Sunday, August 31, 2014

So who is Karl Wiedergott, anyway?

German-born actor Karl Wiedergott in the movie 2 Days. Inset: one of Karl's many, many Simpsons characters

Bill Clinton on The Simpsons
If you have been following the 12-day Simpsons marathon on FXX, there is one name you have undoubtedly seen in the cast credits but may not be able to immediately connect to any particular role. Born in Germany in 1969, Karl Wiedergott lent his vocal talents to a staggering 248 episodes of the extremely long-running animated series, joining the cast in 1998 and staying with the show until 2010 when he left the United States. In addition to its six principal cast members (Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, etc.) and recurring guest stars (Kelsey Grammar, Marcia Wallace, et al.), The Simpsons employs a talented and versatile troupe of additional voice actors, nearly all of them women. Performers like Russi Taylor, Tress MacNeille, Pamela Hayden, and Maggie Roswell have been with the show for decades, voicing a slew of child and adult characters. The odd man out here, in more ways than one, is Wiedergott. Not only is he male and German, but (unlike the women I just mentioned) he doesn't really have any recurring characters on the show. Instead, along with impersonating celebrities like Bill Clinton and John Travolta, Karl Wiedergott spent his time on The Simpsons bringing life to such parts as "Care Worker," "Angry Man," and "Boyfriend 2." Ironically, this thankless work is probably what Wiedergott is best known for, even though he has appeared in dozens of television shows and movies for nearly 30 years. His CV includes such well-known titles as Coach, Columbo, 21 Jump Street, and Star Trek: Voyager. In 2003, he wrote and acted in Two Days, an indie drama whose cast included Paul Rudd, Adam Scott, and Donal Logue. Other film credits for the actor include 18 Again! (1988) and Breakfast of Champions (1999), in which he coincidentally plays a character named Homer. So there you have it, folks. That's the scoop on Karl Wiedergott. And now you know... the rest of the story.
      

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Novel ideas: A comprehensive guide to the books I didn't write

"How you, uh, how you coming on that novel you're working on, huh?"


"Me, I'm a cab driver."
"Working on my novel" is one of the great cliches/lies of the Internet, a statement as comforting to those who make it as it is annoying to the ones who have to read it. There's a whole Twitter account devoted to people's laughable claims that they're working on novels. This account has recently been turned into a book of its own by Penguin, an impressive feat since it consists only of retweets from supposed authors bragging about their creativity and productivity. Obviously, if you're on Twitter (or any social media site), you're not working on anything, especially not your novel. And even if you do happen to write a novel, who will actually want to read the thing? Virtually no one. But, still, it's a tempting fantasy. We don't want to admit that we're bank tellers, janitors, or substitute teachers, so we tell ourselves that we're really "writers" and that the things we actually do for money are mere "day jobs." This goes for all the aspiring "artists" and "musicians" out there, too. No one is really fooled by this. And yet the charade continues. It's hardly a new phenomenon created by the Internet either. In the pilot for the sitcom Taxi in 1978, career cabbie Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch) counsels newcomer and aspiring art dealer Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) on her first day as an employee of the Sunshine Cab Company. When she says she's "not really a taxi driver," Alex responds:
"Oh, yeah, I know. We're all part-time here. You see that guy over there? Now, he's an actor. The guy on the phone, he's a prize fighter. This lady over here, she's a beautician. The man behind her, he's a writer. Me? I'm a cab driver. I'm the only cab driver in this place."
And you can see his point. There comes a time when you should drop the pretension and admit what you truly are. Well, I'm proud to say that I am most definitely not working on any novels. I wrote one once a few years ago as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It is called Perforated, and it is profoundly unreadable, perhaps even stubbornly anti-readable. I've tried to read it myself and found that this is impossible. (I dare you to get through it.) Even though 2014 is the first year when I was first actually paid for writing something, I would never ever call myself a writer. I'm not one. Jim Thompson was a writer. Dashiell Hammett was a writer. James M. Cain was a writer. I just work for a market research company. That's the real me, as reluctant as I am to admit it. But there's a part of my brain that won't stop coming up with ideas for novels. I will confess that I've put myself to sleep many nights thinking about these would-be books, imagining both their composition and eventual reception. I'm never going to actually write any of these books, but I want to get some mileage out of them before consigning them forevermore to the cemetery of expired dreams. So here, for your reading pleasure, is a fairly comprehensive list of my "aborted" novels. I'll give you their titles if I have them, plus a general description of their contents. I'm not including The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls, my never-to-be-completed second NaNo novel, because I actually did finally make a short story out of that.
NOTE: None of these are "joke" ideas fabricated solely for this article. The following are all ideas I legitimately considered fleshing out into novels at one time or another.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The public is the worst part of public transportation

Imagine running into this dude at 6:30 in the morning. Not fun, citizens. Not fun at all.

I hate people. Just flat-out hate 'em. Oh, sure, I can make exceptions for individuals. The person reading this article right now might be a great guy or gal. But a generalized, all-encompassing love for humanity? No way. People are just the worst. Why do I feel that way? Because I've gotten to know them through the miracle of public transportation.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Where the hell have I been?

Archie and the gang reenact the myth of Sisyphus.

I have not been updating this blog much for the last couple of weeks (shame on me), but I have a valid-ish excuse. If you read last week's Ed Wood Wednesdays article (and please, please do if you haven't already), you'll know that I came down with what was either the worst cold of my life or some virulent strain of influenza with a wide range of inconvenient symptoms, including the temporary loss of my glorious speaking voice. (The laryngitis came on strong, subsided, came back, and subsided again.) I'm operating at about 90-95% capacity now, but the last two weeks have straight up sucked. Regretfully, I did not face adversity like a champion. Instead, I wallowed in depression and inertia, accomplishing very little. I kept going to work and meeting my obligations there, of course, but everything else kinda went by the wayside. The only thing I've been writing recently are tweets. That doctored Archie comic up there represents my first creative endeavor of any kind in a while. I've been watching the hell out of the 12-day Simpsons marathon on FXX (I don't really give a damn about the "cropping" controversy), but that's pretty much been the extent of my media intake. Other blog/life updates:

  • My dad had to spend some time in an intensive care unit following a procedure to remove excess plaque from his arteries. I'll admit I was scared by this, but he's home now and doing fine. We had a nice long chat yesterday, and seems to be recovering nicely. Even though I'm an atheist, I've done plenty of praying in the last few days.
  • In happier news, I was briefly interviewed by a reporter named Erik Piepenberg from the New York Times for a piece about Ed Wood. I don't know if any of what I said will make it into an article, but it was cool to talk to a professional journalist about something which interests me. I'll keep you posted should anything develop from this. UPDATE: Here is a link to the completed article.I'm only quoted once in it, but it's right near the beginning. And the article does kindly mention Dead 2 Rights and "Ed Wood Wednesdays."
  • Even when I don't post anything new to D2R, I'm always working on upcoming pieces for this blog. I have some stuff planned which I hope you will enjoy.
  • That's it. I have nothing else to say right now. Think of me often as you enjoy the rest of your day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 46: 'The Undergraduate' (1971)

Lessons in love: Professor Collins (John Dullaghan) instructs his students about sex in The Undergraduate.

Betsy: You've got to be kidding.
Travis: What?
Betsy: This is a dirty movie.
Travis: No, no, this is, this is a movie that, uh, a lot of couples come to. All kinds of couples go here.
Betsy: Are you sure about that?
Travis: Sure. I've seen 'em all the time.

-dialogue from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976)
Remember this dude? Yeah, that's been my life lately.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am sick. And I don't mean "sick" in the sense of "perverted or deranged," though I may be those things. That's for society to determine, I guess. And I don't mean "sick" in the sense of "sick and tired of writing about Ed Wood." That could never happen. No, I mean "sick" as in since last Wednesday, my life has been like one non-stop Nyquil commercial without the upbeat ending. I somehow came down with the mother of all summer colds that day, and it's been hanging around for a good, long spell ever since.

Other than to go to work or the grocery store, I haven't gotten out of bed much in the last few days. My head feels like a block of concrete. Glue runs through my veins rather than blood. And the rest of my body has been converted into an extremely efficient factory for the production of mucous. I am fairly drowning in a river of snot, to borrow a turn of phrase from John Waters' Female Trouble. I am writing this paragraph through the haze of weak over-the-counter cold remedies that serve only to scramble the mind as they leave one's symptoms unscathed. A humidifier gurgles in the background, and there is a wastebasket right by the bed for those too-frequent times when I need to hack up phlegm. I have all the strength and stamina of a wad of chewed gum.

I tell you these things not to engage your sympathies, though I will gladly accept your pity, but rather to give you some insight into the creation of this particular entry of the "Ed Wood Wednesdays" series. Right now is an exciting time for the Ed Wood fan. Lots of previously-lost material is being re-released, and I wish I were fully awake and alert enough right now to enjoy it. But that's not how this particular cookie crumbled. As it happens, I am writing this article from a cocoon of illness, slumped in my sick bed like a neglected rag doll. Everything seems a bit hazy and distant, and it is difficult for me to concentrate on any particular task for too long before nodding off.

But I have a new Ed Wood DVD to review, goddamnit, and neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stay this courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. I suppose what I'm asking is that you, the reader, grade this particular article on a generous curve.

And speaking of generous curves...

THE UNDERGRADUATE (1971)
  
Feeling collegiate yet? The title screen from The Undergraduate has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

The sleeve for ABA's new edition of The Undergraduate.
Alternate titles: None of which I am aware. However, a few reviews imply that this film is a follow-up to a movie called The Postgraduate Course in Sexual Love (1970), which also stars John Dullaghan as Professor Collins. Whether the two films share any footage, I do not know.

Availability: This movie is now available as part of a series of Ed Wood reissues from Alpha Blue Archives. You can order it directly from them right here. For some reason, Amazon doesn't have it in stock right now, but that may change.

The backstory: Do you happen to know what Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. has to say about The Undergraduate? Well, I've saved you the trouble of looking it up. On page 212 of this 230-page book, in the otherwise-lavishly-annotated filmography section, it clearly states:
1971
THE UNDERGRADUATE
Jacques Descent Productions
Screenplay: Ed Wood
That's a fountain of information, man. That's a geyser. I mean, woah, daddy. Stand back, man. And that is, quite literally, the only reference to The Undergraduate in Grey's entire book. Clearly, this is going to be one of those times when I have to piece together some semblance of "the truth" from whatever table scraps of knowledge are available to me. I will admit at this juncture that I am not the world's leading authority on pornographic films from the early 1970s. Fortunately, there are folks on the Internet who have devoted more of their lives to this topic than I have, and it is upon their shoulders that I must stand this week. I thank you, noble scholars of pornography.

A poster for Kroger Babb's Mom and Dad.
The term that affixes itself like a particularly stubborn barnacle to the hull of this movie is "white-coater." Named for the traditional garment worn by a physician, a white-coater is a pornographic or sexploitation film, usually presented in documentary form, which purports to be educational in nature rather than salacious. This shady subgenre exists largely out of legal gamesmanship on the part of crafty filmmakers. If hauled in front of a judge on obscenity charges, the producer of a white-coater could claim that his movie was made to educate rather than titillate viewers. And the disingenuous strategy seems to have worked!

Though I cannot pinpoint an exact starting date for this subgenre, the earliest example of the form I can recall is the sensational and controversial Mom and Dad (1945), produced by Kroger Babb and directed by William "One-Shot" Beaudine. This film, which incorporated footage of live births (both natural and Caesarian) and played to gender-segregated audiences, was "the consensus top-grossing picture of 1947," according to the Internet Movie Database. John Waters has speculated that part of Mom and Dad's success was due to the fact that Babb had found a way to sneakily incorporate full-frontal female nudity into an ostensibly "educational" picture. Men in the audience just had to ignore the baby emerging from the woman's vagina. Or so the theory went.

In any event, Kroger Babb's phenomenal success did not go unnoticed by other independent filmmakers, who made white-coaters of their own for decades and may have enjoyed a level of respectability not shared by other pornographic films. In her book Porn Studies (Duke University Press, 2004), Linda Williams notes that "white-coaters were most often released in 35 mm and shown in larger venues" than other hardcore features. In a way, Ed Wood's own Glen or Glenda? (1953) can be considered a white-coater, as it takes a documentary approach to the subject of transgenderism and features two white male authority figures: a medical doctor and a police officer. Neither wears a literal white coat, of course, but their purpose in the film is to lend the project an air of legitimacy.

So powerful was the allure of the white-coater that as late as 1976, Robert De Niro could be seen escorting a highly-skeptical Cybill Shepherd to an X-rated pseudo-documentary entitled Swedish Marriage Manual. It's worth noting that Ms. Shepherd is not fooled by the dispassionate, newsman-style narration of the Swedish movie for even a minute and storms out in a huff. It should also be noted that when De Niro visits a porn theater on his own in another scene from the film, he does not choose a white-coater.

The Undergraduate immediately establishes itself as an example of the subgenre by virtue of its setting and structure. The film's narrator is a college professor, and the bulk of the film is presented as an examination and lecture in one of his supposed courses. The professor's opening monologue, recited over the sparse opening credits, serves as a good plot summary of the film:
Professor Collins
I'm Professor Collins. I want to welcome you to the undergraduate second course in sexual love. The, uh, society is becoming more aware of the need for every individual having a complete knowledge of the sex act, its psychology and technique, in order to fulfill his or her life in a complete way. The producers of this film feel that you as an adult individual have the right to view this entertaining and instructive motion picture and better your sex life. Husbands and wives will learn how to more completely satisfy each other's needs and desires, thereby leading to greater mutual satisfaction and greater compatibility. 
The producers of this film feel that if one member of the audience learns something which will save one marriage, then their efforts have been worthwhile. As a serious student of the epitome of expressing love, the emotionally and physically complete sex act, I'm grateful for this opportunity to share my knowledge with you. In this film, we will broaden your knowledge of contraception, masturbation, and also we will delve into, uh, premature ejaculation. We'll look at fear and its effect on the lovemaking process. I have a midterm essay test that I'm going to give to my students, then we're going to discuss the Presidential Commission's report on pornography and obscenity. 
I would like you to meet some of the students of this college who will be helping me in presenting this course to you.

Required reading: Penthouse February '71.
Professor Collins then goes on to introduce us to the seven students (three boys, four girls, all Caucasian and heterosexual, ranging in age from late teens to early twenties) whom we'll be seeing for the rest of the movie. It is significant that the male students are discussed in terms of their athletic accomplishments ("He plays football, wrestles, and swims.") and personalities ("He seems to be intelligent but restless, very restless."), while their female counterparts are denoted by their physical attributes ("There are doubts as to whether or not she's a natural blonde.") and sexual habits ("I think she's majoring in chasing boys. Boy, is she wild!"). Collins makes sure to give us the height, weight, hair color, and measurements of all of these female students. He does not do the same for the boys.

The first half of the film is dominated by the students. Professor Collins hands out a midterm essay examination about certain sex-related topics like contraception and masturbation, and as the students ponder their answers, the film cuts away to little vignettes in which the young actors demonstrate various erotic techniques in front of colorful but nondescript backgrounds. Since the students take over the voice-over duties during these cutaways, The Undergraduate has the same "multiple narrator" feel as Ed Wood's previous Glen or Glenda? (1953).

Once the tests are handed in, the rest of the class time -- and, consequently, the movie -- is taken up with a lecture by Professor Collins. He talks a bit about the infamous Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson and presented to Johnson's successor, Richard M. Nixon, in 1970. That report, which urged leniency on sexually-explicit material and found "no evidence" that pornography leads to crime, was roundly rejected by a scandalized congress and an outraged president. Professor Collins, on the other hand, fully supports the findings of the commission and recommends that his students check out a couple of then-new publications: Bob Guccione's Penthouse (specifically the February 1971 issue) and Al Goldstein's Screw. He also shows them a few minutes of a genuine "stag film" and gives a thumbnail history of pornography in America.

Before dismissing them for break, Professor Collins first warns his students to stay away from such drugs as LSD, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Here, Ed Wood's staunch anti-drug stand comes to the fore.

Jacques Descent at home in 2009.
But who else was responsible/to blame for making this particular motion picture, apart from screenwriter Ed Wood? Well, if you know anything about the porno biz, you have probably already guessed that the film's opening credits are composed entirely of bogus names and are therefore worthless. The listed production company, Yellowbird Films, has no other credits that I can find. An online directory of Florida companies lists Yellowbird Films Inc. as a "domestic for profit business incorporated in Florida, USA on June 25, 1970" and states that the business is now "inactive." If this is indeed the Yellowbird Films that made The Undergraduate, then the timeline just about makes sense. And the Florida thing makes sense, too, once you learn about the film's producer.

All sources seem to agree that the film was produced by a man named Jacques Descent (1937- ), who has an intriguing if spotty filmography of his own. Although Descent hails from and currently resides in Montreal, Quebec, he seems to have spent a good chunk of his career in Florida, including a stint as the "founder and chairman" of something called Fort Lauderdale International Film Market, Inc. in the early 1990s. He was also given a "Man of the Year" award at a documentary film festival in Clearwater, FL in 1999. In addition, he served as an assistant auditor on the Jane Fonda/Gregory Peck drama Old Gringo (1989) and an accountant for the Florida production unit of the James Bond movie License to Kill (1987). If that's not enough to impress you, Jacques Descent is also an inventor who holds several patents, including a self-cleaning, disinfecting toilet he calls Sanisafe. And he made at least three unreleased movies with Sylvester Stallone's mother, Jackie!

Clearly, Jacques Descent is a man who has been around the block a few times. He proudly includes The Undergraduate on the list of accomplishments on his personal web page and even trumpets the involvement of Ed Wood. Jacques had previously produced another Wood screenplay, Operation Redlight, back in 1969. This earlier film has yet to resurface, unfortunately. Curiously, Descent has no directing credits of his own. Though the bogus credits say that this movie was "produced and directed" by the (apparently) fictional "John Flanders," the current director of record for The Undergraduate is one "Ron Black," whose IMDb entry is otherwise blank. His true identity is a matter of speculation.

The movie's cinematographer, however, is quite accomplished. Harold Schwartz (1919-1990) started his career as an uncredited assistant cameraman on Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and was a camera operator on Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World in 1951, but he made his real mark on television, with credits ranging from The Adventures of Superman and Batman to Wyatt Earp, Perry Mason, Rawhide, Land of the Giants, and Love American Style.
 
John Dullaghan
A movie is nothing without its actors, and there are a few notable names in the cast of The Undergraduate. Front and center is our teacher, Professor Collins, portrayed by the redoubtable John Dullaghan (1930-2009), an actor whose stoic demeanor and graying temples lend authenticity to this thankless, unexciting role. At the time, the Brooklyn-born Dullaghan (billed here as "John Dugan") was a mainstay of X-rated films, racking up appearances in Sex and the Single Vampire (1969), the aforementioned  Postgraduate Course in Sexual Love (1970), and even Big Beaver Splits the Scene (1971). But by the mid-1970s, Dullaghan had established himself solidly in episodic network television, a world he would inhabit for the rest of the '70s and into the 1980s, with recurring roles on such shows as Battlestar Galactica, B.J. and the Bear, Barney Miller, and Night Court. And these are but a mere fraction of an extensive and impressive resume that includes numerous theater (Major Barbara, Blood Knot, Little Sheba) and film (Kalifornia, Apollo 13, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) credits as well. Dullaghan seems to have given up the nudie racket by around 1973, though not before appearing in another obvious white-coater called The Flanders and Alcott Report on Sexual Response. (For the record, he was Flanders in that one.)

Among the porno starlets appearing in The Undergraduate, the main attraction (at least according to the manufacturers of the DVD) is Suzanne Fields (1950- ?), a kittenish brunette who was active in the adult movie world from 1970 to 1975 and who is probably best known for portraying "Dale Ardor" in the sci-fi parody Flesh Gordon (1974). Other well-known actresses on display in this motion picture include Deep Throat Part II's Tina Russell (1948-1981) and Cindy West of Devil's Due and It Happened in Hollywood fame. Interestingly, as part of his class, the good Professor Collins shows his students a vintage black-and-white "stag" film that features the talents of a prolific porn actress named Eve Orlon, whose path would intersect with that of Ed Wood again in a few years when they both participated in Steve Apostolof's Fugitive Girls (1974).

Incidentally, although both the Internet Movie Database and Jacques Descent's personal website allege that Ed Wood himself appears in The Undergraduate, this seems to be mere wishful thinking. Search all you want, but you won't find him.

Suzanne Fields uses frank verbal communication.
The viewing experience: Slightly unpleasant but nevertheless worthwhile. I have come to a definite conclusion, readers, from watching far too many hours of vintage 1970s pornography in the process of researching these articles: the sex act is simply not photogenic. Or, rather, it can be photogenic, but this requires a delicate combination of attractive performers, flattering camera angles, and careful lighting. And even those aesthetic niceties are not enough to compensate for the stubborn ugliness of the scrotum, a red and wrinkly body part that gets many long, lingering closeups in this film. While most of the performers in The Undergraduate are attractive enough, the camera angles and lighting do them no favors. The movie, which was transferred to DVD from a 1980s Betamax cassette since no film elements still exist, is technically competent but has the flat, drab look of a 1950s industrial or instructional film.

For all the sexual heat it generates, this movie might as well be about how vacuum cleaners work or the importance of maintaining neat penmanship. Following the unwritten code of the white-coater, The Undergraduate stresses keeping up the illusion of respectability even at the expense of enjoyment, this movie is fairly rigorous in its abstinence from anything remotely sensual. Our test subjects fellate, fornicate, and masturbate in a variety of permutations, but they do so in a nearly-featureless void and do not seem to be deriving substantial pleasure from their activities. As befits a classroom film, this is sex as science experiment, carnality as classwork.

The one major deviation from this template comes during the first half of the film, when Suzanne Fields herself demonstrates the importance of "frank" verbal communication during the sex act. As she romps with her mustachioed bed partner, Suzanne gives the following, stunning monologue, which runs a full four minutes. I'd like to think Ed Wood wrote every word:
I love the way you kiss me. Mmmm. Put it in deep. Run it all around me. Put your tongue in my ear and run it all around. Pull me against you so I can feel your hard cock. Mmmm. Put your cock against my pussy. Undress me. Squeeze my tits. Oh, bite my nipples! Squeeze my nipples! Oh, kiss my tits! Oh! Use your tongue! Work down towards my pussy! Mmmm. Eat me. Oh, eat me! Oh, eat me! Oh, eat my pussy! Oh, it feels so good! Mmmm. Oh, eat my pussy. Deeper. Deeper! It's like a little prick. Oh, lick my clit! Eat me! Oh, eat me! Fuck me! I want your hard cock in me. Oh, fuck my pussy. Oh, your big cock is tearing my pussy up! Oh, it feels so good! Oh, your big cock in my pussy! Oh, screw me! Screw my pussy! Oh, screw me! Oh, screw me hard!
I don't know whether this kind of talk will work for you in your relationship, but it's fairly typical of the advice doled out by The Undergraduate.  Among the more memorable kernels of wisdom embedded in this film: olive oil makes an acceptable lube if you're fresh out of K-Y jelly; coitus interruptus can be psychologically damaging for both parties as well as being a lousy method of birth control; and, most importantly, many women actually enjoy the taste of semen. Also, women like to feel secure during sex, so this movie recommends a lovemaking position in which a woman more or less uses her partner as a beanbag chair.

That brings up another salient point about this movie, incidentally. During the sexual demonstrations, the participants are sometimes labeled simply "the man" and  "the woman," but they are more often referred to as "the husband" and "the wife," even though none of the student characters in the movie are married. Typical of the Janus-faced duality (or should I say duplicity?) of the white-coater, The Undergraduate invites middle-aged white male viewers to leer lustily at members of the younger generation but still maintains a dusty, fusty Eisenhower-era definition of sex as something that happens between mommies and daddies who love each other very much. Quite an artifact, this one.

In two weeks: "Get your motor runnin'. Head out on the highway. Lookin' for adventure and whatever comes our way." Such was the exhortation of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" in 1968, and the song's passionate call was heeded by an entire generation, including Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who "went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere" in the landmark film Easy Rider (1969). A few years later, Ed Wood thought he'd give it a try and see if he could do a little better than Peter and Dennis had. Biker films were the order of the day, so of course Eddie had to give them a try. And naturally, he brought his own unique spin to the subject matter. The result was the film we'll be discussing right here in a mere fortnight. Be here in two weeks for Nympho Cycler (1971).

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ed Wood extra! A single by Paul Marco and Criswell!

In 1995, Dionysus Records released an unusual Ed Wood-themed single by Paul Marco and Criswell.

There passed a golden time in the early-to-mid-1990s when Edward D. Wood, Jr. and all that surrounded him was considered vaguely chic by people whose opinions actually matter. Eddie's first wave of anti-fame occurred in the early 1980s after the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards, of course, but his filmography did not take on the added luster of hipness for another decade. The Nihilistic Nineties were a time in which the trend-setters and tastemakers of America shunned the shopping mall monoculture of the Reagan era in favor of individuality, eccentricity, exclusivity, and (perceived) authenticity. Suddenly, it was no longer cool to be "into" what everybody else was "into." Instead, this was the time of indie movies, indie record labels, and indie bookstores -- smaller concerns catering to niche interests. I'm fairly certain this was when the word "mainstream" first took on a pejorative connotation. The atmospheric conditions were just right for someone like Ed Wood to become a secular saint of unpop culture. I don't think it's any coincidence that some of the bigger postmortem developments of Eddie's career, including the publication of Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy and the release of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, not to mention a whole host of VHS re-releases, occurred during this fecund era.

"Uncle Dale" Warner
And only during those kooky Clinton years would it have made sense for a label like Dionysus Records to put out an Ed Wood-themed 45 RPM single... on marbled orange vinyl, no less! In 1995, this SoCal surf rock company released "Home on the Strange" b/w "Someone Walked Over My Grave." The A-side was a newly-recorded "Monster Mash"-type novelty tune by actor Paul Marco, reprising his Kelton the Cop character from Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Night of the Ghouls. Aiding and abetting Paul was "Uncle" Dale Warner, a songwriter and musician best known for his work with the Rubatos. On the flip side was the vintage recording "Someone Walked Over My Grave," a morbid yet characteristically flowery recitation by the flamboyant TV psychic Criswell set to a cocktail lounge-type piano accompaniment. Supposedly, the famed prognosticator recorded this song specifically to be played after his death. Take these two ditties, add some eye-catching artwork by Kalynn Campbell, and you've got a neat little collectible for Ed Wood fans. Incidentally, according to the comprehensive timeline in Nightmare of Ecstasy, Eddie attempted something like this back in 1970, when he himself produced a 45 with Tor Johnson reading "The Day the Mummy Returned" on the A-side and Criswell reading "Final Curtain" on the B-side. Author Rudolph Grey states that it is "uncertain" whether or not the single was ever released. However, the Dionysus single from 1995 definitely was released and gives us a taste of what that 1970 platter might have been like. Enjoy.



Monday, August 11, 2014

He was what he was.

Pop art: Shelley Duvall and Robin Williams in 1980's Popeye.

"I Am that I Am."
-God (Exodus 3:14) 
"I yam what I yam." 
-Popeye the Sailor Man


The soundtrack LP.
The star of my favorite movie from childhood died today. The star was actor-comedian Robin Williams, and the movie was Robert Altman's much-maligned Popeye (1980), a feature-length musical adapted by Julies Feiffer from E.C. Segar's long-running comic strip of the same name.

Though hardly the financial disaster everyone remembers (in fact, it grossed a cool $50 million and turned a tidy profit), the film was lambasted both by critics, who wondered why a "serious" director like Altman would be wasting his time on such a frivolous movie, and by audiences, who wondered why the movie wasn't more like the Popeye animated cartoons.

Williams distanced himself from the film later in life, alluding with scorn in interviews to "the Popeye years" of his career when he was first transitioning to films after finding success in stand-up comedy and series television. He even made a point of disparaging Popeye at a gala tribute in his honor, cringing and complaining when a clip of Altman's film made its way into a highlight reel of his movies. Obviously, the film was a negative experience for him, and he was not shy about expressing that.

I'm genuinely sorry he felt that way about Robert Altman's Popeye, because I still think of that film as one of the highlights of his filmography. He gives quite a remarkable performance as the legendary "sailor man" of the title, one very different from the types of roles he usually played. Most of Williams' characters were whimsical, motor-mouthed, childlike eccentrics, like the alien Mork from Ork in the TV series Mork & Mindy. In Popeye, however, Williams portrays a muscular, tough-talking loner who makes sardonic remarks under his breath, strictly for his own amusement rather than to entertain or impress those around him.

The original character from the comic strip is such an oddball, with his knotted-up face, swollen forearms, and peculiar syntax, that it must have been supremely difficult to make the character seem even remotely believable or three-dimensional. And yet, somehow, Williams manages to do it. In Mad magazine's beautifully-drawn parody, "Flopeye," (#225, Sept '81), writer Stan Hart has Williams address the audience thusly: "The Director tells me to put on these phony arms, squint one eye, jut out me jaw, talk through clenched teeth, and then -- act natural!!!"

When Popeye was first released some 34 years ago, one of the most controversial aspects of the movie was its unconventional score by Harry Nilsson, another creative talent who left us far too soon. Williams himself brought Nilsson into the production, even though the studio bosses were wary of this notoriously hard-drinking singer-songwriter and feared that his erratic work habits and eclectic tastes might endanger the film. And, sure enough, critics and viewers were only too eager to criticize the often-simple, repetitive songs Nilsson composed for Popeye upon the film's original release. To this day, even some Harry Nilsson fans don't dig the Popeye soundtrack, though it has also gained a cult following along with the movie which spawned it.

Partial redemption came in 2002, when "He Needs Me" from Popeye was used very prominently in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love. (Though this, too, caught some flak.) To this day, I remain entranced both by Altman's odd duck of a film and by Nilsson's odder duck of a soundtrack. I'm proud to own both, and I'd like to leave you today with an excerpt which finds Robin Williams in fine form.

Mr. Williams, the floor is yours...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 45: "The Vampire's Tomb" (2001-2013)

Title screen from Andre Perkowski's long-gestating The Vampire's Tomb.

"Just what makes that little old ant think he'll move that rubber tree plant? Everyone knows an ant can't move a rubber tree plant."
-Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra had high hopes in '59.
Andre Perkowski, the director of this week's movie, reminds me of the ant from the song "High Hopes," which was written for Frank Sinatra by prolific tunesmiths Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen back in 1959, the same year Ed Wood was attempting to finish Night of the Ghouls. The Sinatra song is about the importance of maintaining an optimistic attitude in the face of impossible odds and uses as its prime example the story of an ant with "high hopes" who, defying all the laws of physics, manages to knock over a rubber tree plant thousands of times his size and weight. "Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant!" Sinatra crows. I wonder if Eddie heard "High Hopes" on the radio back then and, if so, whether it gave him a reason to carry on during those dark days when distributors weren't biting, actors wouldn't work until they were paid, backers suddenly lost their nerve, and ravenous bill collectors were nipping at his heels. Optimism is one of the key facts -- perhaps the key fact -- of Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s life. It's the quality which lends him an aura of heroism.

Despite a great many reasons to just give up on his dreams, Eddie continued to believe in movies, in Hollywood, and in himself long past the point where most of us would have given up. Failure and rejection were his bread and butter for thirty years in the biz, but he did not surrender. I think that's why Ed's become an icon to filmmakers of the low-budget, independent variety: he's cinema's very own patron saint of hopeless causes. No wonder he's served (posthumously) as an inspiration to someone like Andre Perkowski, who continues to make highly individualistic movies of his own despite a lack of money and resources. Who needs those things when you have an artistic vision and the unquenchable desire to create? And if your own personal tastes are vastly different from those of the public at large, well, that shouldn't be an obstacle either. Not if you have hi-i-igh hopes. High apple pie in the sky-y-yy hopes. One wonders if Andre Perkowski indeed had such hopes when he embarked upon the making of The Vampire's Tomb in 2001. It was a project that Eddie himself had tried and failed to produce in the mid-1950s, and Perkowski's film traveled an incredibly circuitous route before it became readily available to the public.

Did the ant move the rubber tree plant? Read on for more details:

THE VAMPIRE'S TOMB (2001-2013)




Finally available to you!
Alternate titles: Ed Wood's The Vampire's Tomb [promotional title]

Availability: At long last, the film is now easily accessible on DVD (Terminal Pictures, 2013) or streaming from Amazon.

The backstory: The Vampire's Tomb is one of the more famous "could have been"s in the Ed Wood filmography, a project Ed wanted to make but for which he was never able to secure financing. Wood wrote a complete screenplay for the potential film, had a cast in mind, and even announced a start date for filming to the press. Information about the project is scarce, so I will present to you whatever evidence I was able to locate. Here, for instance, is what Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy has to say on the subject.
The Vampire's Tomb was first announced as a forthcoming production in the August 2, 1954 issue of the Los Angeles Times. According to the September 9 edition of The Hollywood Reporter, the project was set to roll October 1, with Wood flying to San Francisco to close financing. Wood did not shoot The Vampire's Tomb in October, but began Bride of the Atom instead. Bela Lugosi was to star as Dr. Acula, and the rest of the projected cast included Tom Keene, Loretta King, Bobby Jordan, Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller, Duke Moore, and Devila, a Wood discovery modeled after Vampira.
Gary Don Rhodes' book Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers (McFarland, 2006) contains more details about the production, including its plot.
Rhodes' Lugosi book
Many have erroneously referred to this unmade Lugosi/Ed Wood film as Tomb of the Vampire. In March 1954, Wood told Lugosi that Ford Beebe would direct the project for Allied Artists and that the title had been shortened to The Vampire. When this didn't pan out, Wood officially announced its shooting (which would have been done over six days and with the original title) in August 1954. Variety claimed that Bela Lugosi, Loretta King, Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller, and Hazel Franklin had been signed for the project. On September 9, the Hollywood Reporter claimed that production was to begin in October. Wood apparently would have directed this incarnation.
     Bela's character in the tale, "Dr. Acula," is hired to prove that a character's death is due to murder. The rest of the cast was planned to include Tom Keene, Bobby Jordan, Lyle Talbot, Loretta King, Dolores Fuller, Duke Moore, and "Devila." Instead of filming this script, however, Wood began Bride of the Atom. A few silent scenes of Lugosi in a cape were actually shot in 1956, when Wood possibly revived plans for the film. The footage taken later appeared in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), a very different film from the script for The Vampire's Tomb.
Bela Lugosi had worked for Ford Beebe on Night Monster.
If you have been following Ed Wood Wednesdays, most of the names listed in the preceding excerpts should be familiar to you, as they are the actors who appeared in Ed's films from Glen or Glenda? (1953) through Night of the Ghouls (1959). Among the outsiders and outliers, we find Bobby Jordan (1923-1965), an actor best known for his participation in the durable Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys franchise of the 1930s and 1940s. It was through this series that Jordan and Lugosi had appeared together in the horror-comedies Spooks Run Wild (1941) and Ghosts on the Loose (1943). Jordan, sadly, was one of many child stars who found himself unable to cope with the adult world, and he drank himself to death in his early forties, expiring penniless and forgotten in a VA hospital. Hazel Franklin (1925-1989), surprisingly, was not an actress but rather an English figure skater of some renown. Like Jordan, Franklin was also best known for her accomplishments as a youth; perhaps she hoped to follow the example of Norway's Sonja Henie, who managed to parlay her skating success into a film career.

And what of Ford Beebe (1888-1978), the fellow who might have directed The Vampire's Tomb over at Allied Artists? He was your typical B-movie lifer, a prolific and dependable writer and director whose resume includes a great many science-fiction (Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars) and Western (Tumbling Tumbleweeds) titles. It is most relevant to our discussion that Beebe was among several directors-for-hire on The Phantom Creeps (1939), a serial starring Bela Lugosi, and also directed Lugosi in Night Monster (1942). Interestingly, Beebe has ties to a couple of Universal's best-known horror franchises as well; he helmed the franchise-ending sequel The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944) and served as a producer and second unit director on Son of Dracula (1943). No slouch, this Ford Beebe.

As for Devila, she seems only to have existed in press releases, although rocker-turned-writer Greg Kihn did use that name for a character in his Wood-inspired debut novel Horror Show in 1997. In later years, such actresses as Valda Hansen, Fawn Silver, and Maria Arnold would play Vampira-esque roles in Ed Wood's movies. None were called "Devila," however.

Although Ed Wood's script for The Vampire's Tomb would not pass before a movie camera during its author's lifetime, the project did manage to leave a permanent pockmark on the face of popular culture. In Tim Burton's Disney-financed biopic Ed Wood (1994), there is quite an amusing scene in which Eddie (Johnny Depp) meets with Mr. Feldman (Stanley DeSantis), a fictional executive at Warner Bros., and pitches him various movie ideas. At this point in the story, Ed has just made Glen or Glenda?, which Feldman has not yet seen. (He soon will, with less than optimal results.) From the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski:

MR. FELDMAN
So what's up next? 

Ed leans in.

ED
Well, Mr. Feldman, I don't believe in thinking small,
so I've got a whole slate of pictures for you: The Vampire's 
Tomb, The Ghoul Goes West... and Doctor Acula

MR. FELDMAN
Doctor Acula? I don't get it.

ED
Dr. Acula!

Ed writes it out, 'DR. ACULA,' and waves it in Feldman's face. Feldman nods. 

MR. FELDMAN
Oh. 'Dr. Acula.' I get it. 
(beat)
I don't like it.


Mr. Feldman (Stanley DeSantis) is not impressed.
In Burton's finished film, instead of writing the title on a piece of paper, Ed conveys the rather labored pun through vaguely vampiric hand gestures and by dragging out the "r" sound in "doctor." ("Dock-turrrrrrr....rrrracula!") The scene is further enhanced by the performances of the two actors: Depp, smiling broadly even as his forehead glistens with flop sweat, desperately tries to sell these cobwebbed concepts to the deadpan DeSantis (in real life, a t-shirt tycoon turned actor who sadly passed away in 2005), who is utterly unimpressed by Ed's ideas and just stares silently back at the hapless young man. In the scene, "Mr. Feldman," a composite character with no specific real-world counterpart, shows vague interest in only one of Ed's proposed films: Bride of the Atom. ("Atomic age stuff, huh? I like it.")

In reality, of course, Bride is the picture Eddie ended up making instead of The Vampire's Tomb, though without any help from Warner Bros., and I think it's safe to say that this was a trade up, both for him and for us. Bride of the Atom, released as Bride of the Monster (1955), is a much wilder and more colorful story which combines elements of old-school Universal horror films of the 1930s with newfangled Cold War trappings of the 1950s. The Vampire's Tomb, in contrast, is more stagy and confined, with characters better suited to an Agatha Christie mystery or a game of Clue and only a very marginal, underdeveloped supernatural element to the story. The central plot, in which an insurance investigator seeks to prove a so-called "natural" death was really a homicide, is very similar to that of Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid (1953), Ed's ill-fated pilot for a Western TV show. Perhaps Ed truly believed in the strength of the Tucson Kid story and tried to transplant it from one genre to another.

Was this footage intended for The Vampire's Tomb?
To be clear, I have not personally seen or read Ed's screenplay for The Vampire's Tomb. From what I can piece together about it from my research, however, the story's action occurs almost entirely within a family's large ancestral home, with a few scenes taking place in a private cemetery nearby. A wealthy woman named Lucille has been murdered by her greedy husband Judson, a doctor, and his equally ruthless and conniving relatives: sister Diana, a hard-drinking Hollywood actress; belligerent brothers Boris and Flinch; and Diana's wimpy undertaker husband, Frank. These awful people stand to inherit a fortune, but the rightful, deserving heir to Lucille's money is her innocent blonde and bland niece Barbara, who is staying in the house with her equally bland fiance Lake. A mysterious, ghostly figure who greatly resembles Lucille is stalking the grounds, leading Barbara to believe she is losing her mind. A spooky traveler named Dr. Acula appears at the overcrowded home, too, and begins to investigate the strange case. He speculates that Lucille may have become a vampire. Meanwhile, various characters are either murdered or disappear without a trace. Who is the culprit? What is Dr. Acula's purpose in being here? And has Lucille really risen from the grave?

These questions and more are (sort of) answered in The Vampire's Tomb, which plays more like a murder mystery than an outright horror film. But could the scenes of Bela Lugosi used in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) actually have been intended for The Vampire's Tomb? I'd say it's within the realm of possibility. The vampire-like character of Dr. Acula could only have been written for Bela Lugosi, and the good doctor does spend some time stalking around a cemetery and exploring the grounds which surround a house, presumably while dressed in Transylvanian formal wear. And what of the scene in Plan 9 in which Bela's character attends a funeral? Well, there are no funerals in the version of The Vampire's Tomb that I saw, but there are a few fatalities which could have led to funerals. While I won't go so far as to say that every scrap of footage of Lugosi in Plan 9 is a glimpse of what Ed's film of The Vampire's Tomb would have been like, I can say there is a vague resemblance between the two.

Apart from a flurry of articles in show business trade papers, the only real artifact to survive from The Vampire's Tomb was Ed Wood's original screenplay. That rejected script had an afterlife of its own, so to speak. Obviously, Gary Don Rhodes was able to acquire a copy of this document, as was Rudolph Grey, who confidently declared in Nightmare of Ecstasy that the scenes of Bela Lugosi  in Plan 9 from Outer Space "bear no relation to the script" which Wood wrote for The Vampire's Tomb. A third possessor of The Vampire's Tomb screenplay was ultra-low-budget, ultra-independent filmmaker Andre Perkowski, who had previously adapted Ed Wood's work in his film Devil Girls (1999) and who continues to make movies of his own to this day. He's currently adapting the work of French symbolist author Alfred Jarry.

In 2001, still in the "Ed Wood phase" of his career, Perkowski decided to finally turn The Vampire's Tomb into a real, (almost) feature-length motion picture, supplementing Ed's original script with ideas of his own and other Wood-penned material from various sources. Andre very graciously consented to an online interview, and it is from him that I learned that "most of the plot and dialogue" from the finished film is taken from Ed's original script from the 1950s. He adds: "Then there's 20% from other Wood things and 15% made up stuff and pastiche." When asked what his other sources might have been, Perkowski responds:
Additional inspiration
"I adapted Ed Wood's script ... over the course of a few years. [I started] collecting his paperbacks and magazine articles [and] would jot down a stray line or a juicy paragraph to incorporate into [my script] ... mining [the magazines] Horror Sex Tales and Monster Sex Tales heavily. For example, the [speech during the] introduction is taken from there, [with] just a few words changed for it to be about a film. Also things like the novelization of Orgy of the Dead, which is a graveyard of lost Ed Wood film projects and ideas and really deserves to be reprinted. [The character] Buck Rhodes was folded in in a vague effort to have tenuous continuity with Devil Girls and as an excuse to sneak in more shtick."
While Perkowski is now based in Los Angeles, the bulk of filming for The Vampire's Tomb took place in Chicago over the course of four hectic days in 2001 with a budget of only $500. "All of those interiors," he says, "were done at the University of Chicago." The movie, however, remained uncompleted and unreleased for five more years, while Perkowski moved on to other projects, including I Was a Teenage Beatnik! (2005), The Paranoia Show (2007), and the William Burroughs adaptation Nova Express (2009). Having finally completed and released Devil Girls, the director figured it was finally time to do the same for The Vampire's Tomb and so shot some additional 16mm footage in 2006. "It was  a '30s style Old Dark House caper with no old dark house. So I shot one in Pennsylvania on 16mm and had a lot of fun playing with rotting, decades-old Soviet [film] stock that developed with a gloriously lovely age fog that looked a lot more interesting than those terrible fake film filters [I had used] in Devil Girls." In the editing process, the director lost "about 20 minutes of scenes ... that included more endless yammering in rooms."

In their place, Perkowski substituted surreal passages in which the psychic Criswell gives his ever-dubious predictions for the future, largely taken from the classic LP The Legendary Criswell Predicts Your Incredible Future (Horoscope Records, 1970). These rambling and bizarre monologues with their apocalyptic visions of "riot, rape, and revelry" were paired with images meant to look like 1950s stock footage. In truth, most of these supposed "stock" shots were done by Perkowski himself, "except a few shots I found in a garbage can at NYU." Finally stitched together from mismatched parts, in the grand tradition of Frankenstein (1931), Perkowski's long-delayed movie seems to have secured a few scattered showings in the mid-aughts, but it didn't achieve a "mainstream" release until 2013, when it finally became available to stream on Amazon. This may account for the fact that The Vampire's Tomb has a 2006 copyright in its end credits but is listed as a 2013 release on the Internet Movie Database.

Paul Hoffman and Katie Dugan in The Vampire's Tomb.
The viewing experience: While the film is a fascinating curio for Ed Wood completists and helps to shed light on a particularly murky chapter of Eddie's career, The Vampire's Tomb is highly problematic as a motion picture and sometimes borders on unwatchable. Until one adjusts to the sluggish pace of the plot, the jumbled nature of the storytelling, and the general shrillness of the acting, the movie is rather a slog. Viewers not already very familiar with Wood's work may find themselves utterly adrift here, unable to connect with this movie as either art or entertainment. Certainly, as a narrative, it is opaque at best. This is a movie which seems to deliberately set up barriers of alienation between itself and viewers, almost daring them to derive meaning or enjoyment from the events depicted onscreen. But was this effect truly deliberate? To hear its creator tell it, the movie was plagued by a chaotic production schedule and his own directorial inexperience.

"I was just a kid, basically," he says, "and was still shocked that there were these people called 'actors' that apparently, once you handed them pieces of paper with dialogue on them, could rattle it off on cue provided you occasionally provided coffee, donuts, and gushing praise."

 He elaborates on his general filming strategy: "Basically, it was done like a play, and we'd just shoot scenes in one complete take. There wasn't time to do much but say, 'You go over there, then you go over ... um, there. Okay? Action!'"

One major drawback of The Vampire's Tomb is its would-be satirical tone. It certainly wants to be a send-up of low-budget horror movies and attempts to parody the pitfalls and tropes of such films. "'It's supposed to be bad' is generally an excuse for bullshit," admits writer-director Andre Perkowski, reminiscing about The Vampire's Tomb thirteen years after its not-quite-satisfactory production. Watching the movie now, it quickly becomes apparent what the director means by this statement. Rather like Perkowski's previous Devil Girls, but much more so, The Vampire's Tomb brazenly emphasizes its own cheapness and lack of artistic integrity, rubbing the audience's noses in its technical and narrative imperfections. When characters are post-dubbed, for instance, they are given voices which are extremely grating and highly unnatural. David C. Hayes sounds like a combination of the possessed child from The Exorcist (1973) and Popeye the Sailor Man. And when a boom mic appears on camera, it doesn't just dip into the frame for a second or two, the way it would in a "real" B-movie. No, it makes a cozy little home for itself in the top-third of the picture and settles in for a good long while.

Was all of this accidental? I doubt it. Perkowski was kind enough to forward me a copy of an "earlier" draft of the script, and it is full of stage directions which make it clear that the author's intentions were parodic. Like this one:
They walk through the shoddy cardboard set. Frank trips over a cardboard tombstone.
Or this:
Acula and Frank move through the set, which still looks awful. Acula's cape is blown by a fan that should be present in the edge of the frame. It casts a large bat shadow.
One of Ed's books.
And, believe me, remarks like these appear on virtually every page of the script. Perkowski even points out that the bats in the film are of the rubber variety. This mocking attitude has the effect of keeping the audience at arm's length for the entire running time of the movie. While I was able to find a few reviews which praised Perkowski for capturing the tone of Edward D. Wood, Jr., I feel that the film's brand of self-aware pseudo-incompetence is actually contrary to the Wood-ian spirit. While undeniably short on resources and arguably short on know-how, Ed Wood strove to make each scene in each of his movies as good as he possibly could under the circumstances. He believed in his material. The same holds true for the directors with whom Eddie collaborated, including Stephen C. Apostolof, Boris Petroff, and Don Davis. The only exception might be Ed DePriest, who employed a patently-phony dinosaur in One Million AC/DC (1969), but that film was already a freewheeling comedy so the use of such an obvious visual joke does not feel out of place or at odds with the material.

By all indications, however, Ed Wood was serious when he wrote The Vampire's Tomb. This story wasn't a joke to him, and it feels churlish to treat this material as a silly farce. Only very occasionally does this type of humor really click. I will admit that when prissy, humorless Lake (Paul Hoffman, who doubles as Sheriff Buck Rhodes) tells fiancee Barbara that he is "never wrong" and looks directly into the camera, I chuckled audibly. As an earnest Wood-ologist, I also appreciated the brief shot of Lake reading one of Eddie's books, The Gay Underworld (Viceroy, 1968). But an over-reliance on such obscure Wood-ian in-jokes threatens to keep newcomers from appreciating the film at all. Eddie's fans will recognize the off-the-wall dialogue about "radiant contentment" and "stupid minds" from other films, but those who don't hold a Ph.D. in Advanced Wood-ology may just be baffled by these lines. It sometimes seems that newcomers are not welcome here.

Keith Heimpel
To be fair to Perkowski, not all of the problems with this movie rest on the shoulders of its then-unschooled director. There is plenty of blame to be shared by the cast as well, some of whom apparently came from the world of sketch and improv comedy in Chicago and felt that wild overacting and "funny" voices were appropriate for this film. There is one performer in particular -- you won't have any trouble finding him -- who squints and growls through the entire movie, giving a performance which is highly distracting and at times unintelligible. Perkowski says he wanted to rein these people in a little (or a lot) but simply lacked control over his actors. "The camping and mugging made me want to put a gun in my mouth," he reminisces.

One happy exception to the rule is Keith Heimpel, now a freelance writer in Chicago, who gives easily the best performance in the film -- slightly affected, as an actor in a Wood movie should be, but not so exaggerated as to become grotesque. In both manner and appearance, Heimpel reminded me of a cross between comedians David Cross and Michael Ian Black. Perkowski is rightly complimentary of Heimpel, who does what he can to keep many scenes from totally falling apart. "I told everybody to play it like he did," the director remembers. "Unfortunately, nobody listened to me." Perkowski describes Heimpel's performance as "properly played and not garish theater" and compliments the actor on "his condescension towards the female cast members." One excellent example of this occurs early in the film when ingenue Barbara (Katie Dugan, a Devil Girls veteran who is also rather fun here) is convinced she has seen a ghost. Heimpel-as-Judson assures her it was just her imagination: "The window into the world of the shapeless and the unformed fragments of unconsciousness was open but for a second."

That kind of dialogue doesn't exactly grow on trees, and it takes a certain talent to sell it. It's truly a pity that Heimpel's performance didn't seem to rub off on his fellow actors. The Vampire's Tomb might have been much more fun and watchable if it had. The film's other great performance is given posthumously by Criswell, who is equal parts poet, preacher, and prognosticator. He even starts reciting Lewis Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter" at one point. While the Criswell sections have no real connection to the rest of the picture, the director's canny combination of sound and image is often intoxicating in these interstitial scenes. It is here, more than anywhere else, that The Vampire's Tomb truly clicks. Little wonder that several reviews have singled these moments out as their favorites and that Perkowski himself considered an alternate version of the movie which consisted only of these vignettes.

For the time being, this misshapen and misbegotten little motion picture is the only version of The Vampire's Tomb we have. While I appreciate the fact that it exists at all, I cannot help but speculate about what might have been. "If I did it now, boy, it would be so different," a contrite Andre Perkowski now admits. "It'd have to be on 35mm using his original camera directions and played dead straight. It would be so niche and would bore people to death, but at least it'd be accurate." I'll agree to at least two-thirds of that sentence.

In two weeks: "Happy days are here again! The skies above are clear again! So let's sing a song of cheer again! Happy days are here again!" Folks, I never thought it would happen. Suddenly, I have a whole backlog of previously-unavailable Ed Wood movies to review for you. I'm like a kid on Christmas morning. I hardly know which presents to unwrap first. But we have to start somewhere, so I'll begin by exploring the only film I've ever seen produced by Canada's own Jacques Descent. And very appropriately for this time of year, the movie in question will take us back to school! Yes, Ed Wood goes collegiate and brings Suzanne Fields, Eve Orlon, Tina Russell, and Cindy West along with him. (And rumor has it, Eddie does some acting in the film, too. We'll see.) Be here in a fortnight for my coverage of The Undergraduate (1971).