Sunday, April 28, 2019
Review by Doug Gibson
Since we heard about this a year or so ago, we Bela Lugosi super-fans have been -- at times impatiently -- waiting for the release of "Bela Lugosi and the Monogram 9," (BearManorMedia, 2019), a collection of essays from academics Gary D. Rhodes (who's written more than several books on Lugosi) and Robert Guffey, on the series of features Lugosi made for the poverty-row studio during the first half of the 1940s.
That's a handful of a paragraph/sentence, so what to make of this collection, ranging from "Invisible Ghost" to "Return of the Ape Man"? Short answer: I liked it a lot. However, and this is important for the casual Lugosi fan -- these are not production histories/movie reviews of the films. The 10 essays, two are reserved for "Invisible Ghost," are artistic criticism and analysis. Some of it's deep; you may want to Google individuals such as the surrealist Andre Breton and the eccentric but talented artist Stanislav Szukalski. Their philosophies relate with some of these two-week productions, or so say the authors.
And I kind of agree with them, with reservations. I love all but one of the Monogram films, and let's roll them out: "Invisible Ghost," "Spooks Run Wild," "Black Dragons," "The Corpse Vanishes," "Bowery at Midnight," "The Ape Man," "Ghosts on the Loose," "Voodoo Man," and "Return of The Ape Man." The only four-flusher in the list is "Ghosts on the Loose," and even that clinker I've seen more the once.
Until I read "... The Monogram 9,"' my love for the films was solely predicated on Bela Lugosi's dominance within eight of the films. His charisma and thespian talents make the films special. The reason "Ghosts on the Loose" is a clunker is because it's the only film of the series in which Lugosi is not the important or interesting character; he's almost background material.
I know I'm rambling so let's get to the essays, and provide some snippets, to hopefully whet your interest. The authors' scholarly musings are well-researched. Both provide insight on "Invisible Ghost," regarded as the best-directed film. The director was Joseph H. Lewis, who went on to bigger acclaim. Rhodes' essay conveys his directorial skills, noting the unique camera angles, from the fireplace, actors almost nose to nose across from a window. He also explains in detail how Lewis shot perhaps the scariest scene in the film, where Lugosi's character strangles a family maid in her bed.
Guffey's essay focuses on the film's surreal qualities, citing the aforementioned Breton. Lugosi's character is both respected man and cold killer. Guffey correctly notes the lack of concern over a long tally of death and how characters, such as the police, almost serve as props while the murders in the house occur. Bad dreams appear to be reality. Is the murder of the maid a subconscious act of violence by the killer toward his hidden, mentally ill wife? What of the reappearance of the "doppelganger" brother of a doomed, early character? Is all of this just happening in Lugosi's character, Charles Kessler's mind? Artistic criticism offers many questions that can spark even more answers, is perhaps the theme of this essay.
In the essay on "Spooks Run Wild," Rhodes, after noting Lugosi's various "sinister" roles in films, tabs "Spooks ..." as perhaps Lugosi's most developed "red herring" role, in which he appears to be the villain until the end. As the author notes, Lugosi, playing a magician suspected of being a murderer, appears and acts a lot like Dracula. It was his first film with the comedy "East Side Kids" cast. Somnambulism, magic, suits of armor, and human monsters all factor into the film, adds Rhodes.
In the essay on "Black Dragons," in which Lugosi plays a betrayed Nazi doctor who gets even with the Japanese agents, in America, who turned on him earlier, Guffey compares this bizarre, war propaganda film with the term "the Cinema of Hysteria." Now in my opinion this is a surreal film. It has a tough plot to follow, a lot of sexual banter and attraction between spies and lovely young ladies (as Guffey notes) and Lugosi, for the last time in the film, is looked at with interest by a starlet. Oddly, as Guffey notes, though the film contains a strong nationalist, even racist message to be on constant watch against the enemy, it contradicts itself by how showing how easily Japanese agents can plastic surgery their way into the highest levels of U.S. government. Racial profiling won't work, the film seems to subtly say.
Rhodes' essay on "The Corpse Vanishes" has some interesting insights. The film's hero is a persistent female reporter, a stock character in many '30s and '40s films. Also, although Lugosi's Dr. Lorenz is no vampire, Rhodes notes similarities to "Dracula." Lorenz is from Eastern Europe, it seems. His wife is a countess. The villagers near his remote home fear him. The reporter wanting to see him can't get a ride there. Also, the captured brides in the home could represent Dracula's brides. Lorenz and his countess wife sleep in coffins. All these are noted by Rhodes, who also alludes to the significance of families in horror films, noting that Lugosi refers to his assistants and henchmen as part of my "little family." (My co-blogger Steve D. Stones and I regard "The Corpse Vanishes" as the most entertaining Monogram films and Rhodes' insights I found valuable.)
Guffey's essay on the multi-plotted "Bowery at Midnight" compares the film as "slipstream" cinema. In a nutshell, that means one really can't nail down the action and plot with a single definition. That makes sense, as this chaotic but fun film can be tagged a crime drama, a missing persons drama, a multiple personality drama, a deceiving husband film, or a horror film. Multiple realities occupy individual and settings in the film. And how do dead people turn into zombies and then reappear as normal individuals, asks Guffey. That does happen in the film, I guess. I thought the doctor just healed them. But to be fair to Guffey, how did they all exist for so long in that cramped basement?
"Artifices, lies and false fronts" define "The Ape Man," Guffey says in that film's essay. At heart, the film is a deliberate con job, like a magician offering the audience all the secrets of how he's pulling their legs on the theater screen, he notes. "The Ape Man" is a lot of nonsensical fun and that's due in part to a goofy, extraneous character, Zippo, who serves as narrator to move the action along. He serves as a kind of God, deciding who lives and dies. Guffey writes that the film is an example of the thinker Bertolt Brecht's Theory of Alienation. To sum up, it's an effort to dislodge an audience from the traditional suspension of belief by disrupting the flow of the film and forcing said audiences to slip out of the film's trance and become active participants of the art. I know it sounds a bit goofy but one can argue that having a narrator interact with an audience accomplishes that.
Rhodes does his best with the boring film "Ghosts on the Loose," which has the East Side Kids outwitting Nazi publishers (headed by Lugosi) living in a fake haunted house. In the essay, he recounts historical instances of criminals attempting to cover up crimes with tales of haunted houses. On a side note, a very funny episode of The Andy Griffith Show has moonshiners scaring Deputy Barney Fife and others by using a "haunted house" that they rigged with spooky tricks. So there's an example of an effective short comedy. Fife's Don Knotts made another fake haunted house film, "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken."
For "Voodoo Man," one of my favorite-half Monogram entries, in his essay Rhodes says that syncretic best describes the film, meaning that several "discrete sources" are used to fuse a film together. One particular fusion of a film: a character Lugosi, with the help of voodoo religion confederates, kidnaps and stores young women kept in a zombiefied state to try to reanimate his zombie-like wife. But the voodoo has no traditional Caribbean source. It appears to be a white man's voodoo in a rural area close to Southern California. There also appear to be elements of Svengali (Trilby) in the film as Lugosi's character can hypnotize and summon women from far away.
Finally, Guffey concludes the book with an essay on "Return of the Ape Man," This is probably Lugosi's strongest mad scientist performance short of "The Raven." He is beyond obsessed with bringing a neanderthal man back to life and trying to experiment with sharing his brain with modern man. This has the usual disastrous results. Guffey draws a fascinating connection with the famed artist Stanislav Szukalski, who had this bizarre theory that mankind, after Noah's flood, intermingled with a Yeti-like race, producing a polluted version of homo sapiens. He even wrote a book about it, called "Behold!!! The Protong," notes Guffey. Szukalski was a great talent; unfortunately much of his work was destroyed during and after World War II. He's such an interesting character that his outlandish theories spark renewed interest in the man, a true survivor of an adversity-filled life. Ironically, a month ago I watched a great Netflix documentary on Stanislav Szukalski, "Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Stanislav Szukalski." I highly recommend it. Honestly, I doubt the artist ever saw "Return of the Ape Man." It's possible, of course. But I just think it's really cool to read an analysis of the Lugosi film that includes "Protong," etc.
Let me add a note here, to be fair to Guffey in particular. The authors are not claiming that there are deliberate connections to the arts, theories and genres mentioned as artistic connections to the Monogram 9 films. It's acknowledged often that the relationships are likely unintentional, more products of the directors' training or past experiences as they were learning the film craft. Like the creation of a cult film, the insertion of a philosophy is nearly always unintentional. To try to force it into a film never succeeds. It turns the film into something derivative, labored and clumsy.
The Monogram 9 were for the most part remarkable achievements given budgets and time constraints. Their legacies were fueled by an iconic, charismatic star and directors forced to rely on their first instincts to create a finished film within a two-week period. Monogram profit margins were tiny; no allowances were given for wasted time and money. It's a credit to Rhodes and Guffey that these films have been rewarded with a bit of scholarship that took far longer to create than the films being discussed.
Friday, April 26, 2019
By Doug Gibson
The first thing that grabs me while reading the new book, "The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood," by Andrew J. Rausch and Charles E. Pratt Jr. (BearManor Media, 2015) is that there's virtually no contributions from Wood's "old guard," the folks that were around him from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's a strength of the book, to bring new blood to Wood study. We've heard too many of the old stories in print and screen.
But there's another bittersweet reason for the many omitted. Kathy Wood, Lyn Lemon, Paul Marco, Dolores Fuller, Gregory Walcott, Vampira, Loretta King, Norma McCarty, Don Nagel, David De Mering, Bunny Beckinridge, Mark Carducci, Valda Hansen, and others. They're all dead, some in the last few years. The main Wood friend of that long-gone era still kicking is Conrad Brooks and he's barely mentioned. Even Wood's initial stepladder to fame, Bela Lugosi, keeps a small presence in this volume. (Editor's note: Brooks has died since this review's initial publication).
"Cinematic Misadventures ..." is far from perfect, but it is a valuable book. Its ability to gather a collection of younger, eclectic characters to go on the record about their associations and obsessions with Ed Wood is evidence of the lingering influence of Wood's movies, and yes, legacy, folks. This man's going on 40 years dead and people are still talking about him while others, say, Samuel Arkoff, are interred into the cemetery of footnotes.
The strongest part of Rausch and Pratt's Ed Wood book is the interviews (there's 89 pages of Q and As, and bookended forwards and afterwords by Wood "scholars" Ted Newsom and David C. Hayes. The former did the still-awesome "Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora," and the latter examined Wood's fiction career in the book "Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Jr." (Since then, Bob Blackburn, one of Wood's co-heirs, has published two extensive collections of Wood's short fiction).
The interviews are great reading. There's one with Rudolph Grey, who still has written the best Wood book, "Nightmare of Ecstasy." He provides the interesting nugget that it's likely that portions of a lost Wood film, "Cry of the Banshee," are tucked into Wood's "Night of the Ghouls." I'm inclined to believe Grey, and assume he's referring to the exterior stock footage of ghost Jeannie Stevens, who harasses Valda Hansen in the film.
Speaking of stock footage from "... Ghouls," there's a fascinating interview with a pair, including Marco's nephew, who discovered and had restored the once-lost "Final Curtain," a long scene of which is stock footage in "Ghouls. It has Duke Moore, in tuxedo, roaming an old stage and discovering ghost Stevens. I've always loved the improvisation of Wood, how he manages to make that insert work by having "Night of the Ghouls" policeman Moore in tux readying to go to the opera. It's also interesting to learn from the interview that decaying film smells like vinegar.
There's an entertaining interview with Rob Craig, who wrote an eccentrically interesting criticism of Wood's work a few years ago, and has since tackled Andy Milligan. I don't always agree with Craig, but I appreciate his taking the time to deconstruct the filmmakers who worked far away from the roads covered in tinsel.
I have a hard time sitting through 10 minutes of Andre Perkowski's $500 film homages to Wood's previous works, but the interview with this micro-micro budget filmmaker was extremely interesting. He says he's read about 50 of Wood's novels, so for about $25,000 maybe we'll see 48 or 49 more Perkowski Wood homage films.
And former Apostolof/Wood actress Brenda Fogarty is just brilliant in responding to a theory the authors have that the content of Wood's films must have reflected his personal, cultural and political beliefs. (That's like claiming Stephen King is a racist if he has a character use the "N word.) Fogarty points out that the misogyny and male fantasy rape in the turgid, offensive porn that Wood and Apostolof produced was grinded out to appeal to the dysfunctional, maladjusted audience for that cinema sewer, and cannot be ascertained as the filmmakers' personal beliefs.
The same argument is applicable to the author' criticisms of Wood's moralistic stance in "The Sinister Urge," the "anti-pornography" hypocrisy in that film, and the overly moralistic tone in "The Violent Years." Those films were pre-porn-era titillation, which regularly used "moral lessons" as a hook to bring in the peepshow crowd. Heck, "Orgy of the Dead" used faux morals too to present bad strip acts! To sum up: you can criticize Wood for making depraved films, but you can't definitively tag him as that in real life, no more than you can tag George Orwell as an anti-Semite for statements in his classic novel "Down and Out in Paris and London," or Charles Bukowski as adopting what his characters in novels say, and the list goes on.
The movie summaries of Ed Wood's resume are the weakest part of the book. There are, however, much-needed and appreciated pages on three Wood-scripted films that have not been covered much. They include the early 1960s' films "Shotgun Wedding" and "Married Too Young," and the really interesting "Venus Flytrap," from 1970. I've got to see this film via amazon instant video, because it seems like a gem based on its description. There's also tidbits of interesting new info such as learning that "Jail Bait" star Clancy Malone previously delivered Wood's groceries, or that Apostolof was so fed up with Wood's drinking during the "Orgy of the Dead" shoot that he didn't use him again for several years.
Also, there's a long chapter on the 1998 "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died," scripted by Wood and directed by Aris Iliopulos, who attracted a good cast and budget. The authors tag this as "Wood's masterpiece." I'd like to test that theory but legal problem have kept this film from U.S. distribution. There is also an interesting interview with Iliopulos. (Look at the cast of "I Wake Up ..." It's incredible.)
The book's chief flaw is that far too many pages are devoted to Wood's mediocre pornography efforts post-"Orgy of the Dead." Films such as "Necromania," "For Love and Money," "One Million AC/DC," "Young Marrieds," "Nympho Cycles," "Snow Bunnies," etc. could have all been dispensed with one or two paragraphs. The only two Wood-involved films that merit chapters after 1965 are the aforementioned "Venus Flytrap" and "Fugitive Girls," a Wood/Apostolof R-rated film that almost, the authors appropriately note, reaches the level of AIP drive in fare of the 1970s.
The porn chapters are boring, the authors despise the turgid quality of the films and pay homage to such poor quality by offering the worst writing of "Cinematic Misadventures." I never, ever want to read this again in any Wood-themed book: In the chapter on "Necromania," the authors write: "... the women's vaginas are so grotesquely hairy that they look like they've got bear heads in leg locks."
That simply jumps the TMI shark,
Despite all, this is a valuable addition to Wood's films study, and well worth buying for genre fans (it's available via Kindle too). Rausch and Pratt have accomplished what was clearly a goal; to find new information on Wood's career and legacy. The interviews and the film chapters accomplish that, with wide variances of worth and quality in the wealth of information gathered.
Friday, April 19, 2019
Review by Doug Gibson
For a huge Bela Lugosi fan such as myself, it was sort of an outrage that I had not yet seen 1934's "The Mysterious Mr. Wong," Mr. Dracula's first foray into the low-budget world of Monogram Studios. The film is ubiquitous. You can watch it at several locations on the Internet (see above). It's also a staple of the DVD sets of 20 or 50 public domain films that can be purchased for $10 to $20. I shucked out $5 for an Oldies.com copy because I like the impressive cover art that firm provides.
Based on a story by cult writer Harry Stephen Keeler, the tale is, in a crazy sort of way, a little like Lord of the Rings set in cramped Chinatown. Mr. Wong (Lugosi) a tough-looking power-crazy hood who masquerades as a meek shop owner, is busy murdering various Chinese contemporaries in order to get the 12 gold coins that Confucious minted before his death. Through murder and theft, Wong has nabbed 11 of the 12. If he can get them all, he'll achieve some sort of world domination (the script is a little fuzzy on this, but he definitely wants that coin.
Wong, though faces some tough competition from wisecracking newspaper reporter, Jay Barton (played by Wallace Ford, whose fantastic in these types of roles). In between doubting the cops' belief that the murders are over a gang turf war, Barton slowly, in his own inimitable style, begins to piece together who exactly Wong is and what he wants.In his spare time, Barton -- who gets his hands on the 12th gold coin -- breezily romances newspaper operator girl Peg, played by the pretty Arline Judge. It all leads to a final showdown where Wong menaces Jay and Peg.
This is nowhere near Lugosi's best film, but it's a fun way to waste 64 or so minutes. Despite its low budget and usual "where-the-heck-is-this-going" Monogram plot, it was lean enough to carry my wife and son through the film. And Lugosi, although one look at that nose kills any belief that he's Chinese, is suitably menacing. Scenes where he brutally tosses a man down into a cellar filled with rats is almost chilling, as is a scene where he bullies two Chinese women who disapprove of his plans. And he certainly has sadistic, murderous plans in store for Jay and Peg (Judge screams well) as the climax approaches.
William Nigh's direction is OK; he keeps scenes moving briskly. Ford has his usual good snark and adequate comic timing. Robert Emmett O'Connor is not too bad as an inept Irish cop to provide humor fodder. Another plus is a chance to witness what life was like 78 years ago in the outdoor city shots as well as the studio shots of he newsroom Jay and Peg work in. Worth watching and a must for Lugosi fans.
Wednesday, April 10, 2019
By Steve D. Stones
Flash Gordon – The Brain Machine – Season One – episode 21. Aired March 11th, 1955.
The Mad Witch of Neptune, also known as the Mighty Zidarene, forces Dr. Hans Zarkov and Commander Paul Richards to release a deadly methane gas on the planet Neptune. Zarkov and Richards are then placed under Zidarene's Brain Machine on Saturn to empty their minds of their knowledge and memory. The Brain Machine is administered by Zidarene's feisty sidekick dressed like a child's bad bumble bee costume.
Flash Gordon (Steve Holland) and Dale Arden (Irene Champlin) arrive on Saturn to rescue Zarkov and Richards. The Mighty Zidarene paralyzes Flash with her powerful magic ray wand when he tries to capture her. She escapes, and Flash and Dale are left to figure out how to reverse the Brain Machine to restore Zarkov's and Richards' minds. The episode ends with To Be Continued on the screen and continues with the next episode – Struggle To The End.
Actor Steve Holland spends his entire first scene of this episode in a shirtless, beef cake display of male masculinity. Thank goodness he finally puts on his iconic t-shirt with the lightning bolt logo. The female audience may not be so pleased when he puts his shirt back on.
This episode shows the viewer lots of campy, quickly constructed gadgets seen in Zidarene's control room. The Brain Machine itself looks like giant gardening buckets turned upside down with small tin cups glued to the sides and spiral wiring leading to the machine. Zidarene's control room table exhibits a giant glitter ball in the center of the table with a triangle and lightning bolts painted on the globe. Fun, campy stuff.
Land of The Lost – The Sleestak God – Season One – episode two – Aired September 14th, 1974.
This mid-70s TV show is one of three shows I remember watching as a child while sitting on my Dad's lap on his comfortable recliner chair. It quickly became my favorite TV show as a youngster, but I must admit that the Sleestak creatures really scared me and often appeared in my childhood nightmares.
When Star Wars episode IV – A New Hope came out in 1977 and I first saw bounty hunter Greedo confront Han Solo on the big screen, I was convinced that Greedo may be a relative of the Sleestak. The imagination of a child runs wild.
Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan) assigns his daughter Holly (Kathy Coleman) and son Will (Wesley – last name not shown on screen) to leave their shelter cave to find water to fill water containers. Holly and Will soon run across an ancient ruin of buildings and find Cha-Ka - a part monkey, Neanderthal boy. The trio then come across a cave entrance with the words Beware of Sleestak painted on the outside wall. A group of green reptilian creatures with large eyes, known as Sleestak, capture Holly and Will and put them in a fish net trap suspended above a smoke filled pit in the cave.
Cha-Ka runs to the Marshall cave to tell Rick of Holly and Will's capture. Rick and Cha-Ka have a tough time communicating, but eventually Rick is led to the Sleestak cave and rescues Holly and Will. This won't be the last time that the Marshall family confronts the Sleestak creatures. They are an important staple of the entire TV series and steal the show every time they make an appearance. Funko toys made a Sleestak bobblehead in the mid 2000s. I'm proud to own two of them in my collection.
One Step Beyond – The Dark Room – Season One – episode four - Aired February 20th, 1959.
An American photographer and photojournalist named Rita Wallace, played by young Cloris Leachman, rents an apartment in Paris with a photo dark room studio and is looking for interesting people to photograph. She asks her landlady, played by Ann Codee, if she knows of anyone with an interesting face to photograph.
A strange French gentleman shows up one day at the photo studio without knocking at the door. Wallace shoots many photos of the man during his visit. The man behaves strangely during one photo session by mistaking Wallace for another woman named Cecile. He chases Wallace around the room to try and strangle her. The man then vanishes into thin air.
At the police station, Wallace tries to identify the man by looking at police file photos. She is unable to find a photo of the man in the police records, but goes back to her photo studio to develop the film used to shoot photos of the man. Unfortunately, not a single negative developed shows a photo of the man.
A police detective takes Wallace to a local cemetery to show her a photo on a grave of an man executed in 1926 for strangling his wife named Cecile. The photo on the grave is the man who visited Wallace's apartment and tried to strangle her.
One Step Beyond premiered to television audiences in the late 1950s, and is said to be a precursor to the much better written and produced – Twilight Zone. Although One Step Beyond may not be as great of a TV show as Twilight Zone, it's still an interesting and fun series to watch. Host John Newland opens and closes each episode with details and questions for the viewer to consider about each story. The show is said to have capitalized on American's burgeoning obsession and interest in paranormal activity and mystery.
Star Trek – Arena – Season One – episode 18 – Aired January 19th, 1967.
Here is another TV show I remember watching as a youngster with my Dad in the mid-1970s. I selected this episode because the Gorn creature that Captain Kirk (William Shatner) fights in the episode has always fascinated me, like the Sleestak creatures in Land of The Lost. Science-fiction aliens and creatures always add another layer of interest to any science-fiction story. Kids love them. I sure did.
The USS Enterprise responds to a distress call from an Earth outpost called Cestus III. Captain Kirk and crew arrive on Cestus III to find the outpost destroyed and at least one survivor. The group falls under heavy attack.
The crew beams back aboard the Enterprise and pursues the alien ship that attacked the outpost. The pursued ship is of an alien race known as the Gorn. When the group confronts the Gorn ship in space, a voice challenges Kirk to a fight on the planet surface below in a “trial by combat.” Kirk fights the Gorn captain in what many science-fiction fans consider to be one of the most unconvincing fights in the history of science-fiction television.
Even as a kid when I saw this episode in the mid-1970s, I thought the Gorn captain looked a bit silly and moved too slowly. This episode may be the episode that convinced me that it's okay if science-fiction aliens don't look entirely convincing or believable. Despite the Gorn captain's unbelievable appearance, he's still fun to watch as he chases after Kirk. Arena was the first Star Trek episode to be shown in color in the UK.
The Outer Limits – The Zanti Misfits - Season One – episode 14 – Aired December 30th, 1963.
A secret military installation operates under the cover of an old ghost town named Morgue in the California desert. The installation has communicated with the planet Zanti. The Zantis are a race of perfectionists who banish their criminals and misfits to the desert near the military installation. A military general approves of the Zanti misfits landing, yet the reason is never explained.
Meanwhile, an abusive, alcoholic man named Ben Garth (Bruce Dern) and his female companion named Lisa Lawrence (Olive Deering) break thru the military installation gate and drive out into the desert with a glove box stashed with stolen money. Their car breaks down with a cracked radiator, leaving them stranded. Both witness the landing of a small space ship shaped like a dome tent on the desert plateau.
Garth climbs the plateau to investigate the spaceship and is attacked by a Zanti – a small ant-like creature with a face with human features. Garth is killed by the Zanti, and Lawrence soon finds him.
Lawrence is rescued by Professor Stephen Grave (Michael Tolan) and taken back to the secret military installation. A herd of Zanti misfits soon arrives and attacks the entire installation. The military soldiers are no match for the Zanti misfits.
Most science-fiction films of the 1950s depicted insects as giant creatures who grow as a result of atomic explosion and atomic testing. The Zanti misfits, however, keeps the insect creature at a smaller scale. This may be part of the unintentional humor of this episode. Giant insects appear to be more threatening and scary.
The history of television is rich with many great cult TV titles. This article has only touched on five great shows. Stay tuned for at least two more articles I will be writing in the future to discuss other cult TV shows. Happy viewing.
Thursday, April 4, 2019
Review by Doug Gibson
“Angora Fever,” a collection of several dozen pulp short stories from cult film director Ed Wood, is manna if you’re a fan of Wood or the hastily written, top-heavy with sex and action stories found in the “adult” magazines of a few generations ago. Buy it from the publisher or via Amazon here.
Let’s give three cheers, and a lot of gratitude, to editor Bob Blackburn for working so hard to locate Wood’s short stories. Blackburn provides a preface detailing his friendship with Wood's widow, Kathy, and after her death his efforts to restore much of Wood's professional work.
These stories were primarily written for Wood employer Bernie Bloom’s porn magazines; grimy, second-tier skin mags. The short stories were, to be frank, filler for the porn photo layouts; less consequential to the bottom line than cartoon shorts were to the features, b-movies, newsreels and comedy shorts of the 30s and 40s.
(Quick digression: If you want to read more about Wood's time he was penning these mostly porn tales, check out "Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays," from BearManor Media. It includes a preface from a writer named Leo Eaton, recalling the long ago time he worked with Wood for Bloom's business, called Pendulum Publishing.)
But nevertheless, Wood churned hundreds of these out. And while they fit the definition of pulp; written with a barely one draft, tailored to the literary “raincoat” crowd, by a writer fueled by booze, cigarettes, and Kool Aid, they are the work of a very talented wordsmith.
It’s both heartbreaking, and inspiring, to think of Wood churning so many tales out during his several-years tenure with Bloom. It’s tragic that he eventually drank himself out of a job he desperately needed. At the same time, the scenario of a tragic, aging drunk, with occasional shakes, trudging into an office with booze concealed and easily outpacing the younger staff is an endearing, dark Runyonesque tale.
Like any writer with a cult following, Wood is unique. His stories are thrillers more than horror, with a lot of crime, sex and violence. One of Wood’s signature tools is to have a “twist ending.” One of the best examples of this is in “The Hazards of the Game,” where two Wood stock characters, the hit man and the sexy woman, in this case an underwear model, spend a leisurely evening making love. There’s a lot of dialogue in the story. The characters talk of sex; the woman wistfully talks of what it would be like to be a family. The man talks of his role in life and never questioning what has employers tell him to do.
I like the story because it features Wood’s first-draft-only style with excessive dialogue that is half melodrama and analysis. Wood does dialogue well. Not as good as Charles Bukowski, another writer who delved into porn; unlike Wood, it was more for pin money with Bukowski. Wood doesn’t have Bukowski’s short burst of sentences, and humor. But Wood can move a story along chiefly with dialogue -- no easy task. And the tale features that pulpy twist ending.
Another example of Wood’s writing is the type of story with heavy narration, a sort of fussy narrator, full of observations about both the character and life. Wood wrote a great novel, “Hollywood Rat Race,” using this style. One of the stories in "Angora Fever," titled, I kid you not, “Captain Fellatio Hornblower,” is heavy on this type of narration. It’s about a successful, gay attorney, who specializes in defending homosexuals. It’s an easier, breezy, tongue-in-cheek read.
As mentioned, these are action stories, heavy on stereotypes and cliches. It's doubtful Wood had time, or inclination, to do much research. But they are still morbidly interesting, the reader assuming a voyeur's role into a sordid scene. One story in Angora Fever, “Where Did Charlie Get Off the Train?,” seems more personal. It’s about the suicide of a failing -- financially at least -- filmmaker. In “Nightmare of Ecstasy,” Rudolph Grey’s oral history of Wood’s life, there’s no shortage of Wood’s disappointment in the movie industry recollected.
“Angora Fever” is a second recent collection of Wood short story fiction gathered by Blackburn. “Blood Splatters Quickly” came out a few years ago, with 32 stories. Yes, I’ve read it. Also, more than a decade ago, I read and reviewed a small collection of Wood’s fiction, titled "Muddled Mind …”. It was all that was out there at the time.
(I digress again to tell readers that if they want detailed analysis of all of Wood’s short stories, “Angora Fever” and more, check out blogger Joe Blevins’ website, Dead 2 Rights … Ed Wood Wednesdays. It’s an incredible work of research. Also, Blackburn’s Facebook page, Ed Wood Jr., provides a lot of information and interaction.)
Despite’s Wood’s talent as a story craftsman, it must be acknowledged that a significant chunk of the stories gathered, while colorful reads, are too pulpy, constructed too much like derivative porn, too hastily conceived, more sizzle than steak. This is likely due to the deadlines, the wham-bam thank you-ma’am plots and perhaps, even, that Wood may have been too pickled when he wrote them.
One of the better of these quickies is “Blood Drains Quickly,” a tale of a psychopathic killer who makes the mistake of letting a victim live, and suffers for that oversight dreadfully. It has a nasty, sociopath narrator telling the tale. Honestly, the narration reminds me of an old Stephen King short story, I’ve forgotten the title, in which a nasty, sociopath doctor marooned on an island, I think, cuts off parts of his body to stave off starvation and survive.
“To Kill a Saturday Night,” a tale contained in “Blood Splatters Quickly,” is good enough to be included in The New Yorker magazine. It has a rough, but definite pathos environment, with two derelicts spouting off about a murder they might be planning. It was also gathered in “Muddled Mind” and I wrote this about it in my review (here). An excerpt of my review: “The tale of a pair of bloviating farm workers contemplating casual murder on their day off will remind readers of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
“Angora Fever” has a story almost as good. It’s called “Mice on a Cold Cellar Floor,” and details the presumably doomed life of a pair of teenage lovers only able to be together amidst a filthy environment. The boy is a harsh, criminal, misogynist. The girl too young and far too trusting. But their frustration and angst really gets through to the reader. It jarred my heart to hear the lovers casually discuss a future that includes a suicide pact.
“Angora Fever” is a history lesson of the pulp short story genre. Wood was a good writer. Not every story clicks but readers should read these tales with perhaps more patience than Wood exerted writing them.