Psychedelic Film Criticism for the legally insane

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Patron Saint of UHF

(Part of the Ed Wood Blogathon). Like many of the older Ed Wood fans out there, I first came to him via those weird circular UHF antennae that existed long before cable and VHS. Back then you had to tune in the UHF channels -- local channels that showed the news, the local TV shows, and lots and lots of great old black and white horror movies -- like you would a radio station. Sometimes the picture was bad, sometimes it was worse, and standing there twisting tin foil around to connect the antennae to the your leg for example, was not uncommon, especially during bad weather.

Many of the horror films they showed regularly were really boring, especially if you were too young to understand 90% of the plot. Many directors for poverty row were drunks and lazy asses, like William "One Shot" Beaudine, so most of the time they just had a newspaper reporter smirking while they tried to keep him in focus. If you were lucky, maybe there'd be a gorilla suit or a guy in a mask towards the end. There was a film they always showed called The Invisible Ghost. The trick title's no lie: ain't no ghost, just Bela waiting until people fall asleep and then killing them by waving his coat over their heads. It's torturous to see that sort of thing on a sunny Saturday afternoon when you should be out playing. Before you learn there's no ghost you have long commercial breaks to wait through and you hold on thinking a monster's got to show up eventually, but one never does... and then dad comes home and flips it to golf.

Ed Wood wasn't like that. He was the bright shining light amidst all that sadness, the patron saint of UHF, cramming enough monsters in every film to rocket any five year-old straight into monster heaven. That was the 1970's, though... and once Wood made it to digital, and we grew up, then what?

In the forgiving fuzziness of bad receptions, the strings holding the UFOs in Plan Nine are invisible; you can't see the folds in the black cloth that constitutes the graveyard turf. In the clarity of DVD, however, Wood's threadbare aesthetic enters a whole new realm of sadness, beyond the bleak heartache of The Invisble Ghost and into some shit so Brechtian even Brecht would cry like a frightened little Deutsche bitch to see it. When you can see every brush stroke on the painted rocks walling Lugosi's laboratory in Bride of the Monster, then you have seen too much, not unlike the witnesses at the real-life Plan Nine of Roswell 1947. It's the bad movie lover equivalent of going into a black hole.

It didn't matter that it looked fake --what came through the TV was blurry enough to begin with. When you're a kid in the 1970s, and CGI is still a few decades off, you don't care that things aren't realistic, you don't even know what real is, you can't tell--unless you mean the bugs you're looking for in the dirt under the porch--everything else is vivid imagination--if it can fill in every creak of the stairs at night with evil boogie man whispers, and can invest a handful of different sized army men with a grand adventure schematic using a twin bed as the cliffs below the Guns of Navarone, then you don't care if the saucers on TV are hubcaps --you barely notice. What you care about is that--while 90% of the monster movies you love is just filler--waiting for the monster to show up--because you don't understand or care about adult 'dialogue' or 'themes' --then when you have Dracula, Tor, a hot chick vampire AND flying saucers and aliens all in one movie--brother, you have a new favorite. With Bela and Tor Johnson together, for example, you didn't even need a giant octopus, that's why Ed Wood was so awesome -- he made sure you got one anyway. PRC and Monogram sure as hell weren't about to sneak into some other studio's prop department and steal an octopus, not when they felt they could get away with Lugosi and an overcoat, some grown dull men in grey fedoras and a few threadbare mansion rooms and then just blah blah blah til goddamned enough time has elapsed to call it a B-.

Like all the other horror films in UHF rotation, Plan Nine and Bride of the Monster were shown usually on early weekend mornings, while you were still supposed to be in bed. Nothing was better than getting up before everyone else on a 70's Saturday morning and finding them waiting for you, hours before the cartoons began-- just you -- no one else probably up for miles all around, but light enough the real monsters in the hallway and closet were all long gone. With the combined fuzziness of the picture and your still half-asleep mind, it was literally a weird kid's dream come true.

In fourth grade, I remember running home to get a baseball glove on a sunny, lovely fall afternoon and noticing BRIDE OF THE MONSTER was on. One look at those crazy tentacles and suddenly I had to stop and stay, ignoring my friend's angry calls and the pull of the sunshine. In that key moment, the dark path towards this blog was begun. When I saw Nightmare of Ecstasy on the shelves randomly at a bookstore in New Hope, PA, around 1991, I thought I had died and gone to sweet velvet curtained hell. No one was really celebrating him much at the time. Tim Burton must have felt the same way, because that book became the basis for the movie. I remember clenching my flask on a dim routine Saturday matinee of Ed Wood, and when the crowd cheered as Bela tossed the bottle and jumped boldly atop the lifeless rubber octopus, the whole audience broke into applause. I cried. My basement hero had made it to the top of the tower. Say what you will about his later years penchant for alcoholism and pornography, Ed Wood was a king among men, his strange stories real and true. He stuck to his weird guns and now he's immortal. And don't even doubt that he's an American hero. Landing at D-Day is one thing, but doing it in ladies underwear, now that's guts! Sometimes guts is enough.

And liquor.

(Read my Christmas 2008 celebration of Plan Nine here)

4 comments:

  1. Erich, thanks for taking part. This is a great piece and along with mine, the first post of the blogathon.

    With Bela and Tor Johnson together, for example, you didn't even need a giant octopus, that's why Ed Wood was so awesome.

    Effin A! Wood was pretty damn awesome. In fact my inaugural post defends him as not entirely awful. For now I'm off to bed but thanks again for taking part and being the first to put up a post, a great post at that.

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  2. You've brought back some great UHF memories for me, though my tastes ran more to bull fighting. Thanks!

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  3. A very good post. I especially like

    If you can have hours of fun with a few army men and a rubber alligator, you don't care if the saucers are hubcaps. ...

    So true, so true.

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