Monday, July 31, 2023

Ed Wood pens a screenplay about a football hero; new book a fun read for the Wood minutiae fans


Review by Doug Gibson

I admit it. I’m an Ed Wood fan-atic. There are probably a few thousand of us in the world. We’ve watched Plan 9 From Outer Space, and/or Glen or Glenda 100-plus times. Our 30-plus year copy of Nightmare of Ecstasy is read to tatters. We own a Wood novel or two, or more. We’ve purchased Bob Blackburn’s three volumes of Wood’s fiction and non-fiction writing. The Ed Wood Jr. Faceback page and Dead2Rights Ed Wood Wednesday blog, are both near-daily needs.

In short, we love the minutiae of Ed Wood’s’ life and career. We can’t get enough of it. Any breaking new news about our idol of unfeigned kitsch, Mr. Wood, we consume.

W. Paul Apel, a writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. has authored a book that is fun for Wood minutiae fans, “I WatchedFootball Early the Day I Died: The Lost Ed Wood Frank Leahy Screenplay,” Bear Manor Media, 2023, is an insider-joke title. It’s a riff on a Wood screenplay, “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died,” a film made long after Wood’s 1978 death.

The backstory on the book is interesting. In issue 11 of the magazine Cult Movies, published a generation-plus ago, a screenplay is attributed to Wood titled “The Frank Leahy Legend.” Fast forward many years later and Ed Wood writer/fan Greg Javer writes more about the screenplay on Joe Blevins’ Dead2Rights blog. It mentions that the screenplay is archived at Loyola Marymount University. Apel reads that and is motivated to contact Loyola Marymount, which provides him access to the “Frank Leahy Legend.” (Both Javer and Apel provide introductions to the book, and there is a forward by Blackburn on the years he and Kathy Woods, Ed’s wife, were friends.)

So who is Frank Leahy? (see his photo below) I’m a football fan. Frank Leahy was a Notre Dame football coach. He is arguably one of the greatest coaches of all time, as successful as legendary Notre Dame coaching peer, Knute Rockne, whom Frank Leahy played for. Rockne was charismatic, and filled newspaper headlines. He died in a plane crash heading to Hollywood to negotiate picture deals. That tragedy added to his mystique.

Leahy was not nearly as charismatic. He’s best known for utilizing the T formation strategy for Notre Dame football. He eventually retired from football as his health declined, was briefly involved administratively in professional football, then was a businessman until he died in 1973.

So how did Ed Wood, who was busy writing, assistant directing, even acting in soft- and hard-core pornography in the mid ‘70s, get a gig writing a screenplay for an “inspirational” biography of Frank Leahy?

No one knows for sure but one can guess. Earlier a Leahy super-fan named Bernard J. Williams had written a sort of biography of Leahy. Much of it is interviews with Leahy before his death. Apel has read it. It’s been published in two versions, and it can even be purchased on Amazon as “Iron Desire: The Legacy of Notre Dame Football Coach Frank Leahy.” Kindle version is only $2.99.

Williams may have been involved as associate publisher of an early ‘70s science fiction magazine. Forrest J. Ackerman was an iconic genre figure who represented science fiction writers. He knew Ed Wood, even was his agent once. Apel wonders if Williams and Ackerman crossed paths?

Who knows, but it sounds nice to think that Ackerman mentioned Wood for the Leahy job hoping to get his down-on-his-luck friend a nice screenplay gig. What may be just as likely is that a budget-conscious Williams was looking for a cheap first draft and Ackerman said this Wood fellow would be cheap.

Ed Wood was in his final years. He’d long lost the battle with alcoholism by 1975. It would destroy his career, his body, and eventually his life. Wood was still working for filmmaker Stephen Apostolof, but his tenure with the more stable porn house Pendulum Publishing was about played out. He and wife Kathy needed money. Life for Wood was a race against bill collectors; a race Ed’s body could not take much longer.

I hope Wood got a decent four-figure payment for the script he turned in, “The Frank Leahy Legend.” The man needed a break.

Apel presents a copy of the entire screenplay, which is manna for us Wood fan-atics. The author has crafted an interesting book, with the screenplay interrupted often for observations from Apel. They are insightful comments, pointing out where in the script Ed utilizes scenes and verbiage that are unique to his previous work. Apel also describes where Wood has done his homework, independently researching his subject to include screenplay events that are not in the book hagiography.

So how is “The Frank Leahy Legend” screenplay? Well, it’s very long, close to what would translate as a near three-hour movie. It desperately needs at least 80 pages trimmed. This is a story that cries out for the 72-minute 1970s’ TV Movie of the Week treatment.

However, Wood was enough of a professional to not turn in a hatchet job that just follows the book.  “He actually created his own structure …,” writes Apel.

Wood changes events in the book into sequences that translate better into a movie. Examples include Wood having a young Leahy taking his long first journey to Notre Dame on horse. Another example is Wood portraying Leahy’s father’s violent death more dramatically. Wood also did extensive research on the vast amount of characters in the non-fiction screenplay, a tedious task in a pre-Internet world.

But the screenplay has flaws. Apel notes Wood includes scenes that do not move the story forward, thereby bogging the narrative down. Major events, such as getting a scholarship to Notre Dame, have no real set up. Also, other important portions, such as Leahy’s wife’s struggle with alcoholism, are only touched on the surface, with little narrative depth. There is the (endearing) odd Woodian syntax, such a Leahy saying, “I’m out only to win.”

In what becomes farcical, Wood’s screenplay about a football player and coach does not even depict a football game until roughly half the script is completed. Just like a low-budget, ineptly produced horror cheapie provides more talk than action, Wood’s script talks football without offering much game action.

Still, as I read the script, I started to enjoy it, as a Wood fan.  It is tedious but it’s the work of a veteran writer who plugged on. There are scenes that Wood goes into autopilot a bit (perhaps the alcoholism was bad that day) but there’s enough to understand why Wood was able to make a living for decades as a writer. He knew his craft until the end. He provides a life story.

Readers are fortunate, though, that Apel provides commentary from time to time. It provides respite from the overly long story structure.

There are “Ed Wood moments” for minutiae lovers, which Apel includes in his comments. An illicit paramour of a married Leahy is wearing angora. There is a scene of a young Leahy about to bed down with a girl that reads like a mild version of a scene from one of Ed’s hundreds of adult short stories. There’s a father who does not approve of his son (think “Glen or Glenda). There lots of drinking in the screenplay, and descriptions of women’s clothing, such as garters.

Wood creates a conflicted character in Leahy, a man willing to be deceitful to win. Some call him a cheater. I would not go that far. It’s more unethical sports chicanery, like having players fake an injury to get more time to stop action and plan strategy.

Besides his marital infidelity, there’s a tasteless early scene where high school athlete Frank Leahy, and his much older coach, discuss plans to go out tomcatting for teenage girls. I was waiting for a cop to enter the page and arrest the coach.

These “adult” subjects in the screenplay seem a bit muddled because the screenplay starts with narrator (Bernard Williams) talking about Leahy to his young son. That opening narration seems to go off the charts early as the film moves into narrative style and includes topics a father would not mention to a young son. Nevertheless, the narrator makes infrequent returns to the screenplay and Williams actually becomes a character late in the script that interacts with Leahy.

I have read reviews where it’s claimed Wood just did this for the money. True, but this was an assignment so different from the usual porn writing that I think Wood might have hoped this would lead to a credit on a respectable film, perhaps a 90-minute TV movie. That might have had a chance given that Leahy – legitimately famous -- had only recently passed away. But the script probably disappointed Williams, and we know it was shelved, eventually stored at a Hollywood Catholic church before being donated to Loyola Marymount.

So “The Frank Leahy Legend” ends up as an interesting footnote to the Ed Wood life story, which of course has been made as a feature film; something Frank Leahy never accomplished.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Patron Saints of the Living Dead weaves a tale of voodoo, zombies through time and cinema



Review by Doug Gibson

There's a passage in Frank Dello Stritto's new novel, "Patron Saints of the Living Dead," (Cult Movies Press, 2023), where our protagonist, Brent Marassas, dining with friends and acquaintances, begins to chat with an elderly lady, Madeline Short Parker.

Brett is on a quest his father sent him on shortly before dad, whom he calls "Papa," died. His father, raised without a traditional family, wants to know who his father was. A private investigator has uncovered some answers, and they lead toward the supernatural. Voodoo, zombies, living death, regeneration of life, raising of the dead, attempts to subjugate or control others via zombie-like efforts. 

Based on what Brent has learned, his father's origin likely derives from one of 13 scientists who were involved in research that mixed science with supernatural, life with death, and power with subjugation. 

One of those scientists was Assante "Murder" Legendre, the villain of the classic 1931 horror film,"White Zombie." And Brent soon learns that Madeline Short Parker is the bride Legendre turned into a zombie for a short while.

The now-elderly Madeline (the book is set more than a generation ago) recounts her horrifying experience as a virtual slave to Legendre, and the atrocities inflicted on her.

Through more than 500 pages, "Patron Saints ..." takes us through a journey of history, culture, books, newspapers and several score of genre films to weave a compelling tale of a man meandering his way through zombie, voodoo, crime, death, murder, mad scientists, and more, to find his roots. Dello Stritto has done this before, with novels about the traditional Universal monsters (Frankenstein's, Dracula, The Wolf Man), Carl Denham's "legacy" of giant apes, and the Mummy film genre. 

(I digress to note that I have helped proofread for style and grammar, nearly all of Dello Stritto's books. However, proofing is not the same as reading for pleasure, and I have read a second time all of these books prior to review.)

"Patron Saints ..." shows the maturity of the author's skills, as it weaves the coincidences a protagonist needs to encounter-by-chance (or fate?) dozens of surviving characters of films. From New York to New Orleans, to the Carribbean, back to the East Coast, through the United States, into the Intermountain West, to California and back to the Carribbean, every plot twist and scene sequence seems natural. The narrative flow works.

This is important because "Patron Saints ..." is a novel that readers unfamiliar with the voodoo/zombies' films genre can easily get into and enjoy. That's not to say his other works are lacking, but this one impressed me as a very enthusiastic recommendation to my family members and friends who -- unlike me -- haven't watched 1,0001-plus genre films.

However, genre fans will revel in how the plot moves from film to film and to characters we've enjoyed watching in theater or on screen. There are so many. They even include Carl Kolchak, the Night Stalker reporter. Readers in the know can spend time guessing the films that enter the plot; or the film producers: Monogram, Producers Releasing Corporation, '50s low-budget studios, the Halperin Bros zombies films, the film "Freaks," TV show episodes boomers loved, blaxploitation chillers from the '70s, and so on. 

Even Indiana Jones is mentioned in the novel, as research for Brent, who peruses an old academic journal of Henry Jones Jr.'s adventures in northern India -- in the "Temple of Doom" -- with the Cult of Kali Ma. Dr. Jones narrowly escaped a fate that put him in a "black sleep," ... Alive but like a nightmare," ... only able to follow the commands of high priest Mola Ram. (1)

There is one passage where Brent and his lady companion visit the decrepit home of the Incredible Doctor Markesan (from TV's "Thriller.") Our protagonist meets a survivor of that episode, who seems barely alive. He claims the house empty and that those sounds on the second floor are just the house being old. This was a passage that gave your reviewer goose bumps while reading.

Also, as in his other books, "Patron Saints ..." is full of film stills presented as historical artifacts -- either press or found -- that provide readers glimpses of the characters in the pages. Also, film scholar Dello Stritto has done impeccable research, providing art of practices described in the book, such as dissection, the work of grave robbers Burke and Hare, and even a 16th century print of a plague of uncontrollable dancing.

Although Dello Stritto's topic is zombies, he makes it clear that there are no "Romero-inspired" flesh-eating zombies in the novel. The book is an attempt to reclaim the zombie genre to its roots, in films such as "White Zombie." From Dello Stritto's Notes to Readers:

"Like Voodoo, zombie (or "zombi") is more complex than portrayed in popular culture. The original meaning was a spirit or ghost, but in the Caribbean and in popular culture a zombie is the living dead, an animated corpse. Before the mid 1960s, western popular culture portrayed zombies in their traditional role, as toiling in plantation fields or sugar mills, as the mindless slaves of their overseers. For the past half century, zombies in popular culture have been portrayed as hordes of carnivorous, infectious fiends. That recasting perhaps, is the unkindest cut of all.

"But zombies do exist."

I end this review with a fun, memorable anecdote. I re-read this novel recently on vacation in Hungary, where our family owns a Soviet-style condo.

One day we visited the city of Pecs, which is only about 36 miles from the Croatian border. It was a hot day, and I took a brief time out under trees in a park. While reading, I came to page 363, where it tells more about the history of the three "Legendre" scientist brothers.

It reads: 'Richard Marlowe and Paul Renault, the younger two of the Legendre brothers, both attended the University of Pecs in Hungary."

Indulge me, but it just seemed really cool, and unique, to be reading that passage in a park in Pecs Hungary. I think I can easily claim to be the sole reader with that experience ... so far.

1) In the 2023 film, "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny," Dr. Jones says he was previously "tortured by voodoo," forced to drink the blood of Kali.