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:

So what's up next? 

Ed leans in.

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

Doctor Acula? I don't get it.

Dr. Acula!

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

Oh. 'Dr. Acula.' I get it. 
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).