Sunday, May 25, 2008

A review of Nightmare of Ecstasy

Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr., by Rudolph Grey, Feral Books

Review by Doug Gibson

"Only in the infinity of the depths of a man's mind can we really find the answer."-- From the 1953 film Glen or Glenda, written, directed, produced, and starred in by Ed Wood, Jr.

Edward D. Wood, Jr., died homeless in 1978. The former "C" movie director was an alcoholic with a brain that had virtually wasted away from an excess of booze and disappointment. He expired on a friend's bed while his wife in the next room ignored his pleas for help. For the last several years of his life, the only writing, starring and directing jobs he had were for pornography. There was no mention of his death in the Hollywood press. He directed only six films that were made available to mainstream audiences, the last in 1960.

Now, flash to 2000: the late Edward D. Wood, Jr. -- known as Ed Wood -- has become a cottage industry. His films, most notably Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, are major cult favorites selling thousands of copies a year. A film, Ed Wood, was made starring Johnny Depp as Ed. It was an Oscar winner. Wood's cheapie, near-pornography fiction paperbacks from the 1960s are collector's items. Reprints are sold from outlets such as the Quality Paperback Book Club and Amazon. One of Wood's last screenplays, I Awoke Early the Day I Died, was filmed and stars Billy Zane of Titanic fame. There are webpages devoted to Wood. Cult Movies magazine, a popular film publication, has a story about Ed Wood in just about every issue.

So what made Ed Wood an American original, as he's described in Rudolph Grey's oral biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. From the recollections of friends, lovers, acquaintances and colleagues, Grey treats readers to Wood's life. It's a bizarre, hilarious, eccentric and sad look at the most unique soul who ever left small town life to try and hit it big in Hollywood. Wood was a reverse Sammy Glick -- full of enthusiasm and drive but not with a Machiavellian soul. As a result, everything he touched turned to lead instead of gold.

A heterosexual transvestite, Wood fought the Japanese in World War 2 wearing a bra and panties under his soldier's garb. After the war, he spent a couple of years with a traveling carnival and then headed to Hollywood. In the late 1940s Wood was an extremely handsome, energetic man who had no trouble attracting a team of actors, most of whom would stay with him for more than a decade. They included an aging Bela Lugosi, Vampira, a slinky horror TV show host, a psychic named Criswell, Wood's girlfriend Dolores Fuller, a 400-pound Swedish wrestler named Tor Johnson, and veteran character actor Lyle Talbot.

Wood finagled his first feature deal by convincing exploitation film producer George Weiss to let him make a film about a sex change, which was new and in the news in 1950. Instead, Wood made Glen or Glenda, an absurd, surrealistic autobiographical film about his own transvestite tendencies. Weiss took it, added some bond- age scenes, and released it as I Changed My Sex. It bombed then, but gradually grew to become the one Ed Wood film that enjoyed a real cult audience while he was alive.

Grey's biography details Wood's life as a "one-lung" producer in 1950s Hollywood. It was raise a few thousand dollars, shoot for a few days, shut down, raise some more money, and shoot some more film. The book is fascinating for its anecdotes of how Ed saved costs. He stole a rubber octopus from another studio for his film Bride of the Monster. He stole scene shots at motels, streets and parks. He used stock footage from other films in abundance, which often gave his films a disjointed, out-of-sequence look.

Wood's tender friendship with the aging, penniless Lugosi shows his altruistic side. It was a sincere desire to assist his boyhood film idol maintain dignity in his last years.
Grey's book is a real treat for Wood fans. It contains a listing of all his film projects, whether they got off the ground or not, and a complete summary of his novels and stories.

It's easy to laugh at Ed Wood's movies. And they do appear silly. But he doesn't deserve the smarmy humor that often accompanies critiques of Ed Wood films. Wood's films often seem ridiculous because he had neither the time, nor money needed, to make a real Hollywood production. But -- and this is important -- THEY ARE NEVER DULL. Plan 9 From Outer Space may seem silly with its hubcaps-for-flying-saucers, daylight-to-night shots and stilted dialogue, but its anti-war sci-fi plot -- aliens raise the dead to convince earth to stop building weapons -- would be a crazy, exciting film with a $50 million budget.

Grey's book demonstrates what a crazy, original idea man Ed Wood was. That's why, of the thousands of low budget offerings that dotted movie screens in the 1950s, Ed Wood is the survivor. Perhaps Penn and Teller summed it up best: "We've seen Plan 9 From Outer Space 15 times. Who can say the same thing about an Emma Thompson movie?"

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A vote for older, unique chillers

This column by Doug Gibson was originally published in the Aug. 1, 2007 Standard-Examiner. It includes a plug for Ed Wood's 1955 wonderfully creaky mad scientist seeks revenge shocker, "Bride of the Monster," starring Bela Lugosi, in his final substantive role. It also starred Tor Johnson, a Wood regular. Ed co-wrote, produced and directed "Bride." It was sneaked, incredibly, with Deborah Kerr's "The End of the Affair!" (At left, Tor Johnson menaces Loretta King in "Bride.")

Dump the 'torture porn' and enjoy an old 'chiller'

by Doug Gibson

Scary cinema is fad-based. We had the creature-features of 60 and 70 years ago ("Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Wolf Man"), then the atomic, science fiction thrillers ("The Thing," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"). Alfred Hitchcock was a genre himself in the 1960s and early '70s with "Psycho," "The Birds" and "Frenzy."

Gore films were the fad as I grew up. It started with George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," gained momentum with Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and sort of peaked with Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," a clever satire of consumerism.

When I was a teen, John Carpenter's very scary, and slyly amusing, "Halloween" kicked off the "slasher film" fad. "Nightmare on Elm Street" kept that going, and the dreadful "Friday the 13th" started a string of even worse summer camp slasher movies — anyone remember "Sleepaway Camp" or "The Dorm that Dripped Blood?" Unfortunately, I do.

I stopped watching new horror films in the early 1990s. The movies stopped being original to me, although — hate to say this, maybe I just got tired of blood and guts. Today, if I want to see a scary movie, I choose a spooky ghost story, such as "The Others" or "The Sixth Sense" or "Haunted," a low-budget 1995 chiller.

Regarding today's fad — torture porn, such as "Saw" and "Hostel": Not only do I avoid that junk, I'm already planning strategies so my children will spurn it.
In my 40s now, I find myself enjoying old, forgotten films, tiny-budget cheapies from the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. I saw these titles in the 1970s' TV Guide, listed after midnight on Los Angeles' several independent TV stations.

A few I got to watch; most I missed. But I never forgot them: "The Ape Man," "Bowery at Midnight," "Scared to Death," "Murder By Television," "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Carnival of Souls," "The Man with Nine Lives," "King of the Zombies." The studios that made these films — Republic, Monogram, Producers Releasing Corporation, Golden Gate Pictures, Lasky-Monka — they're long gone.

The films have ceased their ubiquitous presence on late-night TV, except rare dates with Turner Classic Movies and UEN's local Sci-Fi Friday movies. But you can buy them all on DVD now — some for a buck.

Still, it's sort of sad. As I explain to my skeptical wife, there is a sense of community watching one of these old movies on TV. We're an audience — unseen and far apart — but nevertheless, fans sharing a great film. You don't get that feeling when you watch a film on disc or tape.

For what it's worth, a few recommendations — by decade — of these old chillers. Are they scary? Most, frankly, no. But they are original, with ambitious plots that go as far as a small budget allows.

The 1930s
"White Zombie" — This 1932 film stars Bela Lugosi as "Murder Legendre," an evil sorcerer who helps a rich, selfish young man lure a young couple to an island. The selfish man loves the woman, but his plan to win her backfires when the woman is turned into a zombie by Legendre. The film's chills still hold up, particularly the scene of zombies toiling in a sugar mill and the atmospheric castle against a cliff.

The 1940s
"Strangler of the Swamp" — Made in 1948, this atmospheric thriller involves a man, hanged for a murder he didn't commit, who returns as a ghost and assumes the role of ferryman at the swamp. Instead of ferrying passengers, he strangles locals in revenge. Finally, a young woman (Rosemary LaPlanche) prepares to offer herself as a sacrifice to get the ghost to leave. The strangler (Charles Middleton) was "Emperor Ming" in the old "Flash Gordon" serials.

The 1950s "Bride of the Monster" — This 1955 film is probably the best Ed Wood directed. Sure, that's not saying much, but an emaciated, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi is still good as embittered, exiled mad scientist Eric Vornoff, who "vill perfect ... a race of atomic supermen vich vill conquer the vorld!" Wood staple Tor Johnson, a 400-pound wrestler, is also in the movie. The low budget includes a photo enlarger as an atomic energizer and a rubber octopus as the monster of the marsh.

The 1960s
"Spider Baby: Or the Maddest Story Ever Told" — This comedy/horror is creepy. It stars a very old Lon Chaney Jr. as the caretaker for an insane family. They suffer from a syndrome that causes them to degenerate into children, then babies, then prehuman savages. Relatives come to the house to institutionalize the family. It proves to be a long, horrific night. "Spider Baby" was filmed in 1964 but not released until 1968. Chaney Jr., who could barely talk due to his advanced alcoholism, actually sings the title song.

Gibson is the Standard-Examiner's assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Remembering Vampira

Remembering Vampira

by Steve Stones

Hey Black dress moves in a blue movie
Graverobbers from outer space
Your pulmonary trembles in your outstretched arm
Tremble so wicked
Two-inch nails
Micro waist
With a pale white feline face
Inclination eyebrows to there
Mistress to the horror kid
Cemetery of the white love ghoul, well
Take off your shabby dress
Come and lay beside me
Come a little bit closer
Come a little bit closer
Come a little bit closer
Come a little bit closer to this
Vampira, Vampira, Vampira
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey

From the album "Walk Among Us" -- The Misfits-Collection -- Ruby Records & Plan 9-Caroline Records

As a teenage skateboard punk in the late 1980s, I must have listened to this song hundreds of times, but I was never fully aware of who Vampira was and what movies she had appeared in. Was she a comic book heroine, or a nightmare version of the Barbie doll?

I didn't know for sure. It wasn't until 1989, my senior year in High School, that a friend and I decided to rent Plan 9 From Outer Space late one Friday night. When Vampira appeared on screen, my heart raced a million miles an hour. There was something very sexually attractive to me about a shapely woman in a torn black dress, long phallic nails, pale skin and jet-black hair.

Cult director John Waters best described this feeling when he said: "Vampira was the first exaggerated woman I ever yearned to meet . . . she never looked scary to me. I thought she was pretty."

Finnish born Maila Nurmi, later known as Vampira, began her career in 1954 as a horror movie hostess in Los Angeles on KABC-TV making $75.00 a week. Her television show played on channel 7 on Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m. At that time, television was a new medium, and anything was possible.

Nurmi developed the Vampira character from three sources: The Dragon Lady in the Terry & The Pirates comic strip, the evil Queen in Snow White, and The Charles Addams Lady in the New Yorker Magazine cartoon strip. At the time Nurmi was developing the Vampira character, she was married to Dean Reisner, who would later go on the create Dirty Harry in the early 1970s. She worked on the television show in hopes to earn enough money to become an evangelist.

On the television show, Vampira would emerge from a dark Gothic hallway filled with smoke, walk towards the camera and let out a loud blood-curdling, shrill scream saying: "Screaming relaxes me so!!!" Some of the films that were played on her late-night television show included: White Zombie, Revenge of The Zombies, Devil Bat's Daughter, Strangler From The Swamp, The Rogue's Tavern, Detour, The Flying Serpent, and King of The Zombies, just to name a few.

After only fifty episodes, the show was cancelled in 1955, and Vampira found herself immediately blacklisted. Soon after, she was approached by an Ed Wood actor, Paul Marco, with a script and $200.00 to appear in a film directed by Wood entitled: Graverobbers From Outer Space which was later retitled: Plan 9 From Outer Space. Reluctant to take the job at first, she finally decided to appear in the film after living off of only $13.00 a week in unemployment benefits.

She convinced Wood that her vampire character should remain mute throughout the entire film. The script identified her as the Vampire's wife or the Ghoul's wife. In recent years, Plan 9 From Outer Space has a well-deserved cult status in cinema history, making Vampira a familiar name and face, and a pop-culture icon of the movies. Vampira has appeared on anything from books, paintings, and t-shirts, to action figures, trading cards, posters, buttons and graphic novels. Her image is permanently seared into western culture.

Sadly, Vampira passed on into another dimension on January 10, 2008. She will always hold a special place in the minds and hearts of her die-hard fans around the world. May she rest in peace. We love you Vampira!!!

Vampira's Films:

If Winter Comes, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Too Much, Too Soon The Beat Generation (1959)
Sleeping Beauty The Big Operator (1959)
I Passed For White Sex Kittens Go To College (1960)
The Magic Sword (a.k.a. St. George & The Dragon-1961)
The James Dean Story
The First American Teenager Bungalow Invader

She also appeared on Broadway with Mae West in Catherine The Great. It is also important to note that Ed Wood abandoned a project entitled: The Vampire's Tomb in 1954, which was modeled after Vampira. Footage shot of Bela Lugosi for The Vampire's Tomb was later used in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Capsule review of Plan 9 from Steve Stones

This capsule review of Plan 9 From Outer Space was written by Steve Stones, originally published in the Jan. 28, 2007 Standard-Examiner (

PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE —This film by cross-dressing director Edward D. Wood Jr. actually began in 1956, but was completed in 1959 when Wood convinced a group of Christian Baptists to fund the remainder of the film in exchange for being baptized into the church.
The story surrounding how this film was made has become as much of interest and a phenomenon as the film itself. Universally hailed as the "worst movie ever made," this film has become one of my favorite "guilty pleasures."
Plan 9 concerns aliens from outer space who are robbing graves in the San Fernando Valley of California to turn these corpses into murdering zombified slaves for world power. The film has every element a student of "bad films" could ever hope for, such as bad acting, cheap sets, continuity errors, and burning hubcaps and paper plates used as flying saucers. An absolute must for every connoisseur of "bad movies."

Column on Ed Wood's appeal today

When it comes right down to it, enjoying Ed Wood is a patriotic act

By Doug Gibson

Originally published on Feb. 29, 2008 in the Standard-Examiner (

"We've seen 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' 15 times. Who can say that about an Emma Thompson film?"
— Comedians Penn & Teller, explaining why they'refans of Ed Wood

"Ed Wood," Tim Burton's quirky tale of the cross-dressing "world's worst director," was a flop at the box office. Yet years later, it boasts consistent DVD sales. That achievement is appropriate, since it is shared by the film's subject.
Filmmaker Ed Wood will be dead 30 years this year. When he died in Los Angeles, he owned only his name. He was homeless, his brain rotted with alcohol. His cinematic dreams were long gone. He was no longer fit to even work in pornography. His death was noted by no media.
But, only a few years later, a tiny Wood cult had grown into a pop phenomenon. His fame as "worst director" led to re-releases of his films. An oral, pop biography of Wood was published, TV documentaries of Wood were produced, the Burton film came out, a couple of his scripts were filmed by indy companies, and even several of Wood's long-forgotten '60s "trash" paperback novels were re-released. He is a subject of iconic art, too, as the "Plan 9 Crunch" painting by local artist Steve Stones shows.
The Wood-mania has peaked somewhat. The '60s books' re-releases are over. His films, etc., have moved back into a cult status, albeit a much larger one. Maybe that's a good thing. The first Wood boom, more than a generation ago, was initiated by a book "The Golden Turkey Awards" that made fun of the filmmaker. There was a smug, mocking attitude that Wood didn't deserve.
To be a cult icon requires that you not aspire to be a cult icon. It also requires a creative mind and a need to express that creativity that is audacious. I am a huge fan, but even I will not call "Plan 9" a technically great film. Still, it is an audacious film from a very creative mind. Its sometimes laugh-out-loud ineptitude derives from the creative instincts of a director who had neither the money nor the time to transmit his imagination to the screen.
"Plan 9," which cost about $50,000 to make, involves aliens from outer space raising the dead to warn mankind of the threat of nuclear weapons. Another Wood opus, "Glen or Glenda," is Wood's desperate plea of tolerance for cross-dressers. If we just allowed our mailman to wear satin undies, argues Wood, he could be a better member of his community and a credit to his government.
Does that make sense? If it did, part of Wood's charm would be lost.Wood had a more conventional side. He was a friend to an aging, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi, acting as agent to the ex-"Dracula" star and striving to get him roles in films, including his own. In the '50s and '60s, Wood directed TV commercials, industrial films and even Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty's show on local TV. He penned screenplays for low-budget films.
But alcohol grabbed Wood in a vise, and he gravitated toward low-budget porn. To add income, he penned more than 100 paperback novels. Written in unique syntax, seemingly in a single draft, they are a helter-skelter blend of sex, hyperbole and action. Imagine Elmore Leonard without an editor.
Wood never earned more than a few hundred dollars for each novel. Today, originals of his '60s novels sell for close to $1,000. Some of the best include "Devil Girls" and "Hollywood Rat Race."
In the '70s, Wood slid into boozy oblivion and worked in porno before he died in 1978. As an eighth-grader in 1977, living in Long Beach, I almost called him. I was doing a report on Lugosi, and Wood's name surfaced in a biography. I decided I had enough information for a junior high report. Not taking the chance to speak to Ed Wood remains one of my great regrets.
So, have I convinced you to give Ed Wood a try? If so, check out his films "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Glen or Glenda" and "Bride of the Monster." Laugh at the low-budget absurdity, but take note of the creativity. And watch Burton's film "Ed Wood." It's over-romanticized, but still a lot of fun.
And if I haven't convinced you to give Wood a try, may I appeal to your patriotism? Let's face it, if the Islamofascists ever take over, they'll destroy all copies of "Glen or Glenda!"
Gibson is the Standard-Examiner's assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at

Welcome to Plan 9 Crunch

At Plan 9 Crunch Web zine, we promise readers one truth -- IT'S ALL ABOUT CULT FILMS!
This blog is run by Steve Stones and Doug Gibson. Steve's an art professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Our zine logo, at the top of the page, is his. It's called Plan 9 Crunch. Most of the artwork on the blog will be Steve's. He also has what may be the best collection of cult films in Utah, or the United States. Want a copy of Bela Lugosi in the silent The Deerslayer? Or Jack Hill's Spider Baby? Or Dwain Esper's Maniac? Or George Zucco's Mad Monster? Or Ray Dennis Steckler's Body Fever? Or Pam Grier in Coffy? Or David Hewitt's Mighty Gorga? Ed Wood's Sinister Urge? Or Andy Milligan's Guru the Mad Monk? Or ... you get the picture? Steve has about every cult film an afficianado has heard of, and a lot you may not have heard of.
Steve has the perfect definition of a true cult film: A cult film to me has to be like an ugly lost puppy that you want to take home and nurse back to health, even though you know it may not survive.
Doug is the assistant editorial page editor at the Standard-Examiner, a 60,000-plus circ daily in northern Utah. Doug writes a column for the Standard as well, and helps on the copy and design desk. He also teaches a class on journalism at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Doug has been a huge fan of Bela Lugosi all his life. As a teen he saw Plan 9 From Outer Space on Channel 13 in LA after midnight and from that point on was hooked on Ed Wood.
But enough about us. What about Plan 9 Crunch? As mentioned, in this film zine, we deal with cult, the effortless iconic. The first rule of cult is simple: It can't try to be a cult film. That's why Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is NOT a cult film and Milligan's Torture Dungeon is. No film can debut as a "cult." It has to earn that status. It has to have a certain uniqueness, a certain trait from the writer, or director, or actors, or all combined, that leaves a lasting impression on a healthy percentage of viewers. This certain uniqueness ages well, gets better with time and repeat viewings.
Most importantly, the creators of a great cult film are never aware that they are creating an iconic film, a cult classic. When Dudley Manlove's Eros was screaming "You see, you see, you stupid fools!" while warning Ed Wood's earthlings about THE SOLARONITE in Plan 9 From Outer Space, we're sure no one on that tiny Quality Studios set thought they'd created a punchline for the next century. Heck, Wood was likely just hoping Manlove could get it all in one take, and save a few dollars. In the back of his mind he was probably wondering how he was gonna make a grand or two from this film when it was finished.
In Plan 9 Crunch zine, we will look at cult genres, cult directors, cult screenwriters, cult producers, cult actors and the films. We are confident that we can keep Plan 9 Crunch going for decades. Our resources are limitless. Here's a very small sample of names: Ed Wood, Andy Milligan, Ray Dennis Steckler, David Hewitt, Jean Yarbrough, Edgar Ulmer, Al Adamson, Jack Hill, Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Mario Bava, K. Gordon Murray, Roger Corman, William Beaudine, James Whale, Tod Browning, and those are just directors. What about Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, George Zucco, Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., Dwight Frye, Vincent Price, Evelyn Ankers, J. Carroll Naish, Angelito Rossitto, Glen Strange, William Kerwin, Susan Cassidy ... and countless more actors. There's so many more: Dwayne Esper, David Friedman, Harry Novak, Doris Wishman ... Or genres: the silents, including Nosferatu, Cat and the Canary, The Unknown and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Expect a series on the Monogram horror films of the 1940s, or how the Harry Potter novels compare with the films. Also, we promise more than just perfunctory reviews and biographies at Plan 9 Crunch. We will entertain our readers with lively, opinionated pieces on cult films and try hard to include information that readers can't find anywhere else.
This zine will be updated at least weekly. We will have a theme each month. We'll start with Ed Wood. All our entries will be archived, and there's a section for feedback. We hope we'll get a lot of feedback.