-length film as writer, producer and director. After returning from service in WWII, Wood had slummed around with odd jobs as movie theatre usher, and filmed TV pilots and micro-budget short westerns compiled around silent film clips. His first ”major” undertaking was the infamous Glen or Glenda (1953), in which he came out to his girlfriend, actress Dolores Fuller, and the rest of the world, as a cross-dresser. The film might have gone unnoticed as just another sexploitation film, were it not for the fact that ageing horror icon Bela Lugosi starred in it as a god-like narrator. Although universally panned at the time, the film has later been slightly re-evaluated for its sympathetic portrayal of cross-dressing. According to long-time friend and collaborator Paul Marco, that movie was made with virtually no budget, or around 20 000 dollars, which was about the minimum one could make a film on, considering the cost for equipment, film and processing.

Bela Lugosi, flanked by Richard Gordon, left and Alex Gordon, right.

Bela Lugosi, flanked by Richard Gordon, left and Alex Gordon, right.

The background to the film lies in the friendship between Ed Wood and British producer Alex Gordon. Gordon arrived in Hollywood in the early fifties, the year remains unclear to me, after having worked with various tasks for stage and TV along with his brother Richard Gordon in New York for some years. Gordon had befriended Bela Lugosi in New York, and his brother arranged for a stage tour of Dracula in Britain – presumably the one that was handled by George C. Mather, writer of the British sci-fi film Devil Girls from Mars (1954, review) in 1951. Alex Gordon met Ed Wood on a western production in Hollywood 1952, and introduced him to Lugosi, who had just returned from Britain. Gordon and Wood became close friends and shared a flat for a few months, and both started to work on plans to make films with Lugosi, who by this time was shunned by Hollywood as a has-been junkie without any marquee value.

Loretta King and Tony McCoy visiting Bela Lugosi in rehab.

Loretta King and Tony McCoy visiting Bela Lugosi in rehab.

Lugosi hadn’t been in a film since 1948, when he turned up as Dracula in Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein. In fact, it was Richard Gordon who really restarted Lugosi’s acting career when he cast him in the comedy Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire in 1952, which led to the old vampire being cast in another 1952 comedy, the infamous Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Vampire. In Tom Weaver’s book Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashback Alex Gordon says that at the time he met Wood, he had two story treatments going, The Atomic Bride and The Hidden Face. The second was a film noir crime mystery that became the basis for Wood’s second feature film Jail Bait (1954). Lugosi was supposed to star in the film, but fell ill. The first one they decided to adapt with a lead for Bela Lugosi, who actually took part in the development process. The result of Gordon’s and Wood’s work, with input from Lugosi, was Bride of the Atom, released as Bride of the Monster in 1955.

Lugosi plays the mysterious European scientist Dr. Eric Vornoff, who has 20 years earlier been banned from his (unspecified) home country for his experiments with creating a super-race through means of radioactivity, and has recently holed up in ”the Old Willows Place”, a house in the middle of a treacherous swamp, presumably somewhere in the marshlands of Mississippi. He is assisted by his lumbering mute Lobo (Tor Johnson) and a giant octopus, who fetch test subjects for his experiments.

Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson and John Warren.

Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson and John Warren.

Back in town, reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) follows up a story on 12 people that have gone missing in the swamps, convinced that a giant monster is preying on fishers and hunters in the area around the old house. She tries to wring information from her fiance, police detective Dick Craig (Tony McCoy) and his eccentric boss Tom Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn), a good-natured man with an affinity for birds. The police get a visit from a European scientist called Professor Strowski (George Becwar), an expert in ”prehistoric monsters”, and Craig agrees to accompany him to the marshes the next day. However, Strowski never shows, and Craig, along with his partner Martin (Don Nagel), instead find Lawton’s crashed car, but no sign of Lawton herself.

Loretta King.

Loretta King.

Lawton has been kidnapped/rescued by Lobo, and is now being held hostage by Dr. Vornoff in his laboratory, where he interrogates her before getting interrupted by a visit from Prof. Strowski, who has sought him out by himself. Turns out Strowski is an old colleague from ”the home country”, set to bring Vornoff home to continue his experiments with state funding. However, Vornoff has other plans. After his humiliation and branding as a madman, he will create his own race of beings, ”a race of atomic supermen, which will conquer the world!” Vornoff sets Lobo on Strowski, and feeds him to the octopus. He then returns to Lawton, and has Lobo strap her on the slab, dressed in a wedding gown, and sets out to create his own superwoman. But, alas, Lobo rebels against his master, straps Vornoff onto the slab and starts the machine, in the hope that Vornoff will suffer the fate of all previous test subjects – death. But now, finally, the test succeeds, and Lobo has accidentally created a super-Vornoff, and the two engage in an epic battle, and that is when leading man Craig enters the scene. How will it all end?

Don Nagel and Tony McCoy.

Don Nagel and Tony McCoy.

Yes, the story is completely ridiculous. But no more ridiculous than a Poverty Row horror film from 1945 directed by a William Beaudine or Sam Newfield. In fact, Lugosi had starred in pictures with far worse scripts than this one. The Devil Bat (1940, review) and Voodoo Man (1944, review) come to mind off the top of my head. Basically this is a forties B horror movie made ten or fifteen years too late, with the addition of a fifties nuclear element. But as opposed to, say Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 from Outer Space, the film has a coherent script that makes sense, despite the way-out premise. The dialogue is undoubtedly bad, but among all the rubbish there are some nice quirks, and in fact the small quips that don’t really move the plot forward even have a sense of satiric genius about them.

Tor Johnson as Lobo.

Tor Johnson as Lobo.

The acting is bad, but no worse than you could expect from a bunch of non-actors on a low-budget movie. The two leads were hired because they brought money to the film. Loretta King put up some money in front, and filming began in October 1954. Whether she manipulated Wood or he misunderstood her, he had the idea that she would put up the total budget of 60 000 dollars. And for her contribution she wanted to play the lead, which had already been given to Wood’s girlfriend Dolores Fuller. Risking the domestic peace, Wood caved in and gave King the lead, reducing Fuller’s appearance to a walk-on part. However, three days into shooting it became clear that King, willingly or unwillingly, had misled Wood, and didn’t have any more money than the small amount she put up front. Wood as usual tried to beg, borrow and steal to keep the film going, but ultimately had to close down production. However, rescue came in March 1955, when a new backer was found. The main part of the budget was splashed out by meat packer Donald E. McCoy, on the promise that his son Tony was to play the lead in the movie, and that it end with a nuclear explosion as a warning against the atom bomb. Said and done, Tony McCoy got to play lead. King is atrociously bad, but McCoy actually does his part with honours, for a non-actor.

Harvey Dunn, Tony McCoy and George Becwar.

Harvey Dunn, Tony McCoy and George Becwar.

One of the best, if not the best, of the performances in the film is handled by Harvey B. Dunn as the police chief, a stocky, middle-aged man with a twinkle in his eye and a laid-back naturalism so often missing from films of this kind. Dunn was an interesting fellow who had apparently been working a lot of odd jobs in his career, including different kind of stage work, as a singer, magician, vaudevillian and a clown with a pet parakeet. Indeed, the parakeet also turns up in the film, perched on Dunn’s shoulder or balancing on his glasses. And he is so sweet with it, at one point pouring it a glass of water from the water automat. And this is some of the genius of Wood: what other director would incorporate the actor’s pet bird in the movie, making a police chief playing around with his pet parakeet? Dunn had previously worked on one of Wood’s failed western pilots, and went on to appear in Night of the Ghouls (1959) and The Sinister Urge (1961). Dunn was known for missing his index finger on his left hand, and at one point became so fed-up with being asked how he lost it, that he had a card printed to hand to anyone who asked. It stated:

The story of my finger cut off July 18, 1908: ”Caught in a cogwheel of a printing press at the Press and Dakotan office, Yankton, S. D., while working around the press. Attending physician Dr. Moorehouse. I did not sue for damages. I can write just as well now, if not better, than before the accident. The stub of the finger has the tendency to melt in summer and freeze in winter. I swear this is a true statement to the best of my knowledge.” Sincerely yours, Harvey B. Dunn.

Paul Marco.

Paul Marco.

Paul Marco is an actor that somehow encapsulates the world of Ed Wood. The baby-faced wannabe-actor clearly had no talent whatsoever, but despite this his good friend Wood cast him as the police chief’s desk assistant, Kelton the Cop, in Bride of the Monster. He can’t act, but he does his none-acting with such joy and sincerity, that it’s impossible not to like him. Kelton the Cop became a trademark, and he played the same role in Plan 9 from Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls. His ”career” more or less started with Bride of the monster and ended with Night of the Ghouls, although Marco desperately tried to restart his acting career in the eighties when Ed Wood gained some newfound notoriety, peddling his Kelton the Cop character to TV and film producers. He did get to reprise it in the bizarre 20-years-in-the-making fan film The Naked Monster (2005), along with a number of fifties sci-fi dignitaries.

Neither Loretta King nor Tony McCoy ever embarked on their presumed acting careers. Don Nagel did a good dozen of bit-parts. Dolores Fuller was a struggling extra when she met Ed Wood in the early fifties. She was swept off her feet by the charming, beautiful man, who promised to make her a star, ”The usual line!” she laughs in one of the many Ed Wood documentaries. And indeed, she played the female leads in both Glen or Glenda and Jail Bait. The first must have been rather awkward, as she didn’t realise that Wood was a cross-dresser until he handed her the script, and then she had to act what was basically a story of her and Wood’s relationship, opposite her boyfriend in drag. Fuller left Wood in 1955, and has said that she had problem both with his cross-dressing and his escalating alcoholism, and the fact that she he gave away her lead in Bride of the Monster was, according to her, only the final nail in the coffin. Fans of bad sci-fi may remember that Fuller appeared as an extra, as a spider woman, in the train wreck Mesa of Lost Women (1953), which I honoured with a zero-star review.

Loretta King, right, and Dolores Fuller.

Loretta King, left, and Dolores Fuller, right.

Alex Gordon doesn’t have anything good to say about Fuller’s acting talents, calling her ”the biggest non-talent you can possibly imagine, although she thought she was the biggest star in the world”. Fuller’s acting career also more or less came to a halt when she left Wood. However, she later found success in another artistic genre: song writing. In 1961 she wrote the song Rock-a-Hula Baby for the Elvis Presley film Blue Hawaii, which became a great hit, and Elvis later recorded about a dozen of her songs. Her music was also recorded by a number of other artists, including Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee. Fuller was very upset with the way she was portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker in Tim Burton’s film, claiming that Parker played her as a nagging trouble-maker, when she had in fact been very supportive of and involved in Wood’s filmmaking during the whole of their relationship. According to Fuller, Wood had no grasp on administration or economy, and in her own words, she more or less acted as a producer on his movies.

The real Tor Johnson, "a big sugar bun".

The real Tor Johnson, “a big sugar bun”.

Once you see Tor Johnson as Lobo, he can never be unseen. Born Tore Johansson in Sweden in 1903, he embarked on a career as a show wrestler, which brought him to Los Angeles in 1934, and almost immediately he was noticed for his huge bulk and in later years his shaved head. Despite what is stated in Tim Burton’s film, Ed Wood didn’t discover Johnson, in fact he had already been acting for over 20 years in around two dozen dozen films when he was noticed by Wood in 1955. However, he has Wood to thank for his enduring fame and the popular Halloween mask modelled on his face for his appearance in Wood’s sci-fi trilogy. Off-stage and off-screen, he was the gentlest of men, described by Night of the Ghouls actress Valda Hansen as ”a big sugar bun”. Despite his thick accent, he was often described as eloquent and learned. His wife Greta hated his horror film performances, as they were so far removed from his sweet personality. In 1956 Johnson teamed up with Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Basil Rathbone and John Carradine in The Black Sleep, played another character called Lobo, again with Carradine, in The Unearthly (1957), and played the titular role in The Beast of Yucca Flats in 1961. After this he more or less retired from acting. He passed away of heart failure in 1971. He was played to perfection by show wrestler George ”The Animal” Steele in Ed Wood.

Tor Johnson - with hair - on top of Art Walge in the wrestling scene in Shadow of the Thin Man in 1941.

Tor Johnson – with hair – on top of Art Walge in the wrestling scene in Shadow of the Thin Man in 1941.

Then there’s of course Bela Lugosi, one of the most fascinating icons of Hollywood, about whom dozens of books have been written and documentaries made. I have also covered Lugosi numerous times on this blog, so I won’t go into further detail about his career. Suffice to say that in 1955 the 72-year old actor was down and out, battling a drug habit that had come about due to his painful sciatica, for which he was prescribed morphine. Always the Hollywood underdog, this former star of the stage had a good run in the early thirties after his groundbreaking performance in Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931, followed by hits like White Zombie (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1934). In the mid-thirties his career slowly began to decline, partly due to his type-casting, partly because of his thick Hungarian accent and partly due to the fact that his reputation started to suffer from all the bad movies he agreed to play in, often for minimum wages. His career got a brief revival thanks to his uncanny performance as Ygor in The Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), but it was just as swiftly killed off by the sad train wreck that was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), when the producers made the mistake of casting him as the Frankenstein monster, only to cut out all his lines in post-production. The movie made him look like a complete buffoon, and his career never rebounded from that blow.

Which will conquer the world!

Which will conquer the world!

Martin Landau won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, and it is indeed a marvellous acting feat, although the script of the movie does much to distort the image of Lugosi’s final years. While discarded by Hollywood, Lugosi wasn’t the destitute shell of a man portrayed in Burton’s film. He happened to be recently divorced in 1953, but remarried in 1955 and had a loving son, he acted on stage and had a rich social life, despite the fact that he was poor and mostly out of work. The film shows him using profane language and cursing Boris Karloff. But according to all testimonies, Lugosi was a very gentle and mild-mannered man, who never used profanity in public, and was in fact on good terms with Karloff. Any animosity he might have held against the fact that Karloff’s career turned out so much more successful than his own, he held to himself, but in fact there is very little to suggest that he ever blamed Karloff for anything. The two worked together on numerous films and always got along great, even though they weren’t friends socially. At the time of Lugosi’s death in 1956, there was even plans of reuniting them for another collaboration, and according to Alex Gordon, both actors looked forward to working together again.

Bela Lugosi and Loretta King.

Bela Lugosi and Loretta King.

He looks old and frail in Bride of the Monster, and is rather hammy in places, but no more so than he was earlier in his career. In fact, in his two big scenes, while interrogating Janet Lawton and during his memorable monologue to Prof. Strowski, he delivers one of his most touching performances since Son of Frankenstein. Some over-enthusiastic Ed Wood fans have branded it as ”the performance of his lifetime”, which is frankly ridiculous. But for a 72-year old morphine addict with memory problems, the performance is rather stunning. The famous monologue, written by Alex Gordon and Lugosi himself, where he laments how he was driven from his home is beautifully sad: ”Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised! Living like an animal! The jungle is my home!” In a way, one can see it as an autobiographical line, and is delivered which such intensity and feeling, as to be the one thing that sticks with you from the film.

Loretta King, Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson in a publicity still.

Loretta King, Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson in a publicity still.

Paul Marco tells Tom Weaver that Wood had written the speech on cue cards for Lugosi, afraid he wouldn’t remember the whole text. Marco was holding the cards, but Lugosi asked that they wouldn’t be used – he had the text down. However, they were wrapping up the film and were on a tight schedule, so Wood didn’t want to do retakes, and tried to plead with Lugosi, who still refused to read off the cards. Finally Lugosi did his whole speech by heart, without missing a beat, and according to Marco the whole crew was so struck with the performance that they applauded him when he had finished.

Stuntman Eddie Parker and the famous octopus.

Stuntman Eddie Parker and the famous octopus.

After finishing the movie, Lugosi famously checked himself into rehab, being the first celebrity to publicly do so, and the premiere of Bride of the Monster became a fundraising for his medical bills. Very little money was raised, according to Marco, so in the end Frank Sinatra anonymously paid for Lugosi’s rehabilitation. However, after checking himself out he was still in rather bad shape, and his in his final movie, The Black Sleep, he couldn’t remember any lines, so he was cast as a mute butler. Thus Bride of the Monster became his last speaking film role. Gordon and Wood had grand plans for a vampire western called The Ghoul Goes West, and Wood even shot a few test scenes for the movie, but Lugosi died of a heart attack before filming started. The movie completely fell apart when former western star Gene Autry withdrew from the project. Some final footage of Lugosi famously ended up in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For someone not keen on Lugosi’s larger-than-life antics, his soulful outpourings and wide gestures may well come off as horribly hammy. Lugosi was always a stage actor at heart, and his powerful, charismatic performances made him the star he was in Hungary, made him famous for his Dracula on Broadway, and suited him well on stage even in his later years. But when lacking a good director, his style often came off as cheesy in film. The same goes for the rest of the ”acting” in Bride of the Monster: if you can get into the spirit of Ed Wood, the quirks and the sincerity will win you over, but seen objectively, the acting in the film is clearly flawed, even downright disastrous at times.

Stuntman Eddie Parker fighting Tor Johnson. Note the painted brick wall in the background.

Stuntman Eddie Parker fighting Tor Johnson. Note the painted brick wall in the background.

Apart from a few bare offices, there’s really only a couple of sets. A coffee shop scene seems to have been filmed in a closet. Vornoff’s lab is like something out of a school play. There’s a fridge and a kitchen cupboard, as well as a bunch of old radio equipment, a neon tube, and some cupboards with levers and gauges. The atomic ray machine is actually a photo enlarger hanging on a mic stand. The brick walls are clearly painted on plywood and sway back and forth when Vornoff fights with Lobo. There’s a door in the wall adjacent to the octopus tank, but when opened it doesn’t lead to the tank, but to another room, which physically can’t be there. In the hallway by the outer door, there’s a staircase leading to what looks like a room behind the outer door – except the facade of the house is flat, so there can’t possible be a room there – it’s the outer wall. The movie is riddled with stock footage of what looks like the Amazon river more than anything else, there are crocodiles, and of course stock film of an octopus, which naturally looks nothing like the rubber octopus used in the rest of the movie.

George Becwar in the clutches of a rubber squid.

George Becwar in the clutches of a rubber squid.

Ah, the legendary octopus incident. The squid used in the film is the one used in the John Wayne Republic film Wake of the Red Witch (1948). There’s some confusion about whether Wood actually stole the prop from Republic’s warehouse, or if he just rented it. However he got it, he didn’t get the motor that made the tentacles move, which meant that the victims of the beast had to flap the tentacles around themselves – even if it looks like there’s actually some wire-work at play as well. Anyway, it looks absolutely hilarious. The scenes of people being attacked by the octopus in a very shallow pool were filmed in cold weather in Griffith Park. Despite the way it was portrayed in Tim Burton’s film, Bela Lugosi actually didn’t do his own stunts, he had two stuntmen standing in for him in all action scenes. One of them was Eddie Parker, who had worked on Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein.

Ed Wood.

Ed Wood.

What sets Bride of the Monster apart from the rest of Ed Wood’s catalogue is that it actually had something of a budget. Paul Marco estimates it to 60 000 to 70 000 dollars. It is still pocket money for a major studio, but that’s a sum that you can actually make a half-decent B movie on – in fact it was even a bit more than for example Roger Corman would end up using for his pictures at AIP later in the decade. This money meant that Wood’s team could shoot for a couple of weeks, they had access to a decent-sized film crew, stuntmen, makeup artists, assistant directors, and so forth. It was an actual film crew, not the kind of guerrilla-style filmmaking that, for example, Glen or Glenda was.

But this didn’t change the fact that Ed Wood was perfectly happy to shoot sets that made no physical sense, that he was more than happy to combine stock footage of an octopus that looked nothing like the limp rubber prop he had on set, that he didn’t care about securing the set walls so the wouldn’t wiggle and had no problem with casting most of his movie with non-actors. On a budget of 60 000 he could have afforded a few different camera setups with careful planning. The film is almost completely shot in boring wide and medium shots almost as if he was shooting a stage play. But Wood didn’t do careful planning. He wanted to shoot the story and get it on film, and get it released, says Alex Gordon: ”The thing is that he really didn’t know how to direct.” Weaver’s interview is a transcript he and two other interviewers did with Gordon on a radio show, and one of the other interviewers asks him what he thinks separates Wood, who’s career was a downhill disaster, and Corman, who made equally cheap movies, but became one of Hollywood’s most legendary producers and directors: ”I can give it to you in one word: Talent.” Not only did Wood not understand the nitty-gritty of directing, he also had no sense of businessmanship or promotion: ”He was sort of a wide-eyed innocent, and I think he was just not able to cope with the serious realities of the business.” And it should be pointed out here that Alex Gordon is in no way out to put down Wood – the two remained good friends and Gordon had no beef with Wood. Gordon was also one of those who didn’t come out of the woodworks to bask in the Ed Wood-glory after Burton’s film, in fact the interview he gave for Weaver et.al. was one of the very few interviews he ever gave on the subject.

The cast of the 1994 Tom Burton film Ed Wood, with Johnny Depp as Wood and Martin Landau as Lugosi.

The cast of the 1994 Tim Burton film Ed Wood, with Johnny Depp as Wood and Martin Landau as Lugosi.

There are, of course, those that would disagree with Gordon. There is, for example, Henry Stewart of L Magazine who seems to take great personal affront at the suggestion of Ed Wood as the worst director in history, and chalks all the faults of Bride of the Monster down to the low budget. Then there’s Rob Craig, author of the book Ed Wood: Mad Genius, who has devoted an entire book to the careful study of Wood’s films, and gives Bride of the Monster deep philosophical, political and social messages, gleaned from the way the characters talk and behave, how the props and sets are arranged, and so forth. This is a futile academic exercise. I’m sure it’s fun if you’re into it, but the truth is that Dick Craig speaks in a monotone, deadpan voice because Tony McCoy wasn’t an actor and the usage of a photographic enlarger as the death ray machine doesn’t comment on the perils of celebrity and media culture, it’s there because Wood didn’t bother to build an actual prop.

Even those who acknowledge Wood’s shortcomings as a director sometimes give the film splendid reviews, such as Richard Scheib of Moria, who gives the film 3 out of 5 stars. The film actually holds a sort of decent 45% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which places it in the ”Rotten” category, but only by one review out of eleven. So clearly the film has its fans, and rightly so.

Ed Wood in his 1970 film Take it Out in Trade.

Ed Wood in his 1970 film Take it Out in Trade.

On a strictly technical note, this is probably Wood’s best film. Fans of bad movies probably love the psychedelic hodgepodge of Plan 9 from Outer Space more. A matter of taste, I suppose. Bride of the Monster is on the one hand a hopeless mess of bad acting, bad directing, a bad script and bad sets. But it has Bela Lugosi in high form, it has its small quirks and it has a definite charm that is difficult to pin down, but has to stem directly from Wood’s love for filmmaking and his love for the filmmakers, his positive attitude and naive innocence. It’s a bit like watching a school play: you can’t give the kids a hard time for being bad actors, and you almost get teary-eyed by their enthusiasm and the way with which they throw themselves into their roles as if they were doing Shakespeare on Broadway. This wasn’t just another B programmer for money-grabbing, this was a passion project, and that counts for something. It counts because it shows a director/producer’s love for the cinema. Wood loved old westerns and horror films, and so eagerly wanted the audience to feel the same kind of sense of wonder and excitement he got when watching the old classics as a kid in the thirties. He wanted to restore the old horror icon of Bela Lugosi to his former glory, wanted moderns audiences to love him, just as Wood did. And all this also comes off on screen.

DVD sleeve for the 1971 Ed Wood porno film Necromania.

DVD sleeve for the 1971 Ed Wood porno film Necromania.

So was Ed Wood the worst director in history? Of course he wasn’t. If he was, his films wouldn’t be as loved as they are today. Did he actually know how to make good pictures? Probably not. A good director knows how to work around budgetary constraints and never strives to do things that the budget won’t allow. Roger Corman knew this, as did later directors like John Carpenter and James Cameron. That’s why these directors later were given bigger budgets – studios knew that they were able to bring forth magic even with the most meagre of means, they could keep to a budget and work with what they had. Ed Wood instead was able to convince no-one, and his career went downhill in the sixties, with him ending up doing porn movies and writing sleazy pulp novels. His alcoholism escalated, and he died of a heart attack in 1978.

Janne Wass

Bride of the Monster (1955, USA). Directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. Written by Alex Gordon and Edward D. Wood Jr. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Tony McCoy, Loretta King, Harvey B. Dunn, George Becwar, Paul Marco, Don Nagel, Bud Osborne, John Warren, Ann Wilner, Dolores Fuller, William Benedict, Ben Frommer. Music: Frank Worth. Cinematography: Ted Allan, William C. Thompson. Editing: Warren Adams, Igo Kantor. Set decoration: Harry Reif. Makeup: Louis Haszillo, Maurice Seiderman. Sound: Dale Knight, Marshall Pollock, Lyle Willey. Special effects: Pat Dinga. Stunts: Eddie Parker, Red Reagan. Produced by Edward D. Wood Jr. for Rolling M. Productions.

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