|In addition to his work in Ed Wood's films, Criswell had quite a career as a TV personality and author.|
"Strange fish swim beneath the sea of the future waves of time!"
-Jeron Criswell Konig (1969)
Indeed, if one studies the behind-the-scenes photographs taken on the set of Orgy of the Dead, one will find a desperate-looking Ed Wood holding up large-print cue cards for a doddering, dazed-looking Criswell, who seems barely cognizant of his surroundings. Eddie himself, by then firmly in the grasp of alcoholism, tested the director's patience by not showing up for work and by being intoxicated on the set. Stephen Apostolof was a methodical and efficient director who valued pre-planning and had no room in his filming schedule for nonsense. During the course of Orgy's tumultuous production, Steve hired, fired, and rehired Eddie in a pattern that was to repeat itself many times over the course of the next decade.
We had problems with Criswell. Eddie tried to help because he felt personally responsible. Criswell didn't know his lines, and the son of a gun gets an entourage around him! It's like, "Bravo!" You can see in the picture that he's reading, looking below the camera where poor Eddie's sitting with the cue cards. During the lunch break, we were looking for Cris. And he was sleeping peacefully -- in his goddamned coffin! The greatest satisfaction I received was when we screened Orgy of the Dead, and Criswell started to cry. "You made me look so regal." And I did, the son of a bitch!
Eddie holds Criswell's cue cards for Orgy of the Dead
Criswell, on the other hand, never appeared in another motion picture for Apostolof, Wood, or anyone else after 1965. But this film was only one chapter in the eventful biography of the notorious prognosticator. We will examine the life and career of Mr. Apostolof in good time, dear reader. But first, let us journey back to the year 1907. Teddy Roosevelt is in the White House. New York City sees its first taxicab. And in Princeton, IN (pop. 5,661), a red-haired child named Jeron Criswell Konig is born.
|A dapper young Criswell with his wife of 34 years, actress and burlesque dancer Halo Meadows.|
"I wasn't always Criswell Predicts," he would write some 62 years hence in the preface to his first published book of predictions, Criswell Predicts from Now to the Year 2000! (Droke House, 1968; republished the next year by Grosset & Dunlap as Criswell Predicts Your Future from Now to the Year 2000!). "Once I was Baby Criswell! And even then I was interested in the future!" It doesn't take the author long before he starts contradicting himself. In one paragraph, he says that his family "thought he would be a cardinal or a governor" due to his tendency to bask in the spotlight. In the next, he admits that he didn't learn to talk until he was four, causing these very same relatives to consider him a "retarded" child who would never speak. So which was it, Cris? Charismatic governor or imbecilic mute?
In the book's quickly-produced, typo-prone sequel, Criswell Predicts Your Next Ten Years (Droke House, 1969), the pseudo-psychic gives us a little more insight into his background with some anecdotes about his early years in Princeton, IN. Apparently, he paid keen attention to the goings-on in his hometown and loved to make gossipy, rather sordid predictions about what its residents would do in the near-future. At the age of 12, he made a detailed study of Princeton's entire citizenry, from the mayor on down, and wrote predictions about all their fates in a scandalous homemade report he called "Short History of the Future." His father, Criswell tells us, took this particular manuscript and burned it. But even then, Cris knew that "The Future" was his future, so to speak. Criswell's family was in the mortuary business, and it was here that the future star began to take comfort from sleeping in coffins, a habit that would last the rest of his life.
Curiously, in Your Next Ten Years, Cris predicts that people will soon start having sex in coffins, and one of the psychic's own caskets was used for just this purpose in Ed Wood's Necromania (1971), a hardcore porn film released just a few years after the book's publication.
|Plan 9 begins with an episode of Criswell's TV show.|
In 1953, Criswell bought some live airtime on a Los Angeles television station called KLAC in order to hawk "Criswell Family Vitamins." The vitamins weren't selling well, however, so he used the opportunity to deliver some on-air predictions instead. This caught the public's attention and led to his own local series, Criswell Predicts, which made him a regional star of sorts in the 1950s. During that time, he befriended another oddball local TV star, Korla Pandit, and became the personal psychic of Ms. Mae West, who immortalized him in song. Criswell later repaid the favor in Your Next Ten Years by naming Mae West the one female star of the 20th century whose fame would last. (His pick for top male star? Red Skelton.)
Several notable showbiz figures worked on Criswell's program. His announcer, Bob Shields, went on to play the judge in the first incarnation of TV's long-running Divorce Court. And then, my friends, there are the show's directors, a roster which includes such "B"-movie legends as Lee Sholen (Catalina Caper, The Doomsday Machine), William "One-Shot" Beaudine (Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla), and a certain young up-and-comer named Edward D. Wood, Jr. Eddie and Cris likely met while filming this show. And it's no coincidence that Eddie's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) begins with what is essentially an episode of Criswell's TV show, complete with its own onscreen title! Since Plan 9 is almost inevitably the first of Eddie's films that most people see, it's fair to say that Criswell is the gatekeeper to the strange, surreal kingdom of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Or at the very least, he's the maitre d', complete with a fancy tuxedo.
|Criswell's 1970 LP.|
|The two Criswell books I reviewed for this series.|
But over the course of watching Ed Wood's movies, I've become rather fond of Criswell. He's like the tipsy, spaced-out, slightly senile uncle I wished I'd had growing up. So while I read his books, I kept rooting for him to "get it right," so to speak. The books follow a very simple pattern, consisting almost entirely of brief pronouncements, each with its own heading in ALL CAPS, generally ranging from a few sentences to several paragraphs in length and almost always starting with the words "I predict...." (One example from his first book: "I predict that all newspapers, magazines, and books will be printed on a spun plastic." I don't know what that means either.)
Occasionally, Criswell slows down to give more detailed, symbolic prophecies, which read like outtakes of the Book of Revelation, only updated to the aesthetic standards of the Laugh-In era. These are more common in his first book, Your Future from Now to the Year 2000!, which almost functions as an anthology of hallucinatory science-fiction stories with an apocalyptic bent. I especially recommend "The Destruction of Denver, Colorado" (pgs. 18-20) in which the great metropolis is destroyed when its buildings and infrastructure turn into a jelly-like substance, engulfing the citizenry. Other offbeat tales here include "The Boiling Lake," "The Lady of Light" (about a woman who dramatically changes the balance of power in the gender war, only to end up a martyr), and "The Great Drought and Flood."
In case you were wondering, though he speaks frequently of his TV appearances and live lectures, Criswell never once mentions his film career in these books, and the name of his good pal Edward D. Wood, Jr. never comes up.
If I were recommending just one Criswell book, though, I'd probably go with Your Next Ten Years from 1969. Not only does it have the introduction in which Cris fills us in on the details of his childhood and his first attempts at predicting the future, it also comes with several eye-catching, surrealistic illustrations by one Lewis N. Schilling, Jr., who seems to have no credits other than this book. To my knowledge, these drawings have never been made available on the internet before, so I am correcting this oversight now with a little help from my trusty scanner. Below, you will find Mr. Schilling's illustrations along with representative excerpts from Criswell's text. Please enjoy:
|THE HORNET TERROR|
When future historians look back on the momentus [sic] year of 1979, one thing will be certain, and that is the full accounting of the Hornet Family! This vicious family of insects, fed by the gamma rays of hydrogen manufacturing planets, increased their strength to bullet driving power, and laid asunder many parts of the United States! (pg. 123)
|REBUILDING OF WOMEN|
I predict a new science "Femology" (the rebuilding of women) will soon be most popular, where a woman can go into a free clinic and have her face lifted, a new hair line, reduce many, many pounds, have breasts reshaped and even a vaginal improvement! (pg. 19)
|THE AGE OF THE ANIMAL THERAPY -- MINK OIL!|
I predict that the greatest discovery will be made from the lowly mink, the animal fat and selected residue. I predict that the center of research, development and marketing of Mink Oil products will be Orlando, Florida, where a new, dynamic company of young men will lead the way to a better future for us all. I predict that the saturated mink oil will be the greatest cosmetic discovery since the Egyptians used olive oil! (pg. 33)
In 1975 and 1976, mortuary burial practices will take a strange turn -- that of freezing the dead body for later revival... A strange and loathsome cult will come out of Patoka, Indiana... These crazed men and women, and some children, will raid the Morgues where these bodies are kept at frigid temperature, steal the bodies, and devour them. (pg. 57)
|THE MIND MACHINE|
I predict that the treatment of disease will be carried on thru the mind and the mind alone. When you become ill, an electric cap is placed upon your head, and vibratory power is sent to the ailing portion of your brain... I predict huge medical-mind centers will be sold on a franchise basis, as this simple machine can accomplish miracles where medical science has so far failed! (pg 65)
|THE AUTOMATIC ATOMIC PLAGUE|
I predict that during the next ten years we will be faced with what the Historians will call "the automatic atomic plague" which will sweep certain parts of the world... Skin blotches of purple, shortage of breath and tired aching muscles will be followed by the abdominal muscles giving away and the intestines dropping to the floor, completely unattached! (pg. 113)
True or not, that's some pretty amazing stuff, isn't it? Actually, if you take a very broad interpretation of Criswell's predictions, you can see that the old kook was sort of right about a number of topics. When he looks to the future he sees, among other things:
- A shift from paper money and coins to credit cards
- "Instant mail" delivered through electronic means
- Constantly-updated news reports, also transmitted electronically
- Private companies taking over the duties of the postal service
- Catastrophic storms and other bizarre weather
- Increased government surveillance
- Greatly increased reliance on technology (which he refers to as "automation")
- A generation of "contented discontents" who derive pleasure from complaining
- Severe restrictions on where, how, and when tobacco can be advertised
- Scandal, tragedy, and disgrace for the British royal family
All of these have come to pass, to one extent or another. So the old faker wasn't always wrong... just usually wrong. If there is one truly remarkable prediction from Mr. Criswell, it's the following one from Your Next Ten Years. Read it carefully.
I predict that we will soon have another cycle of bad weather! The protective skin surrounding our earth has been punctured, leaving us at the mercy of the elements of the thin, cruel air of the universe! In our eager push for science, we have upset the delicate balance of Mother Nature, and she will turn on us in a wrathful manner! Remember this prediction! (pg. 109)
|England's Mother Shipton.|
It's interesting to note the man's incredible, career-long devotion to vitamins. He mentions them throughout both of these books and cites the prophecies of England's famed soothsayer, Mother Agatha Shipton (1488-1566), who seemingly predicted the advent of vitamin pills many years before they were introduced. There's even a vitamin reference in his closing speech from Plan 9 from Outer Space! In addition to quoting Mother Shipton, Cris made quite a study of other predictors from the past -- Nostradamus, obviously, but also Lord Quinley and Edgar Cayce, the so-called "Sleeping Prophet."
For me, it was easy to get lost in the inviting world of Criswell Predicts. As I read these yellowing volumes of pseudo-Biblical nonsense, I could not help but hear the words on the page being read aloud in the voice we all know from Plan 9 from Outer Space, Orgy of the Dead, and Night of the Ghouls. But by the same token, two books of this stuff was definitely enough for me. Like I said, these works are very formulaic and repetitious. One can only read so many sentences that start with "I predict..." and end with an exclamation point before they start to run together into one big psychic blur. The only real difference between the two Criswell books I read is that Your Next Ten Years has those marvelous illustrations and is more overtly conservative in its politics, with frequent denunciations of student protests, "Red Liberals," welfare, marijuana, LSD, and atheists. The author's most frequent bogeymen are, naturally, Mao Tse-Tung and Fidel Castro. As of now, I have not yet felt the need to explore Criswell's third and final book for Droke House. One reason is that I already have so much to occupy my time as I explore the weird and wonderful world of Ed Wood.
Case in point: there's a whole documentary devoted to the Bulgarian sleazemeister who, quite against his better judgment, hired Eddie again and again as a writer and crew member in the 1960s and 1970s. That man was Stephen C. Apostolof. Let us now explore his story...
DAD MADE DIRTY MOVIES (2012)
Alternate titles: None in this country, but its Finnish title means (roughly) Father Made Junk Movies, while its Hungarian title translates delightfully as Dad Did Pig Movies: The Stephen C. Apostolof Story.
Availability: As of right now, Dad Made Dirty Movies is not readily available for purchase or download here in the United States, but it has aired numerous times on television overseas and has appeared at over 30 film festivals. The version I screened came from a broadcast on Australia's SBS public television network. The best way to stay informed about the film's availability and learn of any upcoming screenings is through its regularly-updated Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the film's official site is... well, I'll let you find out for yourself. Meanwhile, if this documentary piques your interest in the films of Stephen Apostolof, you can check out two DVD collections of his work: The Lascivious World of A.C. Stevens & Ed D. Wood, Jr. (S'more Entertainment, 2008) and Big Box of Wood (S'more, 2011). There is some overlap between these sets, though. Fugitive Girls and Drop-Out Wife appear in both collections.
|Orgy on VHS.|
This is unfortunate, as Apostolof had quite a colorful career and life of his own: escaping from communist-controlled Bulgaria, emigrating to the United States, landing a job at Warner Brothers, and ultimately directing and producing about sixteen softcore feature films in the 1960s and 1970s. Orgy, in fact, was only the first of Steve's half-dozen collaborations with Eddie Wood.
So where was the Stephen Apostolof tribute movie? Starting in 2011, Bulgarian film maker Jordan Todorov decided to change that with a documentary devoted to his cinematic countryman. By then, inconveniently enough, Steve had been dead for several years and was nothing more than a bag of ashes in a heavily-lacquered wooden cigar box. But his friends, relatives, and professional associates were still around, and they had plenty of stories to tell about the one-time smut peddler and devoted family man. As its title indicates, Dad Made Dirty Movies focuses most especially on the memories of Apostolof's now-grown children, and one of the main questions the film raises is: "What's it like to have a father who makes his living in the adult film industry?"
|An oil portrait of Stephen Apostolof seen in Dad Made Dirty Movies.|
Obviously, the one person missing here is Stephen C. Apostolof himself. If you've seen documentaries about Ed Wood from the '90s, you've likely seen interviews with Steve. Nattily attired, impeccably groomed, and still speaking with a heavy Bulgarian accent, Apostolof struck me as a cross between Hugh Hefner and Count Dracula, with maybe a little Don Corleone thrown in for good measure. In the film's single-biggest narrative conceit, Steve posthumously "narrates" Dad Made Dirty Movies via impersonator D.T. Andersen, who captures both the Eastern European inflection and charmingly-mangled syntax of the late director. Recounting Steve's first meeting with Ed Wood at the Brown Derby in Hollywood, for instance, Andersen tells us that Eddie was "dressed in a drag." The narration is the next best thing to having Apostolof himself in the film. I was reminded of similar beyond-the-grave narrations in movies like Sunset Blvd. (1950) and American Beauty (1999).
|"Chipmunk cute" Rene Bond.|
Of these, Orgy of the Dead gets the most attention today simply by virtue of it being such an odd duck. With its cemetery setting and Universal-style horror trappings, Orgy is quite unlike the other sex films of its era... or of any era, honestly. Apostolof's subsequent "skin flicks," while entertaining and sexy, are more pedestrian, as denoted by their workaday titles: College Girls, Suburbia Confidential, The Snow Bunnies, etc. After 1965, Apostolof would never make an adult movie as extravagantly baroque as Orgy of the Dead ever again, with the possible exception of his 1969 costume drama, Lady Godiva Rides. Steve's resident leading man, Harvey Shane, shows up throughout Dad Made Dirty Movies to offer commentary and relay anecdotes. (And he's got a couple good ones which I won't spoil here. But keep your ears peeled for the aspirin story and the Albert Finney story.)
Todorov has also thoughtfully devoted sequences of the film to two of Stephen Apostolof's most-frequent leading ladies, the "chipmunk cute" Rene Bond and the proto-MILF Marsha Jordan, both of whom were above-average actresses in addition to exuding sex appeal on camera.
|Apostolof's own Waterloo.|
The attention lavished on his former employee, Ed Wood, in the 1980s and 1990s was a blessing and a curse to Apostolof. On the one hand, Ed's new-found fame brought some residual attention to Steve's films, mainly Orgy of the Dead. On the other hand, Steve resented the fact that Eddie -- whom he considered a nice guy and a decent writer but a hopeless director -- was getting the lion's share of the credit and the adulation from the public. If it's any consolation to Apostolof, there are several notable pop culture figures, including Criswell, Tor Johnson, and Vampira, who had major careers of their own but whose legacies are now inextricably tied to Ed Wood. Even some of Bela Lugosi's current fandom is rooted in the Wood cult. Such are the quirks of history! At least for this one movie, Ed Wood is a supporting player in Apostolof's story instead of the other way around.
|The salad days: Steve Apostolof and his children.|
In some ways, I had to lament that Stephen Apostolof's timing was off. Sure, Deep Throat may have largely killed off the demand for "nudie cuties" in the theatrical market, but premium cable channels such as Cinemax and HBO would prove to have a ravenous appetite for softcore programming in the 1980s and 1990s. Steve would have done well to ignore Deep Throat and focus instead on Just Jaeckin's Emmanuelle (1974) or Alan Roberts' Young Lady Chatterly (1977). Those films did very nicely in the theaters and then became much-imitated and sequel-ized staples on cable TV. The key to their success was taking a slightly more highbrow, refined approach to screen sex and appealing to women as well as men, something Apostolof seemed unwilling or unable to do. Dad Made Dirty Movies makes it clear that Steve's audience was all-but-exclusively male. With a slightly broader approach, he might have become another Zalman King!
|This one's for you, Steve!|
NEXT WEEK: For many years, I thought that Donald A. Davis, usually billed as "Don Davis," was just one of Ed Wood's many pseudonyms. After all, "Davis" was Ed's middle name, and he used the similar-sounding "Daniel Davis" when he starred in Glen or Glenda? in 1953. It made sense to me that they were one and the same. But, no, Donald A. Davis had a shadowy, troubled career all his own. He worked in a variety of capacities for Ed Wood in the 1950s and toiled for Stephen Apostolof in the 1960s. When it came time to direct and produce his own debut feature film, he chose to adapt one of Eddie's paperback novels. Surprisingly, most studies of Ed Wood's career skip over this curious flick, but not mine! Join me here in seven days, when we'll look at For Love & Money (1967).