Friday, December 31, 2021

Way of the Coffin Flop: GAME OF DEATH II (1981)

 
Night #6 of the 12 Days of Ed Wood

Some deaths never last.

 Acolytes of the Great Bruce Lee temple generally sneer at the legions of posthumous 'final' films of their great one, for which there as many as there are posthumous Hendrix albums. It's much easier to 'finish' a Hendrix song as one can easily add and subtract tracks to any guitar, but it's harder to make a movie out of a few smiling reaction shots and home movies. Very rarely does a film like that transcend its ghoulish aspirations to become something top drawer Plan Nine-hilarious. Well, sneer away, acolytes, but GAME OF DEATH II (1981) --one of the earlier posthumous mashups from Golden Harvest, the sequel to what was a ridiculous mash-up to begin with--is a magnificent melange for the dissociative cinenambulist, with some great fights and stunts for those who like that sort of thing, so prett queetending and wag on the jump train! 

Strangely joyous and soothing in a post-modern sort of way, it's such a uniquely cool hodgepodge homage it demands to be taken on its own terms, and as soon as it figures out what those terms are, you'll know... everything, and beyond, until a Godardesque demonstration of the impossibility of a unified cinematic subject and you are merged to the point of inextricability.


Released a mere seven year after Lee's death, Golden Harvest pulls out three of the stops to let us know his spirit still very much present, ghostlording over a relentlessly shifting composite of doubles, dubbers, stunt-men, unused footage from other movies, dummies, and lookalike replacement 'little brothers' in a film that's half-seance, part flashback 'clips' episode, part verite funeral footage /memorial, and one half cheap-but-inventive Enter the Dragon / James Bond-emulating spy flick science fiction kung fu action movie. That's more than two halves, I know, but logic and math have no place in Game of Death II. It's not even really a sequel. All you need to know is this: it... is... the best...at what it does... and what it does... no one man can say. Until now.

I love it enough that I hate the dumb title. I wish it was called Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. Alas, there already is an actual film Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. It has no footage of Bruce Lee whatsoever. Can you imagine how cool it would be to have the below left poster be for GOD2, or to have a poster with Bruce leaping from a coffin hoisted 600 feet in the air lifted by helicopter? it's such an indelible moment in the film--one of those WTF moments bad film lovers stuff under their mattresses like tittering misers-- and yet the poster art for Game of Death II is woefully short of trumpeting its grandeur. 

I mention all this because death and graves and coffin imagery are a huge part of Game of Death II. Billy Lo (i.e. Lee... if his full face is visible, otherwise a stand-in/double) falls to his death after mysterious claw-wielding helicopter absconds with his buddy's coffin during a big funeral, hoisting it high in the air. Bruce tries to hold onto death for dear life. Death will not have him. Now Lo/Lee's subsequent funeral--is full of actual Lee funeral footage interspersed with footage from Lee's earlier, non-kung fu, acting roles, as a child actor and young romantic lead. By then, about 1/3 of the way through the film, we're so confused over the melange dummies, stand-ins, dubbers, projections, outtakes and doubles, we don't even know who the real Lee was or is or supposed to be. It raises strange questions: What even is death? Can we live forever if we hire someone to dress like us and walk around our old neighborhood? Does the weird seductress in the poster at left really have a bat tied up in her hair like Medusa's snakes caught a flying monkey? Did Bruce fake his death in real life to avoid dealing with the triads? Were the triads trying to extort Lee into signing a long contract and he felt there was no way out other than a fake suicide? Or Did the triads whack him for not signing with them, and they successfully made it look like an accident? 

Nothing is answered in Game of Death II and that's how we want it. It starts and we're instantly in an off-footing. In his last fully alive film, Enter the Dragon, we heard Lee's real voice when he spoke --a careful, measured, sinuous purr. When Bruce speaks in Death II, his real voice is replaced by a strident, square-jawed, no nonsense hero-style voice actor, one we've heard a thousand times in other roles and who does not sound purring or Asian but like a Dragnet audition. The effect is immediately disorienting, plunging us into an uncanny sense of disconnect. But if we don't fight it, if we let the uncanny affect create a post-structural frisson, the payoff- as he splits into a whir of doubles and triples---  will be a magic carpet ride of creative Bruce posthumous representation, like a post-modern kick to the back of the head (we'll see a lot of the back of Lee's head). Everything evokes something. During the funeral we hear trumpets evoking Ennio Morricone elegies. 

If the first Game of Death was the first posthumous Jimi Hendrix album Cry of Love (i.e. Jimi's singing and playing on ever track, but tracks clearly finished by musicians Jimi never met), Game of Death II seems more a Vegas-style hologram of Hendrix in concert backed by a boozy cover band. Since it has much less Bruce footage to work with than the first Game, Part II is forced to think way outside the box. It gets so far away the box is left behind altogether. As such, I love it like a mother loves the bottom rung of her drug stash, or the writers at Bleeding Skull! love Doris Wishman's A Night to Dismember. In other words, a lot. 


PLOT

The story begins with Lee walking the garden of his kung fu school's massive temple, talking to someone offscreen, not the orange-robed older monk he was talking to in Enter the Dragon, but a fellow badass named Chin Lu (Hwang Jang-lee, whose long black facial hair and ponytail decorated many a Golden Harvest kung fu villain). Chin--in a flowing gold robe--pauses their talk to decimate an Anglo challenger with his peerless sword technique while Lee watches and drinks tea. Afterwards, Lu notes they both have been receiving an unusual amount of challenges ("Someone may want us dead"). Lee narrates a flashback to a midnight (i.e. so it can be too dark to see faces clearly), greenhouse rendezvous he had with a young upstart some weeks earlier and we get our first composite restructured Lee: most of the time it's a fight double (lots of back of the head shots) plus what looks like an image of Lee from Game of Death I projected onto one of the plastic sheeted walls. The double keeps his mouth hanging open throughout so that dialogue can be attributed to him at any time. "That's what we call control!" he shouts at his whiny challenger after a pointed beatdown, "something you wouldn't understand!" We can't imagine the real Lee ever getting pissy like that after beating an opponent in a fair challenge, but it's not Lee's voice, and it's not him fighting, and its someone else's back of the head, so there you go. The fight still has lots of stillness and lightning quick moves and there's a great bit of Dolby foley work with a breaking clay pot mixed in there (on my 2004 Dragon Dynasty disc) it sounded like it was coming from my kitchen! 

Even in the narrative, doubling, flashbacks and mistakes commingle as if trying to confuse even the most astute of viewers as to whether the guy they're watching is supposed to be the actual Bruce Lee in flashback, or his character Billy Lo (who alternates between old Lee clips and his back-of-the-head double), or his college student pornography-owning, flaking-out-on-his-training brother Bobby. Whatever the truth, I don't care. The laconic nature of the first half, with its laid-back clip show aimlessness mixed with fights and and family matters leads to a mellow glow that carries through the rest of the film  ("Don't worry father, I won't let it bother me") which becomes a fun, ultra-goofy spin on Enter the Dragon's midnight black suit secret agent basement lair skulkfest, i.e. the best part of that film. 

But first! Billy learns his friend Chin Lu has been killed! He goes to tell Lu's sister, plunging the movies into the nighttime world of 'the Ginza.' We get a very Japanese rock/pop singer song of the moment (is it Meiko Kaji?) as Lo threads his way through the stock footage streets to find the nightclub where she works. Underdressed waitresses dare to wear bunny ears, and everyone watches glumly from their tables as if it's the 100th take of the night. Even with all that torpor, a fight erupts in her dressing room; someone helpfully kicks out the lightbulb so a double can be used for most of the shots. Our hero goes running through the streets which resemble a kind of sad indoor mall. 

Next up, Lee/Lo goes to visit his own sibling, a kid brother named Bobby (Tae-jeong Kim) at college, wasting his time with pornography and non-martial arts studies. We see hands reading an erotic Chinese book then throwing it in the trash. They are Lee's, he is at his kid brother Bobby's apartment or house or garage. He throws all his brother's dirty magazines into the trash basket, and then starts penning a letter :

"Dear Bobby - how are you? I was hoping to see you but you were out; sorry I missed you. I guess I don't have to tell you that to become an expert in kung fu requires more effort." 

Lo/Lee leaves him his bro the family's secret boxing manual as if knowing he's about to die. A very Ennio Morricone rip with a blazing brass section and male vocalizing heralds a visit to a fancy pagoda for Lu's funeral, where marital arts trainees in black, like an army of Japanese Lee replacements waiting to go, stand motionless along all the sides of the walkway, in case their needed to jump into action. 

The funeral is with Shinto Buddhist touches. Astute viewers realize instantly Lu's not really dead when four muscly guys in white won't let Lo get close enough to view the body. Lo runs into a Japanese guy and we see the swastika (in the right direction) on the casket, realizing in the process that Buddhism is so much more cosmic than Christianity. The art shows a much clearer understanding of universal energy flows, the circular breathing of the monks echoes eternity, and when a helicopter comes to steal the casket the circuit is complete. 

Lee/Lo is so adamant at getting a look at the body, he hitches a ride grabbing onto the claws on the the casket, only to drop down and fall to his death from hundreds of feet in the air. And lo, Billy Lo is dead! But also-- the real Bruce Lee is dead!! Now we get Lee's real funeral with overlays of his whole career, from child actor onwards, a whole photo album is overlaid with footage of his funeral ceremony. 

Well if you got to go, the best way is to do it while falling off of a coffin claw from three hundred feet.  "After you've read this letter, go to Japan," reads dad's letter to young Bobby, "and avenge your brother, Billy." 

Bobby visits a wealthy white guy named Lewis (he looks a little like Daniel Day Lewis - coincidence?) who eats raw meat and drinks a red milky pink cocktail for breakfast. ("This is raw venison, and deer's blood!") He gives Bobby a tour of the grounds, interrupting the tour to fight to the death three idiot martial artists who show up at the gate to challenge him. It's funny that Lewis, the only white guy in the whole film, is the worst dubbed, with a voice all halting and unevenly accenting the wrong words, as he shows off his grounds ("I keep a lot of specially trained.... peacocks... over there. They obey my command. It takes a lot of training.") When Sherman makes a signal and a whole flock of peacocks fly out of their aerie, across the vast lawn and right towards the camera! It's just one of the unique sights on hand that you won't find in any other movie. We also see lions just hanging out in the garden; Bobby notes that "they are really big lions. I'm kind of frightened." We get quite a bit of the lion footage; they surround the jeep "their favorite dish is fresh human meat").   

Bobby sleeps over at Lewis's estate and is visited first by an under-clothed Anglo lady named Angel (Miranda Austin) who tries to first mate with, and then kill, Bobby. Did Lewis send him or someone else? A guy in a convincing lion suit, acting like a lion (he may or may not be supposed to be an actual lion -we never quite know) comes flying through the window next. Wait was he supposed to be a lion or a guy in a lion suit? We've seen less convincing lion suits that were supposed to be actual lions. It's not Lewis sending these hit women and animals. There's also someone trying to kill Lewis, too: someone wearing a crazy red mask. Lewis may be the guilty one who ordered Billy's death, but Bobby still fights the guy trying to kill him, whom he encounters while they're both skulking around the grounds in the dead of night (Bobby wearing the iconic black catsuit Bruce Lee wore when sneaking around the island at night in Enter the Dragon), leading to a nice day-for-night fight in the garden.


Clues finally lead to the "Tower of Death" but the secret is - the tower is in reverse!! That's not what a tower is called, man! It's called a pit. But there you go. An elevator takes Bobby down down to a trap-rigged lair, a very cool combination of James Bond super villain lair, a 1960s TV Batman cliffhanger death trap and Han's underground opium processing plant in Enter the Dragon. Rivers of red blood (or some kind of red liquid) flank a grey industrial sci-fi room with ridged booby trap-laden hallways. Instead of Dragon's hall of mirrors we get the spinning throw room; an electrified grid of colored lasers fries his stick when he pokes it in, and so he must throw a rope so well it anchors between long boxes of tinsel and wrapping paper! I think (that's what I saw anyway).

Luckily before Bobby can be fried, the bad guy leaps from out of his coffin onto a pedestal where the off switch can be easily accessed. A bit of the theme song from Enter is shoved into the faux-Morricone grandeur, and the film ends on a freeze frame. Blammo! No coffin can hold Lu, I mean Lo!  I man LEE!

Deadpan before Death! 

See also the Other 11 Nights of Wood, and Wood-esquery:

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Eternal Rewards: ORGY OF THE DEAD (1965)

(Night #4 of the Ten Days of Ed Wood Acidemic Holiday Special) 

If you watch Plan Nine from Outer Space two or three times a year, as many of us do, you probably wish there could be a whole movie of Vampira lolling around the mist-enshrouded graveyard, arms raised classic cartoon sleepwalker fashion. And... while we're wishing... maybe this time she could talk? Maybe was emceeing a Halloween-style strip show line-up of lost female souls summoned to dance to escape damnation? Maybe the Mummy and the Wolf Man were there too, acting as bouncers? And there was enough mist, skulls, and Martin Denny-style lounge music to fill six ordinary movies? And Criswell was ruling over all of it, lolling in his shiny black cape and laughing mirthlessly? Such a dream would be--in the words of a bare bodkin-contemplating Hamlet, devoutly to be wished! 

ORGY OF THE DEAD (1965) is that dream, oh bare bodkin-fancier: Fawn Silver as "the Black Ghoul" isn't quite on Vampira's level, but she does manage to keep a straight face as she introduces the girls. Criswell, as "the Emperor of Darkness," looks all boozed-up--dilated and doughy, glazed-eyed and cue card-dependent--but his hair and black cape shine in the starlight and his voice is the same never-ending source of resonant delight, and his words are still written and cue-carded by the great Ed Wood, send the whole thing over into paroxysms of surrealist bliss:

Now all we need is a reprint of
Ed's original novel, please
"It is said on clear nights, beneath the cold light of the moon, howl the dog and the wolf, and creepy things crawl out of the slime; it is then the ghouls feast in all their radiance." 

Only Wood would describe ghouls as "radiant." You can feel his love for his monsters - even if they are to be "pitied" and "despised." His affection for all oddballs permeates the ether and extends even to the moon, which "comes forth once more to shine in radiance and contentment." 

 Contentment indeed. Can you doubt it? 

The weird language continues as Criswell sets the scene:

 "Time seems to stand still. Not so the ghouls, when a night of pleasure is at hand!"

He's sure right on one level - time does seem to stand still. 

But there are two members of the so-called "living world" driving to their destiny: burly horror writer Bob (Edward Bates) and his stacked but virgin redhead girlfriend Shirley (Pat Barington) are headed off to a remote graveyard under a spooky full moon. Why? Bob needs inspiration for his monster fiction (he's a writer of lurid paperbacks) and full moons are the best time to go. She would rather they went somewhere else. His insistence on dragging her to the middle of nowhere in the dead of night seems passive-aggressive--maybe as a revenge for not putting out (the way guys bring dates to R-rated horror movies at the drive-in, despite their protestations)--but who are we to judge? 

Shirley (Ed's drag name, by the way) wishes he'd write about something other than monsters. Bob argues: "My monsters have done well for me. They sell in the top spots. You want me to give all that up and write about trees, or dogs, or daisies?"  

Writing about daisies. Their love life is--we glean--very chaste (maybe Shirley is an echo of Ed's first wife, who the story goes, was very old-fashioned and wouldn't put out before they were married, only to then divorce him as soon as she 'met' Shirley): "Your puritan upbringing holds you back from my monsters," he says, "but it certainly doesn't hurt your art of kissing."  Like Brad and Janet in Rocky Horror Picture Show, it's clear these two are going to need a night spent in the company of some of the degenerate swinger undead to loosen sexual repression's buzzkill shackles. 

But will it loosen them too much, as in from their mortal coils? It all depends on how fast the dawn comes. 

The dance floor shall be a cemetery clearing, flanked by imposing tombs, and and lined with grave markers and swirling fog. Seated on the stairs of one of the larger monuments comes Criswell. He is "Emperor of the Night," and he bids the Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver) to come forth. She does, with arms outstretched in front like a cartoon sleepwalker. A werewolf and a mummy appear also, to watch and do the Emperor's bidding, as do a pair of burly dudes in tiki-torch island native wear who escort the dancers from the tomb to the stage, as well as whip them and/or shower them with gold coins as their emperor commands. See, Criswell is not playing around: "If I am not pleased by tonight's entertainment I shall banish their souls to everlasting damnation!" And with that...

THE PARADE  BEGINS

And thus, with a clap of the Black Ghoul's hands, comes the first in a very long line of performers. First-- a Native American fire dancer, "one who loves flame,' says the Black Ghoul, "Her lover was killed in flame... She died... in flame." A lounge record of Native American chants and tribal drumming plays; she 'dances' as if half-heartedly trying to remember a calisthenics class while waiting for a bus. After a few minutes of this--which feels like hours--the drumming/chanting abruptly ends. We see a shot of Criswell, barely awake, looking up --are we done!? Not so fast! The needle is pulled back to restart the record--the tom-toms beat on! A fire is burning throughout to symbolize... flame... but for some reason the camera keeps it below screen. 

Colleen O'Brien is next as a streetwalker ("one who prowls the lonely streets of life is bound to prowl them in eternity"), sashaying barefoot to a laid-back Spanish guitar, tinny piano and hazy sax.O'Brien seems to be at least able to convey a good time, even going so far as to wink  at the camera (which Criswell loves in a cutaway) and cavorting with a skeleton under nice Gold Key comic / pulp magazine lighting.  Her long candy apple hair, pink dress and blue feather boa all hang perfectly against the swirling purple fog and obsidian night around her. We could watch this routine for all eternity. And we almost do.

"Throw gold at her!"
So now we're on a roll! Next up is the "one who prized gold above else" (Pat Barington, who also plays Shirley). Natural, full-breasted and natural, hers is a perfect burlesque body, and her dance gets the best introduction. Lifted from a slab in her comely crypt by the two Pacific islander slaves, she rises as bongos, mariachi trumpet, xylophone, and skittery flute get her limbs and hips in motion . "Throw gold at her!" declares mighty Cris. They do. But it's never enough, no matter who much they throw. "More gold!" Criswell shouts. "MORE GOLD! More Gold! Ahahahaha!"

 "For all eternity she shall have gold!" 

Obligingly melting down the gold in a big cauldron, the boys dunk her in it and she emerges a gold-covered corpse ala Goldfinger (which came out the year before). The natives carry her back to her slab, the fog comes rolling in, the crickets and piano pound, and Ciswell notes of the two agape humans " both couldn't help but remember a line from one of Bob's stories -- 'I know I should think of other things, pleasant things, but how can I when shadows are all around me...'" Yes, it's verbatim from Ed's narration in The Final Curtain, but what the hell. That was never aired, so so what? 

Next up is one of the worst in the line-up: Texas Starr in a shitty leopard costume with dark red ears, with bit ugly squares cut in the fabric so her naked chest and ass stick out. Notes Criswell's Emperor of the night, "a pussycat is born to be whipped." A slave whacks the ground or feebly whips her but she doesn't seem to notice, her paws bent forward, hopping as if jumping an invisible rope, for minute after minute. Her dancing--to an idiotic xylophone riff-- with her little bunny hop and ass wiggle in her leaopard pajamas is so inane as to defy description. Next, Criswell gets an idea, though- "it would please me very much to see the slave girl and her tortures." And so she is brought out, chained up, kinda, and whipped, kinda, mercilessly ("torture! Torture, it pleasures me!" shouts Criswell) but then her whipper leaves, her chains come off and she's just a weltless girl (Nadeja Klein) 'dancing' dazedly as the mist in the air slowly grows to the opaque level.. She rolls around on the ground, she wafts pass the still-open crypt, she wafts across the whole set. She waves her arms around. Her nipples seem too red for the rest of her. Did she put lipstick on them, like the girl in the opening credits of Ed's Take it Out in Trade? God we hope not. 

The procession goes and on and on. A Spanish flamenco dancer (Stephanie Jones) struts around the skull of her bullfighter lover; "a worshipper of snakes, and smoke.. and flame" does some good Hawaiian dance hip gyrations but has strange too-white teeth and an ill-fitting Betti Page wig; cutaways to a rattlesnake imply it's jamming along with the congas and steamy sax. The Ghoul and Criswell nod at each other with conspiratorial smiles. "She pleases me," he says. "Permit her to live in the world of the snakes." Tied to their respective sacrificial poles, Bob and Shirley start to bicker. She blames him for getting them into this mess. The Black Ghoul is lusting for Shirley and asks if she may be her prize but Criswell puts her off, first another 'entertainment!' 

Next up is a bride (Barbara Norton) dancing with the skeleton of her groom. When her dress comes off the jazzy number she's moving to switch up to a funky Herb Albert style bouncy melody and this bride shakes and shimmies and rattles her breasts around like she's swimming through the mist. She does this for what seems like ten minutes. This is the one the Wolf Man and the Mummy choose as their favorite out of the remaining line-up; the Black Ghoul convinces Criswell to speed things up as the morning will be here soon. Shirley and Bob watching stunned from their posts as the shimmying breast shaker goes on and on.

"The princess of darkness would have you for her own to join us in extreme pain," Criswell tells Shirley, She begs for their lives. Bob tries to offer himself in Shirley's place, so she can escape. "No one wishes to see a man dance!' sniffs Criswell.

It's rather redundant, but, more dancers! Next up, 'the zombie' (Dene Starns), putting her arms straight out in front of her, lowering them, bowing, touching her hair, putting her hands back down again, over and over. Her eyes seem scared and dead at the same time. The music plods and she doesn't even appear to blink. How she got the dead lifeless glaze in her eyes I don't know, but it's effective. Her eyes look like they were painted on the back of her closed eyelids. But they're her real eyes. Anyway, she bows. She makes a little back and forth sidestep movement. She  sort of wafts around in a circle. We have to endure this, you think, instead of watching the Black Ghoul have her way with Shirley?! By now we're squirming in anticipation! Let the Ghoul get her girl!


Criswell puts her at ease: "you shall have your pleasure, that I decree."

Bur first, the dancers continue: "This one would have died for feathers, fur and fluff... and so she did." Rene De Beau has nice breasts and kind of looks like Debbi Mazur. She does a lot of twirling. By then even those of us who came purely to see naked women dance have grown no doubt weary. With a few exceptions, the dancing all has a disconnected half-asleep aura, as if the music was added later. chosen at random, and the coffee was yet to arrive; and the girls--Silver and O'Brien aside--don't seem to be professionals but scared amateurs whose agents roped them into this by saying it's a gateway to bigger things. Some of them have that squirrelly look in their eyes, like one loud noise behind the camera and they'll dart off the set and grab the Greyhound back to Kansas. 

"Could it be a college initiation? "

By now the disconnect between movement and music has become as vast as the ocean.  And yet, in that disconnect there is a kind of modernist thrill to be unearthed. Dyed-wool Woodsians prize this treasure above all else. We know Wood didn't direct it, but he wrote it, it was his idea to cast Criswell, and he was there on set to hold Cris's cue cards. Director Stephen C. Apostlof clearly enjoyed working with Ed. After Orgy they would go to make softcore grins like The Cocktail Hostesses and Drop Out Wife full of--as Dead2rights says-- "pasty white Californians halfheartedly pretending to hump each other in blandly-hideous bedrooms, motel rooms, and living rooms, while drowsy "beautiful music" drones on in the background"  Most of these films seem lost to time and maybe we're better for it. But Orgy is its own thing. And thanks to a beautiful remastering by Vinegar Syndrome, it looks stunning, mesmerizing, inviting and ever-so radiantly ghoulish. The endless parade of half-asleep strippers are now couched in a gorgeously-lit (by Ted Mikels!) set, rich with lurid blazing colors and real 3-D depth in the swirling fog. And, while most of the dancers make time seem to stand still, we can take comfort in bleary-eyed Criswell's odd commentary, the cutaway reaction shots to the buxom redhead human witness (the red of her hair and lips is insane on this new restoration), the lesbian Vampira substitute with her belated knife act, the werewolf and mummy hanging back in the bushes, The lovely fog and Gold Key comic book cover colors, the skeletons and skulls. If you grew up as I did, slavering worshipfully over newsstand copies of Playboy and Famous Monsters of Filmland while mom or pop shopped, you know that Orgy is like some weird magic spell you wished 20 years ago at last come true. Not so much a movie as a place to live, sleep, and dream. 

That said, it goes get a bit disappointing when, after whining for her reward for half the film, the Ghoul wastes too much time dancing and waving a knife around Shirley instead of hurrying to drink her blood and make her a full-time member of the troupe. But you can't have everything.  Besides, you can always watch Jess Franco's Succubus immediately after Orgy and pretend Fawn Silver has become magically Jeanine Reynaud and the act picking up right where we left off, with a demon woman taunting a tied up couple with a dagger--and this time sealing the deal. 

But that's not to be in this film. Suddenly, it's morning! Both Criswell and the Black Ghoul turn instantly into skeletons before she can plunge in the knife.

 Girl, you wasted too much time with your damned blade dance!


Still all in all, I've found it to be the perfect movie to fall asleep to, at 4 AM. Perhaps the most touching aspect is to think how bad this used to look in cropped format with ugly colors until 2017 when the restoration and Blu-ray set came out. Looking as good as it does now more than makes up for the dull stretches. As the Joseph Ziemba wrote in 2004, 13 years before VS came through with the excellent version available on Blu-ray today: "Orgy Of The Dead is the greatest trash movie of all time... let it not rot in the vaults." Vinegar Syndrome heard that plea! They came through, before actual vinegar syndrome could work its catastrophic damage. Orgy is safe. Hurray for AFGA, SW, and VS, and for Bleeding Skull--and their continual championing of all way-outsider artist. Open the vaults of thy crypt to receive Orgy of the Dead, if you dare to doze! As erotic as a tombstone, it's ripe with eternal rewards, and now it shines with enough radiance and contentment to brighten a dozen moonless nights. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

"Your powers are lightnings!!" Ed Wood's REVENGE OF DR. X (aka VENUS FLYTRAP)

(Night #3 of the Ten Days of Ed Wood - Acidemic Holiday Special) 
"I'll make you the most powerful thing on the universe! (sic)
Move over Kenne Duncan, James Craig is on his way to the podium--for the award of meanest Ed Wood character--for the film Venus Flytrap--and he's in a shoving mood. Ignored far too long due to its twilight identity (the versions that exist today have the wrong credits, as either Body of the Prey or Revenge of Dr. X, neither of which is very apt), whether it's called Revenge of Dr. X or Venus Flytrap or Body of the Prey, Wood scholars have correctly attributed the script to him on imdb and elsewhere. How do we know for sure it's 'correct' without his name up there? Well, imagine this for a climax: a crazed burly rocket scientist-cum-atomic botanist cradles a baby goat in his arms while staggering around the lip of an active volcano, shouting "Insectovarus!" over and over, into the wind. This may be filmed in Japan, the credits may be wrong, twice!, but with scenarios like that, the words are from Woodland USA. You can't make us doubt it. Why try?

Dr. Bragan (Craig) is the whole show as a Cape Kennedy rocket scientist with a lot of stress-related issues. He berates the other NASA scientists about the importance of accurate calculations ("COULD-Be's? Could-be's I cannot use! I need facts! Facts, DO YOU HEAR?"). He appears superimposed over some NASA stock footage. The rocket finally away, his Japanese (male) assistant convinces him to take the summer off and go to Japan. Soon Bragan driving up the Gulf coast to the airport (stopping along the way in case he finds some "interesting flora and fauna")

real life Ama
At the gas station of a muddy-faced snake handler (Al Ricketts). Bragan realizes instantly he's found just the right subject to bring to Japan--the Venus Flytrap! He digs one up, keeps it in a little box and gives it a seat on the plane. He's smitten with this thing. Apparently, Darwin wrote about it being the most evolved of plants, so Bragan figures he can turn it human. Bragan is more relaxed than he's been in years! 

"Noriko (Atsuko Rome), the cousin of Bragan's Japanese assistant at NASA, meets Bragan at the airport to act as guide and to help with his experiments while he's there. English is clearly not her first language, but then again, this really isn't English as you are I speak it--it's Wood wording, i.e. unnatural and uncanny to begin with. As a result her conversations with Bragan have a weird hallucinatory secret code abstraction about them that is kind of like discovering gold for Ed Wood fans.  She will be a good assistant but get on his nerves by forever trying to get him to take a nap or eat breakfast, or all the things humans have to do to keep their strength. Doesn't she understand? He has NO TIME for rest! He cares only for his project. This is supposed to be a vacation but he's madder than ever, but not always. There's time for picnics and long drives. After every blow-up, he sheepishly apologizes, and so it goes.

Their days click by in a delirious montage set to kooky but soothing organ music that sounds like Raymond Scott's "Music for Baby" crossed with Candace Hilligoss's organ in Carnival of Souls. The hunchback caretaker of Bragan's remote Osaka greenhouse laboratory contributes to the noise by playing Bach's Toccata Fugue (over and over) on his pipe organ and raising a brood of ever-yapping puppies. Like Rickets back at the snakes-n-gas stop in Florida, the hunchback walks around with big smears of mud on his face. And so the days go by, and Bragan's fly-trap grows, as do the puppies. There's time for dalliances! Noriko and Bragan drive to the train station and stop and admire the view. They go to Tokyo to buy lab supplies. They drink sake. They get to know one another. They drive up the side of the volcano and are almost crushed by falling rocks. But we don't care how much they dally because the music and dialogue are so weird we're continually entranced. One can only guess that the director and producers didn't understand English enough to make script changes, and the actors weren't much for improvising, so we get an English language (not dubbed) film shot in Japan, written by Ed Wood with all his strange 'no human being would ever talk like this in the real world' magic.  

And that crazy soundtrack never relents: bouncing oboes, sudden military snare rolls, xylophones running through scales, and gentle chimes interwash with a whole sound effects record set worth of noises: thunder, sea gulls, crashing surf, crow caws, cock crows, puppy whines, electrical appliance whirring (with animated electric current!), long slide whistles, wind whipping the willows--all topped off a glistening organ so full of roller rink jubilation it seems at times to not know what kind of the film it's in. The beach scenes underwater and by the ocean are especially dreamy with a blend of church organ, rolling surf, swirling lute, chimes, skittering xylophone and a never-ending stream of bubbles--the soundscape you hope to hear after getting your merciful and instantly calming Ativan shot following a nervous breakdown at the mental hospital.

"now you bring the red to my face," 
Bragan needs to splice his 'trap with a plant that has legs so it can ambulate. So he and Noriko are at the beach to find a sample of the "Venus" Vesiculosa' - an underwater version of the flytrap. He finds one with the help of some topless local Japanese Ama(upper left) he and Noriko recruit on the beach. He wants to splice the Flytrap and Vesiculosa together and so he, Noriko, the hunchback, and the puppies are soon wiling away the hours at their remote volcanic greenhouse. At night, Bragan skulks around through the stormy graveyard, which Noriko watches from her bedroom, in a negligee; she would be amenable, no doubt, to a nocturnal visit, but he only has eyes for his creature, whom he dubs "Insectovarus" and who he raises with as much Nietzschean cruelty as James Mason raises his human son in Bigger than Life.  ("You can move, I'll make you move!") He reasons that to be able to walk around, Insectovarus will need human blood: "If it takes the blood of a human heart to prove my theory, you will have the blood of a human heart!" (it never occurs to him he could just do a transfusion or go to the blood bank and that blood is the same all through the body, that 'blood from a human heart' is almost redundant. So he sneaks into a hospital and withdraws it from a sleeping topless female patient. In other words, Ed Wood explains biology with the zeal of a horny twelve year-old kid bluffing his way through a science project he never studied for (i.e. "I'll make you as human as the human element itself"). 

Frankenstein of course is the ultimate sci-fi gothic. And Wood pays homage to it all over the place. Most especially he draws on Son of Frankenstein, and most specifically, Lugosi's speech to the monster about how "Your mother was the lightning!" Wood seems to be trying to give drunk Bragan that speech but he can't remember it, so there's three variations over the course of the film:
"You can think. You can reason. You must be part-human. But like all humans you're weak!  I'll find a way. Mark my words, I'll find a way. Make you the most powerful thing on this universe (sic). Your mother was the soil... perhaps.... the lightning will become your father!" 
Later he tries again: "Your father will be the rain! Your mother was the soil, maybe your father will be the lightning!" But then he even gives a second variation, less full of 'maybe's (science has no room for "maybe") later on: "Your father will be the rain! your powers are lightnings!" and later he drives it home while drinking and staring at Insectovarus with growing cranky aggression and love: "I do love wild things!") in alternating currents:
Your mother was the earth! The rain your blood! The lightning your power! Ahahahahaha!"
At which point he passes out and the plant finally starts moving around. GASP!   

"as human as the human element itself"

Insectovarus grows up quickly. Soon he's standing straight up and looking like some tall kid auditioning for a part in Matango or a school play on gardening. He has fanged pink catcher's mitt-style flytrap hands and feet and a radish sprout head and an upside down flower petal frill around his shoulders and big empty eye sockets. He cries a lot and maybe talks in a pitch-shifted baby voice, and when it moves we hear those weird string pull sounds most of us associate with fleas jumping off dogs' backs in WB cartoons. Noriko wants him destroyed ("I wish that thing had died!") and for Bragan to take better care of himself ("you should eat!") She's very obsessed with rest and nutrition, reflecting no doubt Ed's cagey worship/resentment towards the maternal. Throughout, Bragan barks at her ("Stop harping!"), sheepishly apologizes, and comes in for breakfast. As Joseph Ziemba says the film has a "beautiful warmth." Bragan is a hilarious drunk blowhard, but he's also warm and friendly, like a big sheep dog that occasionally snaps at you but is otherwise a big loving dummy. 

Insectovarus needs to eat too. And there are lots of real dogs (those puppies) around... for awhile. Bragan takes forever wondering why Insectovarus isn't growing on a diet of sun and water alone. He's big, doctor! He needs big meals. 

Like Wood's pal Kenne Duncan, James Craig worked mainly as the heavy in westerns, (he was originally shopped around as the B-list Clark Gable) and Wood loved westerns so the combination makes sense. Craig's burly boom of a voice captures the booze-blasted rapture in Wood's writing that few others have. The cranky inconsistency--the bug-eyed ruefulness, the angry outbursts and apologies; the slow disoriented wake-ups; the thunder crash 4 AM ecstasy ("I do love the wild things), the deep nasal echo of the continual hangover--these are the signposts by which alcoholic writers, actors, and directors lose the war of the moment, but win the posthumous cult. Ed's way-out-there dialogue is like a series of ropes over a yawning chasm of fire and ole Craig is swinging across, roaring like a kamikaze bull walrus acrobat, realizing the words don't make sense only after he says them, after he's already swinging for the next senseless sentence, the next rickety rung, holding on for dear life but knowing it's best not to look down.

We can feel Ed's love for the wild things all through the script: when this walking plant is caught dead to rights, with the hunchback's dog's collar hanging out of his mouth, Dr. Bragan champions his creation's innocence. When he tries to kill the hunchback, Dr. Bragan jumps to his defense ("What did you do to him!??")  Insectovarus, recognizing perhaps him as his father, seems determined to sneak out and kill only when Bragan is asleep, so as to not get in trouble. He can even knock people unconscious by releasing special spores (animated in a hilarious scene). 

The climax finds Insectovarus loose and Noriko and Bragan hearing stories he's rampaging through the village. (we have to take their word for it). We do see him approaching and presumably eating a child, sparking the citizenry (again, shades of Frankenstein) to torch-wielding search party tradition. We see townspeople creeping up the face of the volcano with torches but they're more like a funeral procession than an angry mob. Dr. Bragan tells Noriko he must go up and find his beast alone and bring with him, only a "small farm animal." His last words to Noriko are: "Noriko, stay... stay here!" He sounds like he's talking to a dog that's trying to follow him into the store instead of waiting outside. Bragan does this mainly as he wants to rescue his 'son' and--knowing Ed as we do--we know a small part of him (and us) wanted to see him succeed. Please god, let Dr. Bragan  and his monster escape the torch-wielding villagers and flee to the next town, splitting the baby goat along the way! But Bragan and his creation fall into the volcano together, rather suddenly and matter of factly, leaving Noriko holding the goat. Life, only in the forms god himself creats, goes on!

That sums it up but I am barely scratching the surface. In every corner of the film, ideas cohere and dissipate in a drunk crucible of fuzzy maternal warmth and bubbly sci-fi ranting. For awhile it looks like Dr. Bragan's hand is going to turn into a Venus flytrap after he refuses to wash out a cut (he has "no time for bandages!") but then if it was going to figure in the climax, it doesn't. Noriko mentions her rich father is "too busy making money" to spend time with her, a tangent which goes nowhere. When Noriko lights a cigarette and puts it in Bragan's mouth after he comes to from a drunken black-out, he says "I've forgotten how sweet your licorice could be" (was a romantic moment between them edited out?) There's so many unanswered questions and dead ends, Why is the foley soundscape so rich with animal noises? Why does the gas station owner's face covered in mud? Why is he holding a snake in either hand? Why is the hunchback's face apparently covered with lines from a black magic marker? The answers is there in the howl of the wind, the crow of the cock, the whining of the puppies, the hum of the electrical equipment, the bouncing of the organ, the tipple of the xylophone, and the pluck of the pizzicato string. Answer received. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Gorilla, mon Amor: Ed Wood's THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (1958) + UNTAMED MISTRESS (1956)

(Night #2 of the Ten Days of Ed Wood Acidemic Holiday Special) 

"If you must go into the jungle, leave her there!"

FORWARD: 

It all started with a 1930 faux documentary called INGAGI - which mixed real silent African safari footage with newer North American wildlife (armadillos, alligators, tortadillos) and staged footage of native (topless) women being offered up to lusty gorillas. A censor outrage (especially as it proposed to be a true documentary), today its relentless scenes of unconscious white man cruelty (shooting elephants, crocodiles, etc.) and racism (with native children labeled 'pygmies' living "wild as march hares") is what outrages us, but at the time it was the Christian protest against the depiction of gorillas who've mated with (and reproduced with) the local black women, and the women being topless, that caught in the censor's craw. Regardless or because of, it was a huge hit and very influential. Even those who didn't see it knew all about it and the lurid theme really caught on with the general public, dovetailing with anxiety about Darwinism and resulting in a host of old movies featuring gorillas lusting after white women (could they be next?) and a lot of work for stuntmen with their own gorilla suits like Ray "Crash" Corrigan. 

Once the code sunk its castrating claws in (around 1934), these apes couldn't even get a fade-out with their sexy prey before being plugged by the timely hero. This was the law...

In 1956, Ron Orman struck a gong and declared: Law... no more
--

Ron (MESA OF LOST WOMEN) Ormond's UNTAMED MISTRESS (1956) is the film. Velda (Jacqueline Fontaine) is the girl. Velda grew up with the apes in deepest Africa, was mated to the chief, then 'rescued' by a Maharaja (Brian Keith). A sizable chunk of (quickly forgotten) filler from an old Sabu movie tells how he came to Africa on a hunting expedition, fell for a local girl who didn't like him, heard a jungle boy named Sabu was tipping off the animals (but never saw him - part of the deal Ormond made for the footage), lost his fortune when he obtained a cursed shrunken head; then he roamed the plains as a penniless freelance guide; and then found Velda after killing her ape lover in a fight. Now he's dying and asking these young hunters to return a cursed shrunken head to its point of origin, and to bring Velda back to her 'people.' Velda no like him. 

All caught up, the 'raj cautions the age and species-appropriate Jack (Allan Nixon) against Velda (they've already fallen in love, sort of) : "Do you not believe," he cautions, "that someday her soft caresses could turn into hairy steel claws at your throat?" 

He dies. Jack and his crew haul off on safari (a desert ranch fills in for the Congo) with Velda as guide. Jack doesn't want to know about Velda's past--doesn't want to even think about it--but the older guys in the safari say "Wise up Jack - she's not a woman, she's a beast."  A lush and fecund brunette with a low slung peasant blouse and pale skin that has somehow eluded a tan, Velda's no beast, but she does love Jack rather roughly. If an ape made out, that would be how she kisses. He's unnerved.

Like all B-movie safaris, there's a lot of wandering around, pointing at mismatched stock footage (courtesy Ormond's neighbor's vacation movies) and providing narration travelogue ("the zebra as usual was comical to look at..) But no other narration of such footage had previously dared to ask: "Could natural selection influence the mating instinct of a girl who was brought up half human, half gorilla?" 

When things get dull Velda dances; a shrunken head magically flies into her hands like a gift from the trees. She pulls up her skirt to show her plump things and twirls around the shrunken head. Where is her music coming from? Later, natives attending a tribal dance in the stock footage wear shirts and baseball caps, clearly modern Africans out on the weekend; one wonders what they'd think if they knew they were portraying headhunting savages who send a beautiful maiden each year to placate the lusts of a neighboring gorilla tribe."Every year Garuda come for sacrifice," explains Velda, "for girl."

"The natives consider it an honor, declares Jack's guide, adding "none of the have ever been found dead." Hmmm.

Whatever your thoughts on just what that means, it's worth sticking around for the sudden, lurching, super WTF finale. In fact, it's worth all of the bad movies you ever watched. All the times you felt bad for the gorilla dying at the end --paid in full!
 
A hit in the mid-50s southern markets, Untamed must have tapped right in to the sludgy vein of redneck miscegenation and anti-evolution anxiety that was fermenting in the wake of the pre-code interspecies outrage Ingagi (1930) and in advance of the Civil Rights era. Today it works for a different reason. Personally, I love it, because of all the time I spent as a child rooting for the bad guys in my afternoon cartoons (namely Speed Racer), day-after-day I tuned in, thinking this time they'll win, just from the law of averages. Finally my mom could stand it no more - and told me the facts - the bad guys would never win, ever. 

I was devastated. I never watched Speed Racer again. Well, after that, after watching King Kong a hundred times and always the same sad ending, at least I was prepared. With Untamed Mistress, I feel the same surge of joy I hadn't felts since Django Unchained.


Two years later: Ed Wood and Adrian Weiss (Jack's brother) sidestepped unconscious racial subtext by introducing civilized modern woman and ape in a well turned-out mansion boudoir and made it less about 'did they or didn't they?' and more about reincarnation and the idea that, in a past life, a human could have been "queen of the gorillas."  Welcome, then THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (1958)!

Dan (Lance Fuller) is a big game hunter millionaire with an adult male gorilla (named Spanky!) behind the secret panel in his boudoir. New bride Laura (Charlotte Austin) wants to meet him!  The honeymoon is literally stormy, with crashing thunder and flashes of lightning. Dan's study is laden with taxidermy animals and animal skin rugs. Laura has a striped angora sweater that she rubs a lot, as if chilly, but in a languid, beguiling way. She and Spanky hit it off. She seems psychically connected to him; during her fitful sleep that night, she dreams of the jungle, as if channelling Spanky and encouraging him to break the bars and come to her. Spanky does. Dan wakes up in time to shoot Spanky right as he tears off her nightgown. She doesn't sleep well after that, just keeps rubbing her angora fur, and whisper-talking about her 'weird sensation.'

Everything takes on a sinister sense of dislocated giddy wonder when Ed Wood is writing the dialogue. He makes the proceedings as resonant with B-movie and personal touches as he can; Spanky is kept in a basement lit by torches and accessible via secret panel. Nothing is played for carny side show sleaze because Ed's compassion for his freaks is without measure.  We root for the ape to get the girl from the beginning. Dan never does anything evil, but we can't help but feel there's something 'off' about him, something akin to Herb Evers in Brain that Wouldn't Die. 

Next morning, Dan and Laura need to talk about this like adults. Dan declares her reaction to Spanky's caress was not "normal."  She keeps remembering the jungle, the animals. A hypnotherapist announces Laura was, in a distant past life, 'queen of the gorillas!' (and it's OK, because she's a white gorilla). Will their already scheduled honeymoon on African safari let her work it out of her system?   Not sure why Dan thinks bringing her to the land of the apes is a good idea. But for us, and for Laura, and Africa's single gorillas, it surely is ideal. The animal trainer male / animal female pair bond archetype goes way back, from Marnie to Captive Wild Woman.  It usually only ends one or two ways. But there is yet a third.

Laura worries: "Dan will think he's married to an idiot or something."


Then the film gets--- according to some critics, including monkey suit maniac John Landis--a little dull. To stand-in for Africa, Weiss folds in lots of tiger (!) footage from Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948) and safari shots from Bride of the Gorilla (1951). Landis doesn't care for such cost-cutting measures, but me, Ive always had a soft spot for scenes of actors shooting at stock footage. Though some of the driving and chasing down giraffes and antelopes scenes--evocative of Hatari--are kind of alarming, one may rest assured the actors were nowhere around any of these creatures. Furthering the abstraction, when Laura dreams her way into the jungle past, the animal footage is shown in negative. This is even better since we can just see hypnogogic spirals, Austin's pretty sleeping face, super-imposed over it; Laura's zonked hypnotized voice names each animal is it appears in the footage as we see her past life ape POV ("trees and vines don't seem to bother me. I push right through them.")

 Ed spares us the usual cliches. Laura is no victim or savage, just legitimately capable and turned on by Africa ("the jungle really gets in your blood, doesn't it?"). She digs the danger; she doesn't mope over the animals being killed, nor try to rescue prey items from carnivores the way Tarzan does. Speaking throughout the movie in a cool sexual purr, both mature and open-minded, sexy yet reaching deep in herself in answer to some strange 'sensation.' Austin doesn't overdo it or make the character ridiculous, campy, or misguided. And marvel at how Ed slips in a rhapsody over his "angora sweater" into her hypnotized ramblings ("soft like kitten's fur -- it felt so good on me.")  


I'd rather see Bride and the Beast twice than the entirety of the Captive Wild Woman trilogy once, so there you go.

Both films are currently on Prime, and if you don't have it, they're still floating around...You'd be a fool to miss them. Come to think of it, you'd be a fool to see them, too. 

Darwin, you old so-and-so, you must feel pretty proud of yourself. Ingagi, looks like the last laugh is yours.

"You'll feel rested," notes the hypnotist, "but you'll want a cigarette."

Saturday, December 04, 2021

The Exaltation of Defeat: Ed Wood's FINAL CURTAIN (1957), NIGHT OF THE GHOULS (1959)

(Night #1 of the Ten Days of Ed Wood Acidemic Holiday Special)

"Patience is the only rewarding virtue." - Dr. Acula
It's Kenne "the Meanest Man in Movies" Duncan's big phony swami moment, and he's nailing it. His laconic gravel-pit voice resounds with John Wayne authority as he grooves a pair of rich, elderly suckers like blobs of vinyl to the believer LP payoff. They're in the 'drape room' - a black curtain shrouded space in a surreal nowhere zone that looks like backstage at a dilapidated, closed for the night theater (the ghost light long since extinguished), crossed with the janitorial void beneath an unadorned poverty row soundstage. It's like being buried alive, but in the air-conditioned darkness of an empty midnight cinema rather than suffocating earth. "I have consulted with the prince of darkness who rules my destiny," says Duncan, I mean Dr. Acula (get it?).  One doesn't have to read Nightmare of Ecstasy to get the giddy, weird sensation these scenes this may have been shot at 3AM, while every other set in the world was dark. That feeling of cool isolation  works perfectly for the idea of a seance, as this is when the veil between dimensions is thinnest, the real witching hour. Suddenly the ghost stuff begins: we hear a slide whistle, then a blaring, squawking trumpet; a bouncing booming feedback squall; a clash of drums and cymbal; the smack of thunder; a guy with a white sheet over his dead dances across the screen while weird bent notes flutter. Finally a black man with a Devo hat on, eerily lit, starts furiously licking his lips and staring laciviously into the camera as we hear a pitch-shifted voice say "Mongo Mongo Mongo." 

The gathered throng look around in some dismay. Dr. Acula realizes he better get their attention before they get up and walk away - "Again, a salute to the prince of darkness." 

Whew! Saved it.

We are in one of really 'true' dream state zones in cinema, so deep it makes Lynch's Black Lodge seem like Denny's. Ostensibly, the Drape Room is, deep below the rickety house on Willow's Lake from Ed's earlier film Bride of the Monster.  It was abandoned from a fire / lightning strike that left Lobo (Tor Johnson) facially disfigured, and likely eager for a new master, which turns out to be Dr. Acula, who has a habit of setting up shop in reputed haunted houses, of which the house on Willow's Lake assuredly is, to keep the cops away and add to his bunco artist cred. 

At the seance are an incredulous police lieutenant Bradford (Duke Moore), clad in a tux, a co-grifter gigolo, a pair of elderly suckers, and a gathering of skeletons, all seated; a beautiful girl in flowing blonde locks (Valda Hansen) and a shoulder cut white dress walks along like a sleepwalking zombie, doubling the old man's name --in a flashback to Nightmare Alley. Outside, the Black Ghoul (Jeanne Stevens), who wears a party store crown and a black veil, wanders around killing lovers from lover's lane and whomever else. 

For Ed Wood fans, connoisseurs of chintzy spook shows, Night is the end of the line as far as his directorial monster movies go. Just scripts for other directors, and whiskey-stained smut, remained. Only occasionally, as in the deliciously tedious Orgy of the Dead, would his flair for ghouls and graveyards once more find fruition. That's not to say there are no gems to be found in the coming decade. Indeed, we shall see several of them in the weeks to come!

But first, the miracle that was the belated discovery of Night of the Ghouls. Wood fans like me could hardly believe it when the film surfaced--out of nowhere-- on video for the first time ever in 1984. It has everything we love about Ed and then some. Even Criswell shows up, looking bloated and puffy-eyed (as he would in Orgy). Hard to believe Night of the Ghouls was made the same year as Plan Nine -which showed a crisp, ferociously focused Criswell at his desk ready for action. Here, in the coffin, his eyes are bleary, bobbing in their sockets as he follows cue cards just below the camera level. He lets you know that things he has told us in the past have been proven to be "more than fact." Convolutions like these would fall apart in the mouths of lesser men but his peculiar cadences match the language so perfectly it may be whole minutes before you realize everything he says has canceled itself out through ouroboros loop-de-loop of train-of-thought logic. The police, he informs us, are "willing to admit the existence of juvenile delinquency" (allowing for clips from the unfinished Hellborn, later also used The Sinister Urge) but unwilling to admit in the horrors which he will now reveal to us.


 Those horrors begin at a police precinct where Inspector Bradord is told he must cancel his date at the opera (an ingenious way to explain why he's wearing a tux in footage shot for another project--as we shall see). He's the go-to guy on the force to handle "them weirdies" and at Willow's Lake it seems a girl in a white dress waved her long fingernails at a lost old couple driving by, terrifying them to the extent they need an ambulance. We see the gaping-mouthed old couple (including Teenagers from Outer Space's Harvey B. Dunn) in the car in a hilarious flashback and already we can hardly believe our luck--this film rocks. There's no reason why seeing a woman in white walking by the side of the road constitutes such an urgent police matter, but such is the universe we're in. We're in Woodland again, and it's paradise if we but stop asking questions. 

That's the magic of Wood. You can call him a hack or incompetent but, like he has that one foot in the rattletrap her and now, and one the harrowing cold void that only drunks like Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Wood, can look down into without flinching. In a way Night of the Ghouls is the Ed Wood version of Under the Volcano or The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.  One of two elderly grief-addled suckers at seance, Ms. Wingate Yates-Foster, seems to sum it up. As she watches, her dead husband is seen to rise from a nearby coffin--his face obviously aged with make-up, his voice shrouded in echo--we can see a mix of relief and incredulity in her face. She seems to half-know she's letting herself be so conned by so obvious a charade, but it works to free her from doubt and guilt over her choice of replacement husband---a young gigolo. 

"I'm so happy to hear you say that," Miss Yates-Foster says of her husband's sanctioning of this sleazy gigolo, "I've been so alone... since you died." There, in the resurrection chamber--as close to the grave as one can get as far as being shrouded in total darkness, her relief and conveyance of unutterable sadness seem to be choked off at the echo.  The actress nails that line in such a way that it creates a great sob seizure through the entire fabric of Ed Wood's tombstone universe, collapsing the cardboard scenery tight around her like a vacuum, then exhaling it back to where it was, somehow reset and new. The actress playing her, Marcelle Hemphill, is an unknown with no other screen credits (that imdb knows about) but her one moment, in this scene of a deep dark nest of bunco chicanery in this deep, low rent last ditch production, hits deep in the same way Chaney's "We never had much time anyway" monologue hits in Spider Baby, or Lugosi's "Hunted, despised" speech in Bride of the Monster hits, as powerful little moments of true acting, marooned deep in impoverished fly-by-nite cult craziness, that get at the very heart of what being an outsider is. The popular kids may make fun of us, but when they're all asleep like the dutiful safety-first Clydes they are, we're downstairs in front of the TV, whiskey or whatever at our sides, in full charge of the universe.  If we clean up the mess before they get up to, they'll never even know we were there. 

Only we, who know the terrible sting of feeling "so alone," who know the highs and lows of addiction, the hellish pain alternating with heavenly exaltation, know the true joy those late night/early morning hours. When there's no one awake in the world, there is no loneliness anymore. We're free. We understand how the misery of being alone is often such you'll sign any satanic contract, which is why we don't scoff a Mrs. Yates-Foster's choice of paramour, or warn her away, like Mrs. Stone's friends in the Roman Spring. We know the illusion granted by him is better than any sensible daytime reality of being alone in her big empty mansion. If she's smart--and she's not--she'd get a pre-nup--but there you are! She needs her husband's ghost corpse to sanction a choice she'll make anyway, and Dr. Acula is just helping out for a cut, same as any other capitalist filling any other human need.

Depending on your tastes, Marco's Kelton, the rattled cop, is a liability. Learning he's being sent off to Willow's Lake with Bradford and told to wait by the car, Marco hears noises and sees the Black Ghoul and Woman in white wafting through the trees in the distance. Mugging and overacting shamelessly and semi-ineptly, sputtering his 'b-b-buts' and weird lines like: "Monsters! space people! mad doctors! They don't teach about such things at the police academy, yet that's all I've been assigned to!" His weird off-brand interpretation of Wood's dialogue earns a special star, but it's not a star anyone wants to see displayed. 

Scaring poor Kelton seems to be quite an easy thing. But it wouldn't be an Ed Wood film if he didn't feel the need to touch all the same bases as his beloved Monogram Lugosi chillers, and that means comic relief, ideally bungling cops or female reporters heedless of danger until it's too late to turn back. And in today's climate, the idea of police shooting at unarmed civilians just because they happen to look scary is no longer is 'funny' like it used to be. Here in Ghouls though, even Kelton can evince growth. After being throttled by Lobo, dumped in a coffin, and rescued by Clay, we next see him relaxing on a shitty backstage couch and smoking a cigarette in a way that lets you know he's a real smoker and not some kibbitzer. He seems like a different person, just for a minute, like real. Maybe the cigarette helps: "Mind if I rest a minute?" he asks Bradford, hat off, and not hamming for the first time ever in his Wood trilogy. "then I'll be ready." 

But soon he's yelling "there's my hat!" with the finesse of a bullhorn trying to sneak up on a feather.

Change doesn't change anything--we sense the abyss looming--a darkness within the darkness that no amount of hamming will allay. This is a movie wherein we know the end of a whole genre, of life, of the night, of youth, of life, is coming,  but we're not going to go all Kelton and freak out about it, emptying our gun at phantoms and maybe hitting beautiful ghost impersonators. We are going down, and nothing can change that, but we can stand firm and not flinch, but we don't live past the credits no matter who we are. Like Tennessee Williams' later plays, Ghouls is a torch that lets us see deeper into the midnight darkness. We realize the soothing sound of a friend's voice, or a shot of rum after the parents go to bed, or even an AA pamphlet, can ease us back from the lip of the abyss. 

Wingate-Fosters' beautiful heartbreaking moment eases, like Roman Spring of Mrs Stone's love affair with Warren Beatty, the feeling of death onrushing while at the same time illuminating just how false is the warmth we cling to. Deep inside the black abyss of a D-list spook film, we feel the boozy cheer of meeting up with Ed's ragtag crew at various Hollywood bars, drinking up the budget. We feel a warm fire deep inside the blackness, beating back the aching loneliness of a town where has-beens and never-rans are shunned by the successful like a contagious plague. Bribing the night watchmen to shoot after-hours on an unrented soundstage, creeping in at 2 AM, after the bars had closed, setting up and shooting against black stage walls and stage curtains, these actors knew Wood was giving them a gift of illusion, akin to Dr. Acula's resurrection chamber. The "prince of darkness" provided these tinsel-lashed losers a small oasis -- a phantasm of boozy security deep in that black death nesting doll.... a parallel to the stay of execution the movie provides us, these decades later, as we either drink in ecstasy to Ed's wild ride or convulse on the floor in agony in front of an empty screen. We're living here because these people made the effort. You can feel the weird magic in that they themselves never got to see it on the big screen in an audience, never got critical feedback, not even a derogatory mention in Variety. Their ghosts are seeing it now, for the first time, through you, grateful for the flicker of iconic immortality your appreciation grant them, at long last. 

That may sound sad, but it's a Woodsian sadness, a sweet, giddy form of surrender to the narcotic comfort of the cardboard grave. It's the final sign post on the road to ruin, a road where alcohol-fueled love of cinema trumps skill and focus. Spook show flimflam ("Mongo! Mongo"); terrified cop Paul Marco on the midnight perimeter, emptying his revolver at women and trees; Lobo with a big wad of gunk on half his face; an elder couple terrified by a young girl's long fingernails; Criswell's resonant narration; Cute Valda in her white dress doing a homage to Coleen Gray's ghost impersonation scene from Nightmare Alley; the contrast of the Black Ghost (Jeanne Stevens) wafting along, occasionally killing wandering lovers in lovers' lane,  all keep one's own slide around the perimeter of the abyss feel air-conditioned and inviting. As long as this Night of the Ghouls keeps playing, the booze keeps flowing and it's still dark out... all is well. We know this groovy movie will end, that the credits will rise, and the bottle run dry, and the sun come up, the rooster crow, our coffins bid us scurry home, back to our coffins. For now, night is on high, Duke Moore is in his tuxedo, the movie is playing, the booze is there, all is well.... the sun has been officially seen to set. If the sun will be seen to rise, well, that's tomorrow's look-out. 


THE FINAL CURTAIN IS RAISED

Night of the Ghouls is a film even the cast may have never actually seen. The legend goes it was lost for decades, deep in the bowels of a processing lab, waiting for Wood to come pay the bill. When it came video in 1984 it was as something otherworldly and brand new, Bride of the Monster's forgotten sequel. For Ed Wood fans, it also gave us a wild hope that maybe there are other, similar things--strange things-- floating out there somewhere in the ether. 

Then, in 2010, intrepid fans exhumed Wood's 1957 TV pilot, "THE FINAL CURTAIN", first in a series Ed envisioned called Portraits in Terror. When it didn't get picked up, Wood worked some footage from it into Night of the Ghouls, which finally explains why Bradford had to be wearing a tux before going up to That Old House on Willow's Lake. Duke Moore, the star of Curtain, is wearing one. Clothes got to match - even in Woodsville. 

For CURTAIN, Moore plays a haunted actor (his role onstage "The Vampire") hanging in his dressing room after the play is over and everyone is gone for the night. Why? Why has he remained in this darkened theater? Because he must find an object. as Dudley Manlove's weird, wondrous narration explains, he doesn't know which object, how big or small, only that he is afraid to find that object. But he's drawn to find.... that object. On the soundtrack there's only a few sound effects and an internal monologue read with mounting, and then mounting some more, hysteria.

Things don't add up from the beginning: the stage of the theater is dressed is a quaint one-room rustic cabin, making us wonder how a vampire in a tux could possibly fit in. We never learn, instead we watch Moore wander around the empty theater (it was probably all shot in a single night, maybe they even snuck in after hours?), his eyes bugged out in horror while Manlove oomphs up any weird vibes that Ed can riff up on from nothing more than tied up cords of roope, rafters, lights, and railings. And riff he does. The rows of darkened audience seats seem like "squatty little fat men standing row after row..." A stray wind witching hour might be "a spirit coming in for a night of pleasure" (which Manlove pronounces "play-zsher."). He hears "a creak in the galleries!" A chill passes through him. "A rattle in the pipes! Somewhere overhead!" 

There is so little movement, other than that of Bradford, eyes bugging out ever more as he beholds things like curtain rigging, electric switches, and open windows leading out to the noise-filled night; backstage he enters cavernous maze of storage and dressing rooms, the wide hallways make us realize we may no longer be in a quaint downtown theater, but a cavernous and dilapidated soundstage. Manlove is ready to lose his shit: "I cannot tell where space ends and the auditorium walls begin. But... do I really want to know?!" Thunder crashes, eerie chiming organ notes are almost subliminally low in the mix. The railing up to the dressing rooms seems to vibrate in his hand and is "like a cold, slimy, snake!"  The stairs ring "louder than I have ever heard them ring before!"

If not for the hysterical voiceover--prime Ed at his most gloriously neurotic (commenting on every sensation, including the clammy cold of a railing, the echo of a step, the yowling of a cat, that stacking of some newspapers on a dressing room stool, etc. After awhile, one longs for a slight movement in the dark of the theater, the sign of some swaying curtain, a shadow, or something to happen to justify Moore's irrational terror / Manlove's quivering neurosis. Shots repeat over and over - a stack of newspapers on a stool; ropes tied and hanging in the rafters; the winding empty rows of darkened seats; a sky light (showing a daytime sky - but no matter). Remember those? 

Some of the VO babble returns in Orgy of the Dead ("I know I should think of other things....pleasant things" and the line about "monsters to be pitied; monsters to be despised" which we hear/read in both Orgy and Night of the Ghouls). Criswell borrows some phrases for his narration of Inspector Clay's sensations in Night of the Ghouls, riffing on the cold, clammy railing, this time not a snake but something "cold... clammy.... like the dead!"). But who can fault a drunk for repeating himself especially as he must have presumed no one would ever see this, since it was never picked up. That we're talking about it now is a comfort to any outsider artist who labors on projects that have no ready audience. In 50 or 60 years, who knows? 

But no outsider artist can touch the delirious inclusive nocturnal madness that is prime Ed Wood: whipping up a story out of nothing more than a spooked actor walking around an empty theater, voiceover free-styling in prime and priceless examples of his nightmarish ecstasy, the delirious radiance he finds in just about anything. This is why he reminds me too of being a young child in the 70s, still the height of the classic monster craze, when we'd make haunted houses out of the rec room, and conjure vast spires gothic madness from a few plastic skulls, a scary sound effects record, a bowl full of cold noodles, and a blindfold. The spook details would fill themselves in with our titanic imaginations. With Ed, that swooning adoration for the macabre survives into adulthood, beyond all opposites-- good and bad, alive or dead, nothing and something, alone and together, drunk with boozy ecstasy, and obliterated by the cold dead sleep of the intoxicated.

So yeah, even so, nothing in The Final Curtain happens until the final 'twist' - EXCEPT a memorably surreal scene that would be folded into Orgy: Moore finds Jeanie Stevens ("The Black Ghoul") motionless in a props room, dressed in gossamer Max Reinhardt Titania white, standing still and looking blankly at him in a scene so wondrously strange and eerie it's as if it belongs in yet a different show, maybe the other unaired episode of Portraits of Terror, "The Cry of the Banshee." rumored to exist somewhere in that eternal Woodian limbo. 

Stevens is marvelous. Was she only available for an hour or so? Is that why there's so little of her? Whatever happened to her, or Hansen, or Hemphill, or any of them, these one-shot actresses who wafted through the Ed-verse? Most of them are precious and to be cherished, especially in this phase of his career, the Orgy / Night / Curtain phase.

They may be gone, but, to paraphrase Criswell, they get to rise from their coffins once a year (or more) when a powerful medium (like video) calls them back into the land of the visible. They may need to creep back to the void come the dawn, but then again so do you. The parents will be waking up soon and you don't want your dad to find you looking like this. See you soon.... in the grave!!


 
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