Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Had a Great Fall: Ed Wood's SINISTER URGE (1960), TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE (1970), FUGITIVE GIRLS (1974)

12 Nights of Ed Wood - Bonus Edition!

The ultimate in strange wretched hypocrisy, jacked past the point of Russ Meyer's satirical sermons, Ed's last two films as a director would, fittingly, be an anti-smut manifesto slathered in cheesecake, rape/murder, soda shop brawls, and elaborate blackmail schemes in 1961, and a smut film slathered in Laugh-in-style sight gags, and cop show witness slap-down improvs. Today we'll look at both, as well as a groovy film he wrote and was directed by his long-time pre-XXX smut collaborator Apostloff, FUGITIVE GIRLS. 


If you've ever read Ed's THE RAT RACE you know he had a gift for capturing the sad tawdry desperation that lurked deep inside the casting couch system. He writes vividly of innocent midwestern girls blindly accepting invitations from so-called casting agents haunting Hollywood's cheaper rental office buildings. Dreaming of stardom, these naive lovelies either hand over a few hundred dollars for never-arriving glossies, and/or offer their virginity for a nonexistent part, only to find the office 'for rent' sign replaced on the door when they visit the following week, having not heard back. If the glossies do arrive, and it's a legit photo studio, how can you pay for them? Take a few risque shots, for the studio's use as 'art'. All the girls are doing it. Then use the photos as a tool for blackmail (threatening to send copies home to mama) to get them to take more, and on and on. 

We get enough of an impression of all this--from the photo shoots to the extortion and blackmail to the slavering rapist enforcer who kills any girl who decides to squeal--in SINISTER URGE, Ed's last black-and-white film as a director. The film's big showpiece is a long chase through the park, including desperate phone booth cry for help and near-rescue as passing motorists just miss seeing her; we get the whole shady setup front to back, so similar to the walk through of Timothy Farrell's drug pusher set-up in Girl Gang it's not hard to make the leap and think Ed may have written all or part of that movie too (its ending is also quite similar to his own script for The Violent Years)

The main issue is that I think they just ran out of money to pay the actors or to finish the film as they wanted, so it wound up that a whole 1/3 of the film seems to be just Ed's drinking buddies Kenne Duncan and Duke Moore, hanging out at their desk in his beloved police station setting, there to, as with Violent Years and Jail Bait, loudly and lengthily lament the sad fate of our misled youth of today, the evils of the smut racket, and the corruption of innocence (the dirty pictures are sold on playgrounds, like drugs). Meanwhile the "smut" we see is so tame it makes the J. Crew catalogue seem like Hustler. And then, the unthinkable happens. Initially just an enforcer for the pornography syndicate, the incited-to-sexual-violence Dino Fantini--he of the insane pompadour, Reid Fleming proboscis and flickering switch--starts rape/murdering all the girls, not just the ones who try to escape or threaten to rat out the organization. 

This is the way it was in the late-50s. Lots of lip service to placate the censors = the height of hypocrisy considering the way Wood's career was headed.

But --as if heralding the start of Wood's decline into tawdry softcore -- Urge deigns to offer plenty of gratuitous sleaze on the side (it's not at the photo studio, that we can see - though who knows with scissor happy projectionists and regional censors), and I don't think Wood ever can quite bring us or himself to the 'good' side of the argument, no matter how many minutes he fills with anti-pornography rhetoric. Anyway, depsite all that, he has a point. As the anti-porn activists worried, the shit does need to keep getting amped up to reach the same fever pitch, just watch any episode of any HBO series. That kind of shit is too strong even for me, a lad raised on the mellow good-natured moaning of Ginger Lynn and Nina Hartley. 

It doesn't end, so much as run out of money - as anticlimactic as you can get. This story has no End, as Sam Fuller's Steel Helmet sang. 

(aka Five Loose Women)
(1974) Dir Stephen C. Apostolof

Finally free of the hypocritical mandates of the 50s-60s theatrical anti-smut smut film, Fugitive Girls another of the 'gems' directed by Apostolof and written by Ed Wood Jr., was made 14 years later at a time when freedom of expression = loosening censorship = no more hypocritical censor-pleasing empty lip service. Now we have softcore scenes of female-instigated rape (female on male; female on female), hippie exhibitionism, a would-be Manson-esque tough trying to intimidate the girls into joining his impoverished little 'camp-out in the scrub' kinda scene, and most of all, we get five tough broads doing home invasions, beating up a biker gang, beating up Ed Wood himself. In short, it's a tough little picture that looks like a half a million bucks thanks to a breathtaking Vinegar Syndrome remaster and a cool psychedelic title sequence. I can't speak for their other films in the Ed Wood-A.C. Postloff canon but, like that other memorable Apostoloff/Wood collaboration Orgy of the Dead before it, I can vouch that Fugitive Girls is blessed by a crackpot half-asleep magic, the same strong mix of good cinematography,  outrageous 'no human ever talked like this' scripting and game if amateurish acting. Fun, strong characters (the only victimized innocent one in the lot is incarcerated by mistake, but even she gets pretty tough when the chips are down) and a cool Russ Meyer style cop show score that gives their flight from justice a kind of operatic slinkiness. Meyer didn't direct it, clearly, the breasts aren't big enough and the editing is not as tight, but it's got Meyer's same propulsive take no prisoners or no shit attitude- recognizing the Kali blood goddess oomph as if Ed wrote the script a few years after Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!

It is gratifying to think Wood was around, still making things like this, however low rent, while Plan Nine and Bride of the Monster played on regular TV across the country. In the days before VCRs I managed to see Bride of the Monster at least three times just from finding it on via afternoon Dr. Shock or Creature Features screenings (depending on if my UHF antenna was tuning in NY or Philadelphia stations). It must have been a bit gratifying for old Ed to turn on his TV during some boozy reverie and see them playing, even if he wasn't getting any royalties. Ed, you were rocking my little childhood world! Take comfort in my giddy rapture. Mixing gothic horror and science fiction- Bela Lugosi AND giant octopi? Vampires AND aliens? I could hardly contain myself. (As a kid watching monster movies I could understand very little of the dialogue--I wanted monsters and mayhem. I'd sometimes slog through a whole hour and a half of talking head tedium just to get to a mad scientist vs. assistant-turned-monster. It was a gyp, but what are ya gonna do? Sometimes I'd get Brides of Dracula or Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, so it all evened out. 

Now of course I have everything on disc. And I often think about what a vast library of titles we'd have from Ed if there has been video cameras back then -- but would they have any value? And what kind of movies would he have made, freed from the demands of producers and distributors, with just an iPhone and a bunch of his willing weird pals? Would he even have done any sex films? Can you imagine if he made a dozen more horror films? Bringing back Criswell and company again and again, but would they still have the same charm? The Cult of Ed can play what-if til the cows come home. In the end, we're grateful for what we have. And you never know what's around the next bend. I'm still praying for The Night the Banshee Cried, the second episode of Ed's proposed anthology TV series (the first being the recently unearthed Final Curtain). 

But for now, we have the sex films, the best of which are directed by Apostloff, such as Fugitive Girls which looks so good via its Vinegar Syndrom clean-up it shines like brand new. 

The five women consist of a bickering redneck and black girl ala The Defiant Ones, who alternately respect and then hate each other; there's the innocent who got arrested after her boyfriend robbed a liquor store with her in the car, and then there's the tough butch leader (Tallie Cochrane) and her innocent girlfriend. 

I like their gradual intense bonding - the Argento-esque lighting inside the car; and their constant onslaught against the males who try to either rat them out or hit on them. 

Wood does a pretty good job as both a local sheriff and also the garage attendant who notes of his gas supply: "This here gas is for the big equipment." He doesn't ham it up too much or mince or prance or fall down drunk or anything unseemly. He is a bit of a dottering drunk hick as the gas station attendant but he radiates real calm assertive energy as the sheriff towards the end. In fact, it's hard to believe it's even him (left). And the climax involves a thrilling final chase with a bag full of recovered loot over and through a construction site and/or a working mine, going up long chutes, swinging and falling down big sand hills, the final two bad girls really go at it and for a sexy film it's surprisingly physical. It's what Manny Farber would call termite art: with no delusions of anyone ever appreciating it or watching that far, these girls really give it their all like a bunch of kids with a super 8mm camera who stumbled on the construction site on the worker's day off and ran around improvising things based on the set up, with no thought to personal safety. You can tell it's the ladies themselves doing all the running and fighting and not cutaways to stuntmen as it's all filmed in long takes. With someone like HG Lewis those long takes might be badly blocked with a nailed in place camera, but not here. Apostloff and his DP know what they're doing--they pick up the camera and follow the action--and if previous versions made it look washed out and shitty, but its day is finally due in spiffy violent colors. Cue psychedelic credits!

Special shout out to Renee Bond as Toni, Talli's dumbstruck girlfriend! 


I tried to get into it, for Ed's sake but it's the worst, really - a meaningless collage of softcore scenes cut up with a leering chipmunk-like detective peeping out of bushes in the style of The Immoral Mr. Teas and endless shots of girls walking up and down carpeted stairs. Imagine the worst of the nudist camp era with the worst of the sofctore era and you're halfway there. 

As Joe Blevins points out, the narration sounds like it could be from Wood himself, but it actually Michael Donovan O'Donnell as detective  "Mac" Magregor, hired to find a missing girl (20 years old so legal to do what she wants) by her parents, one of whom is Ed regular Duke Moore. Mac talks almost constantly throughout the movie which is then endless shots of him sticking his big chipmunk face out of bushes with a patented horny voyeur having a ball grin - in order for Ed to use some stock footage of a passenger plane taking off and landing - followed by surreally short and shoddy scenes meant to represent that country (i.e. Paris is represented by sidewalk cafe table with a baguette in front of a poster of the Eiffel Tower).  This gaiety is offset by a series of scenes--the only real reasons to watch the film, actually--with Mcgregor dropping in on various boozed-up lowlifes in their various pads, slapping them around for information on the girl's current whereabouts, even if they've already told them all they know. There's a nice boozy improv feeling of all this stuff being shot on weekends while downing fifths of Scotch but some of the scenes, such as Macgregor slapping around a very gay aesthete, leave a bad taste. The lad seems to be gay but acting up a gay stereotype at the same time, but we're clearly meant to root for him as as Macgregor barges in, starts trashing the place and slapping him around, presuming he'll know where the girl is. We're reminded of all these sad little scenes in movies from this period, where gay people are freaks who endure and probably secretly like getting slapped around by 'straight' men, as if they deserve it, they have it coming, for messing with God's grand plan and impugning masculinity as a whole, or something.

Then, in a long scene both sad and awesome comes the best part: Ed himself appears as one of the jaded party people Mac questions and slaps around. Tawdry but smart in a blonde wig and a green sweater with an orange sweater (not angora, I think, I can't tell) thrown atop it, he answers the door and feed Macgregor (who he knows from some weird past) some apparently cheap scotch. A long-ish scene plays out, presumably improvised. Ed is a wonder, still. I recognize my own boozy performances in his groggy tuned-in state. I can feel the booze haze emanating from his pores and soul. See, when you drink slow and steady for week after week, avoiding your hangover by drinking first thing in the morning, you're like a man being pulled out to the open ocean on a raft, knowing you should be trying the paddle back against the current before it's too late, but unwilling or unable to try. You know you are compounding the interest on your overdue payment of misery and tremors and this compels you to live for the moment as tomorrow will be unspeakably grim. With the rest of your life swathed in black curtain, the moment becomes precious and you move right into it. We can feel that moment-living in Ed, and so it's a shame he has such a flat, one-note chipmunk cheeked imbecile as a scene partner. The vignette ends with Mac ripping off Ed's wig to expose his normal hair, as if proving his own superiority as a real man. As with the earlier scenes of abusing gays and older drunks, it's only funny if you forget the last ten years of social progress, Like all the other people Mac slaps around in his quest for this girl, Ed seems pulled from the bottom rung of the Hollywood skin trade--a crew of alcoholic degenerate filmmakers hating themselves for being different even while flying their freak flag with stalwart defiance. Can hardly blame them for having a weird complex about their own desires and weaknesses. The real degenerate of the film is obviously Mac, and  it's him and we're stuck with his tiresome leering and relentless traveling for the duration. 

Booze, man. You can't blame Ed for seeking refuge in a bottle. For a lot of us, outsider style artists ever-struggling with the thought of anonymity and obscurity (especially in a status-obsessed city like LA, where being a has-been is almost worse than being a never-was as far as pariah status), Ed is like the bottle. We get the same boozy reprieve from the ache of artistic loneliness from both Plan 9 and Ten High whiskey.

But rather than focus on the Ed stuff, making a film of drunken slap-downs, we get endless scenes of softcore groping connected via endless repetition and doubling back. For every prostitute Mac slaps around or fools around with or watches fool around with someone else (his vantage point is never clear -- the sex is indoors on the red shag rug, but Macgregor is peeping out of ground floor bushes towards the camera), we see planes take off and land, girls walks up and down the red shag stairs, postcards arrive in the hands of Duke Moore appraising him of Mac's progress. After one tryst is done and we see some more plane shots, he goes home to his offices in the Brown Derby men's room or the rear of a used furniture outlet to gather his case files (we never see a file or even a desk) and then, figuring out how much more money he can wheedle out of his client, he jets off to "Europe" and back, sending Duke a postcard from the road ("getting close") and watching as more broads in their negligees walk up and down stairs. 

Naturally the final scene is a huge orgy with Mac front and center. Will he alert Moore to where their lovely slutty hippie daughter is "working" - or will he just send them a postcard from sunny Florida that he's following "a hot lead?" Eventually we'll get the answer and find out what the title refers to, but first, let's fly to Europe and back, watch some girls climb stairs, and return to our offices at the Brown Derby Men's room! 

PS - For the definitive word on these and his other films, visit Dead2Rights Ed Wood Wednesdays! The mind boggles at its thoroughness, stunning coherence and contagious delight.

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