Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, Week 11: "Night of the Ghouls" (1959)

Tor Johnson reprises the role of Lobo in 1959's Night of the Ghouls.

"I've been lucky. None of my films have been left on the laboratory shelf."
-Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed's nearly "lost" classic.
In late 1978, just a few weeks shy of Christmas, a penniless Edward D. Wood, Jr. was evicted from his seedy apartment at the intersection of Yucca Street and Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles, leaving the writer-director and his wife Kathy homeless. In desperation, he called a friend, actor Peter Coe, who agreed to let the Woods stay with him. It was at Coe's home, 5635 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, that Ed died on December 10. What was on Eddie's mind during these dark final days? Perhaps his legacy. 

According to David C. Hayes' book Muddled Mind, Ed Wood's last-known bit of writing was an essay for the liner notes of a Plan 9 from Outer Space soundtrack LP. In these notes, Eddie speaks euphemistically about his current living situation, as if to assure his fans that he was doing just fine. Here is the crucial passage:
Finally, a note to all of my special friends. I am retired now, and living comfortably in the home of a good friend. I still keep a watchful eye on the Hollywood scene, and I still dream of the day when my sequel to "Plan 9," "The Night of the Ghouls," will be rescued from the Pathe Laboratory for all my fans to see and enjoy. Until that time, I plan to occupy myself by puttering in the garden and watching football on television.
Whether or not this piece of writing is genuine (and it probably isn't), there are a number of interesting points here. Ed's well-intended fib about "watching football" is especially poignant. "Eddie didn't like football," his wife Kathy testifies in the incredibly sad final chapter of Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. On the fateful day of December 10, 1978, Ed retreated into a bedroom specifically to avoid a football game the other occupants of the house were watching. From within that room, he complained to Kathy that he couldn't breathe, but the two had been arguing that day, and she merely "cussed him out." Later, he was found dead there, a look of horror frozen on his face.

But the Plan 9 liner notes, allegedly penned only two weeks before this tragic incident, show that Eddie had not lost his lifelong sense of optimism and was eager for a 'lost" film of his, Night of the Ghouls (1959), also known as Revenge of the Dead, to finally see legitimate release. Of course, one could point out that in Hollywood Rat Race (written circa 1965), Ed Wood boasted that none of his films had ever failed to achieve release or been held up in a film lab. Obviously, Ed's memory was selective in this instance. But what's more important is that, in the waning days of his life, the ever-proud auteur was still thinking about a movie he'd made and loved twenty years earlier. And "loved" is truly the appropriate word. Ed Wood told one of the film's cast members, Valda Hansen, "I love this movie so much, it's almost like a part of me."

Ted Newsom: Not a fan of
Wade H. Williams III
The circuitous path Night of the Ghouls took in reaching the public is perhaps one of the most famous anecdotes in the curious, patchwork legend of Ed Wood, Jr. The short version goes like this: the movie, although completed in 1959, did not actually get released until 1983 -- five years after Ed's death -- because the cash-strapped director simply couldn't pay the lab fees. The truth is somewhat more complex. The film's belated benefactor was one Wade H. Williams III (1942-  ), a Missouri-born film producer and exhibitor who is said to possess the world's largest collection of independent science fiction films. His name is certainly familiar to anyone who routinely watches low-budget sci-fi and horror movies from the 1950s and 1960s because he's plastered it on VHS and DVD re-releases of such films since the 1980s. If you're still reading this article, chances are high that you have at least one "Wade Williams Collection" DVD in your possession.

Some fans and critics, including Rob Craig, the author of Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films (McFarland, 2009), have praised Williams highly for preserving many obscure films, including those of Ed Wood, which might have disappeared forever without his intervention. However, others in the "B"-movie community have grumbled about Williams' attempts to exercise copyright control over films (including Plan 9) which are really in the public domain, efforts which seem all the more petty considering Williams' great personal wealth. One of his detractors, in fact, is filmmaker Ted Newsom, the director of Look Back in Angora (Rhino Video, 1994) and the host and presenter of the Ed Wood DVD collection, Big Box of Wood (S'more Entertainment, 2010).

Not being involved in the making or distribution of motion pictures, I cannot tell you who's "right" and who's "wrong" here. But to paraphrase Plan 9 from Outer Space's quizzical Lt. Harper (Duke Moore): "One thing's for sure. Night of the Ghouls is easily available to the public... and Wade Williams is responsible!"

Is that a good thing? I first saw Night of the Ghouls over twenty years ago when it was added to the roster of the Ed Wood movie marathons which were an annual event back then in my economically-blighted hometown of Flint, Michigan. That evening in October 1992 began with Bride of the Monster, then progressed to Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space. The organizers of the event had wisely scheduled Ghouls as the last film of the night, because it proved to be a room-clearer, sending fed-up patrons shuffling back to their cars in a stupor.

Although only about 70 minutes in length, the oddly claustrophobic and static film felt much longer than that. In particular, the movie's pivotal "seance" sequences, with slide whistles and trumpet blasts on the soundtrack, seemed to test the audience's patience. I somehow managed to stick it out but was not eager to ever see the film again. Oh, sure, I dutifully bought the DVD when it came out ten years ago, but until this project, I'm not sure I'd ever really watched the film from beginning-to-end since first seeing it at that marathon in the '90s. Did this project change my opinion of Night of the Ghouls?

The answer awaits you below, gentle reader...


This Nostalgia Merchant VHS tape may be overselling the "badness" of Ghouls just a bit.

Alternate title: Revenge of the Dead

Availability: The Wade Williams Collection version, with a clearly-altered title sequence, is available as a standalone DVD (Image Entertainment, 2002) or as part of The Ed Wood Box (Image, 2004).

Johnny Carpenter in his natural habitat.
The backstory: Roughly a decade after his ill-fated partnership with John Crawford Thomas, which yielded only the primitive, semi-finished Crossroads of Laredo (1948), Ed Wood formed a new business venture, Atomic Productions, with a retired Marine named Major J.C. Foxworthy in 1958. Ed's plans for Atomic were, as usual, ambitious: a slate of eighteen potential films. Only one of these, however, came to fruition: a sequel to 1955's Bride of the Monster originally entitled Revenge of the Dead.

The star of Bride, horror legend Bela Lugosi, had inconveniently died in 1956, but Ed brought back at least two of the film's cast, recreating their memorable earlier roles: Paul Marco as cowardly, bumbling Officer Kelton and Tor Johnson as the hulking, mute Lobo. Harvey B. Dunn returned, too, but as a different character: a rattled near-victim of a mysterious ghostly apparition. His previous role, Police Captain Robbins, was now inexplicably played by Johnny Carpenter, another of the B-list cowboy actors Ed adored. (Wood even allegedly ghostwrote a couple of Carpenter's second-tier westerns.) Revenge also had plum roles for several of Wood's most prominent acolytes: sourpuss Kenne Duncan (portraying the "Dr. Acula" character intended for Lugosi), flamboyant pseudo-psychic Criswell (both narrating and participating in the story this time), chiropractor Tom Mason (once Bela Lugosi's unconvincing Plan 9 stand-in, now upgraded to a speaking role), and the old reliables Duke Moore and Don Nagel (as usual, portraying cops).

The most exciting new addition to the cast was a sexy blonde ingenue named Valda Hansen, whom Ed had known since she was a teenager. MST3K fans will also note the participation of Anthony "Tony" Cardoza, again playing an oily-looking sad sack. As in most (or all) of his other films, Cardoza was a financial backer of Night of the Ghouls as well, having been persuaded by Ed to invest in this production rather than an apartment building. Mason, too, invested in the film, thus earning roles for both himself and his wife, Margaret, who plays the hysterical, overreacting spouse of Harvey B. Dunn's character.

Wood's abandoned JD flick.
In the process of making Revenge of the Dead, Ed "Waste Not, Want Not" Wood cannibalized two of his previous failed projects from the late '50s: the unsold Final Curtain pilot (1957) and the unfinished juvenile delinquency film Hellborn (aka Rock & Roll Hell). While Ed made some attempt at seamlessly incorporating the Final Curtain footage into Revenge, namely by having Duke Moore wear a tuxedo similar to (perhaps the same as) the one he wore in that obscure pilot, the Hellborn footage is a complete non sequitir; narrator Criswell momentarily veers away from the film's main topic, i.e. ghosts and the supernatural, to lecture us about juvenile crime and traffic fatalities.

Interestingly, Ed Wood himself appears in the scenes lifted from Hellborn, fighting with Conrad Brooks in front of a crazed "teenage" audience. The material from Final Curtain, of course, is easy to spot: Duke Moore in a tuxedo wandering around the darkened theater, which here is passed off as a creepy haunted mansion.

Valda Hansen as "The White Ghost."
The new footage for Revenge of the Dead, filmed over a few weeks in April and May of 1958, weaves a convoluted new story around the existing footage. A sleazy, ill-tempered con artist named Karl (Duncan) and his sexy blonde girlfriend Sheila (Hansen) have set up shop in a house built on the site of the creepy mansion where Bela Lugosi's Dr. Eric Vornoff had carried out his fiendish experiments in Bride of the Monster. (The sinister location is called "Willows Lake" here. Diligent Ed Wood fans will remember that Bela's home in Bride was the Old Willows place on Lake Marsh, but whatever.) Dubbing himself "Dr. Acula" and posing as a powerful spirit guide who can communicate with the dead, Karl uses cheap theatrical trickery to fool elderly, gullible customers into signing over great sums of money to him so that he can "raise" their departed spouses from the dead.

Sheila, meanwhile, scares people away from the home by stalking the fog-shrouded property in the eerie guise of the "White Ghost." The relationship between these two is much like that of gangster Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell) and his gun moll Loretta (Theodora Thurman) in Wood's Jail Bait (1954). While Vic's favorite expression was "shut up," Karl's is "so what?" (Yes, this is also the pet expression of the anti-heroine played by Jean Moorhead in the Wood-scripted "roughie" The Violent Years.) Early in the film, Sheila becomes aware that a real spirit, the Black Ghost (Jeannie Stevens, another holdover from Final Curtain) is also roaming the grounds, though cynical Karl doesn't believe her. Karl and Sheila have also apparently inherited or adopted Dr. Vornoff's former assistant Lobo, his face now half-melted as a result of the explosive finale of Bride of the Monster. 

Captain Robbins has apparently heard enough about the ghoulish goings-on at Willows Lake that he sends world-weary Lt. Bradford (Moore) and panicky, inept Kelton (Marco, in his final and most prominent appearance in a Wood film) to investigate. Eventually, Dr. Acula's lucrative but heartless scheme backfires on him. The police interference is certainly unwelcome, but Acula's bigger problem is that his fraudulent seances have inadvertently succeeded in supernatural ways he could not have imagined, with horrifying consequences for himself and his girlfriend. Tragically, in all the confusion, the film's most innocent and likable character, Lobo, is gunned down.

Dr. Acula (Kenne Duncan) presides over an absurd seance.
The making of Revenge of the Dead was typically chaotic. As bad a businessman as ever, Ed was almost always on the verge of bankruptcy, and at one point Tor Johnson refused to work until he was paid. Valda Hansen, meanwhile, was sexually harassed on a continual basis both by the male crew members and by her lecherous co-star, Kenne Duncan, who would make vulgar suggestions to her between takes.Valda and Ed, however, were quite close and seemed to have a deep, spiritual connection based on a shared interest in the paranormal. Based on what I've read, I get the sense that perhaps the attractive actress and her director (who still maintained some of his Errol Flynn-like good looks at that point) had a romantic relationship on the side, but I cannot confirm this.

In any event, there is ample evidence that the movie did premiere under its original title in 1959 and may have played a few times in Los Angeles back then, too. There are photos of the film's premiere showing cast members Criswell, Tor Johnson, Valda Hansen, and Paul Marco mugging for the camera. It's possible that the version which premiered in '59 was not quite finished. There are a couple of letters from August and September 1959 from Ed Wood to Tony Cardoza in which Wood suggests re-editing and re-titling the film, possibly removing some of the Criswell scenes from the beginning and replacing them with footage of Bela Lugosi, which he was planning to acquire from Glen or Glenda? producer George Weiss. (These letters also sadly reveal that Wood was too poor at the time to afford a home telephone.)

Rob Craig's book Ed Wood, Mad Genius suggests that the title Night of the Ghouls was the creation of Wade Williams, but some of the existing scripts and letters excerpted in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy dispute that theory. More likely is that Ed himself wanted to change the title to Night of the Ghouls but never got around to doing so. Whatever the case, Revenge of the Dead was quickly withdrawn from circulation and went missing until Wade Williams paid the film's outstanding lab bills and released on home video in 1983 as Night of the Ghouls, with the new title crudely pasted over the old one.

As it happened, by virtue of debuting decades after it was shot, Ghouls counts as the last-released film of William C. Thompson, the colorblind cameraman who had been Ed's cinematographer on The Violent Years, Final Curtain, Bride of the Monster, Glen or Glenda?, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. The New Jersey-born photographer died in LA at the age of 74 in 1963.

Alternate cover spotted on Ebay.
The viewing experience: Completely baffling, engrossing, and charming all at once. I don't know what's changed in my brain over the last two decades, but I have eagerly sat through Night of the Ghouls about four times in the last few months as I've researched Ed Wood's life and career for this project. Twenty years ago, I had to summon every bit of my inner strength to sit through it even once. What was wrong with me back then? What's wrong with me now? Certainly, the film is stately in its pacing and relies on pages and pages of expository dialogue rather than action for long stretches at a time. Early in the proceedings, there are some long-ish scenes at the front desk of the police station (with a crudely-fashioned "WANTED" poster of Ed Wood taped to the wall) which are filmed in protracted, unbroken takes from one less-than-ideal angle, while the boom mic seems just slightly too far away to capture what's being said with perfect clarity. And, yes, there are the same stock shots of lightning-filled skies and zooming police cars which we've already seen in about half a dozen Wood films.

But even during these less-appetizing passages, we can enjoy the kind of stilted,  improbable, lovely and occasionally profound Wood-ian dialogue. This kind of stuff doesn't just grow on trees, folks. I refer you to Ed Wood, Mad Genius for Rob Craig's compelling religious interpretation of the film's plot, which again focuses on death and resurrection like most of Ed's best-loved creations.

Duke Moore, playing two roles simultaneously.
All of the really exciting stuff, of course, happens in and around the house on Willows Lake. In many ways, Night of the Ghouls makes a perfect send-off for William C. Thompson, who did as much as anyone to shape the look of the film's from Ed's "classic period" of the 1950s. Thompson makes these scenes, shot in crisp black-and-white, moody, mysterious, foreboding, and yet also quite alluring -- qualities also displayed by the great Universal horror features of the 1930s and 1940s. This is a world I'd love to live in. As he proved with Vampira (Maila Nurmi) in Plan 9 from Outer Space, Thompson had an incredible knack for capturing feminine beauty, and what a muse he has here in lovely Valda Hansen.

The house itself is one of Ed Wood's most wonderfully impossible locations. As with the spaceship in Plan 9, there is no logical or visual correspondence between the interior and the exterior of this house. From what we see of the exterior, the place seems to be a rather small, semi-dilapidated shack. Inside, however, the place is immeasurably vast and seems to have no beginning and no end. Viewers of Night of the Ghouls will, therefore, feel as if they are in a dream state with no grounding in real-world geography or architecture. Wood combines a few modest studio sets and the rather grand theater seen in Final Curtain, with its two distinct levels connected by a spiral staircase.

To provide the film's connective tissue, so to speak, Wood merely has his actors walk in front of a black background, giving the impression that they are existing in a shapeless void outside of time and space. The end result is one of the most fascinating and confounding interior spaces in cinema, rivaled only by the titular locale in Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Adding further to the disorientation of the viewer is the fact that the footage from Final Curtain is completely at odds with the narrative Wood is trying to impose upon it through narration from Criswell and inner monologues from Duke Moore. In Night of the Ghouls, Moore is supposed to be a hardened, seen-it-all policeman who is snooping around Dr. Acula's house looking for clues. But, of course, the actor he had portrayed in Final Curtain was confused and terrified by his surroundings. So in effect, the audio is conveying one story while the video is conveying another. Pretty heady stuff for a low-budget "haunted house" movie from the Eisenhower era.

For Ed Wood fans and seekers of cinematic curiosities, Night of the Ghouls is a veritable treasure trove, a phantasmagoria of sight and sound. When it is boring, it is transcendentally boring. When it is ridiculous, it is triumphantly ridiculous. I love it to pieces. See it at your earliest convenience.

NEXT WEEK: One curious statistic I've heard in some documentaries about Ed Wood is that he only directed five movies. How could anyone arrive at that low number? Well, it depends on what kinds of movies you choose to count towards your total. As far as some critics and historians are concerned, Ed Wood's directing career effectively ended in 1960 with The Sinister Urge, his last "mainstream" movie before his permanent descent into sexploitation (discounting his brief foray into technical and industrial films). Interestingly, the plot of The Sinister Urge revolves around pornography and, thus, serves as a harbinger of Wood's future. Join me here in a week for a discussion of that strange film, which like The Violent Years and Bride of the Monster ultimately wound up on MST3K.