Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 21: "Necromania" (1971)

Ed Wood's return to directing came in 1971 with the X-rated Necromania. Obviously, what follows is NSFW.

"We thought he was making a comedy, to tell you the bloody truth. We were just a bunch of young kids."
-Ric Lutze, an actor in Ed Wood's Necromania

Goodbye, Tor.
And now it is 1971. Whether he knows it or not, Edward Davis Wood, Jr. has only seven years to live. He and his wife, Kathy, have lost their little house on Bonner Street in North Hollywood and have moved into the seedy, violence-prone Mariposa Apartments at the intersection of Yucca and Cahuenga in LA. Before the year is out, Ed's longtime friend and long-ago star, Tor Johnson, will have died of heart failure at the age of 67. Nevermore will he break one of Ed's insufficiently-reinforced toilet seats with his massive bulk. Meanwhile, President Nixon promises his 207 million constituents that he will end the nation's involvement in Vietnam. Public support for the war dwindles every day, especially when an American-supported SVA offensive in Cambodia fails after six miserable weeks.

On the homefront, the so-called "generation gap" (a moral and aesthetic schism between the old and the young) has been turned into a sitcom, rechristened All in the Family, and given a spot on the CBS Saturday night lineup, right before Funny Face with Sandy Duncan. There are astronauts driving a buggy on the moon; the boxer once known as Cassius Clay has KO'd a draft-dodging rap; and Walt Disney's empire has spread to Orlando five years after his death.

On the radio, the ex-Beatles are either singing hymns to God ("My Sweet Lord") or questioning His very existence ("Imagine"). On movie screens, Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood are both playing rule-flouting, fascistic cops to critical and popular acclaim, either acting as the urban saviors for whom we've been praying or embodying all our worst fears about what happens when power goes unchecked. Elsewhere in movieland, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange asks us which is more disturbing: an amoral generation of lawless punks who steal, rape, and kill simply to relieve their boredom.. or a totalitarian government which will resort to truly perverse and unnatural measures to stop them?

Clearly, it is a time of transition for America.

The adult film industry, too, is in flux. The sexual liberation movement has made odd bedfellows (sometimes literally) of idealistic First Amendment advocates, "free love"-preaching libertines, cynical hucksters, and frustrated lechers alike. Though their motivations vary, each of these disparate factions wants to take sex out of the bedroom and splash it across movie screens for all to see. In 1970, producer Bill Osco gave the world a novel form of diversion with his film Mona: The Virgin Nymph, the first X-rated feature with explicit, non-simulated coupling to achieve a mainstream release in the United States, cagily omitting the credits so as to avoid prosecution.

The "nudie cutie" and "beaver" films of yore, which featured plenty of nudity but no actual intercourse, are starting to look a little quaint, even prudish, by 1971. Gerard Damiano's watershed 1972 film Deep Throat, which will make adult films fashionable even in respectable society and permanently change the adult entertainment industry, is on deck. Something's up, and a lot of people want in on the action. One of those people is Ed Wood.

NECROMANIA (1971)

She is Tanya: Strange happenings in Ed Wood's Necromania.

Alternate titles: "Necromania": A Tale of Weird Love! For a while, it was assumed that The Only House aka The Only House in Town was a re-edited version of Necromania. But, no, The Only House was a separate feature film that Ed wrote and directed around the same time. A DVD release is (hopefully) forthcoming.

Availability: The original DVD release of the complete hardcore and softcore versions (Fleshbot Films, 2004) is currently out of print, but you can still nab a used copy for twenty bucks on Amazon. In 1994, Something Weird Video marketed an incomplete VHS version of Necromania as part of its series, Frank Henenlotter's Sexy Shockers From the Vaults, with an added featurette in which author Rudolph Grey and others discuss the film. For $15, it's yours. Necromania was reissued on DVD in 2014 by Alpha Blue Video. This new disc contains the softcore version plus all of the hardcore scenes as special features, along with an assortment of films starring Maria Arnold. The retail cost is $24.95.

The softcore version is also available as part of the Rene Bond Triple Feature Two set (Alpha Blue Productions, 2006) along with Teenage Sex Kitten (1975, dir. Ann Perry) and Sex-O-Phrenia (1972, dir. unknown) for as little as $12 here.

A Pendulum Pictorial.
The backstory: Ed Wood's not-terribly-lucrative-but-better-than-nothing relationship with an adult entertainment concern known as Pendulum Publishing, which operated out of a building on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, began in roughly 1968. He needed work, and they needed writers. Quantity and speed were the guiding principles of the smut business. Get the horny customer's $1.75 away from him before the other guys even have a chance to make a grab at it.  In short order, the company published Eddie's Bye Bye Broadie, The Svengali of Sex, and Raped in the Grass as "Pendulum Pictorials," i.e. pornographic stories liberally illustrated with numerous photographs. These were slyly, if falsely, marketed as tie-ins with nonexistent film productions.

Duplicity was part of the company's business model: its official name was Calga Publishers, but its products also came out under the Pendulum and Gallery brands, among others. A results-oriented man named Bernie Bloom (who departed our realm over a quarter-century ago) was Pendulum's owner, and he ran the proverbial tight ship. He had to. There were too many competitors in this crowded field to allow for any slacking. In a reflective and informative article, writer Leo Eaton remembered his days at Pendulum in 1970-71. The place was like a factory, Eaton says. You clocked in (with a time card, yet!), went to a windowless office (or "cell" in Pendulum parlance), and started clicking and clacking away at an electric typewriter. If Bernie was paying you for eight hours of writing, he expected to hear eight hours of typing.

This attitude was not unique in the adult industry. In an article from 2003, late film critic Roger Ebert recalled his experience writing the screenplay of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for director Russ Meyer:
"Working with Meyer was exhilarating but demanding. He equated writing with typing. He kept his office door open, and whenever he couldn't hear my typewriter keys, he'd shout, 'What's the matter?'"
While Eaton and the other "young Turks" on the Pendulum payroll -- restless men twenty years Ed's junior -- looked at the company as a mere way station on the path to a legitimate writing or film career, Wood seemed to be there for the long haul and took the job much more seriously than they did. A crumbling old sot who occasionally wore miniskirts and angora sweaters to work and who tried without success to convince his youthful coworkers that he used to make movies with Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood seems to have been a comical mascot figure in the dreary Pendulum offices.

While his associates shirked their duties playing "push pins" (a workplace variation on darts) in the hallway and blatantly plagiarized entire manuscripts until they got caught at it, the ever-earnest Eddie kept slaving away at that typewriter, cranking out books, articles, and short stories for the firm until about 1975. Pendulum put out numerous magazines each month, after all, and those magazines needed content -- even if customers were buying them strictly for the pictures and barely glanced at the words next to them.

Ed was a company man through and through, and when Pendulum decided to get into the feature film game under yet another banner, Cinema Classics (not to be confused with Screen Classics, the company that produced Glen or Glenda?), Eddie immediately stepped up and offered to direct it. "I can do it," he told editor Charles Anderson. "You want Gone with the Wind? Anything you want, I'll give it to you."

To say the least, however, Cinema Classics did not have the financial wherewithal of Selznick International Pictures. Ed's typically overambitious quote reminded me of a scene from Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood (1994). In Burton's film, Eddie (Johnny Depp) and producer George Weiss (Mike Starr) meet in the cluttered, dingy cinder-block offices of Screen Classics, where Ed declares that George's upcoming Christine Jorgensen biopic needs "a star" to give it legitimacy. George scoffs at this pie-in-the-sky notion.
Weiss: Kid, you must have me confused with David Selznick. I don't make major motion pictures. I make crap. 
Wood: Yes, but if you take that crap and put a star in it, then you've got something! 
Weiss: Yeah. Crap with a star.
George Weiss reminds Ed he's not David O. Selznick.
In fact, Ed Wood did have a star in mind for Necromania, namely Maila "Vampira" Nurmi from Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Though they hadn't worked together for over a decade, Nurmi still thought enough of Ed to at least take his phone call while she was laid-up in an LA hospital with an undisclosed illness. When Ed described the role to her, however, Nurmi wasn't interested. She felt, perhaps rightly, that appearing totally nude and emerging from a coffin while a man jumped on her would be "professional suicide."

Disappointed yet determined, Ed was forced to carry on without Ms. Nurmi. The script, based on Ed's short story "Come Inn" (published in Pendulum's Young Beavers magazine in 1971) and typed up at his usual breakneck pace, apparently clocked in at about 20 pages, mostly dialogue with very minimal screen directions. For the all-important love scenes, the script merely instructed the actors to "go into sex." Pendulum had every faith in Ed and so allowed him as much creative free reign as he could muster within the film's $7000 budget and three-day shooting schedule.

Legend of Heles House: Dan and Shirley go exploring.
As was typical of him, Ed contrived a pseudo-Gothic, quasi-horror scenario for Necromania complete with prominent references to his dear departed friend, Bela Lugosi, and Lugosi's signature role of Count Dracula. The plot of the film ostensibly centers around necromancy, a type of black magic which involves communication with the dead. In reality, of course, the film centers around graphic depictions of heterosexual and lesbian lovemaking. That's what sold tickets, and everyone involved with this movie knew it. As long as Ed included plenty of sex scenes (and his bosses knew he wouldn't fail in that department), Pendulum was fine with whatever plot Ed wanted to use for the movie.

The finished film revolves around young lovers Dan and Shirley who pose as a married couple called "the Carpenters" when they visit the eerie mansion of a mysterious woman named Madame Heles (her name is pronounced "heals") for a weekend of sensual instruction and erotic exploration. Danny has been struggling with what we'd now call erectile dysfunction and seems to be selfish and uncaring in bed, so fed-up Shirley has given him an ultimatum: either get some help or find a new girlfriend. Since there is no one at the door to greet them, Dan and Shirley let themselves in and are soon confronted by Tanya (some sources say "Tonya"), Madame Heles' sexy, nightgown-clad assistant, who informs them that her mistress sleeps by day in a coffin and will only attend to them at midnight.

Seeing as it's only 2:30 in the afternoon, Dan and Shirley retire to their room and unsuccessfully attempt to have sex, little suspecting that they are constantly being spied upon by Tanya, who peeps on them through the cut-out eyes of an owl painting on the wall. After performing a strange ritual with a bronze skull at an altar in front of Madame Heles' coffin, Tanya reluctantly "services" another houseguest, a petulant greaser named Carl. Frustrated and sexually unsatisfied, Shirley wanders around the house and meets yet another self-declared "inmate," a dark-haired woman named Barb who introduces her to the gentle joys of sapphic love. Tanya, meanwhile, seduces Dan and then shows him a roomful of Madame Heles' permanent residents: men and women whose sexual addiction precludes their reentry into polite society.

A gong signals the hour of midnight, and all the characters convene in the foreboding "red room" which houses Madame Heles' coffin. Barb and Tanya make love, which shocks and offends Danny. The infamous necromancer Madame Heles finally appears and asks for a status report on the new arrivals. Barb declares that Shirley has "learned her sex well," so the necromancer allows her to "graduate." But what about Danny? Well, he has one more lesson to go. Carl, Barb, and Tanya strip him naked, and he is forced to make love to Madame Heles inside the coffin. It is a success. "I'm a man!" declares Danny. "I'm a man! Oh, great! Oh, great!"

Ed Wood on the set of Necromania in 1971.
Necromania's production was more prosaic than its plot suggests. The sets were largely constructed within the studio of noted talent agent and cameraman Hal Guthu, who acted as the movie's cinematographer (a duty he'd previously performed for Love Feast and Take It Out in Trade). Possibly out of legal concerns, however, Guthu would not allow any hardcore scenes to be filmed in his studio. Therefore, the graphic shots of cunnilingus, fellatio, and vaginal intercourse were shot elsewhere by secondary cameraman Ted Gorley and inserted into the finished film. Neither Gorley nor Guthu would receive any onscreen credit in Necromania, and considering the legal atmosphere of the time, they wouldn't have wanted to. Legalities even forced the normally-unabashed Ed Wood to be humble this time around. He was billed under the bland pseudonym "Don Miller" for pulling double duty as writer and director. As for the actresses and actors in the film, a simple title card merely informed viewers that "Our Cast Wish to Remain Anonymous."

Production of the film occurred as Los Angeles was experiencing 110-degree temperatures, and the actors were nearly overcome by heat exhaustion while working under the hot movie lights. But they, and Ed, got through it somehow. While several cast and crew members recall Eddie coming to the studio in drag, the one widely-circulated photo of Eddie on the set of Necromania shows him in a sleeveless t-shirt and sweatpants, his booze-swollen face framed by a greasy-looking mullet. To be honest, he looks like a shabby porn industry lowlife, the type of untrustworthy character about whom young starlets are warned before they take the fatal bus trip to Hollywood. But Gorley remembered that "the cast loved Ed."

The fact that Eddie finished the film at all is a testament to his perseverance. He'd been on one of his customary binges the week before filming began but showed up on time and ready to go on the first day of production. Necromania's two most prominent and remarked-upon props were the dark, lacquered coffin of Madame Heles and a terrified-looking, taxidermied wolf. The latter, the film's single most expensive item, was charmingly referred to in the script as "the wolf mummy," simultaneously suggesting both the Wolfman and the Mummy from Orgy of the Dead (1965). The coffin, a Lincoln-era relic, was supplied by Orgy's star, the Amazing Criswell, who paid a visit to his old buddy Ed Wood on the set.

California girl: Rene Bond and her proud papa.
Necromania's lead actress was LA porn princess Rene Bond, a cheerful, chipmunk-cute brunette who would vacillate between softcore films, including several directed by Stephen C. Apostolof and written by Ed Wood; hardcore films; and even the occasional "legit" film (like 1973's Invasion of the Bee Girls), racking up potentially hundreds of credits throughout the 1970s. The daughter of a small town politician who took great pride in his little girl and a doting mother who accompanied her everywhere, Rene entered the adult entertainment industry in the late 1960s because she needed money and soon became a favorite of directors, producers, and fans with her sweet personality and svelte, squeezable figure.

As film historian Greg Goodsell stated in the 2012 documentary Dad Made Dirty Movies: "Everybody liked Rene Bond.... [Her father] would get the chamber of commerce to see her hardcore pornographic films and he would say, 'That's my daughter!'" On the side, Rene modeled, stripped, sang, and sold pictures of herself through the mail. At the time of Necromania, Rene was married to her sandy-haired, unassuming co-star, Ric Lutze, an adult film performer in his own right who remained active until the mid-1980s and who appeared in some of the same films as Rene even after the couple's 1972 divorce, including Morris Deal's enticingly-named Beach Blanket Bango (1975). Rene's second husband, minor adult performer Tony Mazziotti, also appeared in Bango, which must have made for an interesting set. Tony and Rene's marriage would last about three years, finally dissolving in 1976.

Relatively early in her film career, Rene got breast implants in a successful gambit to nab more screen work. ("I was told there's a North American breast fetish," she'd recall to an interviewer in 1977.)  In Necromania, however, Rene's assets appear to be all-natural. She's not flat-chested by any means, but she doesn't have the familiar bubble-shaped boobs she would sport in later productions. Rene, a friend and client of Hal Guthu, retired from movies in the early 1980s. In either 1985 or 1986 (sources vary), she resurfaced as a winning contestant on a game show called Break the Bank, where she appeared alongside her new husband, Lonnie Levine.



The "wolf mummy" with its mistress, Madam Heles.
This happy television appearance, in which she was identified as a "bankruptcy specialist" and seemed for all the world like a devoted and totally "normal' suburban wife, was Rene Bond's last moment in the national spotlight. In the late 1980s and 1990s, she became a fixture on the Las Vegas scene and apparently descended into alcoholism. In 1996, she died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of only 46. She was posthumously inducted into the Legends of Erotica Hall of Fame for her years of service to the adult industry. Lonnie Levine was last seen giving tours of L.A. crime scenes and donating some of the proceeds to charity.

To this day, Bond is one of the most fondly-remembered actresses from the so-called Golden Age of Pornography, and there are numerous DVD collections of her films, both soft and hardcore. While she wasn't exactly taking roles away from Meryl Streep, Rene was a capable performer with an innate likability and a girl-next-door quality that audiences obviously appreciated. I certainly disagree with critic Danny Peary, who in his book Cult Movie Stars (1991) cattily dismissed Bond as a "non-cutie" whose "acting skills never improved." If any of this were true, her fame would have faded away decades ago.

Besides Bond and Lutze, the only positively identified cast member of this film is Maria Arnold, another adult actress and model who would cross professional paths with Rene several times in the future. Necromania would presumably have been hitting theaters around the same time Maria was profiled as one of the "Girls of Porno" in Playboy's October 1971 issue. Here, Arnold plays the pivotal but rarely-seen Madame Heles, the role Eddie intended for Vampira. In a sense, Arnold follows in the proud tradition of such ghoulish ingenues as Fawn Silver and Valda Hansen.

Although multiple sources state that Ed Wood appears in this movie as some kind of Orson Welles-ish sexual wizard (even Ric Lutze remembered Eddie having "a bit part" in the film), don't you believe them. He appears in neither of the verified-as-complete prints of the film I just screened, and there are only six speaking roles in the entire production so it's not like he'd be hard to spot. Either Ed's scene was cut (unlikely) or the cameo actually appeared in The Only House (1971), a still-missing film that Ed wrote and directed several months after making Necromania. If it's any consolation, Ted Gorley remembered Necromania as being the superior film.

Sex Ed: Wood's textbook.
Superior or not, Necromania seems to have enjoyed a very brief, almost nonexistent life in theaters. Ed Wood was certainly proud of it, however, touting it as part of "the trend toward better entertainment in the XX rated films" in A Study in the Motivation of Censorship: Sex and the Movies, Book 1 (Edusex, 1972), one of the many ersatz, supposedly "educational" textbooks Ed penned for the pornographic market in the 1970s. "The emphasis," he wrote, '"is placed on the basic story." He went on to praise the cast and crew and declared that Necromania would not insult the intelligence of the adult film audience. For many years, the only version of the film which was available to the public was an incomplete VHS tape of the softcore edition.

In 2004, however, Fleshbot Films -- a now-defunct spin-off of the popular Fleshbot porn blog -- released a DVD which billed Necromania as "Ed Wood's Last Movie" and contained supposedly-complete prints of the hard and soft cuts, both of which Eddie had edited himself over 30 years previously. The hardcore Necromania is only about a minute longer than its R-rated incarnation and contains a few explicit shots of oral and vaginal sex as well as the requisite "cum shot" in which Ric Lutze ejaculates onto Maria Arnold. The oddest difference between the two different versions of the movie is that at least half of the hardcore Necromania seems to have been accidentally "flopped," i.e reversed horizontally so that left is right and vice versa. In Ed Wood, Mad Genius, Rob Craig remarks at some length on this odd continuity error and speculates about its possible significance. Curiously, the softcore cut is not affected by this. Such are the mysteries of Ed Wood.

The viewing experience: As erotica, Necromania is approximately as arousing as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). I'm not saying that to be glib. During the film's tender love scenes (all of them surprisingly gentle until the finale), I honestly got the same queasy feeling I experienced while watching Jim Caviezel being whipped until his flesh was torn, raw, and bloody. A lot of this has to do with the look of the film: the harsh, unflattering photography which tends to make the actors look either too pale or too red, especially in contrast to the vulgar colors of the costumes, props, and sets, which employ tacky, nauseating shades of red, pink, purple, yellow, orange, and even puke green -- the over-saturated hues you'd expect to find in an artificially-colored breakfast cereal intended for hyperactive children. One particularly unsightly bedspread appears to have been made out of the beloved Sesame Street character Big Bird. (Again, not an attempt at glibness but a genuine reaction.)

It's tough for any actors to look good in front of such a gaudy backdrop, even my beloved Rene Bond. In preparation for this review, I watched both the softcore and hardcore versions of Necromania (approximately 52 and 53 minutes long, respectively), and I found that it helped considerably to turn the color off and watch the film in black-and-white. It was still not exactly a treat for the eyes, but it was no longer such a harsh assault upon them either.

Fawn Silver's Princess of Darkness in Orgy of the Dead.
Fortunately, the diligent Wood-ologist will find much consolation in Necromania's script, which is laden with the trappings that have made Ed Wood's other movies so distinctive. He may have been working under an assumed moniker, but Eddie definitely put his signature on this one. Most obviously, the heroine shares the same name as Ed's drag persona -- Shirley. The castle-like mansion of Madame Heles is a disorienting, architecturally-impossible location very much like the reconfigured Willows Place in Night of the Ghouls (1959). Just like that movie, there is no relationship between the interior and exterior, and each room of the house seems to exist in its own dimension, totally isolated in space and time.

The vaguely sinister bric-a-brac which clutters the walls and halls of Madame Heles' abode -- various skulls, wall hangings, scrolls with Chinese characters, velvet paintings, an inverted cross with a rubber snake wrapped around it, and even an ax -- is similar to the debris and detritus of Bela Lugosia's celestial "laboratory" in Glen or Glenda? (1953). Furthermore, the tasteless use of brightly-colored decor to denote Madame Heles' suburban castle as a "house of sin" recalls Love Feast (1969) and Take It Out in Trade (1970). Even a moment when Danny wakes up in bed and sadly caresses the pillow of the absent Shirley made me think of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), in which Mona McKinnon's character, Paula Trent, confesses that she touches the pillow of her pilot husband Jeff (Gregory Walcott) when he's away.

The movie Necromania most closely resembles, however, is Orgy of the Dead (1965). Both films depict the swift sexual reeducation/radicalization of a squabbling heterosexual couple: a woman named Shirley and her insensitive lunkhead of a boyfriend. Both films emphasize the combination of eroticism and horror with ghoulish, Halloween-type sexual rituals. With her rigid, ceremonial language, Tanya seems to be a first cousin of Fawn Silver's Princess of Darkness. Carl, arguably Necromania's most ridiculous and hilarious character, also recalls Fawn Silver with his demand for immediate sexual gratification. ("Now is the time!")

I must remark again how Orgy and Necromania both uncannily presage 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is not difficult to see Dan and Shirley as Brad and Janet, Madame Heles as Frank-N-Furter, libertine Barb as Columbia or Magenta, and jealous, brooding Carl as Riff-Raff. How interesting to note that all three of these movies have a severely compressed timeline and mostly unfold over the course of one night!

Meanwhile, the film's dreamy quality and use of pagan-like sexual ceremonies makes it a precursor to Jim and Artie Mitchell's landmark art-porn smash, Behind the Green Door (1972). It's noteworthy that in both Love Feast and Necromania, there is an ornate door which acts as a portal between humdrum reality and the world of debauched pleasure. Once inside that door, the morality of the outside world no longer applies. And it cannot be a coincidence that Necromania, like Ed Wood's Final Curtain (1957), ends with the hero climbing into a coffin and shutting the lid.

And then, of course, there is the dialogue. Cowboy star Johnny Carpenter once declared Ed Wood's writing to be "too perfect." He meant that as a complaint, but in the long run, the stilted formality of Eddie's scripts is a big part of what made them immortal. In preparation for this article, in fact, I took the liberty of transcribing every last line in this movie. (Don't worry. There aren't many of them. This is a sex film, after all, not Shakespeare in the Park.) I could have just cut and pasted the entire file into this article, but I decided to hone it down to a more reasonable length by cherry picking the movie's best and most memorable lines. Here, then, are my favorite quotes from Necromania. Feel free to read them aloud if you care to.
(Dan and Shirley sneak into Madame Heles' house; Danny is nervous)

Shirley: Sometimes I think you're more of an old woman than my mother!
Dan: I just don't like to think of going to jail!
Shirley: We're invited guests!
Dan: Then where's the invitee?
Shirley: Oh, be quiet and close the door!
Dan: Any minute, I expect Bela Lugosi as Dracula!
(Dan and Shirley enter the bizarre, prop-laden Red Room.) 
Dan: Good lord!
Shirley: You can say that again.
Dan: Good lord!
(Tanya introduces herself.
Tanya: You are Danny and Shirley Carpenter? I am Tanya.
Dan: (to Shirley) She's Tanya.
(Tanya demonstrates a dildo which, when squeezed, makes the sound of a doorbell.) 
Tanya: All you must do is squeeze this little dong for attention.
(Dan and Shirley argue privately.) 
Dan: I don't like this whole setup.
Shirley: I admit it's a strange place, but strange happenings come from strange happenings!
Shirley: You wouldn't know what to do with a bed if you did try it out!
Dan: I sure wish you'd stop trying to insult my manhood!
Shirley: Manhood? Ha! That's what we came here for -- to get you a manhood!

Shirley: Madame Heles is not a witch. She's a necromancer.
Dan: That still spells witch to me. W-I-T-C-H. Witch!

(Carl, clad only in his tighty-whities, stops Tanya in the hall to beg for sex.
Tanya: Carl... I do believe you have become in-sash-able.
Carl: Only because you... (awkward pause) ...taught me to be that way.
Tanya: I suppose I have. But there are others in the house now. And others to be serviced.
Carl: (whining like a spoiled brat) BUT I WANNA BE FIRST! I must come first! I PAID PLENTY TO BE FIRST! To be completely cured!

(Unsatisfied by Dan, Shirley tosses a blanket over him before leaving the room.) 
Shirley: Have fun.

(Shirley bumps into the wolf mummy in the hall, then is confronted by Barb.) 
Shirley: You nearly made me wet my nightgown, old boy! It's new, too.
Barb: (trying to seduce Shirley) He died of rabies, you know.

(Barb hints that Danny is receiving sexual instruction in Shirley's absence.) 
Shirley: Danny's in training?
Barb: You bet your sweet bippy!

(During a private tryst.) 
Tanya: (to Dan, who's worried about appearing "conventional") The word conventional has many connotations, never more so than in this establishment.

(Dan and Shirley, accompanied by their new bed partners, reunite in the Red Room.) 
Dan: Where have you been?
Shirley: I could ask you the same question!
Dan: Well, I had a delightful time.
Shirley: Yes, but did she?
(At the final ritual.) 
Madame Heles: (about newly-graduated Shirley) Henceforth, she shall live for sex and sex alone!

The 2004 Fleshbot DVD.
And that's really just a sampling of what you'll find in this movie, folks. There's more where that came from, I assure you. Necromania is one of the most quotable films in the entire Ed Wood canon. An adventurous theater troupe could turn it into quite an entertaining stage play, as long as they depicted the fornication in an abstract, non-representational way. Viewers more comfortable with such Eisenhower-era fare as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster may not want to sit through an X-rated Ed Wood film which contains graphic sex acts.

But don't be scared away from Necromania. As noted previously, the disc contains a less-explicit R-rated version which contains copious (and unappetizing) nudity but no oral or vaginal sex. It's kind of a shame that there isn't an even softer cut of Necromania which dials back the sexual content even further and places the emphasis where Ed Wood intended: on the plot and dialogue. "Although the sex scenes are what the public wants and demands," the director wrote in 1972, "they are also being treated to a well-balanced storyline which is sure to get rave notices in the publications which outline such films."

Compared to the Internet pornography of the 21st century, Necromania is positively Victorian in its chastity. Can you imagine a modern day sex flick in which anybody gives a damn whether the leading man and lady are legally married? Yeah, neither can I.

And if Ed Wood's moral turpitude were ever in doubt, he made sure to add a totally-out-of-left-field anti-marijuana message to the script. When Shirley mentions that necromancers have lots of "potions" which can help those with sexual performance issues, Danny is offended. "You mean dope?" he snaps. "You know I don't take dope!" Once again, career alcoholic Ed Wood was expressing his utter disdain for illicit drugs and the hippie culture that spawned them. Even though Necromania borrows at least two catchphrases from Laugh In ("And that's the truth!" and "You bet your sweet bippy!"), it was obviously the work of a man who was completely out of touch with the Love Generation. 

Next week: Reunited and it feels so good! Seven years after Orgy of the Dead, the second collaboration between screenwriter Edward D. Wood, Jr. and director Stephen C. Apostolof arrived in America's movie theaters. Steve had made seven movies in the meantime, just without Ed Wood's distinctive input. But the two got back together in a big way during the Nixon era, and their partnership would produce seven more movies in a mere six years, starting with a feature which explored what really happened to the class of '69.  While Harry Reems was curing Linda Lovelace's sexual frigidity in a most unorthodox manner, Apostolof's leading lady Marsha Jordan was in a nostalgic mood as she, too, caught up with old acquaintances... including Rene Bond and Ric Lutze. Make sure you're back here in seven days for The Class Reunion (1972).
 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #68: "My Love For Yours" (1939)

Honeymoon in Bali was retitled and regurgitated as My Love for Yours.

The flick: My Love for Yours (originally released as Honeymoon in Bali, Paramount, 1939) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.4

Director: Edward H. Griffith (The Animal Kingdom)

Sidekick Helen Broderick
Actors of note: Fred MacMurray (Billy Wilder's The Apartment and Double Indemnity; several live-action Disney comedies, including The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, and The Shaggy Dog; TV's My Three Sons), Madeleine Carroll (one of Hitchock's icy blondes; appeared in his films The 39 Steps and Secret Agent), Allan Jones (more known as a singer than an actor; appeared in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races as well as Show Boat, Rose Marie, and other musicals), Akim Tamiroff (Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, The Trial, and the never-completed Don Quixote [he was Sancho Panza]; Godard's Alphaville; much more), Helen Broderick (Top Hat, Swing Time), Osa Massen (MST3K favorite Rocketship X-M; lots of TV work in the '50s), Astrid Allwyn (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Charles Lane (everything), Carolyn Lee (Birth of the Blues), Benny Bartlett (played "Butch" in a lot of Bowery Boys movies from 1948-1955; also appeared in Hitchcock's Rear Window and Capra's Meet John Doe)

The gist of it: Gail Allen (Carroll) is a successful career woman who runs a large NYC department store called Morrissey's and is fiercely proud of her independent lifestyle. But one day, while having lunch with her friend, romance-writing old maid Lorna "Smitty" Smith (Broderick), Gail receives some remarkably specific predictions from a fortune teller (Allwyn), who says that Gail will be married and have a child. Very soon after that, Gail runs into Bill "Willie" Burnett (MacMurray), a cocky businessman who makes his home in Bali and who closely matches the description of the husband the fortune teller described. As it happens, Willie is taking care of little Rosie (Lee), the young daughter of his dying friend. It's kismet! Gail claims she doesn't want to be tied down with a husband and small child, even though Willie knows that's exactly what she needs. And there are romantic rivals on both sides to complicate matters: Gail's semi-romantically involved with opera singer Eric Sinclair (Jones) and Willie's being aggressively pursued by filthy rich, empty-headed Noel Van Ness (Massen). Gail flees to Nassau, taking Rosie with her, but Eric follows, and they have a romantic vacation together... until Gail resists Willie's advances. Willie returns to Bali and agrees to marry Noel, while Gail stays in New York and agrees to marry Eric. Will they dump their respective partners and end up together? I think you can probably guess that one.

MacMurray and Carroll: A match made in romcom hell.
My take: Folks, I won't mince words. I detested this movie and spent the last 20 minutes of it with the middle fingers on both hands extended in disapproval. My Love For Yours starts out kind of cute, I guess, but it becomes absolutely torturous by the end. It's relatively well made, and the cast is more than decent -- with the exception of hopeless child actress Carolyn Lee, who barks all her lines as if she were a well-trained circus seal. But the plot of this film is insultingly stupid and contrived; the script is thoroughly, needlessly misogynistic and casually racist to boot in its patronizing depiction of Bali and its people; and the characters behave like intolerable jackasses. It seems like Fred MacMurray either plays bland nice guys (My Three Sons) or smarmy jerks (The Apartment). He's good at both, and he gives a not-at-all-bad performance here. The trouble is that his character, Willie Burnett, is a terrible human being -- pushy, smug, overconfident, slimy, creepy, and aggressively sexist -- and the movie mistakenly treats him like a hero. Madeleine Carroll's character, Gail Allen, starts out as an intelligent, reasonable, capable woman, and the movie treats her like she has leprosy until she yields to the extremely dubious "charms" of Willie Burnett. Granted, dullard Eric Sinclair is not much of a catch either (his arias do tend to drag on), but who says she has to marry either of these chumps? Every character in the movie insists that Gail needs a husband and child to be complete. What I think she needs is the opportunity to sock Willie Burnett right in the jaw. Maybe then he'd stop smirking for five seconds.

Benny Bartlett
Is it funny: That's the darnedest thing. As deeply irritating as this movie was, there were several funny moments scattered throughout its running time. I liked Akim Tamaroff's character, for instance, a window washer at Morrissey's who observes all the goings on at the store and is not shy about giving his opinion of what others should do. Too bad the movie uses him to help brainwash Gail into throwing herself at Willie Burnett. Fred MacMurray and Charles Lane have a nice little scene together in which they discuss the accuracy of a Balinese-themed window display at the department store, and Benny Bartlett gives the film a shot in the arm as a singing telegram boy who's none too thrilled about working on a rainy night. Naturally, Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll exchange lots of fast-paced 1930s movie banter, too, and I think a few of their zingers might have gotten through to me. In fact, if it hadn't been for this movie's horrendous treatment of women and embarrassing depiction of non-white characters, My Love For Yours would be a decent watch. As it is, however, it's poisonous. I nearly didn't make it through this one.

My grade: D

P.S. - There is a great deal of discussion in this film about Balinese women and their relationship to white men. It is generally agreed upon that white men can hire Balinese women as maids or use them strictly for sex, but it's improper to actually marry them. I'm pretty sure Gail refers to the people of Bali as "heathens" at one point, too. And in the "Nassau" section of the film, little Rosie sees some dark-skinned men and makes a crack about what awful sunburns they must have. So, yeah, this movie may have some racial issues.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics, #67: "The Amazing Adventure" (1936)

The Amazing Adventure stars a young thespian named Cary Grant. Perhaps you've heard of him.

The flick: The Amazing Adventure (Grand National release of a Garrett-Klement Pictures production, 1936) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.2

Stop staring at me: Alfred Zeisler; E. Phillips Oppenheim
Director: Alfred Zeisler (Chicago-born actor, director, and producer; this was his most famous directorial effort; also helmed Parole, Inc. and Fear; as an actor, appeared uncredited in The Desert Rats and 5 Fingers; much of his early film work was done in Germany)

Actors of note: Cary Grant (Hitchcock's Notorious, Suspicion, To Catch a Thief, and North By Northwest; repeatedly worked with George Cukor, Leo McCarey, and Howard Hawks; other credits include Arsenic & Old Lace, Gunga Din, Charade, and many more; considered one of the definitive movie stars of the 20th century), Mary Brian (Affairs of Cappy Ricks; almost got the role of Scarlett O'Hara but lost out to Vivien Leigh), Henry Kendall (East of Shanghai; appeared in a movie called Helter Skelter, but not the one about Charles Manson), Leon M. Lion (Hitchcock's Number 17), John Turnbull (Hitchcock's The 39 Steps; also appeared in The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Private Life of Henry VIII, etc.), Quentin McPhearson (Hitchcock's The 39 Steps), Peter Gawthorne (Kind Hearts and Coronets, Goodbye, Mr. Chips), Alfred Wellesley (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Andreas Malandrinos (Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers; The Beatles' Help!)

Other notables: The movie is based on the 1919 novel The Curious Quest of Mr. Ernest Bliss  [aka The Amazing Quest of Mr. Ernest Bliss] by prolific English author E. Phillips Oppenheim, who churned out over 100 novels (mostly thrillers and romances) and 37 collections of short stories between 1887 and 1941. At least 30 movies were based on Oppenheim's work, this very film being the last of them. This same novel had already been made into a movie in 1920 with Henry Edwards (Oliver Twist) both directing and playing the lead role.

The many disapproving scowls of Peter Gawthorne.
The gist of it: The setting is London. Wealthy layabout Ernest Bliss (Grant) can't eat or sleep, so he goes to see eminent diagnostician Sir James Alroyd (Gawthorne), who is sick and tired of hearing the complaints of the idle rich. The doctor tells Bliss that what he really needs is to live on his own, without using any of the money he inherited from his father, for a year. Alroyd then curtly dismisses Bliss and refuses to shake his hand. Insulted, Bliss bets the highly dubious Alroyd that he can survive a year without help. If Bliss wins, Alroyd must apologize and shake Bliss's hand. If Alroyd wins, Bliss will pay for the £50,000 clinic Alroyd wants to build. After leaving his luxurious flat in the care of his butler Clowes (McPhearson), Bliss sets out with only a five-pound note in his pocket.

After some struggle to land a job, Bliss does find employment, first as an oven salesman, then a chauffeur. He secretly invests in both of these businesses to save them (plus a restaurant he likes), but since he himself doesn't benefit directly, he's technically not breaking his bet. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Frances Clayton (Brian), who adores Bliss but won't marry him because she needs money and security and truly believes Bliss is penniless. Meanwhile, Clowes has allowed a crook named Dorrington (Lion) and his gun-toting thug sidekick to move into Bliss's posh flat, drink Bliss's expensive wine, and smoke Bliss's rare cigars. When Dorrington discovers there's a London chauffeur who looks just like the missing Mr. Bliss, he hatches a scheme: he'll force the driver to "impersonate" Bliss and withdraw money from his bank account. Bliss outwits them, though, and they wind up with nothing except a few blows to the noggin.

But more serious trouble arises when Frances's sister falls ill, and Frances becomes so desperate for money that she decides to marry businessman Mr. Masters, (Turnbull) even though she truly loves Bliss. But if Bliss uses his money to win back Frances, he'll forfeit the bet and prove Alroyd was right. With only a few days to go before the year passes, Bliss must decide which is more important: Frances or the bet he's spent nearly a year of his life trying to win.

Cary Grant proves he can sell ovens.
My take: Okay, think for a moment about this basic premise: a rich young man who's never had to work for anything makes a $1 million bet that he can survive on his own for a year without his old man's money. (Fifty-thousand pounds in 1936 is about $1.3 million in US dollars today.) You'd probably cast some comedian from Saturday Night Live or a popular sitcom actor as Ernest Bliss, get Morgan Freeman to play the no-nonsense doctor, and structure the script as a series of vignettes in which the clueless overgrown rich kid fumbles through several jobs but eventually does learn to cope in the real world while wooing a smart, skeptical woman who initially thinks he's a moron but eventually admires his sincerity and tenacity. That's what the 2013 version of this would be, and the end result would probably play a lot like a combination of Billy Madison, Trading Places, Life Stinks, and that Russell Brand remake of Arthur.

But The Amazing Adventure isn't really like that at all. First of all, it's a British movie from the 1930s, so it's as dry as a good cooking sherry. Apart from one semi-slapstick-y bout of fisticuffs between Bliss and the crooks, this is quite a polite, talky, well-behaved movie. More surprisingly, the script takes its gimmicky premise kind of seriously. Cold, standoffish Mary Brian even plays her role a bit somberly, as if she's in a drama. In fact, this isn't so much and out-and-out comedy as it is a romance yarn with some occasional comic relief. It's not boring or draggy, but it's not nearly as fun as I thought it was going to be.

What this movie has going for it is a terrific lead performance by Cary Grant, who instantly makes Bliss a compelling, full-dimensional character instead of the cartoon he could have been. Grant was only four years into his movie career, but he'd already been in about 25 films by the time he made this one and was clearly capable of carrying a movie all by himself. He basically has to do so here. Mary Brian gives him no help. It's not surprising that she missed out on the role of Scarlett O'Hara, but why was she ever in the running in the first place? There are a few nice turns by British character actors in the supporting roles, but really, Grant's the whole show here. Visually, I appreciated the opportunity to examine some vintage British architecture, technology, and decor, especially grouchy Peter Gawthorne's very stylish office, which looks nothing like any medical facility I've ever seen. I wouldn't want to live in 1930s London, necessarily, but I'd sure like to visit. Imagine a world where you could smoke in a doctor's waiting room and where Guinness could advertise its dry stout with the slogan, "Guinness is good for you."

Is it funny: Fitfully so, yeah. I've already mentioned the goofy fight scene, which is made slightly funnier by the fact that Bliss realizes that his own property is getting trashed and tries (unsuccessfully) to save it. But generally, the humor quotient in this movie is filled by a witty remark every now and again to keep the proceedings from getting too heavy. I suppose the funniest sustained sequence is the one in which chauffeur Bliss accompanies Frances and her lecherous wolf of a boss, Mr. Montague (Wellesley) on a "business trip" and makes sure that the old perv doesn't get the chance to act on his ulterior motives. Bonus points for a nice use of caviar, Cary Grant.

My grade: B

P.S. - Is there racism in this movie? Eh, not really. Greek actor Andreas Malandrinos plays a stereotypical Italian waiter named Giuseppe, who talks with a "that's a spicy meatball"-type accent in a few scenes. But that's all.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 20: "Venus Flytrap" (1970)

These days, you're most likely to find Venus Flytrap under the inaccurate title The Revenge of Dr. X.

"Science fiction, double feature. Dr. X will build a creature."
-Richard O'Brien, The Rocky Horror Show (1973)

"Well, I'd play the Red River Valley, and he'd sit in the kitchen and cry. Run his fingers through seventy years of livin' and wonder, 'Lord, has every well I drilled gone dry?' We was friends, me and this old man. We's like desperados waitin' for a train, Like desperados waitin' for a train."

Fred Olen Ray: A real old school man of the world.
May the gods of drive-in cinema bestow their benevolent blessings upon Fred Olen Ray. The director of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds (1995) and dozens of other features, Ray was born in 1954 in Wellston, Ohio, a humdrum little iron-and-coal-producing town whose only other alumnus of real note was Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Jeff Montgomery. That horsehide hurler's 304 career saves notwithstanding, Fred Olen Ray is clearly the community's most distinguished ex-citizen, even though the lad actually did most of his growing up in Florida.

I wonder what Wellston thinks of its renowned native son, who currently directs made-for-TV and direct-to-DVD comedies and sci-fi films (e.g. Abner the Invisible Dog; Super Shark) under his own name and churns out softcore sexploitation flicks (e.g. Bikini Jones and the Temple of Eros; Tarzeena: Jiggle in the Jungle) under assumed names like "Nicholas Medina" and "Sherman Scott." Ray's also been known to wrestle under the name "Fabulous" Freddie Valentine from time to time. Like Edward D. Wood, Jr., Fred Olen Ray was obsessed with movies from his early childhood. While Ed was weaned on the Bela Lugosi movies he saw at the local bijou, Fred's young mind was warped by monster model kits, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and the horror and sci-fi flicks he watched on television, including a couple of the films Eddie had directed back in the 1950s, most likely Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). When Ray grew up, there was no doubt about his career choice. The die had been cast.

A scene from Beach Blanket Bloodbath (1978).
Fred Olen Ray directed, produced, and wrote his first film, The Brain Leeches, in 1978. He was 24, the very same age Ed Wood had been when he'd shot his own would-be debut, Crossroads of Laredo, thirty years previously. Crossroads was the first of Eddie's many ill-fated Hollywood projects, doomed never to go before an audience in its creator's lifetime. Among the very last was Beach Blanket Bloodbath (1978), a horror-comedy spoof Ed wrote for Fred Ray, who shot a few minutes of the proposed feature in a fruitless attempt to secure funding. (This footage can be glimpsed in Ted Newsom's Look Back in Angora.) Three decades of thwarted ambitions, missed opportunities, ever-worsening alcoholism, and just plain rotten breaks separated Crossroads and Bloodbath.

By the time battle-scarred veteran Ed met eager up-and-comer Fred in the late 1970s, there was almost nothing left of the once-promising young man who'd come to Tinsel Town with such high hopes in 1947. Just as Ed had once done with a down-and-out Bela Lugosi in the 1950s, however, Fred Olen Ray took an interest in this forgotten old-timer and did what little he could to revive his career. The humble, unassuming Ray later admitted that he had no idea how famous Ed would become in just a few years. As he told interviewer Giovanni Spada:
Early in my career, I wanted to make films and get people to put money into films, and I wanted to associate myself with people who had already made films that other people might know. And someone introduced me to Ed Wood, Jr., who had made some films with Bela Lugosi in the 1950s, and I hired Ed Wood to write a script for a movie called Beach Blanket Bloodbath. And I sent him some money, and he got started on the script. And I sent him a Christmas card, 1978, and the card came back, "Moved. No longer at this address." And I later find out that Ed had died. And where my script is, no one knows. But he was a very friendly guy, a very outgoing guy. He laughed a lot. And little did we know that years later, Ed Wood would become so famous.



From the 1960s on, Ed Wood was often either uncredited or billed under a pseudonym for much of his film work, which by then mainly consisted of writing screenplays for others to direct. How do we know, then, which movies Ed worked on? Well, for one thing, he apparently kept a record of them himself and added them to his résumé or CV (curriculum vitae), which he kept updated even during his declining years, still optimistic enough to be planning ahead for the next job opportunity. Though I've never had the chance to peruse these documents myself, I've seen references in print to Ed Wood résumés dated 1970 and 1974. If Rob Craig's book, Ed Wood, Mad Genius:A Critical Study of the Films (McFarland, 2009), is to be believed, the consummately professional Eddie presented his CV to the young Fred Olen Ray back in 1978. And it is from this list of accomplishments that we can now trace Ed Wood's connection to a curious Japanese-American co-production whose very origins remain shrouded in mystery today.

VENUS FLYTRAP (1970)



The Rifftrax edition of the film.
Alternate titles: The Revenge of Dr. X, The Revenge of Doctor X, The Venus Flytrap, Body of the Prey, The Double Garden, The Devil Garden, The Revenge of the Venus Flytrap.

Availability: Take your pick. After being distributed by various labels, including Reel Classic Films, Regal Video, and New Horizons, the film has fallen into the public domain and is available freely under the completely inaccurate title The Revenge of Dr. X. In this version, the opening credits are for another movie entirely, specifically Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968). Despite what the opening titles say, Venus Flytrap was not produced by Eddie Romero and Kane W. Lynn, written by Ruben Canoy, or co-directed by Romero and Gerry DeLeon. Furthermore, the cast does not include John Ashley, Angelique Pettyjohn, or Ronald Remy. Again, all of these wonderful folks worked on Mad Doctor of Blood Island, which is an entirely different movie. Perhaps Venus Flytrap and Mad Doctor were intended to run as a double feature.

In any event, The Revenge of Dr. X (which pointedly features neither revenge nor a character named Dr. X) is available as part of the Chilling Classics 50 Movie Pack (Mill Creek, 2005) for about the same price as you can buy it as a standalone DVD (Syngergy, 2007). Through Amazon Instant Video, you can download the movie for eight bucks or rent it for three. For ten bucks, you can download the Rifftrax version of the film, with humorous commentary by Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett.

Regal Video's VHS version.
The backstory: Hoo boy. This is a tricky one. More so than with any previous film in this series, I will have to rely on third-hand information, rumors, and hearsay in my discussion of Venus Flytrap. Let's start with a basic question: who directed this movie? Well, it was not Ed Wood. On that issue, all sources are in agreement. Ed's authorship of the screenplay seems no longer to be in dispute, and reference books which include this film also acknowledge that it was made in Japan in either 1966 or 1967. The appearance of a slightly-worn 1966 Chrysler in the film is a reliable indicator of its age. Where the 1970 release date comes from, I do not know, as the film does not seem to have achieved widespread theatrical release under any of its multiple titles.

By most accounts, the film acquired the title The Revenge of Dr. X as well as the totally inaccurate credits during the 1980s, when it was released on VHS tape by a company called Regal Video. The rumor mill has it that Regal was founded by furniture retailers and that the company carelessly disposed of the original master, which had no opening credits at all, after transferring the film to videotape. Whether or not this is true, the only version of the movie currently available was clearly made from a rather murky VHS copy. No better prints of the film have surfaced, if in fact they even exist at all.

The identities of the filmmakers are still up for debate as well. Several reference works -- including Rob Craig's Ed Wood, Mad Genius and Thomas and Yuko Weisser's The Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia (Vital Books, 1997) -- claim that the film was directed by Kenneth G. Crane (1907-1995), who also helmed The Manster (1959) and Monster from Green Hell (1957) and was chiefly employed as an editor by the mid-to-late 1960s. The IMDb's current director of record is Norman Thomson (1916-2000) aka Earl Norman aka Norman Earl Thomson, a pulp novelist and stage/screen actor who had been part of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater Players, including their infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. Thomson spent most of his career in Tokyo, Japan, where for thirty years he served as the entertainment supervisor for all American military bases in the Far East under the direction of the US Department of Defense.

Thomson's daughter, Patricia Ayame Thomson, was born in Tokyo during this time and grew up to become an actress herself, with appearances on Days of Our Lives and Seinfeld. Her IMDb biography discusses her father's career somewhat. The Toei Company, a prominent Japanese film and TV studio incorporated in 1950 (and responsible for such MST3K favorites as Invasion of the Neptune Men and The Green Slime as well as the highly-regarded Battle Royale), may have been involved in the production of Venus Flytrap.

While the company has officially disavowed any connection to it, as have all Japanese studios, an Ed Wood scholar identified as Doctor Kiss has stated that there is paperwork indicating that the company did finance Venus Flytrap. For what it's worth, the IMDb currently lists the movie as a Toei production.

The case for Norman Thomson as the movie's director is strengthened by some vintage articles from Stars & Stripes, the American military's official newspaper. On page 13 of the October 6, 1967 edition is an article by Miami serviceman and columnist Al Ricketts, who has a prominent and pivotal role in the film as an eccentric, grease-stained gas station attendant. In the piece, which was part of his regular column called On the Town, Ricketts writes about Atsuko Rome, the film's lead actress. In particular, the article describes the making of one of the movie's many diving scenes, which were apparently as grueling as they appear to be in the finished movie:

Atsuko Rome on film and in print.
would imagine that most girls in the world, regardless of their vital statistics, dream of becoming movie stars. Or Miss Universe. Or maybe even the Playmate of the Month in the centerfold of Playboy Magazine. 
But there's one girl I know currently making her debut in motion pictures who really doesn't care whether she becomes another Marilyn Monroe or not. I'm referring to the pert and shapely Atsuko Rome, who is actor James Craig's co-star in Earl Norman's "Body of the Prey." The Tokyo-born daughter of a well-known pottery artist (her husband is a retired Army colonel) is in the seaside city of Shimoda right now getting her first taste of what it's like to work in a Hollywood-type atmosphere of cables, bright lights, angry shouts from the director and numerous retakes. 
I found her dripping wet, wrapped in a blanket, her hair an absolute mess -- and shivering -- after repeated plunges into a cold salt water aquarium. To make matters worse, the tank was at least 20-feet deep and the pressure on the eardrums at the bottom was fierce.  
Yet, Asuko was in good spirits and quite excited about her first day as a movie star. "I'm nervous," she said, "and a little frightened. The water is not so cold ... but the pressure on the ears is terrible. And I almost freeze to death every time I come out of the water." 
Does she like the idea of becoming an actress? "It has been exciting -- this first day. And I think I will like it. But I don't want to go to Hollywood. And I won't care if I never make another picture ... At least I don't think so right now. 
"Maybe I am being too honest? I don't know what to say. Maybe I'm saying all the wrong things. I really don't know how to handle these things. I just feel that I have to be myself, that I must tell the truth. Is that wrong/" 
It's not wrong, Atsuko. It's refereshing. But you would cause a Hollywood press agent to have a heart attack by making remarks like that. Like it ain't show biz, baby.

Venus Flytrap's ultra-manly star, James Craig
Neither Mr. Ricketts nor Ms. Rome ever had occasion to step in front of a motion picture camera again after this film was completed. The other few performers in this movie who can be identified -- such as John Stanley and Edward M. Shannon (likely backers who play "Dr. Stanley" and "Dr. Shannon" respectively), plus Lawrence O'Neill and Tota Kondo -- are one film wonders with no other movie or TV credits. American-born James Yagi, who plays the level-headed Dr. Paul Nakamura, did rack up a number of Hollywood credits in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly on TV shows like Dobie Gillis and My Three Sons. It is also possible, though not positively confirmed, that Miyoshi Umaki (1929-2007) of Flower Drum Song and TV's The Courtship of Eddie's Father, has a bit role in the production as well.

As Al Ricketts mentions in his article, however, the real star of Venus Flytrap (or Body of the Prey) and easily its most recognizable face is James Craig (1912-1985), an actor who by then was nearing the end of a 35-year movie career. Named by exhibitors as the second-most-likely new star of 1944 (just behind perennial punchline Sonny Tufts), Craig appeared in a few high-profile productions like Kitty Foyle (1940) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1944) early in his career, but was more often relegated to low-budget "B" features and serials. By taking whatever parts came his way, he managed to stay employed for several decades before finally bottoming out with 1972's pitiful Doomsday Machine.

In 1968, after the production of Venus Flytrap but before its release, Craig appeared in arguably his most popular film, the David L. Wolper-produced war story The Devil's Brigade, alongside such manly actors as William Holden, Cliff Robertson, and Richard Jaeckel. By that time, with his slicked-back hair and neatly-trimmed pencil mustache, Craig bore a striking resemblance to the older Clark Gable but apparently did not have Gable's effortless magnetism or broad appeal with audiences. After producers stopped calling and the offers dried up, Craig retired from acting and made his living as a successful real estate agent. Interestingly, this parallels the career of another Ed Wood graduate, Tom Keene, who got out of show business to sell life insurance in his autumn years.

Is this character intended to be a "sneaky Jap?"
The viewing experience: Venus Flytrap offers everything you would expect from an Ed Wood movie from the 1950s -- including highly quotable dialogue, lovably naive special effects, and a baffling, nonsensical plot -- except that it takes place in Japan in the late 1960s. It is possible that the film's exotic setting is a remnant of Ed's own haunting WWII experiences in which he was forced to kill Japanese soldiers. Or it may be that the plot of Ed's script was simply transplanted to Japan by the filmmakers because that's where they were stationed. The island nation provides an intriguing backdrop to the film, with its looming volcanoes and deferential women, but it is not actually essential to the story. This is simply a mad doctor movie which happens to take place in Japan.

Rob Craig comments on the "creeping racism" of the resulting film, but I feel he's overreaching with this observation. Easily the film's most negative character, agitated NASA rocket scientist turned botanist Dr. Bragan (James Craig), is American. The Japanese characters are presented in a neutral-to-positive way throughout the film. Yes, Bragan does have a leering, creepy, hunchbacked assistant who is Japanese, but I feel this character owes far more to the deformed servants played by Dwight Frye in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) than to the "sneaky Jap" stereotype as Rob Craig suggests. And the hunchback is in no way representative of the film's other Asian characters, who are mostly helpful, sane, and reasonable, especially in contrast to the temperamental, volatile, and selfish American Dr. Bragan.

Apart from the Universal Frankenstein films, the clearest antecedents of Venus Flytrap are Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Ed Wood's own Bride of the Monster (1955). As the movie opens, NASA scientist Dr. Bragan is severely stressed out by the many delays and miscaluclations which threaten the agency's space shuttle launches. (Bragan's most famous line is reminiscent of Plan 9's haughty alien Eros, only less polite: "How in the hell can anybody be so utterly stupid as to build a rocket base on the coast of Florida?") Bragan throws temper tantrums, yells at his subordinates, and seems to be experiencing migraines or even blackouts which are affecting his work, so his partner, Dr. Paul Nakamura, suggests a lengthy sabbatical in Japan and arranges for his lovely cousin, Noriko Hanamura (Atsuko Rome), to meet Bragan at the airport and serve as his assistant during his visit.

On the way to the airport in Wilmington, North Carolina, Bragan suffers a clogged fuel line and stops at a backwoods filling station to have the vehicle repaired. There, he meets the establishment's filth-encrusted but friendly owner (Ricketts, in a role Ed must have been intending for Harvey B. Dunn) who encourages Bragan to examine his collection of snakes while the car is being repaired. The doctor isn't much interested in snakes but is fascinated by some Venus flytraps he finds growing on the property and, with the owner's blessing, takes a few samples along with him on the plane trip to Japan.

Dr. Bragan chats with a topless diver in Venus Flytrap.
Once Bragan gets to Japan, the incredibly accommodating Noriko informs him that her father has a neglected resort with a functioning and well-maintained greenhouse high up in the mountains. Rock slides and volcanic eruptions make the place as impractical a vacation spot as The Shining's Overlook Hotel, but Noriko's family has held on to the place and kept the hunchback on salary as the hotel's full-time caretaker. (In their quite-funny commentary on the film, the Rifftrax guys repeatedly point out how unlikely and impractical this business model truly is.) Once Dr. Bragan has his new greenhouse laboratory set up, he begins an experiment to prove that human beings evolved from plant life. To accomplish this, he plans to splice together the Venus flytrap, a land plant, with the "Venus Vesiculosa," a large, tube-like sea plant, to create an ambulatory, carnivorous hybrid he dubs "Insectivorus."

Noriko assists Bragan in this utterly-insane scheme, but she is increasingly unsettled by his erratic behavior. There are several sequences in which she gets out of bed in the middle of the night, goes to the window, and watches the white-coat-wearing Bragan traipse off into the woods in search of... something. (One possible justification for these scenes is that they provide an excuse to show Atsuko Rome silhouetted in a sheer nightgown against the window.)

The side trip that Bragan and Noriko take to locate the elusive "Venus Vesiculosa," offers one of movie's few concessions to the era in which it was made. Namely, the two are assisted in their underwater scavenger hunt by the lovely, topless maidens of Chiba. In a weird detail seemingly cribbed from an old Disney animated movie, Bragan totes the rare plant around in what looks like a glass coffin once he's "liberated" it from the ocean floor, as if the plant were Snow White or Sleeping Beauty awaiting a kiss from Prince Charming.

From there, the movie progresses pretty much like you'd expect for a mad scientist film of this vintage... or, more accurately, of a mad scientist film from the 1940s. The Insectivorus, a huge, lumbering humanoid creature with Venus flytraps for hands and dreadlock-ish stalks growing out of its onion-like head, escapes from the lab and goes on a killing spree in a nearby village. This, in turn, attracts the attention of a torch-wielding mob (led by the father of one of the creature's victims) and leads to the downfall of both the doctor and his incredible creation. It's the standard "he tampered in God's domain" deal.

The movie swipes quite a bit from the Frankenstein films, especially a "creation" scene in which the monster is raised on a platform toward a skylight during a thunderstorm. In The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Bela Lugosi's Ygor famously described the Monster's origins: "The lightning! It is good for you! Your father was Frankenstein, but your mother was the lightning!" Well, Ed Wood has Dr. Bragan cycle through several variations on this line, including:
  • "Your mother was the soil ... perhaps the lightning will become your father!"
  • "The earth was your mother. Your blood will be the rain. Your father, the lightning!"
  • "Your mother was the earth, the rain your blood,  the lightning your power!"
As indicated previously, Dr. Bragan also has a great deal in common with  Bela Lugosi's Dr. Eric Vornoff from Bride of the Monster. Vornoff is a grouchy, short-tempered mad scientist who once worked for the government and who has now isolated himself in a remote, creepy house where he spends his time making monsters in an attempt to prove some kind of asinine theory about the essence of life.

The Insectivorus, for its part, seems derived in equal measures from the Frankenstein Monster (at least the less-sympathetic version of that character played by Glenn Strange) and Audrey, Jr., the man-eating, bloodthirsty killer plant from The Little Shop of Horrors. Like the leafy menace from the seminal Corman film, the Insectivorus at first appears to be weak and fragile until it feasts on something living (in this case, sadly, a puppy) and grows strong. The plant gains control over its human master, and just like the hapless Seymour (Jonathan Haze) did in 1960, Dr. Bragan embarks upon furtive, late-night missions to acquire fresh blood for the hungry plant. In Bragan's case, this involves going to a Sanitarum and extracting the vital life fluid from a sleeping female patient, affording the filmmakers another chance to work in some gratuitous nudity. (Though as Joe Bob Briggs once pointed out, no nudity is ever truly gratuitous as long as it's any damned good.)

Whatever its title, Venus Flytrap seems deserving of a larger cult following. It contains all the elements that "B" movie fans would want, including a discordant and truly odd musical score, a profoundly silly monster, some very clumsy camera work, and acting which ranges from apoplectic (James Craig) to narcoleptic (Atsuko Rome, who seems to have learned her lines phonetically). But it also gives us some insight into the obsessions and diversions of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Many of Ed's pet motifs appear here, including alcohol, lightning, snakes, dogs, and frilly nightgowns. And in some of Dr. Bragan's lunatic ranting, there is even some existential Wood-ian philosophy evident. During a quiet moment with Noriko, Bragan looks up to the heavens -- the source of his livelihood -- and muses:
"My life has been out there, and it still seems to be. It's my probe, my project, that speeds on its way to another planet, to search its depth, its soil, its life perhaps, its mysteries... when there are so many mysteries right here on our own planet we haven't even solved."
This very project has taught me just how true that statement is.

Next week: Edward D. Wood, Jr. has had more "final films" than the Who have had "farewell tours." If you'll cast your minds back nine years, you might remember that there was a minor media sensation in 2004 when Fleshbot Films (a now-defunct spinoff of a still-existent porn blog) released Ed Wood's supposed "last movie "on DVD in both its softcore and hardcore versions. At the time, Fleshbot was owned by Gawker Media, so the story got around quite a bit. In fact, this particular title was not Ed's last directorial effort of all time. Heck, it wasn't even his last directorial effort of 1971! But it is, for now, the last movie written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. to receive an official DVD release. And now, dear readers, it has found its way to this blog. Meet me back here in seven days for an uncensored examination of Necromania: A Tale of Weird Love (1971).