Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ed Wood versus Nightmare of Ecstasy

By Doug Gibson

Tim Burton's wonderful film, Ed Wood, recently was chosen as one of the "new classics," by Entertainment Weekly. It's a worthy selection. Burton's black & white tale of Hollywood in the 1950s is a romanticized fairy tale. Johnny Depp's exuberant, ceaselessly optimistic Wood carries the day with a triumphant Plan 9 from Outer Space premiere at the Pantages. (That didn't happen, of course. Plan 9 was screened once at the tiny Rialto and then sat on the shelf for three years). When Plan 9 was put into general release, Wood didn't see a cent.

Later, before the credits to Burton's film roll, the epilogue tells us Wood descended into alcoholism and pornography. It's appropriate that not be shown in Burton's film. It is, as mentioned a fairy tale, of optimism and perserverance. In a general sense, it is accurate. Wood battled tremendous odds in the 1950s. He filmed Glen Or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls with virtually no money. He managed to attract a diverse and eccentric collection of well-known and semi-known cast names, including Dolores Fuller, Criswell, Kenne Duncan, Steve Reeves, Bud Osborne, Timothy Farrell, John Carpenter, Harvey Dunne, Lyle Talbot, Vampira, Herbert Rawlinson, Gregory Walcott and, of course, Bela Lugosi. It appears Wood's enthusiasm was contagious, and many thought he might make it. That he didn't have a long career at least in directing low-budget thrillers must be attributed to his alcoholism, which made him unreliable. Even near his death, his writing was amazingly prolific. More than one friend recalls him writing a screenplay in a day. He wrote hundreds of paperback novels.

The following are some inconsistencies between Burton's Ed Wood, the romanticized, fairy tale film, and Grey's often gritty absorbing oral biography account of Wood's short rise and long descent. I will likely add to this as time goes on. Here are inconsistencies by film:

Glen or Glenda: In the book, George Weiss is shown as short and trim. In the film he is an overweight slob; It is doubtful that Wood's gay friend Bunny Breckenridge auditioned transvestites for the film. By the way, actor Bill Murray does a great job portraying Breckenridge. The film set for G&G though, matches it as described in the book. Lugosi was not divorced, as the film depicts him. He was still with his wife, Lillian, although she left him soon after. In fact, Grey reports that Lillian pushed Lugosi to take the film. It is also very doubtful Wood gave G&G to a major producer to watch, as the film shows. Also, the film shows Depp's Wood as unhappy that the film was not reviewed in LA. Obviously, Wood would have known where the film was debuting and not checked the LA Times for a review. Burton's scenes of Wood's company stealing shots on LA streets are accurate, according to Grey.

Jail Bait: This film is not even mentioned in Burton's Ed Wood (probably for time and continuity reasons) so let's give it some ink. It's a crime thriller that involves a hood (Farrell) pressuring a plastic surgeon (Rawlinson) and his daughter (Fuller) to make him a new face. Interesting co-stars were Reeves (in his pre-muscleman days) and then-top model Theodora Thurman. Also in the cast are Wood regulars Mona McKinnon, Don Nagel and Bud Osborne. The film's score, which is a bit grating, was taken from Mesa of Lost Women. Howco Films released the film, which likely mostly played the southern drive-in circuit. It's too ambitious for its budget, but is not a bad hour-long time waster. According to Grey, scenes were stolen at an LA motel. (Scene stealing is shooting at private and public locations without permission) Grey, and many rumors, claim that ex-silent film star Rawlinson died the morning after his scenes were shot. Lugosi was slated to play the plastic surgeon, but was either exhausted from his recent Las Vegas gig, too addicted to morphine, or perhaps just had a better offer.

Bride of the Monster: Burton's scenes in LA's Griffith Park of Wood filming in the early AM the finale to Bride are accurate to Grey's description with one exception: Lugosi never got in the water to tangle with a rubber octopus. That was handled by his stand-in, stuntman Eddie Parker. Burton portrays Loretta King, who starred as a nosy reporter, as an airhead. Grey's depiction is fairer, and recent interviews support that she was a capable actress who got the job not for her supposed money, but for her skills. Dolores Fuller's anger at losing the role is accurately portrayed in both film and book. Also, Burton is very unfair to leading man Tony McCoy. He is portrayed as borderline retarded. Wood calls him the worst he ever had in Grey's book. But a viewing of Bride of the Monster shows McCoy to be a very average but capable actor. He certainly knew his lines and can be personable on screen. In fact, McCoy and King were both handled by agent Marge Usher, who supplied Wood with several actors.

Plan 9 From Outer Space: First, although it is a marvelous scene in Burton's Ed Wood, Wood and his idol Orson Welles never chatted at a Hollywood bar. That scene is fiction. By the way, Wood's friend and actor Conrad Brooks plays the bartender in that scene. Also, Burton has Vampira and Kathy Wood being baptized as a Baptist with other Wood regulars to get funding for the film. I don't believe Vampira would have done it, and Kathy Wood says in Grey's book she wouldn't get baptized. It is doubtful Wood would have been angry at Gregory Walcott being cast in his film, since he was a minor name actor at the time. Also, Wood never agreed to his film, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, being changed in title to Plan 9 From Outer Space, as Burton's film show. A minor point; but Ed and Kathy Wood did not meet at Lugosi's hospital, as the film shows. In later interviews, Kathy Wood said they met in a bar. The film was not premiered at the Pantages, and certainly wasn't the elaborate affair as Burton's film shows. In fact, Wood sold the rights to Plan 9 to his Baptist financier, J. Edward Reynolds, for $1 (as Grey recounts) and the film received a minimal release from a small firm, Distributors Releasing Corporation of America. It opened as a second bill to a now-obscure British film called Time Lock.

Night of the Ghouls: Again, not mentioned in Burton's Ed Wood, this film was a sequel to Bride of the Monster, as it involved Tor Johnson's giant Lobo, and a semi sequel to Plan 9 as it had Paul Marco's Patrolman Kelton and Duke Moore's Lt. Daniel Bradford in the cast. It involves a phony medium (Duncan, in a role obviously intended for the late Lugosi) and his young squeeze (Valda Hansen) ripping off elderly fools in an old house. The tables are turned on the pair as the police close in on them and the dead really do start to awake. It has Criswell, narrating from a coffin as he does in Plan 9 and having a brief acting role as well. (Let me digress and say that Jeffrey Jones was brilliant as the late psychic in Burton's film). As mentioned, Tor Johnson's Lobo shuffles around menacingly. The film is intermixed with scenes from an unreleased Wood film called Final Curtain. That sequence, which stars Moore and actress Jeanne Stevens, is quite creepy. If anyone knows where to find a complete version of Final Curtain, it would be quite a find. Night of the Ghou;s was premiered but Wood ran out money, couldn't pay a lab bill and the film was seized for about a quarter of a century before Wood fan Wade Williams paid the bill and it was released. The film's budget is threadbare and dirt-cheap. A cut out picture of Ed Wood is posted on a police wall. The police commander's office has no doorknobs. Obviously, Wood planned more editing and shoots before he lost control of the film. Night of the Ghouls was the first in a planned sequence of films that Wood wanted to make.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Tribute to Bela "Dracula" Lugosi

This column was originally published in the Oct. 20, 2006 edition of The Standard-Examiner.

75 years later, Lugosi's Dracula is the one who spooks us each

By Doug Gibson
"No, no — Dracula never ends. I don't know if I should call it a fortune or a curse, but it never ends."

— Bela Lugosi, 1951

Truer words were never spoken by the Hungarian actor. The irony was, by 1951, the heart of Lugosi's career had been pierced with a far sharper stake than Dracula ever endured.

When I was a child, the three kings of horror films were Boris Karloff, who played the monster in "Frankenstein," Lon Chaney Jr., the wolf man, and Lugosi's "Dracula" vampire. What a treat it was to discover their films — on the local independent TV station — past midnight or on a Saturday morning.

Chaney Jr.'s wolf man has faded in memories, as far scarier versions have been found in London and Hogwarts. Karloff's monster is still recognized. But the screen monster who resides longest in our nightmares remains Lugosi's vampire. Imitators such as Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Frank Langella and Gary Oldman are quickly forgotten. We always return to the Hungarian.

Today is Lugosi's birthday, in the heart of the Halloween season. He has been dead 50 years. When he died he was a destitute, recovering drug addict. His last real screen role was as a bit player — a mute to be pitied in a barrel-scraping horror film. TV rescued the legacy of "Dracula." Whether it was on "Thriller Theater" or "Creature Features," millions of "monster boomer" kids discovered the Universal monsters.

I chatted with "monster boomer" Frank J. Dello Stritto, co-author of "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain." Dello Stritto is also an essayist on classic cinema horror. Many are compiled in a book, "A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore."

Dello Stritto reminds us that Lugosi — a veteran of more than 100 films — only played a vampire in three — twice as Dracula. Part of Lugosi's success as Dracula, he says, is that the vampire seems to be from another era.

"(Lugosi) put into his performance a lot of subtle touches to make Dracula seem from another world: the odd pace of his speech, the use of his cape, his very slow movements compared to the other cast members' ... A lot of actors who play Dracula are ordinary men trying to appear extraordinary, and not quite succeeding," explains Dello Stritto. "Lugosi's character is like Dracula himself — an extraordinary being trying to appear ordinary, and again not quite suceeding."

I have seen "Dracula" scores of times, and Lugosi is the key to the film. He is a tall, courtly, menacing figure who promises a fate worse than death. And that is the appeal of these early horror films compared to the sadistic gore-fests of today — a fate worse than death awaits the vampire's victims. That fate is conveyed to perfection in the scene where Lugosi's vampire murders actor Dwight Frye's cringing, pathetic, mad disciple Renfield. Dracula's exterior is charming. But his filthy interior attracts darkness, fog, storm, chill winds, rodents, flies, spiders, blood and undeath.

Dracula made Lugosi rich for a while; but as he said, it was also a curse. He was too often typecast as a villain, or red-herring, in low-budget films. After 1940, he only starred in three top-tier productions. Nevertheless, he was actor enough to give 100 percent in every film. For those whose knowledge of Lugosi ends with "Dracula," here are a few other films worthy of Halloween viewings:

* "White Zombie" — In this creepy 1932 thriller, Lugosi plays "Murder" Legendre, a Haitian Mephistopheles figure who enslaves zombies to work his plantations and factories. A lovesick man brokers a Faustian deal with Legendre to win the love of a girl, with terrifying consequences. This is a very low-budget film that proved to be a monster hit — sort of like "The Blair Witch Project" was 67 years later. Lugosi biographer Gary Don Rhodes has devoted an entire book to this film.

* "The Devil Bat" — As mentioned, after 1940, Lugosi made a string of low-budget horror/mysteries for B- and C- movie studios. One of the better ones was 1940's "The Devil Bat," from the long-defunct Producers Releasing Corporation. The plot of "Devil Bat" involves a mad, brooding scientist creating mutant bats to kill his employers.

Although prominent today, thanks to DVD and channels such as Turner Classic Movies, these films originally played in rural America or small towns. In the big cities, they were often relegated to matinees. So while Lugosi could still be called a "star," his reputation — and pocketbook — were taking a slow beating. The films lacked the budget, talent and special effects to be creepy, but Lugosi is great.

"Even in his worst films, Lugosi often manages to project something memorable and out of the ordinary. Lugosi studied and made notes on his scripts, looking for something special that he might get into a part," says Dello Stritto.

Other low-budget Lugosi films worth viewing are "Bowery at Midnight," "The Corpse Vanishes," "Voodoo Man" and "The Ape Man."

* "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" — This 1948 horror-comedy is a great film to introduce Lugosi to younger viewers. As Count Dracula, he is a magnificent menace. His strength? Lugosi keeps Dracula in character, and never allows the monster to be laughed at. The humor comes from the reactions of Abbott and Costello. Also in the film are Chaney Jr.'s wolf man and Glenn Strange's Frankenstein monster.

This was Lugosi's final major Hollywood film. It was a hit and rejuvenated Abbott and Costello's career. Unfortunately, Universal decided Lugosi deserved no credit, and he could not find another big-screen role for four years.

* "Bride of the Monster" — This is a terrible movie, directed by the infamous Ed Wood — immortalized by Johnny Depp as the worst director ever. However, if you appreciate Bela Lugosi, see this 1955 film. It is his last starring role, and it will move you to see this frail, emaciated, drug-addicted old man giving it his all in this micro-budget film. After production wrapped, Lugosi checked himself into a rehab center to battle a 20-year addiction to painkillers. As bad as the film is — a photo enlarger is an atomic ray, stock shots don't match, hokey dialogue, amateurish acting, a broken octopus machine — like most of Wood's films, it is strangely watchable. The best you can say about Ed Wood is that he was both bad ... and unique.

Appreciating Bela Lugosi is a trait best learned early, explains Dello Stritto. "It pays to get hooked on Lugosi when you're young. That's when a viewer is most easily swept up by his particular energy. For that reason, 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' cannot be overestimated in its importance in perpetuating the legacy of both Lugosi and the classic monsters. For me and countless others like me, this was the movie that hooked us as kids and made us come back for more."

But it's not too late for even adults. If you haven't spent some time with the screen's greatest monster, this Halloween season is the perfect first date — just watch your neck.

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

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Tribute to Criswell

And now I tell a tale of the threshold people. So astounding that some of you may faint!”
-Criswell from “Night of The Ghouls” and “Orgy of The Dead.”

By Steve Stones
Like so many of Ed Wood’s entourage of stock actors, Criswell had a very unique personality all his own. Born Charles Geran Criswell King in 1907 to an Indiana mortician, as a red-haired, freckled-face young boy growing up in Indiana, Criswell developed an interest in how future events were going to turn out. Like so many young boys growing up, his mind was looking to the future, not to the present or the past. In Criswell’s own words, he describes his family labeling him as a “freak” when he was just a boy. “And perhaps a freak I have remained.”

Prior to his appearance in Ed Wood’s cult masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space, Criswell began his career as a radio newscaster in New York. Criswell also had a successful career as a newspaper columnist. He once appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows. He later established a reputation as a clairvoyant able to predict the future in very entertaining and strange ways on his television show broadcasted in Los Angeles. His TV show and syndicated column were appropriately called: Criswell Predicts.

Some of his strangest predictions included an influx of cannibalism across America, and seven women serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. Other predictions included a Black Plague to hit the Midwest, the ghost of Napoleon being seen near his tomb in Paris, a secret graveyard being discovered near Denver, and the successful and inexpensive operation to change a woman into a man with the simple transplant of the sex organ.

Perhaps this prediction was fueled by Wood’s Glen Or Glenda, a film dealing with the subject of a man transforming himself into a woman by a sex change, and the rejection of transvestism in modern society. Glen Or Glenda was a film way ahead of its time in the early 1950s. His predictions were chronicled in two books he wrote: Journal of The Future and Your Next Ten Years. Criswell claimed that 86 percent of his predictions were accurate, when in fact they were seldom correct.

Criswell’s appearance in three Ed Wood films: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Night of The Ghouls, and Orgy of The Dead, remain as some of his most interesting and bizarre. His trademark “spit curl” hairstyle and black bow tie make him a recognizable character in contemporary popular culture.

“You are all interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable, for that is why you are here,” Criswell states while reading a cue card in the opening of Plan 9 From Outer Space while atmospheric library music plays in the background. A sequence of Criswell rising from an opened coffin in Night of The Ghouls remains a personal favorite of mine. He rises from the coffin and tries desperately to keep his head looking forward, not to give the impression that he is reading a cue card in front of him, which is quite obvious to the viewer.

Criswell crossed over to the land unknown in 1982. In the future I predict that Criswell and Plan 9 From Outer Space will continue to entertain fans for generations to come.

Notes: Criswell’s coffin was used in Wood’s adult film, Necromania; a fan Web site on Criswell is at

Monday, June 2, 2008

Review of Ed Wood's The Sinister Urge

The Sinister Urge , 1960, 75 minutes, Headliner Productions; directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr., screenplay by Wood. Starring Kenne Duncan, Duke Moore, Jean Fontaine, Carl Anthony, Dino Fantini.
By Doug Gibson

The Sinister Urge is probably the least of Wood's mainstream films -- after he made it he started his slow slide into pornography -- but it's still a treat for cult movie fans, and Wood buffs who haven't seen it are in for a big treat. The plot concerns two hard-working detectives (Duncan and Moore) doing their best Gannon and Friday imitations. They re committed to smashing the smut picture racket, and in doing so viewers see several plump bathing beauties die at the hands of a teenage maniac (Fantini) who goes crazy when he sees an uncovered breast.
Many Wood regulars work in The Sinister Urge. Besides Duncan and Moore, there's Anthony, Harvey B. Dunne, John Carpenter, Conrad Brooks and Wood also has a cameo. Duncan's girlfriend at the time, a stripper named Betty Boatner, plays the murder victim in the opening scene. Fontaine, who acts as a sort of a Godmother of pornography, is hysterical. She spends half her time lolling around in bedtime garb, and carps hysterically in a cigarette-smoke-infested voice that s deeper than Clint Eastwood's.
The whole film cost slightly more than $20,000, and its tightness shows that Wood -- at least when sober -- was a director who could turn in a film on budget and in time. Due to the cheapness, most of the film seems to revolve within a single small set that takes turns being a police station, living room, and office. There are a few outdoor scenes, which due to the tiny budget appear amateurish. Scenes from Wood's never-finished film Hellborn were inserted into The Sinister Urge as part of a disjointed attempt to link the dangers of teenage violence into the plot of The Sinister Urge. It's fun to watch Wood and Brooks playing teens fighting each other in this sequence.
The Sinister Urge was considered an exploitation film in 1960 but it s very tame today. There are lots of chases but very little violence. It's worth a rental and can easily be purchased from several companies. There is also a MST3K version that's amusing.

Rudolph Grey's oral biography of Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy, has a lot of info on The Sinister Urge, including Wood's shooting proposal -- which is very detailed -- that he gave to Headliner Productions head Roy Reid. A sequel was planned but never filmed. Much of the cast came from acting teacher Harry Keaton's class. Keaton had a small role in the film. He was Buster Keaton's brother.