Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 32: "Scare Tactics" (October 1992)

Ed Wood film festival organizer Dennis Ferrara in his office. Photo by Eric Larned.
Note the flier for the film festival in the background with the picture of Tor and Vampira.

Note: The promised review of Anatomy of a Psycho (1961) will be posted on February 26, 2014. I trust you can live without it for seven days. As a change of pace this week, I decided to look back at my very earliest experiences as a fan of Edward D. Wood, Jr. In 1992, when I was a 17-year-old high school senior, I wrote an article for the student newspaper about a local Ed Wood film festival and the eccentric professor who organized it. I recently discovered a copy of this article among some personal effects, and it spurred a lot of memories of my youth. I'm including the entire article for your perusal, preceded by a reminiscence about how and why I came to write it.
Oh, god, it was over half a lifetime ago.

Michael Moore's Flint-umentary.
From the age of six to my late twenties, I lived in a small town in mid-Michigan called Flushing. Go ahead and laugh at the name. You think I haven't heard every "Flushing" joke already? I resided there for longer than I've stayed anywhere else, but I've not been back in over a decade. Maybe I'll never return. Why should I? There's not much to Flushing, honestly. It's what you'd call a bedroom community. Other than a few small businesses and the usual smattering of shops and restaurants, Flushing is principally a place of residence for folks who work somewhere else.

In fact, most of Flushing's identity comes from its status as a suburb of Flint, a grungy, mid-sized factory town whose economy and population were already badly waning by the time I grew up due to the drastic decline of the city's one-and-only industry, the manufacture of automobiles. For a heavily biased, chronologically dubious yet entertaining take on the long, slow death of Flint, see Michael Moore's rabble-rousing documentary Roger & Me (1989). Short version: Flint put all of its economic eggs in a basket marked "General Motors," then discovered to its horror and befuddlement that the basket had a hole in the bottom.

I was largely shielded from this, since my parents both had steady employment which was only indirectly reliant on GM. Dad taught high school history, and Mom ran a discount children's clothing store before becoming a professor at a nearby community college. We were comfortable. We didn't live in luxury, but money was never a concern. Flushing was located at the exact cusp where urban met rural, but instead of giving the town a delightful sense of diversity, this just meant that many of my schoolmates fell into two categories: mean rednecks with chips on their shoulders and (even worse) snotty, over-privileged brats with a fearsome sense of entitlement. Lord help me, I hated living there. I wanted Flushing to be wiped off the map by a meteor, erasing me along with it.

A vintage issue of The Blazer.
Perhaps to overcome my painful, almost-debilitating adolescent shyness, I was in quite a few extracurricular activities during high school -- the marching band, the quiz bowl team, National Honor Society, that kind of thing. But none of them meant even half as much to me as being a member of the editorial staff of the school newspaper, The Blazer, which advertised itself as "Flushing High School's Independent Voice." How independent it truly was, I don't know. I think the slogan referred to the fact that the cost of the publication was paid for through advertising and not by the local school system, so we were (theoretically) not beholden to the administration.

We didn't have complete artistic freedom, though. There were certainly limits to what we could publish, and, being a wiseass, I ran up against them all the time. As institutions go, schools have notoriously poor senses of humor and inordinately delicate sensibilities. One must therefore be political in such a situation. For me, though, the compromise was definitely worth it. Because of the newspaper, I had a forum in which I could write abut things that mattered to me, namely films and music and comedy. This was before there really was such a thing as the Internet, but not much before. I had no sense of what was coming, technologically, other than the vague awareness that there was some way to receive pornography through the computer.

The Blazer might just have saved my life. One-hundred percent of the credit for that goes to the paper's staff advisor, Ms. Sharrow, who ran The Blazer in a half-strict, half-indulgent way that I found very conducive to writing. She was, hands down, the best teacher I ever had -- not just because she encouraged me to pursue all my arcane pop culture interests (though she did this) and looked the other way when I reviewed R-rated movies like Blue Velvet and Andy Warhol's Dracula (she did this, too), but because she treated me like... well, not like an equal or a peer, but not like a clueless kid either. I mean, I was a clueless kid, but she didn't let on. Students gravitated to Ms. Sharrow. The newspaper office, which during the school day was her classroom, became a hangout for me and several of my closest friends. We took as many classes from Ms. Sharrow as we could and spent our lunches there, too. After school, the room became kind of a clubhouse within the bland, cinder-block confines of our otherwise-unwelcoming and utterly unremarkable suburban high school.

A book that changed my life.
Somewhere in my mid-teens, which would have been the late 1980s or early 1990s, I found Edward D. Wood, Jr. the way other people find Jesus. Eddie died when I was three, and his movies started to catch on when I was in kindergarten, so I can't say I got in on the ground floor of the Ed Wood cult. Well, I could say that, but I'd be lying like hell. The truth is that I didn't even see a frame of his work until I was 17 years old. I knew the name well before that, though. It had been my habit since childhood to flip through video and movie guides -- which back then were brick-sized paperbacks you actually purchased in a bookstore -- and scrutinize all the zero- and one-star reviews. Perhaps that's where titles like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? first entered my conscience.

But around my freshman or sophomore year, two seminal "film nerd" books took up permanent residence in my brain: Cult Movies by Danny Peary, which included a lengthy, informative, and humorous essay on Plan 9; and Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, which devoted a few pages of its "Drag" section to Glen or Glenda?, including the story -- which I've never encountered anywhere else -- of how Glenda was almost re-released by Paramount Pictures in March 1981. According to Midnight Movies, Paramount even placed an ad for the film in the New York Times, but backed out "at the last minute" and "cancelled the opening, apparently citing the attempted assassination of President Reagan as their reason."

Interestingly, though Midnight Movies does not mention it, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd actually recreated Glenda's infamous "angora sweater hand-off" scene in It Came from Hollywood (1982). The film, which contains clips from both Plan 9 and Glenda, was released by -- you guessed it -- Paramount Pictures. In any event, I was just starting to learn about "underground" and "cult" cinema as an adolescent, and the books by Peary and Hoberman/Rosenbaum became my de facto bibles. It's amazing what a seismic and permanent impact those two volumes had on my moviegoing tastes. Of all the strange, out-of-the-mainstream movies they discussed and dissected, the ones I was most curious to see were the ones directed by Ed Wood. The trouble was, I had no idea how to go about finding them. The local video stores didn't carry these flicks, and the Internet was in its larval stage back then. This was a couple of years before Tim Burton's Ed Wood, so information about Eddie was not so easily located by a Midwestern kid. If Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy existed, it hadn't come to our town yet.

Dennis Ferrara in 2007, essentially unchanged.
Then, in the fall of 1992, a miracle! Flint's Mott Community College, where my mother worked as an English teacher, announced that it was hosting a Tribute to Edward D. Wood, Jr., featuring four of his notorious films, including the Holy Grail itself, Plan 9 from Outer Space. I can scarcely explain to you how incongruous and unexpected this event truly was back then. Ed Wood was far from a household name in 1992, and even if he had been, Flint is not exactly the kind of town to put on a film festival devoted to a cross-dressing "B"-moviemaker from the 1950s. For me, it was like winning the lottery.

Overcome with enthusiasm, I asked my mother to arrange an interview with the festival's organizer, Dennis Ferrara. She and Dennis got along well, so this was easily accomplished. I pitched the idea as a double-page spread to Ms. Sharrow, and of course she said yes, too. I can still remember driving over to MCC with Eric Larned, a classmate of mine who was gracious enough to serve as the photographer for the piece. (I doubt he had any interest in the topic, so thanks for being a good sport, Eric.) We met Dennis in his office on campus, and I think it was Eric's idea to have him pose in front of a huge poster of Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster.

Technically, half of Mott's film festival was devoted to James Whale, who directed two Frankenstein films, but at that age, I didn't give two damns about either Whale or Frankenstein. I wanted to talk about Ed Wood, and Dennis was happy to oblige. He was a witty, chatty guy. If you want to picture him, try imagining a cross between George Costanza and Niles Crane. Dennis seems to have worked at Mott until about 2010. He'd be in his mid-60s by now. The most recent tidbit about him I could find was this article about his participation in the Michigan chapter of the Organ Historical Society. I distinctly remember being especially pleased with this article, even though (acting as my own editor) I didn't put a great deal of thought into the layout or presentation of the material.

Besides the interview with Dennis, I included a schedule of events for the festival and a sidebar piece called "Edward D. Wood: A beginner's guide." And "beginner" is truly the word, friends. I based this whole piece based on second-hand information before ever watching any of Eddie's movies. Looking back on it now, I cringe at a few of the factual errors (most of the release dates for the movies are wrong, for instance) and the fact that I merely regurgitated some of the urban myths about Wood (like the ubiquitous "paper plates as flying saucers" canard). Overall, though, I was happy to see that my writing style was still recognizable (to me, at least), even in a story I'd written 20+ years ago. I'm still no Mike Wallace when it comes to interviewing people, so I'm glad I was able to cobble together a coherent, readable article from my conversation with Dennis Ferrara.

Post-mortem: The Ed Wood festival was successful enough to continue for several years in Flint. The print edition of The Blazer folded a couple of years back. Ms. Sharrow has since retired as well. I feel badly for the students at Flushing who will not get to have her as a teacher. My beloved high school newspaper seems to have continued as a blog for a while, but this has not been updated in nearly a year. In a real-world, physical sense, "Flushing High School's Independent Voice" exists only as back issues in the file cabinets, desk drawers, and hall closets of graduates like myself.

Click on the images below to see full-sized scans of the original "Scare Tactics" article from October 1992. Beneath that is the complete text of the piece. Enjoy.

S c a r e   T a c t i c s
MCC Horror Film Festival offers terror for all tastes
For many, the Halloween season isn't complete without the annual viewing of scary movies. Dennis Ferrara, a teacher at Mott Community College, hopes these film fanatics will turn out for MCC's First Annual Horror Film Marathon, a two day celebration of the best and worst of Hollywood's ghoulish past. The marathon begins on Friday, October 30, with a loving tribute to notoriously inept director Edward D. Wood, Jr, including Plan 9 from Outer Space and the transvestite epic Glen or Glenda?, which will last from 6 p.m. until midnight. The second night, a much more serious tribute to English director James Whale, including The Bride of Frankenstein, will also last from 6 p.m. until midnight. I talked recently with Mr. Ferrara about the festival and the state of Flint entertainment in general.  
What do you think is the big attraction to Edward D. Wood's films?  
On the West Coast and East Coast, Edward D. Wood has seen a resurgence. Here [in Flint], I'm sure most people don't know who Ed Wood is. Ed Wood was nicknamed "Hollywood's Worst Film Director." He was just as bizarre as the entourage that followed him: Bela Lugosi as a dried-out, alcoholic druggie; Tor Johnson, the 400-pound Swede ex-wrestler known as "Hollywood's Most Beloved Swede"; the great Criswell, who would sleep in a casket at night and predict very bad predictions, and none of them came true; Vampira; Paul Marcos... Ed Wood was truly a unique phenomenon. He loved wearing women's clothing under his own. He loved angora. 
So, then, Glen or Glenda? was slightly autobiographical? 
Yes, quite. In fact, Ed Wood appears as Glen... [Ed Wood's films] are a phenomenon of poor cinematography, poor lighting, poor everything, poor direction... He's so bad he's good. 
Are there any other film festivals in the works? 
Some want to do foreign film, but foreign film would die in this town. No, we've got to have "schlock" film. I produce a TV series on Cable 18 called Forgotten Feature Flicks on Wednesday evenings starting October 27 from 6:00 in the evening until 9:00 and the specialty is bad 'B" serials, " "B" featurettes, "B" features, cartoons, and interviews... I would like us to have a John Waters film festival, but we have to be very careful how our persona is perceived... Showing stuff like Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living would be in poor taste... People ask, "Why are you choosing 'B' movies?" But why not "B" movies? They're popular. 
Are you expecting the first night to draw a bigger audience than the second night? 
The second night is really sophisticated. I don't know... We will have wonderful projection... We have rear view projection. It will be superior. I'm looking forward to it. I've been working hard for the last four months on it. And we're getting ready for April 2, which will be the Second Annual Horror Film Festival with a gourmet meal that will precede it... a six-course meal... If this was another town, we'd have the place packed. 
Would Ed Wood enjoy festivals like this? 
Oh, he'd love it! The interviews that we will be showing, the 45-minute documentary, people would definitely say Ed Wood would've loved what we are doing here. It's the first Ed Wood festival in Michigan to my knowledge... in fact, in the Midwest.

E d w a r d   D .   W o o d :
A beginner's guide

Dudley Manlove, Joanna Lee, and Duke Moore
do their bit for bad acting in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Embraced by many as the worst films ever made, Ed Wood's work has long been a popular attraction at film festivals across the country. An entire episode of Seinfeld centered on Jerry's failed efforts to attend a showing of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood's masterpiece. Wood's popularity soared when a popular series of books called The Golden Turkey Awards named him as the worst director of all time. Since many people in the Flint area have never heard of Ed Wood or his films, here's a crash course in what makes them so popular.
  • Bad sets: To simulate an airplane cockpit, Ed Wood might use two chairs and a blanket. He made graves out of lightweight cardboard that frequently toppled over on camera! The same crummy furniture often turned up in multiple rooms. In Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood actually used paper plates as his flying saucers.
  • Ridiculous dialogue: Wood forced his actors to recite such  memorable lines as "Inspector Clay's dead... and somebody's responsible!" Bela Lugosi's narration of Glen or Glenda, which contained references to "snips and snails" made little sense in relation to the plot.
  • Bad acting: No one expected 400-pound Swede Tor Johnson or Lily Munster look-alike Vampira to equal Sir Laurence Olivier, but their performances are worse than they should be. Moreover, the understudy hired to replace Bela Lugosi on Plan 9 after Lugosi's death might have been the only person in Hollywood who couldn't imitate Lugosi's famous accent.
  • Weak plots: Glen or Glenda? centered around a confused man who wanted to wear his fiancee's sweater. Plan 9 has aliens bringing the dead back to life and flying through the San Fernando valley, including a cruise down Hollywood Boulevard.
  • A complete lack of ethics: Ed Wood knew no shame. He wouldn't hesitate to "borrow" footage from his other films. His films also ran under various titles, possibly to confuse the public into seeing them twice. Plan 9, for instance, became Grave Robbers from Outer Space. Glen or Glenda?, likewise, was shown as Man or Woman? I Led 2 Lives, I Changed My Sex, He or She? and Transvestite.
  • Bela Lugosi as you've never seen him before: The actor who became synonymous with Dracula was at the lowest point of his career by the time he met Ed Wood. His roles as The Spirit in Glen or Glenda? and The Ghoul Man in Plan 9 are two of his most unforgettable.

S c h e d u l e   o f   E v e n t s

What: MCC's First Annual Halloween Horror Film Marathon
When: October 30 and 31
Where: Room 1211 of the Mott Building
Cost: $5.00 general admission per evening, $4.00 for students with ID, $8.00 for both nights.

Friday evening, October 30, 1992 - A Tribute to Edward D. Wood, Jr. 
Introductory Remarks - Dr. Mary Pine, Dean of Arts and Humanities
Historical Remarks - Dennis Ferrara, Speech/Film Faculty
Film Presentation - Glen or Glenda? (1952 - 67 minutes)
Bride of the Monster (1953 - 69 minutes)
Intermission - 10 minutes
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959 - 78 minutes)
Night of the Ghouls (1960 - 79 minutes) 
Saturday evening, October 31, 1992 - A Tribute to James Whale 
Introductory Remarks - Dr. David Sam, Vice President, Academic Affairs
Historical remarks - Dennis Ferrara
Film Presentation - Frankenstein (1931 - 70 minutes)
The Old Dark House (1932 - 90 minutes)
Intermission - 10 minutes
The Invisible Man (1933 - 70 minutes)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935 - 70 minutes)