|David C. Hayes as Rev. Steele in Devil Girls.
Following in the footsteps of Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy and its extended bibliography, a book called Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Ramble House, 2001; revised 2006), credited semi-pseudonymously to "David C. Hayes and Hayden Davis, Ph.D," attempted to catalog Ed Wood's wild and wooly literary output. Muddled Mind is perhaps of interest to Wood-ologists, as it is one of the rare guidebooks which focuses on Wood's writing rather than his filmmaking. This is quite fertile ground for study, and one hopes that other scholars will dig into Eddie's paperback novels and short stories.
By far, the man's most prolific era as a writer was the late 1960s. In 1967 and 1968 alone, he published at least 22 books, the majority for a small-time outfit called Pad Library, though Pendulum Pictorial and Viceroy Books were frequent employers as well during this time. The titles read like a summary of Ed's pet themes and career-long motifs: Drag Trade, Bloodiest Sex Crimes of History, Night Time Lez, The Perverts, Suburbia Confidential, etc.
I have already covered one of Ed's books from this hyper-productive period, the grim, fatalistic Death of a Transvestite. Today, however, I turn my attention to a novel in which Ed returned to the themes of femininity and criminality which had inspired him in the past as a screenwriter.
DEVIL GIRLS (1967)
|Ed Wood in the late 1960s when he wrote most of his novels, including Devil Dolls.
Alternate titles: None.
Availability: Following the release of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, there was a British reprinting of Devil Girls (Gorse, 1995) with a rather glib introduction by UK television personality Jonathan Ross, who clearly hadn't read the book. This edition remains extremely cheap and easy to find.
|Not for Ed Wood, it wasn't.
Set in the dismal Texas border town of Almanac, Devil Girls tells the story of a thrill-hungry, drug-crazed, all-female gang called the Chicks. The group includes jittery, heroin-addicted Dee, sexually voracious lesbian Babs, and newly-debauched Rhoda. Lording over them is a sleazy, small-time drug smuggler and pimp named Lark, who has craftily used heroin to keep Dee under his control. The group's ex-leader, Lila Purdue, is in prison for having murdered her own father, but escapes by killing a nurse and walking out the front door in her victim's uniform. Once free, Lila decides to head back to her hometown to kill the person who ratted her out: her mother. Back in Almanac, Lila brutally wrests control of the Chicks away from Dee and makes plans with Lark for a big score which involves using the girls to smuggle drugs into town by hiding them in their girdles, bras, and falsies.
Representing decency and order in Almanac are its overtaxed sheriff, the "ruggedly handsome" Buck Rhodes and the pious Reverend Steele, who hopes to lure Rhoda back to the flock -- a prospect which becomes much dimmer after the poor, confused girl has (more or less) accidentally shot her own mother. An unlikely ally to the sheriff and the clergyman is Jockey, the owner of an alcohol-and-drug-free burger joint which is a popular teen hangout. With the help of his hulking Indian sidekick, Chief, Jockey aids the police in their efforts to bring down Lark's crime ring and stop the influx of drugs into their small town. While many of the characters die in the book's gory finale, Sheriff Buck Rhodes reappeared in another Wood novel, Parisian Passions.
|"Love and terror": Manson in Life
Accordingly, the two principal "good guys" in Devil Girls are the standard-bearers of traditional American morality: a cop and a reverend, both quite preachy and neither blessed with a great sense of humor. A less conventional, though still stereotypically "manly," hero is Jockey, whose colorful past gives him an air of mystery but whose core values remain rock-solid. It should be noted that Jockey's sidekick, Chief, is an obvious cognate of Tor Johnson's character, Lobo, from Bride of the Monster. While Lobo supposedly hailed from "the wilderness of Tibet" but was in no way authentically Tibetan, Chief is a supposed Native American whose crude pidgin English is embarrassingly anachronistic. A typical line of dialogue: "No swim! Me desert Indian, not water Indian."
As for the novel's female authority figures.... well, newly-arrived schoolmarm Miss O'Hara proves utterly outmatched by the ne'er-do-wells of Almanac. In this story of female degradation, men are the ones who restore justice and order to the community.
Those looking for Ed Wood's trademark obsessions and eccentricities will find plenty to enjoy in Devil Girls. Although the book's Texas setting is crucial to the plot, absolutely no one in the story seems like an authentic Texan. In fact, pretty much all the characters in Devil Girls, especially the girls themselves, talk like escapees from a 1940s Bowery Boys movie -- except with smatterings of profanity and vulgar sexual remarks. But even the profanity is weird here. Ed Wood's publishers must not have allowed him to use the word "fuck," because he chooses an eccentric euphemism: "jazz." In this book (and other Wood novels I've read), "jazz" is a transitive verb meaning "to have sex with." Example: "He jazzed me all night long." Here, too, one will find the motifs common to Ed Wood's film work.
NOTE: I am aware that the word "jazz" is used as a sexual euphemism in pulp fiction, including the novels of Jim Thompson. However, I still doubt it was ever in common parlance in American English, especially among teenage girls of the late 1960s.
In the thoughtfully-written Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films (McFarland, 2009), author Rob Craig astutely points out that funerals are extremely common in Ed's movies, as is the theme of resurrection of the dead. Given its kill-crazy story and high body count, Devil Girls is unsurprisingly punctuated by funerals. The "resurrection" theme surfaces in odd ways, as when Lila dons the uniform of the nurse she has murdered or when Mrs. Purdue resurfaces at a crucial time, seemingly out of nowhere, after being shot and losing a lot of blood -- something which should have killed her.
Politically speaking, Devil Girls reveals Ed's deep-seated social conservatism. While heroin is the main drug of choice in Almanac, marijuana is a close second, and Ed does not mistake his utter contempt for the demon weed. The novel reads like the work of a man who believed every word of Reefer Madness and prayed to Sgt. Joe Friday each night.
Ed Wood's world was one of heavy consequences. You don't "get away" with anything here. In Plan 9, Criswell optimistically stated, "Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent." But in most of Ed's other works, both literary and cinematic, the guilty and innocent alike are punished... or at least end up depressed and downhearted by the denouement. The best an Ed Wood character can hope for is the chance to live to witness further sin and suffering and perhaps to learn from the mistakes of others. See also: The Violent Years, Jail Bait, Killer in Drag, and Death of a Transvestite.
Among Ed's novels, Devil Girls was one of those which was republished several times (despite its downbeat nature) and, thus, remained easy for fans to acquire. That is possibly why it inspired a very tardy screen adaptation more than three decades after its debut. Which brings us to...
ED WOOD'S DEVIL GIRLS (1999)
|Dee, Babs, and Rhoda as they appeared in Andre Perkowski's 1999 film adaptation of Devil Girls.
Alternate title: Devil Girls
Availability: For the curious, the film is available from Amazon Instant Video for rental or purchase. If you prefer physical media, you can buy the DVD (Terminal Pictures, 2009) as well. Please know in advance that this is a burn-on-demand DVD-R.
The backstory: Filmed on the cheap near the University of Chicago and Shedd Aquarium in 1999 with a largely-unknown cast, the tiny independent feature Ed Wood's Devil Girls did not see widespread distribution for about a decade, when it did start to attract some positive media attention. Since only the infinity of the depths of a man's mind can really tell the story, I'll let the director himself, Andre Perkowski, take it from there. (And thanks to Mr. Perkowski for submitting to an online interview!)
|Director Andre Perkowski
Devil Girls! A ludicrous experiment to see if I could shoot a film Ed Wood style in 4.5 days, a la the master. It turns out you can, but it also turns out that nobody particularly cares if you can shoot a film quickly. They want to be entertained! I also had only about $500 on hand for the shoot... and boy, doesn't it show? It does lend it a whirling incoherence and energy, despite not having any time to actually, say, think about things or generally tweak or guide performances. I had to trust the actors, who memorized reams of that dialogue and spat it out rat-a-tat.
The dialogue, incidentally, is not just the novel; it's a patchwork quilt from dozens of Wood's novels and short stories. I was tracking down as many as I could find for a few years. Whenever a wonderful phrase was found, I'd add it to the script. "Automation!" There's even a bit of Criswell's books in there, but for the follow-up film, we just used the actual Criswell.
|Ed Wood regular Conrad Brooks.
I was incredibly naive at the time, being 23 or so when I began the project and too foolish to realize that attempting a trilogy of unfilmed Ed Wood projects is really kind of an overly ambitious, silly thing to do. I pulled off Devil Girls, The Vampire's Tomb, and a short of To Kill a Saturday Night with Ted V. Mikels and Conrad Brooks before coming to my senses and working on my scripts, although part of me realizes that one day, I might have to shoot that adaptation of "The Ghoul Goes West" that lurks in my files... all on film, too. One of the worst aspects of the two Wood flicks is I fell for the DV [digital video] line about how revolutionary and blah blah blah it was for filmmaking. It looks hideous! Like porn. "Filmlook" was garbage, and how I wish I had scrimped and shot more film. I did do the inserts on Super-8/8mm, and that's definitely my favorite stuff in both films.
I asked Perkowski about the film's eclectic cast, including Sandra Delgado who is excellent as Lila (and who has since appeared on Law & Order SVU).
All of them were were actual actors who auditioned, except for David Hayes [who plays both Rev. Steele and Lobo, this film's substitute for Chief], who my girlfriend at the time suggested at the last minute as a man willing to shave his head. We went for the purposeful "this guy is obviously filmed totally separately and edited in" thing to be even more confusing. I should have added more day/night mix-ups. The automation rants are from Security Risk, a fine pulpy Wood novel [a copy of which is glimpsed in the movie].
They were generally all Chicago theater people. I figured we had to basically do this like a filmed play if it was going to be possible in a few days. Some of that dialogue was just giant bricks of text on the page! Those poor bastards. I was floored by their ability to remember the intricacies of the mangled syntax.
|Ed Wood's Devil Girls on DVD-R.
The writer-director further muddies things by periodically cutting away to a faux Criswell (bewigged Rob Gorden), who blathers on hysterically about juvenile crime and the looming specter of automation. The actors, apparently left to their own devices, take a variety of approaches to the material and treat their characters with various amounts of seriousness.
A few performances stood out for me, including the aforementioned Sandra Delgado as the tough and sexy Lila, Mike Cooney as a bald and genuinely unnerving Lark, and Paul Hoffman, who gets to gnaw on some scenery as the apoplectic Sheriff Buck Rhodes. The tone of the film is lovingly parodic, and I appreciated some of the sillier touches, such as having Mrs. Purdue, a butcher's widow, carry around a salami wherever she went.
At just over 70 minutes, Ed Wood's Devil Girls does not have time to wear out its welcome. I do wish, though, that the film hadn't skipped over some of the more thrilling passages from the novel, such as Lila's shocking escape from a prison hospital. But Wood-ologists will be soothed by this film's many references to The Violent Years, Glen or Glenda?, and Bride of the Monster. If only Spanky the Gorilla from Bride and the Beast had made a cameo! If you enjoyed Ed Wood's Devil Girls, director Andre Perkowski informs me that his version of The Vampire's Tomb should be available on VOD soon.
Next week: Sometime during the mid-1960s, Ed Wood wrote the closest thing to an autobiography in his entire literary canon with his offbeat guide to his adopted hometown of Hollywood, USA. Unfortunately, it wasn't published until 20 years after he died. In seven days, you and I will make our way through Hollywood Rat Race (1998). Mark your calendars.