A Horrifying Halloween Double Feature!
Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker
Directed by Tim Burton
Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Vampira
Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Edward D. Wood, Jr. was a filmmaker. He wasn't an Orson Welles or a Martin Scorsese, neither a Coppola nor a Spielberg. Nor could one compare him, in good conscience, to the Michael Bays or the Joe Eszterhases of the world. He was not a great filmmaker, it is true, nor was he a good one, or even a mediocre one; on the best day of his life, it could not be said that he was a remotely competent one. However, he did direct movies, and therefore he was indeed, in the truest sense of the word, a filmmaker.
Ed Wood was one of a number of mostly anonymous directors—would it be too cruel to call them "hacks"?—who made low-budget exploitation films for the drive-in market during the 1950s and 1960s. Seemingly destined for obscurity like Larry Buchanan, Phil Tucker, Bert I. Gordon, and the scores of other schlock sci-fi and horror movie makers who toiled away for peanuts at small independent studios, Wood received an unexpected career boost in 1980 with the publication of Harry and Michael Medved's book The Golden Turkey Awards, which deemed Wood "the worst director ever" and Plan 9 from Outer Space, his crowning achievement, "the worst movie ever made."
Were it not for the generally warm feelings underground film aficionados have for Wood today precisely because of The Golden Turkey Awards, one might accuse the Medved brothers of doing him a great disservice. After all, there are many different kinds of bad movies, and on any given day one could visit any large multiplex in America and see at least five or six movies that aren't nearly as entertaining as Plan 9. (Indeed, Plan 9 really isn't even Wood's worst film—that honor should probably go to Glen or Glenda, his first full-length picture, next to which Plan 9 is a model of coherence and internal consistency.) But Plan 9 from Outer Space endures in the public's imagination because it so perfectly fits our image of what a bad movie should be: cardboard tombstones, hubcap flying saucers held aloft by clearly visible thread, pointless stock footage, hilariously inept acting and direction. The plot involves aliens coming to earth to reanimate the dead, or maybe it's the other way around, or--anyway, it's not really important. What is important, at least in terms of making the film an immensely entertaining experience, is that Plan 9 doesn't know it's a bad movie. Every frame is soaked in the utter guilelessness of everyone involved with the whole sorry affair, and indeed a big part of what gives the figure of Edward D. Wood, Jr. its appeal is that he appears to lack any sense of self-awareness whatsoever; it is precisely this lack of awareness that allowed him to make films in the first place instead of taking up some more productive vocation, like carpentry or vacuum cleaner repair. Plan 9 from Outer Space may not be Citizen Kane, but like Kane, the world would definitely be poorer for its absence.
Surely no one was better suited to film the Ed Wood story than Tim Burton. Fresh from directing such offbeat fare as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, and having not yet descended into the fervently mediocre Mars Attacks!/Planet of the Apes phase in which he still dwells, Burton may have reached his career high point in 1994 with his affectionate biopic of the man who inspired so much of his own work. The film covers the period in Wood's life during which he got his start as a director and made three films with Bela Lugosi, then a morphine-addicted has-been waiting to die. The friendship between the legendary Hungarian horror film star and the schlock filmmaker forms the core of the picture and gives it a surprising amount of warmth; the films they made together (Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space) give the old man a new lease on life while providing the neophyte director with a famous name in his cast.
It is difficult to know exactly what motivates a man to do a thing for which he has no discernable talent. Johnny Depp plays Wood with a certain manic cheerfulness, his infectious hey-everybody-let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm rubbing off on his cast and crew and, ultimately, on the viewer. After all, he seems to be saying, if you can get a movie funded and produced, what possible excuse could you have not to? Much has been made over Wood's well-known transvestism, which informed his early work in Glen or Glenda and much of his later output as a pulp paperback writer, but here it is portrayed as merely one more endearingly goofy idiosyncrasy of a man who was an all-around character. Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi, is creepily effective as the actor who himself put so much creepiness into his famous horror movies. Also superb are Sarah Jessica Parker as Ed's long-suffering girlfriend Dolores Fuller, Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge, the depressed transsexual who played Plan 9's alien despot, and Jeffery Jones as low-rent prognosticator Criswell ("We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives").
In Plan 9 from Outer Space, Edward D. Wood, Jr. creates 79 perfect minutes of schlock. In Ed Wood, Tim Burton takes a look at the humanity behind the schlock, and we, the audience, can't help but like what he sees. Taken together, these two films help explain why so many people are proud to consider themselves bad movie aficionados, and even feel a certain kinship with the kind of deluded dreamer who sits in a darkened movie theater and thinks, hey, that doesn't look too hard. I bet I could do that.
Points to ponder:
- At one point in Ed Wood, Ed rattles off a list of proposed films for a distributor, including "The Vampire's Tomb," "The Ghoul Goes West," and "Doctor Acula." All involve Bela Lugosi and/or Plan 9 in some way: "The Vampire's Tomb" was a working title for Plan 9, and some of the footage of Lugosi in that film is said by some to have been shot for an unrealized Wood Project called "The Ghoul Goes West." And Dracula, of course, is Lugosi's most famous role.
- In a fictionalized scene in Ed Wood in which Ed meets Orson Welles, the great director laments the fact that Universal wants him to direct a picture starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican, a reference to Welles' 1958 film Touch of Evil. Though the line is amusing, it actually does a great disservice to Heston, who was responsible for getting Welles the directing job in the first place. Heston is indeed woefully miscast in the role—in shoe-polish makeup and a vaudeville mustache, he looks like Wayne Newton—but in 1958 he had far more pull in Hollywood than the 15-years-past-his-prime Welles, and demanded that Universal hire him as director (Welles had already been cast in a lead acting role).