Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 60: 'The Lawless Rider' (1954)

Johnny Carpenter (center) in the Ed Wood-written-and-produced The Lawless Rider.

"What is acting? It is to portray with all your ability and sincerity a character, a person, with all your heart and soul. Who is this character? Say she is a horse woman! How can you play a horse woman if you don't know the first thing about horses, or riding them?"
-Edward D. Wood, Jr., Hollywood Rat Race
"I got so bugged I turned it off and turned on another show.
But there was the same old shoot-'em-up and the same old rodeo.
Salty Sam was tryin' to stuff Sweet Sue in a burlap sack.
He said, 'If you don't give me the deed to your ranch,
I'm gonna throw you on the railroad track!'"

-The Coasters, "Along Came Jones"

A posse of sorts.
Imagine for a moment how exciting the Old West -- or at least Hollywood's approximation of it -- must have seemed to a suggestible, excitable kid growing up in unexciting Poughkeepsie, New York during the Great Depression. Today, Edward Davis Wood, Jr. is best known for his one-and-only movie about outer space. But for little Eddie, a faithful attendee and later usher and ticket taker at his hometown movie theater, the wide open, untamed territory left of the Mississippi River on the map provided all the space he could possibly want or need. He saw Universal's take on Dracula when he was seven years old, and it left a permanent mark on his psyche. But it was the cowboy pictures, particularly the cheap ones, which truly and permanently won his heart with their white-hatted heroes, hissable villains, and cut-and-dried moral certainty.

Westerns had a major impact on several generations of Americans, including some who grew up to become titans of science fiction. There are echoes of John Ford throughout George Lucas' Star Wars saga, for instance, while Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek to network executives as a celestial variation on Wagon Train. Ed Wood, meanwhile, grew up to write and direct Plan 9 from Outer Space, an interplanetary struggle which climaxes with an earthbound, O.K. Corral-style showdown and common barroom fisticuffs. The film's ad hoc trio of earthling heroes (an airline pilot, a military man, and a cop) could even be considered a posse. Their ultimate mission, like that of John Wayne in The Searchers, is to rescue a kidnapped white woman from the clutches of a race of outsiders whom they regard with suspicion and contempt.

By the time Ed Wood reached Hollywood in 1947, the uncomplicated and unambiguous Westerns he preferred were on the wane, chased out of cinemas and onto television by grittier fare, a fact he would lament repeatedly in his circa-1965 showbiz primer Hollywood Rat Race, which is chock full of references to and anecdotes about B-list cowboy stars. As both a writer and a filmmaker, Ed Wood was beholden to the demands of the marketplace, which is why he bounced around from genre to genre throughout his career like a common claim jumper. But Eddie kept trying to return to the range however he could, be it as a director (Crossroads of Laredo; Crossroad Avenger), a scenarist (Revenge of the Virgins), or even a stuntman (The Baron of Arizona). He also forged personal and professional alliances with such obsolete screen cowboys as Tom Keene, Tom Tyler, Bud Osborne, and badman Kenne Duncan, throwing film and TV roles their way whenever possible, often in non-Westerns.

But now, we must turn our attentions to another Western would-have-been, a pretender to the thrones of Autry, Rogers, and Cassidy who went by the professional name of Johnny Carpenter, though his true forename was Jasper. For it was with the late Mr. Carpenter that Ed Wood made this week's nearly-forgotten film.


A lobby card possibly designed to trick viewers into thinking The Lawless Rider was in color.

A poster touting costar
Texas Rose Bascom
Alternate titles: Outlaw Marshall [working title]

Availability: To my knowledge, The Lawless Rider has never been released on VHS, DVD, or laserdisc. It is only through the benevolence of Ed Wood historian Phillip R. Frey that I was able to view a print of this exceedingly rare film.

The backstory: Let's go back a century, pardners, to the fateful year of 1915. The era of American History we call the "Old West" or the "Wild West" was just barely in our collective rear view mirror back then. Even so, the mythologizing of the period was already in full swing. The bookish Democrat Woodrow Wilson occupied the Oval Office, but he hadn't gotten his country into the already-in-progress World War I quite yet. Babe Ruth, not yet a Yankee, was making his unsuccessful debut as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. (He'd get better.) And Thomas Edison, still vital at 68, had invented some newfangled gizmo for recording telephone conversations.

Meanwhile, the future screen star known as Johnny Carpenter was still Jasper Carpenter, a year-old infant growing up on his daddy's modest farm in Debinsville, Arkansas, a town so small it's since been swallowed up by nearby Russellville just south of Route 40. Jasper grew up riding horses but dreaming of baseball, not knowing his future lay in the former rather than the latter. A horrific hit-and-run accident in 1936 permanently derailed Jasper's baseball dreams and sent him packing for Hollywood, where he'd try to become the next cowboy matinee idol under a semi-new name. (Or, briefly, an entirely new one: John Forbes.) Carpenter's future friend and partner, Edward D. Wood, Jr., wouldn't even be born for nearly another decade and wouldn't make it to the Left Coast until 1947.

Yakima Canutt, stuntman supreme
But the motion picture business was well underway by 1915, even without Ed Wood or Johnny Carpenter to help it along. That was the year of  D.W. Griffith's landmark, still-controversial The Birth of a Nation (also known as The Clansman). And there were already Westerns... and Western stars, for that matter! Most prominent among these was Tom Mix, headliner of nearly 300 silent cowboy films, many of them self-directed. Foreman of Bar Z Ranch, one of about 40 films Mix made in 1915, was the first-ever production to employ the services of a brash, 20-year-old rodeo champion with the memorable moniker of Yakima Canutt.

In truth, Enos Edward "Yakima" Canutt (1895-1986) had been busting broncos since the age of 11 and was among the first rodeo stars to invade the fledgling movie industry in its early days. With his bravery and skill, however, he eclipsed all his rope-slinging contemporaries in the field. Starting from that early Tom Mix short, Canutt's truly legendary career as a stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second unit director lasted sixty action-packed years, finally ending with Breakheart Pass (1975), a Charles Bronson picture distributed by United Artists. In between, along with too many cowboy films to count, he provided his services to Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Stagecoach (which contains his single most famous stunt), Rio Bravo, Old Yeller, and dozens more. For about half a century, when Hollywood needed to pull off a tricky or dangerous action sequence in a motion picture, they turned to Yakima Canutt because they knew he was the man for the job. More than most, Mr. Canutt truly earned his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Steven Spielberg was enough of a fan to work a Canutt-inspired stunt sequence into Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Despite crossing paths with John Wayne and Stanley Kubrick, Yakima Canutt's own directing career never really amounted to a whole hell of a lot: only about a dozen fairly obscure theatrically-released features, mostly clustered together in the mid-to-late 1940s. And on many of these, Canutt had a credited co-director, usually Spencer Gordon Bennet or Fred C. Brannon. (Canutt and Brannon even co-directed some made-for-TV flicks in the 1960s.) Feature films with Yakima Canutt as a solo director are relatively rare. I can only find five, among the literally hundreds of films on his resume. There's 1945's Sheriff of Cimarron with Sunset Carson; 1948's Oklahoma Badlands and Carson City Raiders, both vehicles for Allan "Rocky" Lane (best known today as the voice of TV's talking horse, Mr. Ed); 1948's Sons of Adventure; and finally the movie we're covering this week, The Lawless Rider from 1954. As near as I can tell, the great Yakima Canutt never again helmed a theatrical feature after Lawless. The second-unit and stunt jobs kept coming, though, and those were what paid the bills and made him famous anyway.

A recipe for failure.
In my article about another Wood/Carpenter collaboration of similar vintage, Son of the Renegade (1953), I explained the essential, tragicomic conundrum of Johnny Carpenter's muddled screen career. Simply put, he was about two decades behind the times and was creating antiquated product for a market which had either ceased to exist or which, at best, had moved on to other distractions. Carpenter's big push for screen stardom didn't come until the 1950s when he, then about 40, produced and starred in a series of low-budget, independently-financed Westerns, of which The Lawless Rider was one. By that time, though, the genre had gone through considerable changes, and Carpenter hadn't or perhaps couldn't adapt. This very problem is an important motif throughout Ed Wood's Hollywood Rat Race. To read that book is to understand why The Lawless Rider ultimately failed. Some cogent examples of Ed's complaints:
  • [T]he Western itself ... changed so fantastically. The cowboy film was no longer a cowboy film, it was a "Western." It wasn't a clear battle between hero and villain, good and evil. Now the hero had to have doubts about his achievements. Everyone needed a dose of neurosis, and be up to their ears in Freudian, subconscious problems. (page 68)
  • Even the Westerns got into the swing of sex. No longer did the cleanly dressed cowboy kiss his horse and ride off into the sunset to begin another adventure. Instead, he began to wear the dirtiest clothing, kick his horse in the ass, and take the roughest dance hall broad into the hayloft with him. (page 108)
  • Take the simple Western of the 1930s. It's almost impossible, even with a petition signed by thousands of names, to get one on the Saturday morning kiddie shows. Unless the hero wears a black hat and dirty clothes, rides a black horse, rapes his leading lady, and visits his psychiatrist once a week "it just ain't got it." (page 130)
The Lawless Rider is the exact opposite of everything Wood describes above. It most certainly is a clear battle between a hero (Carpenter) and a villain (Kenne Duncan, forever the heel), and it is never ambiguous for whom the audience is meant to be rooting. Furthermore, Carpenter's uncomplicated, straight-shooting protagonist has no inner life to speak of, hence no subconscious or pesky Freudian doubts. Nor does the hero have any sex life. The movie provides him with a sort-of-romantic interest in the wholesome person of "internationally famous trick roping champion" Texas Rose Bascom, whose husband, Weldon, and brother-in-law, Earl, are also in the Lawless cast. In terms of physical intimacy, however, Johnny and Rose never progress beyond cordial greetings. At least the previous year's Son of the Renegade had given Johnny Carpenter some more interesting sexual options, even if he did not take advantage of them. ("I just don't have time for anybody," he said in that film.)

As for wearing "a black hat and dirty clothes," Johnny Carpenter's morally upright character only dons such items when he is impersonating a hired killer as part of a plan to infiltrate the villain's gang. Otherwise, his clothing, like his hygiene and manners, is impeccable.

This credit makes it official. This is an Ed Wood movie.
Filming for The Lawless Rider seems to have taken place at the same all-purpose movie ranch in the Hollywood Hills where Son of the Renegade and countless other movies and TV shows were shot. Based on what's visible onscreen, there is every indication that this should have been a quick, uncomplicated production which came in on time and on budget. But this website says differently. According to the information there, the movie exceeded its $20,000 budget and experienced "legal troubles" that delayed its release by two years. This is also said to be the first project to unite Alex Gordon with B-movie kingpin Samuel Z. Arkoff, who allegedly negotiated the movie's tardy release. I cannot confirm any of that, but I thought I'd pass it along. You're welcome.

Though ultimately distributed by United Artists, the movie was made through a limited partnership dubbed Royal West Productions. All of the buildings we can see, including a blacksmith's shop and a sheriff's office, look like generic facades with no distinguishing features. All of Ed's Westerns, including Crossroad Avenger and Crossroads of Laredo, share this assembly-line quality, as if they all took place at some cowboy-themed amusement park somewhere off the Interstate.

Eddie's fans, however, will likely have their imaginations ignited by the opening credits. While Ed Wood himself is wrongfully denied even partial credit for the screenplay, he is listed prominently as an "Associate Producer" along with Weldon Bascom. That means The Lawless Rider is not some "apocryphal" or "speculative" Ed Wood movie, like Married Too Young (1962) or Revenge of the Virgins (1959). Nope, it's a bona fide, iron-clad, board-certified addition to the Wood filmography, as deserving of inclusion on that roster as Plan 9 from Outer Space. Appropriately, the cast and crew is dotted with "golden age" Wood regulars. Alex Gordon is the film's executive producer, for instance, while William C. Thompson is the cinematographer. Besides lead baddie Kenne Duncan, grizzled old Bud Osborne is also in the cast. Of course, all of these folks are overshadowed by the headliner's trusty steed, "Skipper, the Fastest Horse in the Movies," who is only second billed to Carpenter himself. That's just the kind of movie this is.

Ringers: Noel Neill and Frankie Darro
Like Ed Wood, Johnny Carpenter had an entourage of his own, and it's not surprising that several of them -- including Bill Coontz, Roy Canada, Bill Chaney, and Lennie Smith -- turn up in The Lawless Rider. As a producer, Carpenter had a habit of bringing in one or two ringers to play supporting parts. When it comes time to distribute and market a motion picture, it's always handy to have a few recognizable and therefore exploitable names in the cast. (That practice continues among independent filmmakers to this very day.)

In Lawless, these were Noel Neill and Frankie Darro. Neill, who portrays a tough, proto-feminist journalist named Nancy James, is best known as one of the two actresses* to portray Lois Lane on TV's The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves. Frankie Darro, who plays the troubled kid brother of heroine Texas Rose, was a former child star and stuntman turned character actor specializing in nervy, loudmouthed punks. His most famous performance, in fact, was as the voice of delinquent-turned-donkey Lampwick in Disney's Pinocchio (1940).

It is no surprise, especially with such bland leads as Johnny Carpenter and Rose Bascom, that Noel Neill and Frankie Darro are easily the most interesting people in The Lawless Rider. Neill's storyline -- she's a frontier journalist who bravely challenges a cattle-thieving crime boss -- deserves more screen time than it gets here.

As for Darro, in my review of his 1941 comedy The Gang's All Here, I called him "a yappy little Chihuahua who goes around snapping at pit bulls." And that's exactly what he plays here, too, to fairly good comedic effect. In fact, the very best scene in the entire movie comes when Johnny Carpenter shoots the guns right out of would-be hotshot Frankie Darro's hands before sending the chastened youngster home with his tail between his legs. It uncannily presages that moment in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) when Uma Thurman's Bride disarms and then spanks an unworthy opponent before telling him, "Go home to your mother!" It's highly unlikely that Quentin Tarantino ever saw The Lawless Rider, but you never know. He obviously watches a lot of movies.

* The other, Phyllis Coates, was in Ed Wood's The Sun Was Setting. Yes, Eddie worked with both Lois Lanes.

Carpenter and company on the Lawless Rider set.
The viewing experience: Surprisingly tame, if reasonably enjoyable. If nothing else, the film is helped along by its economical hour-long running time and relatively brisk pace. Had I chanced upon The Lawless Rider playing at some off hour on TCM and missed the opening credits, I would not have immediately guessed that Ed Wood had anything to do with it or that the movie was special or significant in any way.

Although Bill Thompson is the cinematographer, there are no striking or unusual images here as there are in the '50s films he lensed for Ed Wood. And despite the presence of Yakima Canutt in the director's chair, the action scenes in this film, mostly fistfights with some trick shooting and plenty of horseback riding, seem rote and by-the-book. Lawless is, at heart, a cheaply-made and largely unexceptional Western morality play, more akin with the tastes of the 1930s than the 1950s. Only its naivete distinguishes it.

It is difficult to imagine anyone but a cap-gun-toting child of the Eisenhower era, the kind who wears a toy sheriff's badge on his pajamas at night, becoming truly engrossed in this standard issue shoot-'em-up. As I have already explained, this film proudly eschews the complexity and ambiguity which were the norm in theatrically-released Westerns by the 1950s in favor of the moral certainty of an earlier era. But, unlike most of Eddie's other work, Western or otherwise, this one does not make any hairpin turns or pause for philosophical diatribes. Not even the dialogue is particularly Wood-ian. Let us, then, return to Johnny Carpenter's comment in Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. about how this script was written:
"We were writing The Lawless Rider in [Ed's] house at Riverside Drive and Victory Boulevard. Ed did everything. He was writer, production assistant, helped get people for me. We worked for each other for nothing. He would write a line of dialogue, and I would tear it up and throw it away. His dialogue was a little bit too perfect. The choice of words was not correct for the frontier."
Actor Henry Bederski contradicts this ("Johnny Carpenter couldn't write a story to save his life."), but a viewing of The Lawless Rider backs up Carpenter's version of the events. Having sorted through many, many examples of Ed Wood's writing, I can say that this script does not bear Wood's usual trademark expressions or his patented brand of stilted quasi-formality. I only counted a single, definitive Wood-ism: a spare "So what?" uttered by a thug. (This is also a catchphrase in the Wood-scripted The Violent Years.) It seems possible that someone, likely Carpenter himself (who else would have cared?), must have rewritten the dialogue line by line, systematically removing nearly all traces of Wood's weirdness in order to make the movie as normal and coherent as possible.

In their Cult Movies interview from 1994, Frank Henenlotter and Rudolph Grey accused director Stephen C. Apostolof of doing the same basic thing with Eddie's 1970s scripts, but the Apostolof films are much more eccentric in their own way than The Lawless Rider and allow for more of Eddie's personality to shine through, as well as his language. Since Steve Apostolof was not a native speaker of English, he might have deferred to Eddie when it came to dialogue. As the quote above indicates, on the other hand, Johnny Carpenter had some definite ideas about how the characters in his movies should speak.

Nancy James meets Freno Frost.
Let's set aside the dialogue, then, and focus on the plot, since Ed's presence may still be felt there. What exactly happens in The Lawless Rider? Well, the film takes place in 1896 in a fictional locale called Loma County, presumably in California. (The name is reminiscent of the real-life city of Loma Linda.) A crusading newspaperwoman named Nancy James (Noel Neill) arrives in town and tries to set up shop, only to be harassed and threatened by conniving crime boss Freno Frost (Kenne Duncan) and his gang of henchmen.

Although the local sheriff (Weldon Bascom) and Marshall Brady (Douglass Dumbrille) try to keep the peace, the greedy, violence-loving Frost really runs the town. He makes his money through cattle rustling, and he wants to wrangle a controlling interest in a cattle ranch owned and operated by Texas Rose Bascom (herself). He intends to do this through Rose's punk kid brother, Jim (Frankie Darro), who already owes Frost money and who seems poised to fall into a life of crime in his foolish quest for status and power. Rose has no intention of kowtowing to Frost, however, and violently rejects Frost's sleazy, opportunistic offer of marriage. Meanwhile, virtuous Deputy Marshall Johnny Carpenter (himself) has reluctantly tendered his resignation to Marshall Brady so that he may return home to the family ranch and help his sister.

Another dual role for Johnny Carpenter
Freno Frost buys Jim's interest in the Bascom ranch for a buck, and Frost's men start rustling cattle with newfound boldness from all the ranchers in the area. Rose sends a telegram to Johnny, her ex-boyfriend, asking for his help. The telegram informs Johnny that Freno Frost has sent for a notorious hired killer named Rod Tatum (also played by Johnny Carpenter), which suggests he is up to something particularly nefarious.

By this time, though, Johnny is no longer a lawman and is instead working on his sister's ranch. Johnny learns from his sister that Tatum is currently locked up in jail, so he decides to impersonate the killer and return to Loma County in disguise. (It's a good thing Johnny Carpenter and Rod Tatum look so much alike!) His first assignment as "Tatum" is to kill Jim Bascom! Obviously, he's not about to do that. He merely scares the bejeezus out of the kid and sends him on his way. Once in Loma County, the disguised Carpenter convinces Freno Frost and his thugs that he's really Rod Tatum. Things get a little confusing, however, when the genuine Rod Tatum breaks out of jail and rides into town. The "two" Tatums have a gunfight from which Johnny, the faker, emerges victorious.

In the film's turbulent and rather rushed final act, Texas Rose Bascom  holds a talent show in Loma County to benefit the ranchers who have suffered financial disaster at the hands of the Frost gang. The concert includes (somewhat underwhelming) rope tricks from Rose herself and Western music by Hank Caldwell and His Saddle Kings. In attendance, along with the local gangsters, are some of Johnny's own sidekicks. (He'd secretly gotten a message to them in case he needed backup.) Freno Frost doesn't want the show to go well, so he sends one of his goons, Black Jack (Lou Roberson), to interrupt it. Johnny and Black Jack get into a fight, during which the former's fake mustache falls off. The jig, as they say, is up.

This leads to an all-out melee between the good guys and bad guys: fisticuffs at first, but soon escalating to gunfire. During the chaotic battle, Freno Frost fatally shoots Rose's wayward brother, Jim, but Johnny Carpenter manages to finally kill Frost with a stick of dynamite. This, I guess, solves everything. Once the dust settles, Johnny discovers that Rose's ranch is rich with silver deposits, a fact that Freno Frost had known months earlier. His work done, the newly reborn Deputy Marshall Carpenter rides off toward his next assignment for Marshall Brady. The end.

Clancy Malone as doomed Don Gregor.
Does any of this seem particularly Wood-ian to you, reader? I will admit that, in very vague terms, Johnny Carpenter's The Lawless Rider bears some superficial resemblance to Ed Wood's own Jail Bait from the very same year. It's significant that these were both products of the period in the early 1950s during which Ed Wood was partnered with Alex Gordon. (Gordon, again, was a producer on Lawless and a co-writer on Jail Bait).

In both movies, we have a swaggering, tough-talking gangster type (Freno Frost/Vic Brady), an impetuous, trigger-happy young man (Jim Bascom/Don Gregor) who falls under his sway, and a justifiably-worried older sister (Rose Bascom/Marilyn Gregor) caught between them. I suppose this analogy makes Johnny Carpenter's character in The Lawless Rider the equivalent of Steve Reeves' bland Lt. Bob Lawrence, which is actually a pretty fair comparison.

Furthermore, both Lawless and Jail stop dead for several minutes so that we can watch a variety show act. In Lawless, it's Rose Bascom's lasso-swinging and the amiable music of Hank Caldwell, while in Jail, we are "treated" to several minutes of a minstrel show featuring Cotton Watts and Chick.

And finally, the plots of both films hinge on a man's outrageous and implausible plan to change his appearance and impersonate someone else. In Lawless, Johnny Carpenter slaps on a fake mustache and some black clothes to "become" Rod Tatum. And in Jail, of course, Vic Brady undergoes plastic surgery so he cannot be recognized by the police or identified by an eyewitness.

And yet, for the most part, The Lawless Rider is more of a historical curiosity for Ed Wood completists than it is a truly compelling narrative. Certainly, the prominent inclusion of Eddie's name in the credits and the participation of several key Wood cronies makes it a keeper. Ultimately, though, this is a Johnny Carpenter movie more than it is an Ed Wood movie. As such, Johnny Carpenter got his way on this production, and the finished movie suffers for it, as does the audience.

Carpenter must have considered himself quite the thespian in those days, because he attempts dual roles in both Son of the Renegade and The Lawless Rider. (This was well before comedian Peter Sellers became famous for playing multiple parts within the same film.) In Renegade, if you'll remember, Carpenter played a father and a son both nicknamed "Red River Johnny." Here, in Lawless, his part almost amounts to a triple role: the main good guy, a secondary bad guy, and the main good guy pretending to be a secondary bad guy. The trouble is, he plays all three of these parts pretty much the same.

Johnny Carpenter's riding and shooting skills may have been top notch, but he lacked the charisma to bring a creaky, past-its-sell-by-date affair like The Lawless Rider to life. While watching it, I found myself wishing Ed Wood had been given a freer hand in crafting this script.

Next: Another generous donation from the Phillip R. Frey Foundation! Like The Lawless Rider, this is a film I have been wanting to see and review for years but have never been able to find. It is one of the very few movies -- perhaps the only one -- in which Edward D. Wood, Jr. is simply an actor for hire. Curious yet? Does it pique your interest if I were to say that this is another film from the director of Nympho Cycler and The Love Feast, the legendary Joe Robertson? If so, or even if not, please join me in a fortnight for my dissection of Mrs. Stone's Thing (1970).

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Zomby (briefly) Returns: This is what creative desperation looks like

The first new "Zomby" cartoon in nearly two years. So, um, enjoy, I guess.

Zomby, a zombified parody of Tom Wilson's long-running newspaper cartoon series Ziggy, used to be an important recurring feature at Dead 2 Rights. That was before Ed Wood more or less hijacked this blog and (posthumously) made it his own. The premise was exceedingly simple. I'd take that day's Ziggy panel, turn the title character gray in Microsoft Paint, and change the punchline so that it was about a reanimated corpse who feasted on the living rather than a sweet, bumbling loser who couldn't get decent customer service. The joke, I guess, was that even in this supposedly-terrifying form, Zomby was just as much as an ineffectual, put-upon loser as Ziggy was. It was a way of taking some then-trendy monsters who were dominating films, TV, and video games and removing everything that made them cool or threatening. I did dozens, maybe hundreds, of Zomby panels and then just sort of stopped. Apart from a few stray shamblers in Plan 9 from Outer Space and Orgy of the Dead, zombies are no longer the focal point of this blog, despite its George Romero-inspired name. So Zomby disappeared. He hasn't been seen around here since 2013.

But today, I was trying to think of something I could post to Dead 2 Rights and thought, "Hey, why don't I try to do another Zomby cartoon and see if I can still get back into that mindset." So I Googled today's Ziggy panel and found that it was one of the series' most familiar tropes: Ziggy going to a diner and getting predictably lousy treatment. (The uncouth chef tells Ziggy he's too late to get the "breakfast of champions" and will have to settle for the "brunch of also-rans." Get it? Because Ziggy fails at everything and should totally just kill himself. HA!) It reminded me of another reason I abandoned Zomby: monotony. Ziggy only does five or six basic things, over and over. He watches TV, he takes abuse from his pets (a dog, a cat, and a bird), he tries to obtain goods and services without success, etc. I was going to call him out on this, until I realized that Ziggy's life was actually more varied and interesting than mine. I mean, he has a parrot. I don't. He goes fishing (or golfing or mountain climbing) sometimes. I don't. He freely walks around in public without pants. I...  well, that's none of your business.

Anyway, I realized today that the part of my brain that could easily come up with Zomby jokes must have died a couple of years ago. And unlike Zomby himself, I don't think it can be revived.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A pantry full of hate

This is a picture of clutter, in case you don't know what clutter looks like.

The kitchen in my apartment has a pantry, but I don't cook so I use it as a storage closet instead. Being the lazy, indolent sumbitch that I am, I have allowed this pantry to become laughably, even shamefully cluttered. Recently, I was trying to fill out my 1040 EZ for the benefit of good old Uncle Sam and thus went rummaging through the aforementioned closet in search of a large manila envelope upon which the fateful words "TAX SHIT" are scrawled in Sharpie. It took me a while to find, and so I resolved to finally sort through all the useless stuff in there and throw out or recycle anything I didn't actually use or want anymore. Last weekend, I actually went through with this plan, and it felt kind of good for a while. The pantry is still pretty much a mess, but now at least it's a somewhat more manageable mess.

The reason I bring all this up is that my mind is a lot like that pantry. It's cluttered up with a lot of useless junk. You know what takes up an inordinate amount of room? Grudges. Man, I am the king of grudges. I have grudges going back decades. I'm still mad over shit that happened before I was even in kindergarten. There are slights and injustices I can still remember from every phase of my life, and with only a little effort, I can still dredge up the hurt they caused me at the time and make those incidents seem freshly painful again, as if they just happened yesterday. I'm sure lots of good things have happened to me over the years, but my memories of the bad things are so much more vivid in my mind. Four long decades of birthdays and Christmases blend together into one big, blurry blob of indistinct experience. But if you teased me at recess even once in the third grade, you can bet I still hold onto that memory with a vice-like grip.

If you're one of the very few people reading this, it's likely that you're someone I have known for years. And if you're someone I've known for years, it's almost certain that you have caused me some real (or imagined) grief and that I'm still angry about it. I don't like that about myself. I never meant to become so bitter. It just sort of happened, failure by failure, disappointment by disappointment. I don't know what to do with all this bitterness. It's never done me a bit of good, and yet I can't bear to get rid of it.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Larry: A short story by Joe Blevins

This is the huge, orange face America eventually grew to love.

Prefatory notes by the author: "Larry" was actually written back in 2008 when there was such a thing as Larry King Live on television. The way it came about was that I was browsing through CNN's website and found some old Larry King transcripts there. Reading through them, I realized that Mr. King's particular brand of rambling, disjointed insanity was even funnier when soberly transcribed word for word. Believe me, what you're about to read is only a mild exaggeration of an actual King interview. Also, back when I wrote this, I was a professional transcriptionist and spent many hours and days and weeks of my life listening to recordings of focus groups and telephone surveys and converting them into text documents. So I was in complete sympathy with the person who had the task of transcribing Larry King Live. By the way, woodchucks are funny to me for some reason. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 59: 'Cult Movies' No. 11 (1994) [part 2 of 2]

In 1994, a mere $4.95 (or $6.95 in Canada) would buy you the latest ish of Cult Movies magazine.

"My dear Professor Strowski, twenty years ago I was banned from my homeland, parted from my wife and son, never to see them again. Why? Because I suggested to use the atom elements for producing super beings, beings of unthinkable strength and size. I was classed as a madman, a charlatan, outlawed in a world of science which previously honored me as a genius. Now here in this forsaken jungle hell I have proven that I am alright. No, Professor Strowski, it is no laughing matter."
-Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster (1955)

Eddie's image was upgraded somewhat in the 1990s.
Ed Wood's ironic postmortem anti-fame arrived in at least three distinct phases or waves, as I see it. What this means is that there have been separate and identifiable eras during which the name of Edward D. Wood, Jr. has possessed some pop cultural clout in America. For the last few decades, Ed's name always meant something to people, but exactly what it meant depended on the tenor of the times.

Wood's first wave of after-death notoriety occurred in the early-to-mid-1980s and was spurred by the publication of Harry and Michael Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards. Only the rudiments of Eddie's life and work were widely known at the time, so the first wave was marked by mockery and derision. Wood was merely a cross-dressing clown who made cheap and incredibly amateurish flying saucer flicks.

For many, this is still the predominant public image of Ed Wood, thirty-plus years later, so we can safely say that the first wave was the most influential and durable of the three. During this wave, Eddie's most famous films from the 1950s (the "big three": Glen or Glenda?, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Bride of the Monster) were staples at rep houses and campus theaters, where they were loudly and joyously jeered by hip audiences.

The second wave happened in the early-to-mid-1990s and was centered around Tim Burton's Ed Wood and its literary progenitor, Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy. It was, in a way, a response to the first wave. Second wavers sought to rehabilitate Eddie's image somewhat, while still snickering at his life's work. Much more information about Ed Wood's life was known by then, including his debilitating alcoholism, his war record, his prolific career in pornography, and his tragic and poverty-stricken final years.

Appropriately, Eddie was treated with more sympathy and understanding by second wavers, though he remained a figure of fun to them. Wood was still a clown, but now he was a tragic clown; he'd been upgraded from Bozo to Pagliacci, so to speak. Besides Burton's film and Grey's book, the second wave was notable for the appearance of several loving yet cheeky and irreverent documentaries (typified by Ted Newsom's Look Back in Angora) that sought to put Wood's cinematic lunacy into some kind of understandable context while still having some guffaws at his expense.

Part of the third wave.
Third-wave Woodology (and, yes, I am hijacking this term from "third-wave feminism") is occurring right now, in the new millennium, and has no particular catalyst or obvious rallying cry behind it. If anything, it has been made possible by advancements in technology, including search engines and social media. These online breakthroughs have made it much easier for writers and researchers to access and disseminate information as well as stay in contact with other like-minded fans.

What, exactly, made me decide to write a series of articles about this man, a series that has now grown to something like half a million words? Why him? Why now? I don't know exactly, but there must have been something in the air, because the Wood cult -- which had been largely dormant since the Clinton years -- began to rise from its slumbers in the 21st century with crucial new books (Ed Wood, Mad Genius; Blood Splatters Quickly), DVD reissues (Big Box of Wood; Ed Wood's Dirty Movies), and special events (the gallery exhibition of his paperbacks; a week-long New York film festival). Pvt. Wood has been officially called back into service.

Hopefully, the third wave of Wood's fame will be the one that finally "gets it right" by painting the most complete and honest portrait yet of this surprisingly-complex man. Learning from the first and second waves (without letting our thinking be dictated by them), we third wavers can now use all the information at hand to accurately and evenhandedly assess Eddie's strengths and weaknesses, and we can identify what is still unique and fascinating about Ed's work, while not losing sight of its shortcomings or spoiling all its fun. Perhaps in this sense, time has been a gift to us. As Ed recedes further and further into the past, he can now get the fair day in court he has been denied for decades.

But now, me old beauties, it is time once again to revisit an artifact from the second wave of Woodology, specifically a fan magazine produced in 1994, right before the premiere of Disney-Touchstone's Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp and Martin Landau. A multi-million-dollar, star-studded, studio-financed biopic is the kind of honor normally reserved for those we call "heroes": chart-topping singers, record-breaking athletes, paradigm-shifting science whizzes. For such a biopic to be made about a so-called B-movie director whose films were neither critically nor financially successful in his own time was astonishingly, absurdly rare. And the fan community certainly took notice. Twenty-one years ago, when the now-mighty Internet was still a fledgling, fans of the bizarre and the overlooked expressed themselves not on the screen but on the page. And so, it is to the page that we now return.

(NOTE: In case you missed it, the first part of my Cult Movies coverage is right here.) 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Here, this ought to creep you out nicely

In Soviet Russia, The Great Gatsby reads you in high school! 

Not sure exactly why I did this. Just felt it needed to be done, I guess.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Ed Wood Extra! The arrival of Lots #3028 and #3043

Here I am with my new Ed Wood poster, bathed in the greenish fluorescent glow of my small kitchen.

This poster caused me so much grief.
Chalk up one more thing Ed Wood and I have in common. Eddie suffered for his art. And I, too, have suffered for Ed Wood's art, though not for the reasons you might be imagining.

While making my way through, let's say, the '70s softcore romps Eddie wrote for Steve Apostolof involved a certain amount of tedium, I cannot say that Wood's work has inspired in me the same kind of theatrical agony it seems to have caused other observers. No, my suffering has been of a different stripe.

Since Ed Wood Wednesdays began back in July 2013, I have essentially been an indentured servant to a man who died nearly 40 years ago. In my quest to catalog the life and career of Edward Davis Wood, Jr., I have frequently forsaken such niceties as fresh air, exercise, and sleep. The sun may shine and the birds may chirp, after all, but this DVD of The Undergraduate isn't going to review itself! Like Mark Borchardt said in American Movie: "I have to adhere to this keyboard."

Conservatively, I'd estimate I've put on 15 to 20 pounds in the time I've been writing Ed Wood Wednesdays. I chalk it up to all those hours I've spent hunched over my laptop computer, keeping my energy up with a steady intake of frozen dinners and prepackaged snacks. Hey, Eddie got a little doughy near the end, too. That's yet another thing we have in common, except his weight gain came from booze while mine came from gummi worms and microwaved pizza.

And sometimes, this project has inconvenienced me in such silly ways that all I can do is laugh. Take today, for instance. You'll remember, a few weeks ago, that there was a massive auction of Ed Wood memorabilia. I chickened out on the big ticket items, including a suitcase and two trunks owned by Eddie himself, but I wanted to get something out of the auction so I bid on a few of the smaller items. I wound up winning two of these: a vintage one-sheet poster for Glen or Glenda? under the alternate title I Led 2 Lives (Lot #3028) and a set of eight Mexican lobby cards for Plan 9 from Outer Space (Lot #3043).

Today, they are in my possession at last, and getting them into my apartment was a Sisyphean ordeal. It should have been easy. FedEx was scheduled to deliver them yesterday, but I knew I'd be at work when they arrived so I arranged to have Patricia, the lovely lady who manages the office of the apartment complex where I live, sign for them in my absence. My apartment, I should say, is literally next door to this office. We share a wall.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. My landlady happened to be dropping by the office when the FedEx guy arrived, and she prevented Patricia from signing for the package, reasoning that if they performed this simple kindness for me, a loyal rent-payer for 12 years, they'd have to do the same for everyone. My landlady, I can say from experience, is not someone with whom you can bargain... or reason.

One of my nifty new lobby cards.
Meanwhile, of course, my package could not be delivered as instructed. So back to the FedEx pickup center it went. Luckily, this is less than a quarter-mile from my home, since I live in a busy commercial district dominated by strip malls, chain stores, and gas stations. The clerk there was only too happy to turn over my Ed Wood poster and lobby cards to me.

But here is where the story turns into a Buster Keaton comedy. RR Auction sent these items in one large, flat cardboard box, and there was no way of fitting this into my cramped 2002 Chevy Cavalier. I tried every configuration I could imagine. Seats all the way forward. Seats all the way back. Passenger seat tilted as flat as it would go. Windows open. Trunk open. Nothing, and I mean nothing, worked.

Here I was, stranded in the FedEx parking lot just a few minutes away from my apartment. I thought of temporarily ditching the car and just walking the damned thing back home. But, again, this is a busy commercial district, and my story was happening during rush hour traffic. How was I ever going to get across those busy, dangerous streets with this ridiculous cardboard box? If I held it in front of me, I couldn't even see the traffic coming.

In desperation, I dragged the package back into the FedEx place and asked if I could just open it there and take the contents out. The lady behind the desk said this was fine, so I borrowed her scissors and cut into the package. And what tumbled out? More styrofoam packing peanuts than I have ever seen in my life. Dozens and dozens of the goddamned things accumulated at my feet. Mortified, I spent a good (read: bad) 10 to 15 minutes crawling around the floor of the FedEx pickup center in a frantic effort to retrieve every last one of those peanuts. The place looked nicer than my apartment, after all, and I didn't want to muck it up.

Eventually, though, I did manage to extract my purchases and get them into my battered, grungy old car. The Glen or Glenda? poster was swaddled in about eight miles of bubble wrap, so it was still quite a large item even outside of its cardboard cocoon. But at least it was now flexible enough to be (barely) wedged into the nearly-nonexistent back seat of my vehicle. I couldn't see a damned thing out the rear window, but then again, I didn't have far to drive. It wasn't 100% safe, but it was safe enough.

Once I got back home, I had a devil of a time chasing after all the additional styrofoam peanuts that were falling everywhere. I'm kind of a zealot about littering, especially in my own neighborhood, so I didn't want to just leave a trail of those tell-tale peanuts outside the apartment complex where I live. It was a windy day, though, so this was tricky to say the least. I'm sure I lost a few soldiers today.

And now? Well, now the poster and the lobby cards are safely ensconced in my apartment. And you know what else? They're really lovely. I have no idea what I'm going to do with them, but they're lovely nonetheless.

The Glenda poster is larger than I was imagining, the size of a small (admittedly very wide and flat) child, and still a satisfying shade of fire-engine red. Right now, still wrapped in plastic, it's leaning against the wall of my kitchen. I'll probably have it framed soon, but I think the kitchen is a good place for it. Much of Glen or Glenda? takes place in kitchens. Even Lugosi's lab where he creates life is a kind of kitchen. Every morning when I have my bowl of cereal, I can look up at Eddie smooching with Dolores Fuller, forever preserved in their 1953 glory. That's a nice thought.

The lobby cards came in a thick, heavy binder of their own. I might just leave them that way. To be honest, I haven't given much thought to the items themselves. I've barely even looked at 'em. For now, I'm just happy they're home.

POSTSCRIPT: In my Clouseau-esque struggles to get the uncooperative poster and lobby cards into my vehicle on Wednesday, I somehow managed to injure my left leg rather badly. By Thursday, that leg was noticeably bruised and achy, making it difficult to walk. For the last two days, then, I have been limping to and from work. Now that I am at last in repose, attempting to recuperate over the weekend, the medicinal smell of a cheap, over-the-counter topical ointment is stinging my nostrils. So when I say I have suffered for Ed Wood's art, I mean it quite literally.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Stan Freberg has died, darn the luck.

Stan "The Man" Freberg: Floats the jokes right down the drain! (And "pay radio" did come to pass!)

Somehow, I wasn't ready for the death today of Stan Freberg, even though the man was 88 and had been in failing health for years. All I know is that yesterday, there was a Stan Freberg, and today there isn't one. So today loses in a landslide. A comedian, satirist, radio star, voice actor, singer, songwriter, puppeteer, TV pioneer, and game-changing ad man, Stan was a wizard with words. But words are failing me now, as I try to describe what Mr. Freberg's work meant to me and why it was so important to the history of comedy. I don't want to fall back on that label of "influential." Yes, it's very nice that he was influential on several generations of fans, some of whom grew up to create music and books and movies of their own. "Weird Al" Yankovic is probably Stan's most famous acolyte, and the two got to work together in the 1990s on CBS' short-lived Saturday morning offering, The "Weird Al" Show. Many more Stan fans probably went into advertising themselves and enjoyed the creative freedom he helped make possible with his innovative "soft sell" campaigns. His ads still work! In particular, a decades-old spot for the Milky Way candy bar created in me an irresistible craving for Milky Ways, even though it's not a product I normally purchase. Stan should've gotten a commission on that sale.

But, still, I say phooey to that "influential" jazz. That word makes it seem like Stan Freberg's whole purpose on this earth was to provide an example for others to follow later, like he was a means to an end. Stan was not a means to an end. He was the end!. His work provides plenty of pleasure on its own, well beyond its historical importance. I should know. I have several hours of his material on my iPod, and it is rare that a week goes by that I don't listen to some of it. I hardly know where to begin in recommending his work to you. Maybe Three Little Bops, a jazzy little cartoon he voiced for Warner Bros in 1957? Something from Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, perhaps? (There, I'm partial to "A Man Can't Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days" with Stan as a curmudgeonly Ben Franklin with serious qualms about affixing his name to the Declaration of Independence.) I could point you in the direction of his brief-but-brilliant CBS radio series, The Stan Freberg Show or one of those masterful sides he cut for Capitol Records, like "St. George and the Dragonet" or "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" or even "Widescreen Mama." (Sample lyrics: "Widescreen mama, don't you Cinerama me!")

All of these things are Stan, and yet none of them "are" Stan. He was a complicated guy: multi-faceted, multi-talented, and multi-media, though he loved radio best of all. Maybe I'll just play you the record which turned me from a Stan Freberg fan to a Stan Freberg fanatic. It's called "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," and it's a parody of a then-current hit by Les Paul and Mary Ford. He leaves the lyrics of the original song intact, more or less, and instead chooses to spoof the fussed-over, studio-perfected sound of the record. Here, just listen:

"Look out!!! The equipment is smoking!!!!! Run for your life!!!!'

How could I help but love something like that? For more on Stan Freberg, please see my review (a love letter from start to finish) of A Child's Garden of Freberg.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 58: 'Cult Movies,' No. 11 (1994) [part 1 of 2]

Some of the back issues of Cult Movies, including one about Ed Wood.

"Google is my best friend and my worst enemy. It's fabulous for research, but then it becomes addictive. I'll have a character eating an orange, and next thing I'm Googling types of oranges, I'm visiting chat rooms about oranges, I'm learning the history of the orange."
-Liane Moriarty

There was, believe it or not, a time when the answers to most of life's throbbing questions were not a mere mouse click away. That's an especially sobering thought for me, because I could not possibly write a research-heavy series of articles like Ed Wood Wednesdays without the invaluable aid of the Internet.

Obviously, this blog only exists online; there is no paper equivalent of Dead 2 Rights, apart from the yellow legal pads I've filled up with my notes. (And these get recycled as soon as they're no longer needed.) In fact, Dead 2 Rights started as a spin-off of a podcast, another distinctly 21st-century form of entertainment. My blog's content, which I desperately hope you enjoy, is chiefly made possible by the Internet as well, in more ways than I can describe to you.

In short, this wondrous and technically-inexplicable series of tubes has allowed me to connect with other Ed Wood fans and pop culture experts and has given me access to all kinds of reviews and news articles I never could have found on my own. And when it comes to acquiring books and DVDs to review for this blog, well, the vast majority of these have come to me through online vendors, both legit and gray market. In short, I sure am glad the Internet exists. No 'net, no Ed Wood Wednesdays. (On the other hand, I'd have my Wednesdays free.)

This is what research used to look like.
But what about the movie geeks of a previous generation, the ones who had to explore the avenues of film fandom back when the Internet didn't even exist.. or when it existed but still sucked? Well, folks, I have been there. Oh, have I been there.

I can recall the Dark Ages -- you may remember them as the 1980s -- when even the most obvious Ed Wood movies, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda?, were not available at a second's notice the way they are now. You had to hope a TV station, revival house, or campus cinema would show one of them. Or maybe the local video store would have an actual, physical copy of them on hand.

And if the movies themselves were hard to come by, then information about them and the people who made them was even more scarce. You had to rely on whatever books your local library carried. There were newspaper and magazine articles, too, but these required mastery of such arcane technologies as microfilm and microfiche, not to mention a certain amount of agility with the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. That's why video guides like the one put out by Leonard Maltin were such a godsend. There, in one convenient place, you could at least find titles, cast lists, names of directors, and other basic release data. It was the nearest thing I had to the Internet Movie Database back when I was in junior high and high school.

Famous Monsters
One aspect of pre-Internet movie fandom I've largely been ignoring up to now is the importance of fan magazines. The cult of Ed Wood actually began in the pages of such publications, which served as a precursor to the Internet message boards of today. Such evergreen titles as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Cinefantastique, Fangoria, and many others have played a vital role in the lives of countless horror, sci-fi, and fantasy film buffs. Along with these major titles, which were widely available at drug stores and bookshops, there were many smaller, more-niche publications, as well as a whole array of homemade, xeroxed 'zines. It just depended on how specialized the publication wanted to be and who its perceived audience was.

Unfortunately, the very existence of actual printed, paper fan magazines is threatened these days. Sales are down. Printing costs are up. Shelf space is disappearing as book retailers go out of business. And nobody in the "free download" era wants to actually pay for reviews and articles about their favorite movies. That's a shame, because now writers have less incentive to actually produce this kind of material. As I've been doing research on the life and career of Edward D. Wood, Jr., I've come across many references to fan magazines. And in particular, there were many mentions of one specific issue of one specific magazine. So I did what anyone in 2015 would do: I found it on Amazon, charged it to my credit card, and had it mailed to me. In the interest of science, I wanted to see if there were things about Ed Wood I could find in print that even the Internet could not offer.

Which leads me to...

Cult Movies magazine, No. 11 (1994):
An entirely-too-thorough examination

Eddie makes the cover!
Front Cover

The cover, though not glossy, is at least printed on a slightly sturdier type of paper than the magazine's contents. Against a hot pink background, a sepia-tinted portrait of Edward Davis Wood, Jr. is surrounded by stylish black-and-white headshots of (clockwise from upper left) Vampira, Tor Johnson, Bela Lugosi, and Ed Wood in drag. The main headline reads: "So, Just Who the Heck is ED WOOD, Anyway??" Other headlines read: "Vampira Speaks!" "Criswell Predicts!" and "50 Lost Films Found!!" 

The first two are accurate. The issue indeed contains articles about Vampira and Criswell. I'm not sure where the "50 Lost Films" claim originates. It has no counterpart within the body of the magazine. Additionally, a small picture of actor Rondo Hatton, apparently an Alfred E. Neuman-esque mascot figure of sorts to Cult Movies magazine, can be glimpsed in the upper left hand corner.

Inside Front Cover

Two stills from Tim Burton's Ed Wood, similar to the ones in the official script book. The first shows Ed attending the rowdy Bride of the Monster premiere with Bela, Criswell, Vampira, Kathy and Tor in tow. The second shows Ed directing Plan 9, flanked by cast and crew, including Paul Marco and Conrad Brooks in their police uniforms. I've been able to find pretty close approximations of both pictures online.

"Deep Inside Cult Movies" (pg. 4)

Michael Copner
And now, my friends, we have made our way into the magazine itself. True to fan-mag tradition, Cult Movies is printed on the same kind of cheap, pulpy-feeling paper you'd find in the phone book or old issues of Mad. The typeface tends to be very small, as if they're trying to cram in as many words as possible onto each page. The entire magazine is lavishly illustrated with photographs, ads, and posters, but these are all in very grainy black-and-white. In short, the magazine is an eyesore and made me grateful for my Kindle.

But what Cult Movies lacks in style, it more than makes up for in substance. In this friendly little article, for instance, editor-in-chief Michael Copner welcomes readers to the eleventh issue of the magazine and describes what we're about to read and what's been going on in the world of Cult Movies. "I hate to brag," he brags, "but I truly feel blessed that we have the greatest family of writers, artists, and film critics in fandom." As examples, he declares Fred Olen Ray's article about Edward D. Wood, Jr. to be "sensational" and also remarks with considerable pride that cult filmmaker Frank Henenlotter has generously penned two articles for Cult Movies, No. 11, including an interview with Ed Wood biographer Rudolph Grey. (The other is about exploitation filmmaker Barry Mahon and has no direct connection to Wood.) "To my knowledge," writes Copner, "Frank Henenlotter simply does not write material for film magazines." Guess Frank broke his own rule twice in one month. The editor further mentions that "Conrad Brooks returns to our pages" with an article about Criswell.

"A Ghoul Out West: What If Lugosi Were Teamed Up With Today's Imbeciles?" (pg. 22)

A very bizarre little article by Jan Alan Henderson, who says that Cult Movies "originated with the idea that Bela Lugosi lives eternal." Henderson starts out by reviewing two then-recent laserdisc (remember those?) releases of '40s Lugosi films: The Devil Bat (1940) and Scared to Death (1947). Henderson discusses Lugosi's work with such comedy teams as the Ritz Brothers and the East Side Kids and then imagines a scenario teaming up the Hungarian horror legend with '90s cartoon hooligans, Beavis and Butt-head. Hey, I'd be down for that. For Ed Wood fans, the real point of interest is the final paragraph:
PS: New Ed Wood Sighting: After all these exhausting profundities on behalf of Bela, I ran into an old friend of mine from Budget Films and Video, Larry Fine (not of the Three Stooges), who used to deliver films to the late great legend Ed Wood. Larry recently recalled his few encounters with Wood, most of which were with Ed over the phone, when Ed was visiting the twilight vodka zone. Larry also described to me a party, to which he delivered some rental 16mm films to Chez Wood, where Ed was in full drag and asked him to hang out for the show. Larry gracefully declined. Will the Ed Wood wonders never cease? Not likely.

Forrest J. Ackerman
"Uncle Forry: First and Last Fan" (pgs. 26-28)

This is Lee Harris' interview with Famous Monsters of Filmland editor and sci-fi memorabilia collector Forrest J. "Uncle Forry" Ackerman. The article is wide-ranging and career-spanning, but it does briefly touch upon Ackerman's relationship with both Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. If Rudolph Grey is to be believed, the Wood cult truly began in the pages of Famous Monsters, where Ackerman routinely ran stills from Wood's 1950s films (Bride of the Monster, Plan 9) with mocking captions such as: "One of the unbest movies ever made."

Ackerman also held, for a period in the 1960s, the position of Ed Wood's literary agent and penned the introduction to Greenleaf Classic's Orgy of the Dead paperback in 1966. But as this article shows, Ackerman held Wood in contempt and found it beneath his dignity to work with him. This issue of Cult Movies was released in anticipation of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and Ackerman makes a few comments about the film's script, specifically its portrayal of a foul-mouthed Bela Lugosi and other purported inaccuracies:
Forry: I don't know as I ever... one thing I object to about the movie made about [Bela] is that I don't think I even heard him use "hell" or "damn." 
CM: Do you plan to see the Burton film? 
Forry: Oh, I'll have to see it, yes, but if it's anything like the original script, I know I'm going to be very disappointed, because they've taken all kinds of liberties. For instance, I was at the premiere showing of Plan 9 from Outer Space, out at 48th and Vermont at a little theater that doesn't exist anymore. But I think they have it taking place at the Pantages or the Orpheum or some far more grandiose opening than ever happened. And I was surprised that I was not contacted in the earliest stages of it, because after all I was Ed Wood's literary -- or perhaps we should say illiterary -- agent. 
CM: How did you first meet Wood? 
Forry: How did I first meet Ed Wood, you know, I think you'd have to give me hypnotic regression. I really pull a blank on that. 
With statements like those quoted above, Mr. Ackerman inadvertently revealed precisely why he was not asked to be a consultant on Ed Wood. His total lack of affection for Ed is plain to see. Left undiscussed here is Ackerman's problematic relationship with Maila "Vampira" Nurmi. According to W. Scott Poole's recent biography Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, Ackerman first promoted then distanced himself from Nurmi, and later based the character of Vampirella on her without giving her a cut of the profits. Frankly, Forrest J. Ackerman has never been a figure who has greatly interested me, but he clearly played a role in the Wood saga and is, thus, worthy of further study.

"Edward D. Wood, Jr. Interview by Fred Olen Ray 1978" (pgs. 30-32)

Fred Olen Ray
This is one of the most exciting finds in the entire issue, even though its author seems slightly unenthusiastic or even apologetic about the material he's presenting. Back in 1978, low-budget independent filmmaker Fred Olen Ray, then a mere 23-year-old novice, gave Ed Wood a much-needed $500 payment to write the screenplay for a proposed feature horror-comedy film called Beach Blanket Bloodbath. Unfortunately, Wood died in December of that year before completing the script.

During the course of their brief, thwarted professional relationship, Fred Olen Ray had the presence of mind to interview the ailing director, whom he remembers as "easygoing and gregarious." Ray states that "nothing new is presented here" and that "some of his answers appear to be fanciful to say the least." I disagree with the former, at least. Anyway, here are some of Eddie's most interesting quotes from the interview:

  • "I sold my first story called The Sunset Murders when I was twelve years old to Street & Smith... It went on from there... I've had 131 novels published and more than 1000 short stories and articles published in the last 15 years."
  • "Alex Gordon and I had an apartment together. He knew Lugosi. I didn't. Lugosi turned me down at first [for Glen or Glenda?], but Lillian, his wife at the time, turned him on to it. I paid him $1000 a day... He needed the money."
  • "You've seen [Bride of the Monster]... Lugosi was right for it! Yes, he was one of my dearest friends. I practically lived with him! I paid him more for Bride of the Monster than he got for Dracula. Sure, he needed the money, but don't we all?"
  • "Bride cost $89,000, Plan 9 was $82,000, Revenge of the Dead [aka Night of the Ghouls]... $52,000. Other than that I can't seem to remember."
  • "Lugosi was ill and needed some cash. I gave him $1000 and we shot in a cemetery that was being evacuated. I wrote [Plan 9] around the scene. Too bad my camera man used bad film... which he did!"
  • [when asked whether any of Lugosi's footage in Plan 9 is repeated] "I have never duplicated a scene!"
  • "The Ghoul Goes West I wrote and still own. It's a great one."

Wake of the Red Witch
Much of the interview does rehash stories that have been told over and over again in other books and articles. Eddie talks about using the octopus from John Wayne's Wake of the Red Witch and having to manually work the creature's legs. He never says, though, that he stole this prop. He also retells the anecdote about being baptized, along with Tor Johnson and Vampira, to get the money to make Plan 9, and he mentions using chiropractor Thomas R. Mason as Lugosi's stand-in in that film. These are the "greatest hits" of the Wood legend, so that's probably why Fred Olen Ray felt the interview had nothing new to say.

The article concludes with what Ray calls "a bibliographic listing of Edward Wood's feature film credits," including both titles and distributors. Eddie apparently presented this list to Fred when he hired on to write Beach Blanket Bloodbath for Firebird International. Ray makes sure to point out that the titles on the list were "compiled in this order by EDW himself." He also says, "You'll notice RKO listed as the releasing company for Bride of the Monster and Plan 9! If this is true, it's certainly news to me." Without further ado, here's the list as it appears in Cult Movies:

Escape from Time (Martha C. Brown)
Gun Runners (Don Davis)
The Lawless Rider (United Artists)
Hell Born (Screen Classics)
Operation Redlight (Joe Robertson Prods.)
Bed Time Talk (Pete Perry Prods.)
The Only House (Cinema Classics)
The Wicked West (Capricorn Industries)
The Lure (Japan)
Las Vegas Cheat (ghost writer) (Betty Woods)
The Frank Leahy Legend (Scotty Williams Ent.)
The Naked Bowl (ghost writer) (Jeff MacRay Prods.)

Okay, okay. Setting the production and distribution companies aside for a moment, let's break this list of titles down into some basic categories. The first, I'm glad to say, is by far the largest.

Films I've reviewed under the titles listed here: Orgy of the Dead; Shotgun Wedding; Bride and the Beast; The Violent Years; Glen or Glenda?; Jail Bait; Bride of the Monster; Plan 9 from Outer Space; The Sinister Urge; One Million AC/DC; Love Feast; Take It Out in Trade; Necromania; The Snow Bunnies; Class Reunion; Drop Out Wife; Fugitive Girls; The Beach Bunnies; Hot Ice*; and The Venus Flytrap.
* Interesting that Ed Wood includes Hot Ice on his resume. Stephen C. Apostolof claimed that Ed had nothing to do with the writing of this movie, even though he's listed as an assistant director.

Films I've reviewed under alternate titles: Portraits in Terror (as Final Curtain); The Atomic Monster* (as Bride of the Monster), Revenge of the Dead (as Night of the Ghouls); The Photographer (as Love Feast); Misty (as Nympho Cycler); Talk Sexy Y'All (as Shotgun Wedding); and The Hostesses (as The Cocktail Hostesses).
* Universal's Man-Made Monster (1941) was re-released in 1953 as The Atomic Monster by Realart Pictures, the distributor listed above. But Eddie had no involvement with this production whatsoever, as it was made six years before he came to Hollywood.

The Frank Leahy Legend
Films I might have reviewed under alternate titles: Since Pete Perry's name is attached to it, Bed Time Talk might be Revenge of the Virgins. And The Lure might well be Venus Flytrap under another name. Who can say?

Films I've identified but not yet reviewed: I'm in the process of securing prints for The Only House and The Lawless Rider. Both will (eventually) be reviewed here.

Films that were not completed or that have been lost: Hellborn was abandoned and its footage edited into The Sinister Urge. And in a previous article in this series, Douglas North schooled us all on The Flame of Islam. Sadly, though I've reviewed other films by Don Davis and Joe Robertson respectively, Gun Runners and Operation Redlight have yet to surface.

Films that remain total mysteries: (only five titles) Escape from Time; The Wicked West; Las Vegas Cheat; The Frank Leahy Legend; and The Naked Bowl. The only print references to Martha C. Brown's Escape from Time are in books about Ed Wood. Same goes for Capricorn's The Wicked West. Las Vegas Cheat and The Naked Bowl don't even make it that far. As for Frank Leahy (1908-1973), he was an American football player and Hall of Fame coach at Notre Dame. The year after he died, an unauthorized biography called The Frank Leahy Legend by Bernard J. Williams and Leslie O. Read appeared on the market. Ed might have turned this paperback into a feature film script.

Something Weird Video ad (pg. 33)

SWV's edition of Necromania
Something Weird Video seems to have been the principal sponsor of Cult Movies, and in the early 1990s, they were also one of the main distributors of Ed Wood's work on VHS. This is a full-page ad for SWV's Wood tapes, including Jailbait, The Violent Years, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls, and  The Love Feast (aka The Photographer). "They continue to entertain and baffle anyone who actually takes the time to watch them!" says Something Weird's tuxedo-clad cartoon mascot. The main feature, however, is a "special edition" of Necromania, which had only recently been rediscovered in a semi-complete 16mm print. Frank Henenlotter himself offers his breathless description of the film:
Those who know Ed Wood from such eccentric epics as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda are in for a shock 'cause Necromania isn't quite like any other Ed Wood film. Perhaps the rarest and most sought after of Wood's "lost" features, Necromania is a crazy mix of sex and spookiness as a dimwitted couple, in need of sexual therapy, enter Madam Heles' presumably haunted house and find cheap sets, wacky dialogue, and a naked gal in Criswell's coffin! 
Hosted by yours truly, who also discusses the film with Ed Wood biographer Rudolph Grey. Plus, as an added bonus, a special abbreviated version of Love Feast featuring one of Wood's rare starring roles, in which Ed plays a horny photographer trapped in a perpetual orgy who is also made to wear a dog collar and nightie while licking the boots of his female captor. 
Nobody made 'em like Ed Wood made 'em.
A complete print of Necromania would not emerge for ten more years, so SWV's piecemeal version was definitive for a whole decade.

"The Vampira Chronicles" (pgs. 34-36)

The Divine Miss N
In the mid-1990s, the reclusive and eccentric Maila Nurmi started to reemerge from several decades in the shadows, largely spurred by the production of Ed Wood, in which she was portrayed by Lisa Marie, and an attendant renewal of interest in her strange career. In Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, W. Scott Poole describes how a series of fans temporarily befriended the always-reticent Nurmi in her later years, largely so they could ask her questions about Ed Wood and James Dean. (She and Dean were briefly an item until, by most accounts, he rejected her.)

Writer Robert R. Rees was one such fan. "The Vampira Chronicles" is culled from Rees' "volumes of correspondence" with the one-time horror host. Among many other topics, Nurmi shares her thoughts about Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Ed Wood, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Those who have seen Maila Nurmi in such films as Flying Saucers Over Hollywood or The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. will know what to expect from an article like this. In her autumn years, Vampira affected an air of nobility and spoke with a quasi-British accent. When she spoke of Ed Wood, it was with an attitude of what I'll call "benign contempt," as if her former employer were merely a pesky little insect she couldn't be bothered to crush. In any event, the lady wasn't afraid to speak her mind, so we have some choice quotes here:

  • "Mr. Lugosi was a victim of a hospital induced drug addiction for the last three years of his life only. He was too dignified a person to sink to 'milking' sympathy. And he got no sympathy -- only smears and jeers."
  • "I'd say Bela was a victim of Ed Wood, society, and himself."
  • "I don't know about early responses to Glen or Glenda, but I guess it was just passed off as a very bad second feature. as were all Ed Wood movies in the '50s. It was autobiographical and poignant. Lugosi had no sense of humor and was overplaying because Wood was milking the early essences of stage acting out of him. Wood doubtless thought he had extracted a fine dramatic performance out of his actor. Bela was too sick to care much one way or the other -- so long as he pleased his boss. All of this is only my considered opinion."
  • "Bela was very sick and would craw out of his deathbed, at the last, to tub thump Ed Wood movies, only to be insulted by a public who had been poisoned by a smear campaign."
  • "Tor Johnson was a member of Ed Wood's professional entourage, so he worked all pics. Tor was a gentle, kindly man. Some juvenile delinquents tried to overturn our car during a monster personal appearance tour. Tor said (phonetically) 'Pee knudt poys. Khoo hooome.' (He had a Swedish accent.) The boys disbanded under his influence."
  • "[Ed Wood] was in fact a transvestite but did not practice it at work except during the filming of Glen or Glenda. [...] See, during Plan 9 (and I worked only one day), he wore men's clothes (like riding britches) and shoes but did use a megaphone. Ed Wood, it seemed to me, was an animal lover and a kind man."
  • "[Ed] had no sense of humor and was totally literal and matter-of-fact."
  • "The atom bomb had just newly been invented and Oppenheimer was much in the news shortly before Plan 9 was being written (1956) -- so Ed Wood's theories about nukes were logical deductions of a probable future."
  • "Other than that 15 minutes before his camera (for which I insisted on playing mute and was paid $200) I did not work for Ed."

Artwork from Bizarre.
Interestingly, Maila Nurmi describes both Lugosi and Wood as being humorless, a claim I would dispute. Bela did comedy many times on stage and in movies, as covered in Jay Alan Henderson's article earlier in this very magazine. Meanwhile, Eddie's sense of fun was fairly legendary, according to those who socialized with him. There are too many stories about Ed being the life of the party or going out of his way to be outrageous for him ever to be considered humorless. He might have taken both Plan 9 and Glenda seriously, but there are examples of intentionally-comedic work in his repertoire as well, both as a writer and as a filmmaker.

"The Vampira Chronicles" also includes another iteration of the oft-repeated incident in which Maila Nurmi flatly turned down an offer to play Madam Heles in Necromania. Laid up in a hospital bed and unable to walk at the time (circa 1971), she had no interest in appearing nude in Ed Wood's Gothic porno film. In this version of the story, it is Wood's associate John Andrews ("one of those beer-boozed alcoholic morons") -- not Eddie himself -- who drunkenly called Ms. Nurmi to make the indecent proposal. "Fer a hunnert apples, baby, an usin' yer name," Andrews is purported to have said. Obviously, Maria Arnold was willing and able to take the small but pivotal role of Madam Heles.

Before we leave this feature, I'd like to present Maila Nurmi's own personal "recipe" for Vampira. It's tempting to say that she's derived solely from Charles Addams' Morticia, but that's an oversimplification. The character of Vampira had a number of "mothers," so to speak, as shown below:

2 oz. Theda Bara (vamp, vamp)
2 oz. Morticia (morbid Victoriana)
3 oz. Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard)
4 oz. Tallulah Bankhead (the voice dahling)
2 oz. Marilyn M. (Demons are a ghoul's best friend)
3 oz. Katie Hepburn (Victorian English)
2 oz. Bette Davis (mama, baby)
3 oz. Billie Burke (dilettante insouciance)
3 oz. Marlene D. (singing voice)
8 oz. Bizarre magazine pin-up (an S&M magazine of the day)
(big boobs, waist cincher, mesh hose, high shoes, long nails)

"Criswell Predicts" by Conrad Brooks (pg. 37)

(l to r) Conrad Brooks; Criswell.
The man who turned out to be the last-surviving cast member of Plan 9 from Outer Space pays tribute to one of his fallen comrades in this short-but-sweet retrospective. Conrad "Connie" Brooks, who appeared in every major Ed Wood feature from Glen or Glenda? (1953) to The Sinister Urge (1960), was clearly a key member of the director's inner circle during Wood's golden age. Here, Brooks gives the readers of Cult Movies an overview of the career of prophet, profiteer, and inveterate entertainer Criswell.

The article seems aimed at those who only know Cris from his appearances in Plan 9, Night of the Ghouls, and Orgy of the Dead. Brooks explains: "Criswell's work on the films of Ed Wood was certainly a sideline for the man. I'm sure that Criswell worked with Eddie mostly because they were friends, two unusual Hollywood types." Trying to present a more balanced picture of the prognosticator's great career, the article helpfully describes Cris' work outside of the Wood films, including his books, his newspaper columns, and his numerous appearances on NBC's venerable The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Conrad Brooks devotes the majority of the article (75%, I'd say) to Criswell's infamously inaccurate predictions, culled from his first two books. I already covered a lot of the same territory in a previous Ed Wood Wednesdays article, but it never hurts to revisit this material. Some choice excerpts:

  • "I had a vaulting imagination, and my searching wet noodle of a mind was hard to control. I was not interested in the present events, but more interested in how they would turn out."
  • "I predict that the present teen age drug problem will end in dire tragedy! The climate changes will make many drug mixtures fatal, and rather than becoming vegetables upon use, the person will be the victim of death!"
  • "I predict it will be a very common and inexpensive operation to change a woman into a man with the simple transplant of the sex organ."
  • "For we have only a short time left on this world as we know it! On August 18, 1999 -- all will cease. And we will cease with it!!"
Okay, so the world didn't end on August 18, 1999, but Criswell must have been one of the very first celebrities who routinely talked about "climate change." He was not only sure that the climate was changing, he expressed the opinion that mankind was to blame! How's that for seeing into the future?

And that will just about do it for part one of this ludicrous, two-part series about Cult Movies, No. 11 from 1994. As they say in television, "To be continued..." Why two parts? There was simply too much interesting material in this one issue to possibly cover in a single article, so I've decided to break this piece down into two more manageable halves. It was either that, or cover the articles one at a time the way I did with the stories in Blood Splatters Quickly. I figured this was a reasonable compromise. Patience, my pet.

NEXT: Part 2 of this mini-series, featuring "White Ghost" Valda Hansen, Bela Lugosi in Las Vegas, Wood biographer Rudolph Grey, a look at Ed's very first novel, The Casual Company, and so much more! You won't wanna miss it!