Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ed Wood has risen from the grave!

In yesterday's post, I gave an overview of the life, and tragic ending, of filmmaker Ed Wood. Today I'd like to catalog the series of events that have helped propelled Ed from forgotten Hollywood has-been to cult film icon.

Ed Wood died on December 10, 1978. Having worked in Hollywood since 1947, his passing went relatively unnoticed in the press. By then though, some of his films had received rotation on television, featured on late night screenings and weekend 'Creature Feature'-type shows. When his films did air, Ed would happily call friends at all hours of the day to let them know one of his movies was playing.

In 1980, Harry and Michael Medved published their book THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS, in which they had asked their readers of their previous book, THE 50 WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME, to name the Worst Film Of All Time. PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE was the winning Worst Film Of All Time with Ed himself awarded the Worst Director label. These 'awards' clearly helped spread much wider interest in Ed's entire oeuvre, sparking revival screenings and tributes to his work.

The 1982 comedy film IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD featured clips of forgotten B-movies, exploitation films and other shlock productions.  One of the segments, hosted by John Candy, lampooned the films of  Ed Wood, showing clips from PLAN 9 and GLEN OR GLENDA. While not a positive tribute, many more people were introduced to the work of Ed Wood.

In 1989, British TV host Jonathon Ross featured an episode on Ed Wood on his INCREDIBLY STRANGE PICTURE SHOW. The program featured interviews with Dolores Fuller (Ed's former girlfriend and actress in some of his films) as well as other Ed Wood cast members like Paul Marco, Maila Nurmi (Vampira) and Gregory Walcott. Really the first filmed production to try to present Ed Wood in a better light, with interviews with people who actually knew and worked with him. The film offers a quick sketch of the man and his work.

In 1990, the publishers of CULT MOVIES MAGAZINE, Buddy Barnett and Mike Copner, produced a movie called ON THE TRAIL OF ED WOOD, featuring one of Ed's loyal friend, Conrad Brooks. While shot with minimal production values, the documentary features an hour long interview with Conrad sharing his fond memories of his friendship and working relationship with Ed. I really enjoy this film as it presents Ed as a real human being who loved making his movies, especially when surrounded by his close network of friends. One of my favorite parts is when Conrad describes the time when he started to realize PLAN 9 was being revived as a cult film, with himself being invited to film screenings at festivals. The film doesn't appear to be available to view online, but you can currently find inexpensive copies via the web.

FLYING SAUCERS OVER HOLLYWOOD: THE PLAN 9 COMPANION, a documentary film released in 1992, provided a two hour behind-the-scenes look on the creation and influence of Ed's most famous film, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. A fascinating look at how this one-time forgotten film went on to achieve cult status for itself, it's cast and creator. This is a very detailed account, with lots of location shots of the various places Ed filmed the movie at, including the graveyard and the soundstage. With great insights into the film by historians and cast & crew, this is one of the best Ed Wood related spin-offs to experience. The documentary is oft-noted for being a half hour longer than the actual movie it's covering! The film is included on Image Entertainment's DVD release of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, which is the perfect way to experience both films. The film is also currently available on YouTube, which I've included here as well. The version I found has German sub-titles.


Another milestone released that same year was Rudolph Grey's NIGHTMARE IN ECSTASY: THE ART AND LIFE OF EDWARD D. WOOD Jr. 
First released in 1992 (re-issued in 1994 to coincide to the Tim Burton movie), this is the first biography of the filmmaker. Some reviews complain about the format of the book, which is composed of snippets of commentary from a wide array of  people who knew Ed. While it's true the book isn't written in the standard narrative of most fiction and non-fiction, it's through the personal recollections of family members, friends and associates that an intimate image of Wood appears. Plus Grey has included various helpful extras such as a filmography, a bibliography of Ed's numerous novels, a chronology of his life and descriptions of every person interviewed for the book. There are numerous photographs from every decade of Ed's life, including his later years. What I found to be a real treasure trove was Grey's synopsis for many of Wood's unrealized projects. Ed truly had a vivid and hyperkinetic imagination, and while many people say the end results may have lacked so-called finesse, it's a creative person's imagination that truly is there thumbprint they leave on the world, I believe. 

NIGHTMARE IN ECSTASY was instrumental in my immersion into the world of Ed Wood back in 1994. And of course, Tim Burton's ED WOOD film released that year really brought Wood to the mainstream. When I saw the film, it left a huge impression on me. Not just in appreciating the struggles and work of Ed Wood, but also on relating to the constant difficulty as an artist in trying to find one's audience and using every single method at one's disposal to get the work out there. It remains to this day both my favorite Tim Burton film and favorite Johnny Depp movie, by far. The irony of Ed getting a big budget, high profile biographic film on his life is both charming and bittersweet, because Eddie would have been flabbergasted to be the subject of such a loving tribute. But really, it's such a great thing that there is such a movie. 

Depp of course knocks the performance out of the park, with a mesmerizing, award-winning performance by Martin Landau as the great Bela Lugosi. Bela himself has an amazing story, and the fact that he and Wood intersected for a few magical years only adds to the whole miraculous circumstances of Ed's life.

1994 was indeed a banner year for the cult of Ed Wood. Another film was released that year as well, this one by Rhino Home Video. LOOK BACK IN ANGORA, a documentary by Ted Newsom, featured Gary Owens narrating the life story of Ed Wood solely via clips from Ed Wood's own movies. Newsom's script very cleverly uses the dialogue from the films to illustrate and bring to life Ed's upbringing, filmmaking method & idiosyncrasies, gradual decline and eventual postmortem notoriety. When I first bought this videotape, I would watch it over and over again, quickly buying the videotape releases of Wood's movies as well. I was hooked! (Recently I upgraded my old videotape copy, which I haven't seen in years since I quit using my VHS player. Apparently, the film is only currently available as an extra on the DVD release of an adult film Ed wrote and starred in back in 1969, PRETTY MODELS ALL IN A ROW a.ka. THE LOVE FEAST a.k.a. THE PHOTOGRAPHER. So, wishing to once again LOOK BACK IN ANGORA, I ordered it.)  

And in 1995, yet another documentary appeared, this one premiering at the Chicago International Film Festival. THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EDWARD D. WOOD JR. featured several of the usual Ed Wood players, but also featured appearances by Bela Lugosi Jr., among others. In the film, Bela Jr. isn't particularly fond of Wood, calling Ed 'an abuser and a loser'. However, on the commentary track of the DVD release of the movie, Bela Jr. offers a more balanced attitude toward Ed, stating that he did indeed keep his father employed in down times, allowing Bela Sr. a certain amount of self-respect. The DVD release actually has some really great special features in addition to the commentary track. Ed's first film, the uncompleted THE STREETS OF LAREDO (1948), was finally released in 2005 with a musical score by Dolores Fuller and  Ben Weisman and a narrative track featuring Cliff Stone. This newly restored version was renamed CROSSROADS OF LAREDO. The DVD also features coverage of the premiere of LAREDO, a reunion of Ed Wood players at a film festival and several other extras. 

HAUNTED WORLD is currently available to watch online for free on

It may have been inevitable, considering the bizarre nature of the world of Ed Wood, but in 1996 Steve Galindo founded THE CHURCH OF ED WOOD! The church's site includes an on-line baptismal application if one chooses to get indoctrinated into the church. What can I say, it's Ed Wood's world, we're all just living in it...

The 90s certainly seemed like the Decade of Wood. But, there was more than enough interest in Ed's work to propel him into the 21st Century. I'll post about that in my next entry here, with a surprise or two...

"We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives! And remember my friend, future events, such as these, will affect you in the future!"

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