Review by Doug Gibson
The more devoted fans of Ed Wood's years with Bela Lugosi have long salivated for more information on scripts Wood wrote for Lugosi that he just couldn't get to the screen. The main reasons were money and clout; Wood had neither with even second-tier producers at Allied Artists or the then-new American International.
I count myself among those who long wished to read the scripts of "The Ghoul Goes West" and "The Vampire's Tomb." "Final Curtain" intrigued us for years, even if James "Duke" Moore played Lugosi's role, but we finally got to see that a few years after the one-man "Twilight Zone" wannabe pilot was re-discovered and restored.
In fact, "Final Curtain" joins "The Ghoul Goes West" and "The Vampire's Tomb" in the latest BearManorMedia's Scripts in the Crypt offering, "Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays," If you're a fan who loves the minutia presented in an easy-to-read style, get this book. It will satisfy your needs; the lion's share of the book is the three scripts, presented in the wonderfully nostalgic manner of copying Wood's own copies. It's kitschy but cool to see Wood's notes, misspellings, typos, scribbling, and even planned cast members' names for "Tomb", including Lyle Talbot, Loretta King, Dolores Fuller, the aforementioned Moore, etc.
Before we get to the scripts there are are several essays, all entertaining, informative, and at times poignant for genre fans. Lugosi biographer Gary D. Rhodes, in the most historically valuable essay, reviews the ultimately unsuccessful efforts to get "Ghoul" and "Tomb" produced. Besides Wood, his then-partner Alex Gordon was pitching the scripts. Originally, talk was for a three-picture deal, including a film called "Dr. Voodoo." Studio reps from Allied Artists and AIP would eventually kill these deals, asking for changes, an executive producer, fewer films, and script rewrites before ultimately saying no.
Rhodes has gathered an impressive history of press release puffs for "Ghoul" and "Tomb" that made it into trade pubs and newspapers. They would announce stars, then filming dates, and after that date passed the PR process would repeat itself. According to Rhodes' research, Boris Karloff was ready to do a single film with Lugosi. But Steve Broidy, Allied Artists' head, passed on everything.
A real treat for readers is a reproduced review of "Plan 9 From Outer Space" from a San Diego newspaper. It's very interesting reading a viewpoint that didn't consider "Plan 9" one of the "all-time worst films."
Tom Weaver does his usual great job in providing a synopsis of the films, with various comments on plot inconsistencies, a dose of snark, and pointing out other films that served as inspiration for the scripts' plots. (More on that later).
ED WOOD IN OBSCURITY
Leo Eaton, a former writing colleague of Wood's when both were churning out adult fiction in the early 1970s, and Robert Cremer, author of "The Man Behind the Cape," an official Lugosi biography, provide two short but powerful reminisces of Wood when he was an impoverished alcoholic. Eaton's tells of his condescending relationship with the middle-aged Wood, who would disapprove of the writers at the porn house wasting time with games. Eaton admits he didn't take Wood's claims of working with Lugosi seriously.
The short introduction shows that Wood, even in the twilight of his career, took his work seriously. Several years ago, a low-circulation press published a collection of Wood's later, adult fiction. It was more gory adult than sex; perhaps a re-publishing is merited?
Cremer's essay is the more powerful. It recounts 36 hours of paid interviews he conducted with Wood in preparation for "The Man Behind the Cape." (I'd sure like to see the complete transcript.) There are surreal moments of Wood's ups and downs, how a wad of bills lifts his spirits and he becomes the man who can entertain and buy the booze, and the crashes, where the penniless man sitting in an empty apartment with a wife usually in bed, regrets doing the interviews because he is the one who knew Lugosi best, and should be writing the biography.
Wood's late-life personality is captured well, when he giggles about upsetting grave markers for a "Plan 9" shoot and stealing shots without permission. In the most interesting section of he essay, Wood invites Cremer to watch his copy of "Plan 9," which he filched from a university library, with several of the stars, including Vampira, Talbot, Criswell and Paul Marco.
They view the film with proprietary love, frequently congratulating a beaming Wood on scenes, ignoring any inconsistencies. At one point, to Cremer's amazement, Marco is impressed with the realism of the air jet's cockpit. While watching the film, they talk eagerly of more films; the elephant in the room -- the money to do so -- is not mentioned. By the next morning, the once-high, now dissipated Wood is back in the blues.
I want to note that despite his personal and professional descent, Wood was prolific to the end. He never stopped writing. His last screenplay, "I Awoke Early the Day Died," was produced only a generation ago. He was working on a Lugosi biography, which is apparently lost. Wood-scripted films keep popping up, the latest is "The Revenge of Dr. X" "Venus Fly Trap). Frankly, I think a lot of Ed Wood scripts and films are yet to be discovered.
Wood never gave up. He wrote, even if it was porn. And he always harbored comeback dreams. According to Rudolph Grey's Wood oral biography "Nightmare of Ecstasy," the late John Reynolds claims Wood was submitting films, and seeing them rejected, to major studios.
From what's in this book, it's clear we need a more comprehensive, traditional biography of Wood. We need to track his descent through the 1960s and 1970s, falling further off the Hollywood road despite the frantic writing of scores of books, thousands of short stories and many scripts.
Someone once said that there are only seven plots and books and films follow them in some variation. "The Ghoul Goes West" and "The Vampire's Tomb" are derivative of other films, but they are smart, even lean mystery programmers (I think "Tomb" might have gone less than an hour.) I enjoyed reading the scripts, particularly "Ghoul," although "Tomb" is the deeper read.
I won't give the exact plots away, but as Weaver notes, there's a lot of "Bride on the Monster," in concept more than specifics, in "The Ghoul Goes West." But it's primarily a poverty-row "oater" western dressed up as a mystery/horror with Lugosi as mad scientist undertaker, Dr. Smoke, trying to create giants he can control. As Weaver notes, and I agree, that it's a western makes the dialogue a little more relaxed, even snappier. Wood was having fun, you can tell.
Much has been said that Gene Autry was supposed to star in "Ghoul" and backed out, killing the project. I have to say, if Autry had done the film, I don't think he'd have disgraced himself. It's a pleasant time-waster with some genuine twists.
I wonder if Wood gave a rueful smile when the "Curse of the Undead" western/horror was released by Universal in 1959, or when Circle Films' horror oaters featuring Dracula and a Frankenstein monster were released in the mid 1960s.
"Tomb of the Vampire," as Weaver correctly notes, is a sort of remake of Browning's "London After Midnight" and "Mark of the Vampire." Weaver adds that there's a lot of "The Cat and the Canary" and I'd add "The Old Dark House and "The Monster Walks" as inspiration as well.
There's more of the Wood melodrama in "Tomb," with characters anguishing, scheming, regretting, and killing. Lugosi has a great part as "Dr. Acula," a sinister detective rather than a fake vampire. The fake vampire was to be played by an actress named "Devila." No one knows who Wood had in mind; we only know Vampira wasn't interested.
Lugosi's Dr. Acula" is a crackerjack part. He has great lines and takes on a Van Helsing type of role. The conclusion allowed rooms for sequels with Dr. Acula and it would have been an intriguing TV series.
I'll digress here to opine that Lugosi's stint in rehab and subsequent poor health may have also played a role in the inability of these films to get made. To me, it's debatable he had the strength in 1956 to play anything other than the mute Casimir in "The Black Sleep."
TOO LATE FOR POVERTY ROW
Reading these scripts shows that Wood, had he been born 10-plus years earlier, would have been perfectly capable of settling into a screenwriter on poverty row, maybe graduating to B major studio films and perhaps even becoming a director. Both "The Ghoul Goes West" and "The Vampire's Tomb" would have been very acceptable productions for Monogram or PRC before 1946 or so.
Wood was writing films in the 1950s that were no longer popular. Maybe if Lugosi had been healthier, Wood's youthful enthusiasm and prolific writing talents might have gotten Lugosi roles, perhaps a studio would have budgeted "Ghoul" or "Tomb" without Wood as director. After Lugosi died, alcohol likely tightened its vise on Wood after "Plan 9." "Night of the Ghouls" would not be released in his lifetime. His last mainstream directing job was "The Sinister Urge."
I have meandered on long enough for this review. Buy the book; what's in it is worth the price. I'll mention that Lee Harris, an accomplished veteran of the entertainment industry who narrated "Flying Saucers Over Hollywood," one of the first "Plan 9" docs, has an interesting essay on the discovery of "Final Curtain." He points out that "Final Curtain" was earlier screened in 1981 at a film festival in Southern California.There's also the screenplay of the short, TV pilot included.
Rhodes and Weaver do their excellent research and observations and Eaton and Cremer, as mentioned, provide more information on Wood's final years. I'd still love to see the transcripts of the 36 hours of interviews with Ed Wood, Mr. Cremer.