Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 7: "Devil Girls" (1967) /"Ed Wood's Devil Girls" (1999)

Various editions of Ed Wood's 1967 female juvie classic, Devil Girls.

"It is conceivable that Wood wrote as many as 75 books."
-Rudolph Grey, Nightmare of Ecstasy
David C. Hayes as Rev. Steele in the Devil Girls movie.
We may never know exactly how many books Edward D. Wood, Jr. wrote during his 15-year literary career. Some were novels, generally of a violent and/or pornographic nature. Others were pseudo-educational sex manuals or dubious reference works about the occult or various social ills. Many were written under his own name, while others were credited to pseudonyms. Over the years, Ed's published work was attributed to "Nick Jason," "Dick Trent," "Dr. T.K. Peters" and possibly dozens more.

Following in the footsteps of Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy and its extended bibliography, a book called Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Ramble House, 2001; revised 2006), credited semi-pseudonymously to "David C. Hayes and Hayden Davis, Ph.D," attempted to catalog Ed Wood's wild and wooly literary output. Muddled Mind is perhaps of interest to Wood-ologists, as it is one of the rare guidebooks which focuses on Wood's writing rather than his filmmaking. This is quite fertile ground for study, and one hopes that other scholars will dig into Eddie's paperback novels and short stories.

By far, the man's most prolific era as a writer was the late 1960s. In 1967 and 1968 alone, he published at least 22 books, the majority for a small-time outfit called Pad Library, though Pendulum Pictorial and Viceroy Books were frequent employers as well during this time. The titles read like a summary of Ed's pet themes and career-long motifs: Drag Trade, Bloodiest Sex Crimes of History, Night Time Lez, The Perverts, Suburbia Confidential, etc.

I have already covered one of Ed's books from this hyper-productive period, the grim, fatalistic Death of a Transvestite. Today, however, I turn my attention to a novel in which Ed returned to the themes of femininity and criminality which had inspired him in the past as a screenwriter.

DEVIL GIRLS (1967)

Ed Wood as he appeared in the late 1960s when he wrote most of his novels, including Devil Dolls.

Alternate titles: None.

Availability: Following the release of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, there was a British reprinting of Devil Girls (Gorse, 1995) with a rather glib introduction by UK television personality Jonathan Ross, who clearly hadn't read the book. This edition remains extremely cheap and easy to find.

Not for Ed Wood, it wasn't.
The backstory: American history now popularly records 1967 as the high point of the counterculture, a time when our nation's youths rejected the values of their parents and boldly experimented with sex, drugs, fashion, music, and social protest, particularly against the Vietnam War. The release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles that June inaugurated what has been termed the Summer of Love, and we now tend to think fondly of '67 as one of the happier years of that tumultuous decade, especially in contrast to the horrific events of 1968, which was pockmarked by riots and political assassinations. For Edward D. Wood, Jr., however, there was no Summer of Love. As he saw it, the "juvenile delinquency" scare of the 1950s, the very trend which had inspired his screenplay for The Violent Years, never ended but just mutated into something even more hideous and repugnant.

Set in the dismal Texas border town of Almanac, Devil Girls tells the story of a thrill-hungry, drug-crazed, all-female gang called the Chicks. The group includes jittery, heroin-addicted Dee, sexually voracious lesbian Babs, and newly-debauched Rhoda. Lording over them is a sleazy, small-time drug smuggler and pimp named Lark, who has craftily used heroin to keep Dee under his control. The group's ex-leader, Lila Purdue, is in prison for having murdered her own father, but escapes by killing a nurse and walking out the front door in her victim's uniform. Once free, Lila decides to head back to her hometown to kill the person who ratted her out: her mother. Back in Almanac, Lila brutally wrests control of the Chicks away from Dee and makes plans with Lark for a big score which involves using the girls to smuggle drugs into town by hiding them in their girdles, bras, and falsies.

Representing decency and order in Almanac are its overtaxed sheriff, the "ruggedly handsome" Buck Rhodes and the pious Reverend Steele, who hopes to lure Rhoda back to the flock -- a prospect which becomes much dimmer after the poor, confused girl has (more or less) accidentally shot her own mother. An unlikely ally to the sheriff and the clergyman is Jockey, the owner of an alcohol-and-drug-free burger joint which is a popular teen hangout. With the help of his hulking Indian sidekick, Chief, Jockey aids the police in their efforts to bring down Lark's crime ring and stop the influx of drugs into their small town. While many of the characters die in the book's gory finale, Sheriff Buck Rhodes reappeared in another Wood novel, Parisian Passions.

"Love and terror": Manson in Life
The reading experience: Grueling yet strangely delicious. For a man who was so intent on showing us that gender was not a binary, either-or scenario, Ed Wood took a surprisingly hardline, unambiguous stance on drug use and youthful disobedience in his works. This novel's penny-ante crime kingpin, Lark, has a group of young women under his command and can get them to commit crimes on his behalf. Of course, this presages Charles Manson, who just two years later would become the "hippie bogeyman" for whom the media and many conservatives had been praying. Little wonder that the ultra-square Life magazine would make Manson, with his grungy beard, long hair, and demonic eyes, one of its most famous cover subjects, as if to say, "You see, Middle America? This is what your kids have been up to with their pot and acid and rock 'n' roll!"

Accordingly, the two principal "good guys" in Devil Girls are the standard-bearers of traditional American morality: a cop and a reverend, both quite preachy and neither blessed with a great sense of humor. A less conventional, though still stereotypically "manly," hero is Jockey, whose colorful past gives him an air of mystery but whose core values remain rock-solid. It should be noted that Jockey's sidekick, Chief, is an obvious cognate of Tor Johnson's character, Lobo, from Bride of the Monster. While Lobo supposedly hailed from "the wilderness of Tibet" but was in no way authentically Tibetan, Chief is a supposed Native American whose crude pidgin English is embarrassingly anachronistic. A typical line of dialogue: "No swim! Me desert Indian, not water Indian."

As for the novel's female authority figures.... well, newly-arrived schoolmarm Miss O'Hara proves utterly outmatched by the ne'er-do-wells of Almanac. In this story of female degradation, men are the ones who restore justice and order to the community.

"Jazz" is a four-letter word.
Those looking for Ed Wood's trademark obsessions and eccentricities will find plenty to enjoy in Devil Girls. Although the book's Texas setting is crucial to the plot, absolutely no one in the story seems like an authentic Texan. In fact, pretty much all the characters in Devil Girls, especially the girls themselves, talk like escapees from a 1940s Bowery Boys movie -- except with smatterings of profanity and vulgar sexual remarks. But even the profanity is weird here. Ed Wood's publishers must not have allowed him to use the word "fuck," because he chooses a truly daffy euphemism: "jazz." In this book (and other Wood novels I've read), "jazz" is a transitive verb meaning "to have sex with." Example: "He jazzed me all night long." Here, too, one will find the motifs common to Ed Wood's film work.

In the thoughtfully-written Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films (McFarland, 2009), author Rob Craig astutely points out that funerals are extremely common in Ed's movies, as is the theme of resurrection of the dead. Given its kill-crazy story and high body count, Devil Girls is unsurprisingly punctuated by funerals. The "resurrection" theme surfaces in odd ways, as when Lila dons the uniform of the nurse she has murdered or when Mrs. Purdue resurfaces at a crucial time, seemingly out of nowhere, after being shot and losing a lot of blood -- something which should have killed her.

Politically speaking, Devil Girls reveals Ed's deep-seated social conservatism. While heroin is the main drug of choice in Almanac, marijuana is a close second, and Ed does not mistake his utter contempt for the demon weed. The novel reads like the work of a man who believed every word of Reefer Madness and prayed to Sgt. Joe Friday each night.

Ed Wood's world was one of heavy consequences. You don't "get away" with anything here. In Plan 9, Criswell optimistically stated, "Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent." But in most of Ed's other works, both literary and cinematic, the guilty and innocent alike are punished... or at least end up depressed and downhearted by the denouement. The best an Ed Wood character can hope for is the chance to live to witness further sin and suffering and perhaps to learn from the mistakes of others. See also: The Violent Years, Jail Bait, Killer in Drag, and Death of a Transvestite.

Among Ed's novels, Devil Girls was one of those which was republished several times (despite its downbeat nature) and, thus, remained easy for fans to acquire. That is possibly why it inspired a very tardy screen adaptation more than three decades after its debut. Which brings us to...

ED WOOD'S DEVIL GIRLS (1999)

The characters of Dee, Babs, and Rhoda as they appeared in Andre Perkowski's 1999 film adaptation of Devil Girls.

Alternate title: Devil Girls

Availability: For the curious, the film is available from Amazon Instant Video for rental or purchase. If you prefer physical media, you can buy the DVD (Terminal Pictures, 2009) as well. Please know in advance that this is a burn-on-demand DVD-R.

The backstory: Filmed on the cheap near the University of Chicago and Shedd Aquarium in 1999 with a largely-unknown cast, the tiny independent feature Ed Wood's Devil Girls did not see widespread distribution for about a decade, when it did start to attract some positive media attention. Since only the infinity of the depths of a man's mind can really tell the story, I'll let the director himself, Andre Perkowski, take it from there. (And thanks to Mr. Perkowski for submitting to an online interview!)

Director Andre Perkowski
Devil Girls! A ludicrous experiment to see if I could shoot a film Ed Wood style in 4.5 days, a la the master. It turns out you can, but it also turns out that nobody particularly cares if you can shoot a film quickly. They want to be entertained! I also had only about $500 on hand for the shoot... and boy, doesn't it show? It does lend it a whirling incoherence and energy, despite not having any time to actually, say, think about things or generally tweak or guide performances. I had to trust the actors, who memorized reams of that dialogue and spat it out rat-a-tat. 
The dialogue, incidentally, is not just the novel; it's a patchwork quilt from dozens of Wood's novels and short stories. I was tracking down as many as I could find for a few years. Whenever a wonderful phrase was found, I'd add it to the script. "Automation!" There's even a bit of Criswell's books in there, but for the follow-up film, we just used the actual Criswell.
Ed Wood regular Conrad Brooks.
I was incredibly naive at the time, being 23 or so when I began the project and too foolish to realize that attempting a trilogy of unfilmed Ed Wood projects is really kind of an overly ambitious, silly thing to do. I pulled off Devil Girls, The Vampire's Tomb, and a short of To Kill a Saturday Night with Ted V. Mikels and Conrad Brooks before coming to my senses and working on my scripts, although part of me realizes that one day, I might have to shoot that adaptation of "The Ghoul Goes West" that lurks in my files... all on film, too. One of the worst aspects of the two Wood flicks is I fell for the DV [digital video] line about how revolutionary and blah blah blah it was for filmmaking. It looks hideous! Like porn. "Filmlook" was garbage, and how I wish I had scrimped and shot more film. I did do the inserts on Super-8/8mm, and that's definitely my favorite stuff in both films.

I asked Perkowski about the film's eclectic cast, including Sandra Delgado who is excellent as Lila (and who has since appeared on Law & Order SVU).
Sandra Delgado
All of them were were actual actors who auditioned, except for David Hayes [who plays both Rev. Steele and Lobo, this film's substitute for Chief], who my girlfriend at the time suggested at the last minute as a man willing to shave his head. We went for the purposeful "this guy is obviously filmed totally separately and edited in" thing to be even more confusing. I should have added more day/night mix-ups. The automation rants are from Security Risk, a fine pulpy Wood novel [a copy of which is glimpsed in the movie]. 
They were generally all Chicago theater people. I figured we had to basically do this like a filmed play if it was going to be possible in a few days. Some of that dialogue was just giant bricks of text on the page! Those poor bastards. I was floored by their ability to remember the intricacies of the mangled syntax.

The Ed Wood's Devil Girls DVD-R.
The viewing experience: A mixture of the expected and the unexpected, generally amusing and occasionally riveting. I have not, as yet, made many forays into the world of posthumous Ed Wood tribute films. (And there are more of them than you might think!) This may well have been my first time sitting through an entire such feature. I figured that Ed Wood's Devil Girls would play the material as overheated camp, with self-conscious, faux-bad technical touches like deliberately mismatched stock footage and visible microphones. And, yes, that is largely how the film plays out. Andre Perkowski condenses the plot considerably, occasionally at the expense of clarity. For newbies, it really does help to read the novel first before seeing the film. Personally, there were a couple of story points I would not have been able to suss out had I not just read the book.

The writer-director further muddies things by periodically cutting away to a faux Criswell (bewigged Rob Gorden), who blathers on hysterically about juvenile crime and the looming specter of automation. The actors, apparently left to their own devices, take a variety of approaches to the material and treat their characters with various amounts of seriousness.

A few performances stood out for me, including the aforementioned Sandra Delgado as the tough and sexy Lila, Mike Cooney as a bald and genuinely unnerving Lark, and Paul Hoffman, who gets to gnaw on some scenery as the apoplectic Sheriff Buck Rhodes. The tone of the film is lovingly parodic, and I appreciated some of the sillier touches, such as having Mrs. Purdue, a butcher's widow, carry around a salami wherever she went.

At just over 70 minutes, Ed Wood's Devil Girls does not have time to wear out its welcome. I do wish, though, that the film hadn't skipped over some of the more thrilling passages from the novel, such as Lila's shocking escape from a prison hospital. But Wood-ologists will be soothed by this film's many references to The Violent Years, Glen or Glenda?, and Bride of the Monster. If only Spanky the Gorilla from Bride and the Beast had made a cameo! If you enjoyed Ed Wood's Devil Girls, director Andre Perkowski informs me that his version of The Vampire's Tomb should be available on VOD soon.


Next week: Sometime during the mid-1960s, Ed Wood wrote the closest thing to an autobiography in his entire literary canon with his offbeat guide to his adopted hometown of Hollywood, USA. Unfortunately, it wasn't published until 20 years after he died. In seven days, you and I will make our way through Hollywood Rat Race (1998). Mark your calendars.

4 comments:

  1. I remember hearing about Hollywood Rat Race at a sci-fi/fantasy convention in the late '90s and being intrigued by the idea of a "lost" Ed Wood book. When it showed up in stores I flipped through a copy but ultimately never bought it. There was something of the "laughing at him" about it that didn't sit well with me.

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    1. I'm in the middle of re-reading it, and there's not really any "laughing at him" factor to the book other maybe the back cover, which is mild as these things go. (The advertising type mentions that his movies were infamous and that he was a cross-dresser -- both true.) We're definitely not in Harry & Michael Medved "Golden Turkey" territory here. The front cover just has some abstract B&W artwork and the name of the author and the title. No jokes. No snark. Not a hint of condescension. The rest of the book is Ed's original manuscript, presented as-is with no commentary whatsoever. No foreword. No afterword. No intro. Nothing. If the reader chooses to laugh, I suppose that is his or her own decision. But there is nothing mocking or belittling in the presentation of this material. It's about as plain and straightforward as it gets. If Ed hangs himself, he does so with his own words -- no one else's.

      The publisher, Four Walls Eight Windows, is also the one behind the reprints of Ed's novels, and they do a pretty respectful job of it... including commissioning new, very cool cover art.

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  2. This is an absolutely riveting post, Joe. I heard the screenwriters of Ed Wood talk once, and they were open about having to condense his story. Especially in the later years when things got really dark; he was essentially making porn and churning out these novels. I knew very little about his literary career until today after reading this. And now, of course, I'm going to start obsessing about finding the guy's written work.

    I do have two quick Ed related questions for you:

    1. Are you going to get around to Orgy of the Dead. (My apologies if you have and I missed it.) That's a bizarre movie, for which Ed only wrote the screenplay. It's like watching a really macabre and sort of bad strip show.
    2. Are you familiar with I Woke Up Early The Day I Died? Another film based on an un-produced Ed script, made back in the '90s with what would be considered an all star cast. It just popped up on Youtube...I need to watch it myself before it gets yanked.

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  3. Thanks, Dusty. Glad you're enjoying the series.

    1. Orgy is coming up in the rotation, yes. The movie, that is. I couldn't get my hands on the novel it was based on, but I do have some excerpts from it.
    2. I am familiar with I Woke Up Early but have had trouble tracking down a copy. Didn't know about the YouTube thing. Thanks for the tip-off.

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