Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 55: 'Glen or the Bride of the Night of the Plan 9 from Outer Space' (2014)

Ed Wood's 1950s films are woven together into an Oedipal nightmare in Glen or the Bride.

"I can't help but think of Ed Wood as some strange patron saint for anyone who's ever moved to Los Angeles to work in film."
-Filmmaker Jesse Berger

These two films shared a week. Remember?
I never meant it to turn out this way. Honestly, when I started doing Ed Wood Wednesdays back in June 2013, my plan was for the series to run just ten weeks, covering two films each week. (Follow that link in the last sentence and scroll down to the comments to see my original, hopelessly naive "tentative schedule." Boy, was I a dope.)

Back then, I thought it might be interesting to format each article as a double feature and compare and contrast two films in the Wood canon at a time. Week 7, for instance, would have paired Joe Robertson's boozy softcore sex comedy The Love Feast with Norman Thomson's Japanese-set monster flick Venus Flytrap. What links these two films is merely their chronological proximity (1969 and 1970, respectively) and the fact that they were both written, yet not directed, by Edward D. Wood, Jr. Otherwise, I cannot see any obvious or hidden connection between them. What would I have come up with that week? Maybe I would have compared the protagonists of these two movies: both middle-aged, white men who cloister themselves away in large houses so that they might pursue their own strange desires without public interference.

It's all academic now, because I have long since abandoned that initial strategy. The "twofer" gimmick lasted all of four weeks and has not reemerged. What changed? Well, I soon realized that researching and reviewing two different movies each week was simply not practical. Both films wound up being shortchanged, and I felt doubly exhausted. Besides, I made a decision early on to take an all-inclusive or "catholic" approach to Ed Wood's career, covering both the canonical and apocryphal films, as well as Eddie's writing, and even making time for posthumous tribute films.

The upshot of all this is that I fairly sped through the work for which Ed Wood is best known, namely the black-and-white independent feature films he made between 1953 and 1959, starting with Glen or Glenda? and ending with Night of the Ghouls. These were the years of Bela Lugosi and Criswell, flying saucers and plywood cemeteries, Lobo and Kelton -- everything, in short, which made it into Tim Burton's Ed Wood biopic. These are also the things which had initially made me a fan of Eddie's back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was a budding film fanatic. And I was done with all of that stuff by the eleventh week of the project!

It wasn't by choice. I just ran out of material pretty quickly. Also, I stepped up the research aspect of the project, so the articles I wrote became longer and more complex as I went on. As a result, I've written a great deal more about the 1970s than the 1950s. For example, my exhaustive examination of The Snow Bunnies (1972), a film I mostly detested, positively dwarfs the modest write-up I gave to Glen or Glenda? (1953), the Wood film I love most dearly. In retrospect, I've spent the lion's share of Ed Wood Wednesdays documenting Eddie's sad, Nixon-era decline rather than his Eisenhower-era peak.

Don't get me wrong. It's been rewarding. But it can also be pretty depressing, since Eddie's work from the 1970s inevitably reflects his straitened circumstances during that decade. Sometimes, it feels like all I write about are alcoholism, poverty, and spousal abuse. Therefore, to remind myself why I started writing about Ed Wood in the first place, I will take any available opportunity to bask in the glow of Eddie's more-genteel 1950s movies. As it happens, there is a remarkable new short film which has allowed me to do just that.

All of this is my way of introducing...

GLEN OR THE BRIDE OF THE NIGHT OF THE PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (2014)
A disapproving Bela Lugosi looms over Dolores Fuller and Ed Wood in this scene from Glen or the Bride.

Alternate title: Glen or the Bride... [abbreviated promotional title]

Availability: This film is available as a digital download for a mere $5 here. Or for $20 you can get a limited-edition DVD with shipping and handling included. The disc includes menus, deleted scenes, and a trailer.

Jesse Berger
The backstory: Edward D. Wood, Jr. and Jesse Berger have at least one important thing in common, a crucial factor which separates them from most of society. Faithful devotees of that strangely alluring religion called showbiz, they both made the Hajj-like pilgrimage westward to Los Angeles in order to be part of the motion picture industry. The City of Angels, an ever-glowing, neon beacon in the darkness, beckoned them across thousands of miles, guaranteeing nothing but implicitly promising everything. To such hopeful travelers as Ed and Jesse, perhaps the Chinese Theatre is a sacred temple and the Hollywood Walk of Fame a sort of horizontal Wailing Wall.

Eddie made his way from Poughkeepsie, NY out to "the great salt lick" (as it was sardonically called in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink) back in 1947, and he was at least attempting to make his own movies as early as '48. It didn't work out so hot for Ed, but at least he tried. And tried. And kept trying. And kept trying some more, long after even the most devoted acolyte would have lost faith. In that sense, he served -- and still serves -- as a source of inspiration to latter-day pilgrims like Jesse Berger.

An Indianapolis native and alumnus of the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Jesse moved to Los Angeles after his school days were over and, in his words, was "lucky to stumble into freelancing as a film location manager," including a gig on Georgina Garcia Riedel's Ana Maria in Novela Land (due to be released in February 2015), the last-ever film to feature the late and already much-missed Elizabeth Pena. But location management isn't Berger's only talent. A multi-hyphenate, he writes screenplays, edits, and works on music as well. "The LA thing," he calls it, and he's been at it for the last ten years.

Glen or the Bride of the Night of the Plan 9 from Outer Space is a personal project for Berger, since his empathy for the plight of Ed Wood runs deep. "Living in Los Angeles and doing the whole creative lifestyle thing," he explains, "it's hard not to think of Ed Wood and the implications of how his life turned out."

By his own account, Jesse was watching Bride of the Monster (1955) one night when he realized that the same actress, Dolores Fuller, appears both in that film and in Ed Wood's earlier effort, Glen or Glenda? (1953). "The thought hit me," he explains, "that it might be possible to edit multiple Ed Wood films into one."

He embarked upon this course in March 2013, drawing heavily from Bride and Glen, as well as two Ed Wood films from 1959: Plan 9 from Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls. Berger began scrutinizing these four films, picking out "anything I found interesting." Eventually, he had a creative epiphany. "As soon as I stumbled across the idea of Bela Lugosi being Glen's father, I hit the ground running and started churning out a draft.

The result, finally released in October 2014, was an almost David Lynch-ian 25-minute short film about a disturbed and very confused young man, Glen (Ed Wood), who commits a series of murders in order to appease his always-angry, never-satisfied father (Bela Lugosi), a character described on the DVD packaging as "an evil scientist from outer space." Indeed, the father works out of a basement laboratory and regularly consorts with aliens (Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee), who park their flying saucer in his yard. Glen consults a kindly, understanding doctor (Timothy Farrell) and also confesses his sins to his girlfriend (Dolores Fuller), but still the murders continue.

As in any true Ed Wood movie from the 1950s, there are policemen investigating the case, both uniformed (Paul Marco, Conrad Brooks) and plainclothes (Lyle Talbot, Johnny Carpenter, Duke Moore, Tor Johnson). "Will Glen stop appeasing his father's sick lust for blood," asks the DVD cover, "or will the killing continue?"

Flying saucers from Plan 9 pay a visit on Bride of the Monster.

Berger created this story, which he calls "semi-coherent," entirely out of audio and video elements from Ed Wood's own movies from the 1950s, along with a little fugitive audio from 1969's Love Feast. New meanings are created by juxtaposing scenes from these different films. An entire conversation between Glen and his father, for instance, is cobbled together from footage taken from Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster.

Meanwhile, in one of Glen or the Bride's most amusing moments, a montage of Tor Johnson highlights (culled from Bride and Plan 9) is magically "narrated" by Timothy Farrell's wise Dr. Alton from Glen or Glenda. As Johnson's mute servant Lobo is cruelly whipped by his master, Bela Lugosi, Farrell calmly intones, "Modern man is a hardworking human. Throughout the day, his mind and his muscles are busy at building the modern world and its business administration." It's as if Lobo were just another working stiff with an especially unpleasant boss.

Generally, even though he is drastically rearranging this raw material, Berger leaves the various video and audio clips themselves essentially intact. Occasionally, though, there are shots in which elements from one film are actually superimposed over footage from another. The most obvious examples are the scenes in which the wobbly flying saucers from Plan 9 miraculously land next to "the old Willows place" from Bride of the Monster. The images of Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi are also layered over various scenes throughout the film, suggesting these characters' otherworldly omnipresence in this fictional universe.

For those who may be curious, 1954's Jail Bait was considered for inclusion in this project, too, but failed to make the final cut. Coincidentally, the plot of Glen or the Bride more closely resembles Jail Bait than it does any of Ed Wood's other 1950s films. Both of these movies revolve around troubled young men who are wracked with guilt over crimes they have committed and who live in the shadows of powerful fathers. In retrospect, including some scenes of Timothy Farrell as ill-tempered gangster Vic Brady in Jail Bait might have provided some interesting contrast with his sober, serious Dr. Alton character from Glen or Glenda.

As for Berger's aspirations for this material, the editor/co-director of Glen or the Bride is philosophical: "The two things I've always wanted to know were what would Ed Wood think of this project. And what a random person would think about it if they had no knowledge of Ed Wood or the fact that it was a re-edit of his films."

The first question must forever remain unanswered. The second inquiry may soon receive a response, as Berger has put his film on YouTube. Obviously, the target audience for something like this will consist of those who already care about Edward D. Wood, Jr. The film's odd length -- Berger insisted upon keeping the film under half an hour -- may eventually spell out its destiny. I can imagine Glen or the Bride having a healthy life as either an aperitif or a palate-cleanser at Ed Wood festivals, marathons, and tributes. With the exception of Vampira, who is sadly AWOL, nearly every major performer associated with Ed Wood's "classic period" is here. (Though he does not appear on camera, Criswell is frequently heard as a narrator.) Intentional or not, what Berger has created with Glen or the Bride is a video scrapbook for an entire chapter of American independent film.

Girl Talk's Feed the Animals LP.
The viewing experience: Delirious in a wonderful, wonderful way. While watching Glen or the Bride of the Night of the Plan 9 from Outer Space, I came to the realization that editing is perhaps the definitive art form of this still-young century of ours. I don't necessarily mean the literal editing of film or video, though that's often a big part of what I'm talking about. Rather, I mean taking preexisting images, sounds, phrases, and ideas and artfully rearranging and repurposing them into something else, something which is simultaneously new and not-new. Isn't that what's really happening right now in music, movies, literature, and television, not to mention the vast, disembodied expanse we call the Internet?

From where I sit, the 21st Century has not been a time of wholly new audio-visual sensations. Instead, it has been a time when clever scavengers have sorted through the accumulated detritus of popular culture and found meaning and order in what seems, on first glance, to be meaningless and chaotic. Modern-day artists are rather like birds, building elaborate and intricate nests from whatever twigs happen to be in their vicinity. You can witness this type of pop cultural nest-building in every Tarantino movie, every Girl Talk album, and every media-bending YouTube parody or BuzzFeed article. Pivotal, game-changing TV shows like SCTV and The Simpsons have largely been about conflating, commingling, and condensing many decades of mass media input, mostly from movies, commercials, and TV shows.

Without an abundance truly new things to look at, the editors of our age have given us new ways to look at the old things which were already there in front of us. Maybe that's where art and culture have been heading for thousands of years. We've been accumulating plays and books and songs and stories and paintings and films for centuries. Now, at last, we have plenty of "raw material" with which to work. It's up to us to assemble this material in ways which speak to the issues and anxieties of our own time. I cannot help but flash back to a quote from Ed Wood's script for Glen or Glenda: "Strangely enough, nature has given us all these things. We just had to learn how to put nature's elements together for our use, that's all." Even Ed Wood predicted the ascendancy of editing.

Top: Ed Wood in Glenda.
Bottom: Jack Nance in Erasherhead.
I mentioned earlier the movies of David Lynch. What I meant by that comparison is that, like Lynch's films ranging from Eraserhead to Lost HighwayGlen or the Bride vaguely sketches out a narrative but generally operates on free-associative dream logic... or the muddled ill-logic of someone who desperately wishes to sleep but cannot. (Berger revealed to me that "fatigue" and "insomnia" played major roles in the creation of his movie.) Also like Lynch, Jesse Berger tends to favor dark, shadowy, moody images and so plucks these from Ed Wood's movies with glee.

If nothing else, Glen or the Bride illustrates just how dark Eddie's movies were during the 1950s. (So many of the scenes take place at night!) One of the central images in Glen or the Bride, in fact, is a foreboding chiaroscuro close-up of Ed Wood from a Glen or Glenda nightmare sequence. This moment bears a rather stunning likeness to the definitive head-and-shoulders shot of Jack Nance in Eraserhead. They're framed the same way. At these respective moments, both Wood and Nance seem to be isolated in their own gloomy little universes.

Jesse Berger also seizes upon the sinister Devil character (played by Captain De Zita) from Glen or Glenda? and includes him, without much explanation or context, in Glen or the Bride. This is analogous to the way Lynch will occasionally include mysterious, demonic characters in his films, like the one portrayed by Robert Blake in Lost Highway. One of the better descriptions of Lynch's work I have encountered was one which suggested that his movies are like jigsaw puzzles and that Lynch gives his audience either too many pieces or not enough of them. Any viewer, then, trying to definitively "solve" a movie like Inland Empire or Mullholland Dr. is apt to become frustrated.

On the other hand, viewers more interested in the journey than the destination may find Lynch's films all the richer since the writer-director refuses to provide neat solutions, tidy endings, or easy answers. So it is with Glen or the Bride. What Jesse Berger has accomplished here is to create an integrated, inter-connected universe out of four different films, finding the strands which bind them to one another. He is playing "connect-the-dots" with cult cinema!

It should be noted that Ed Wood has given Jesse Berger some help. Paul Marco's bumbling Officer Kelton, a cowardly comic relief character, recurs in three of the original Wood films from the '50s and thus serves as a sort of mascot figure, both to Wood and to Berger. Were he alive to see Glen or the Bride, Paul Marco might well be flattered by the amount of screen time he commands in this new film. But other connections made in Glen or the Bride -- both inter-film (between  different movies) and intra-film (within the same movie) -- are relevatory in their ingenuity! I'll cite examples of both types of connections.

The small window through which Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi) views his pet octopus in Bride of the Monster is, in Berger's film, the porthole through which Glen's father sees into the flying saucer from Plan 9 and communicates with the snooty aliens Eros and Tanna who dwell within it. In the prologue, on the other hand, Berger takes two completely unrelated scenes from Glen or Glenda? -- one with Glen's disapproving sister, Sheila, and another with suicidal cross-dresser Patrick/Patricia -- and combines them somehow into a single, unified sequence in which Glen murders a young woman.

This is more than just a parlor trick or high-wire act on Berger's part. By taking these four movies and essentially throwing them into a blender, he has created an arty mood piece which reveals the dark, brooding, heart of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Behind those plywood tombstones and model-kit UFOs, there was a restless poet trying desperately to express himself with whatever means he had at his disposal.

Speaking of which, viewers of Glen or the Bride of the Night of the Plan 9 from Outer Space will likely notice that the entire film has a grainy, slightly distorted look, as if it were made from a second-or-third generation public domain print. This, Jesse Berger insists, is intentional. "At one point," he says, "I tried swapping the low res footage I [was] using with higher resolution footage. But the look and feel just wasn't the same. The fact that I was using multiple movies was more obvious, and it just wasn't working. I think there's something about the low-fi bootleg look that rings more true to the nature of the project." While it took my eyes a few moments to adjust, I eventually came to quite enjoy, even relish, the graininess of Glen or the Bride.

While Berger envisions his film as "something someone would find on a random VHS tape at Goodwill," I was taken back to the days when television sets had both VHF and UHF dials. I can remember clicking through all those UHF channels in the hopes of finding something cool and being thrilled when some old, weird cartoon or ancient rerun would suddenly flicker into view for a few seconds before being engulfed by static. Watching those channels was like hovering between sleep and wakefulness. Glen or the Bride offers that same kind of fleeting, intangible pleasure.



Many thanks to Jesse Berger for his immeasurable help in assembling this article.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating project. It reminds me of the serial spoof J-Men Forever, perpetrated by two of the members of Firesign Theatre in 1979, which mashed together about half a dozen serials from the '30s, '40s, and '50s. The difference there, of course, is that Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman wrote new dialogue to be dubbed over the footage and shot some connecting scenes to bridge the gaps between the individual segments. If you're curious, that can also be found in its entirety on YouTube. (At least, that's where I found it when I reviewed it at the start of the year.)

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