Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'Final Curtain' (1971)

An actor caresses a blonde-haired vampire dummy in Ed Wood's "Final Curtain."

NOTE: This article is part of my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Fresh from the pages of Belly Button!
The story: "Final Curtain," originally published in Belly Button magazine, Vol. 2, No. 2., July/August 1971, Calga Publishers. [Note: Philip R. Frey contends that the story appeared in Belly Button's February 1971 issue.]

Synopsis: After the closing night of his play, an actor wanders around an otherwise-empty and darkened theater, convinced that he is supposed to find some object. At first, his travels take him from his dressing room to the now-deserted stage. All the while, he is seized by eerie hallucinations and senses the presence of the spirits of those long deceased. Every trivial detail he encounters-- the empty theater seats, some burned-out guide lamps, the yowling of a cat -- takes on sinister significance in the man's paranoid imagination. He ascends a staircase to an upper story, where there is a hallway of evenly-spaced storage and rehearsal rooms. In one, he encounters a blonde-wigged female vampire mannequin, which he swears comes to life briefly and smiles at him! He backs out of the room and continues exploring, finally coming to a room where he finds what he had been seeking all along: a big black casket. He climbs inside and closes the lid.

Wood trademarks: Preoccupation with death (cf. this collection's "Into My Grave"); the theater (an important part of Ed Wood's early history); vampires (cf. this collection's "Dracula Revisited"); rambling supernatural monologue (cf. this collection's "I, Warlock," "Dracula Revisted," "The Night the Banshee Cried"); protagonist plagued by spirits and screaming sounds (cf. "Dracula," "Banshee"); quasi-poetic formatting with numerous line breaks (cf. many of the stories in this collection, including "Hellfire," plus the aforementioned monologues); heavy use of ellipses; resurrection of the dead (literal this time, as spirits); a preference for blondes (the "vampire dummy" has blonde hair); character compelled to climb into a coffin (cf. Necromania, "Come Inn"); fetishization of women's clothing (our narrator takes time to appreciate the mannequin's silk dress); fondness for soft fabrics (the casket is also velvet-lined); the "other things.. pleasant things" monologue (recycled as a speech for Criswell in the script for Orgy of the Dead); and one last reference to snakes (a metal railing is compared to "a cold, slimy snake").

Excerpt: "I leave the comforting lights of my dressing room and move to stand on the dark, empty stage. I look out over the blackened auditorium. The seats in front are as I have seen them night after night while acting my lines on this side of the footlights. But now, empty, they appear like squatty little fat men standing row on row, like soldiers in battle formation."

Reflections: More needs to be written about Ed Wood's mid-to-late-1940s theatrical career, which seems to have had a considerable, course-altering effect on his life. Unsurprisingly, the details of this phase of his career are scarce, and the sketchy information one can find in books like Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy is incomplete and often contradictory. What's (generally) agreed-upon is this: in 1946, having been honorably discharged from the Marines, Edward D. Wood, Jr. studied at the King-Smith School of the Creative Arts in Washington, D.C., where he may have received instruction from revered dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991), a figure he is said to have admired greatly.

When he moved out to Hollywood the next year, Ed's first professional experiences were not in film but on the stage, acting in his own autobiographical play The Casual Company and portraying a sheriff in a show called The Blackguard Returns, as well as appearing in other, as-yet-unspecified theatrical productions. Chuck La Berge, an actor who appeared with Ed in The Casual Company, recalled to Rudolph Grey: "In the theater, we had a bad night, we'd all sit around and share a bottle of gin. We'd get drunk, and Ed would tell us all this weird stuff." Oh, to have been a fly on that wall, huh?

Duke Moore in "Final Curtain."
Those late, lonely nights in the theater were the inspiration for "Final Curtain," a story that should already be familiar to readers of this blog, as it was the basis for an unsuccessful yet quintessentially Wood-ian television pilot in 1957. Though Ed's would-be anthology series was a non-starter, this material hardly went to waste. Footage from that doomed pilot was shoehorned into Night of the Ghouls in 1959, and a chunk of text from the script was airlifted into Orgy of the Dead in 1965. Finally, in 1971, Eddie reformatted "Final Curtain" as a short story and sold it to Bernie Bloom, who used it to pad out one of his many photo-heavy stroke books.

Judging from the rather lavish illustration accompanying "Final Curtain" in the pages of Belly Button, Bernie gave this particular piece the royal treatment, despite its utter lack of eroticism. Perhaps he sensed how dear this monologue was to Eddie. In its transition from the screen back to the page, the text of "Final Curtain" does not seem to have changed much. Generally, the TV version is wordier than the magazine version, perhaps in an effort to better match Dudley Manlove's over-emotive voice-over narration with the silent footage of actor Duke Moore wandering around an empty building. But generally, the two incarnations of "Final Curtain" match each other, image for image and idea for idea. I won't say "plot point for plot point," because "Final Curtain" is more of a mood piece than it is a traditional narrative. As such, its natural home is on the page rather than the screen, so I'm glad Eddie recycled this one as a short story. Not much actually happens here, which becomes more obvious in the filmed version.

In any format, "Final Curtain" offers further evidence that Edward D. Wood, Jr. spent an inordinate amount of his life fantasizing about death, his own in particular. Wherever you are now, Eddie, I hope you're resting in peace.

Next: My closing thoughts on Blood Splatters Quickly