Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 165: The Big Book of Weirdos (1995)

Ed Wood is one of the "weirdos" profiled in this book.

"Weird" is one of the least desirable adjectives in the English language in 2023. File it alongside "problematic," "uncomfortable," and "toxic" among the labels you do not want placed on you. How did this happen? How did "weird" become such a pariah? 

Personally, I blame the downfall of that once-noble word on social media. The internet was supposed to expand our horizons, but it ended up doing the exact opposite. It narrowed them down to a little shiny black rectangle. Now that we can cultivate and curate a little world of our own interests and our own friends, we're more suspicious of (and hostile toward) the unknown. "Weird" basically now means "unfamiliar or unexpected in even the slightest way and therefore highly undesirable." Just be normal, says the world. Blend in.

Excerpt from The Big Book of Weirdos.
That's not the way it was in the '90s. That decade was a great time—maybe the last great time—for quirkiness, individuality, and, yes, unapologetic weirdness. The song "The Dream of the '90s" from Portlandia sums up the mood of the era very well. Sample line from the video: "Remember in the '90s when they encouraged you to be weird? It was just an amazing time when people would go to see something like the Jim Rose Sideshow Circus and watch someone hang something from their penis."

This was also the golden age of "crate-digging," i.e. rummaging through the archives to find albums, movies, TV shows, and other artifacts from the past worth reviving. Back then, it was considered cool to be knowledgeable about our collective pop culture past, especially the offbeat and obscure stuff. Witness John Waters' Serial Mom (1994) in which some high school and college-age characters are fans of Bettie Page, Pee-wee Herman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and even Chesty Morgan! Back then, Rhino Records and Something Weird Video were my lifelines!

Appropriately, the 1990s witnessed the second wave of Ed Wood fandom, which was more sympathetic to Eddie than the first wave in the 1980s had been. Instead of Harry and Michael Medved's snide The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), this was the decade of Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992), Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), and three major documentaries about him, plus various VHS and DVD reissues of his films. (Both Rhino and SWV handled Ed's movies.) Sure, we were still laughing at the cheapness, silliness, and oddness of Eddie's movies, but we were also celebrating him for his uniqueness.

Smack dab in the middle of the 1990s, DC Comics—yes, that DC Comics, home of Batman and Superman—released The Big Book of Weirdos (1995), a hefty, 224-page comics anthology consisting of mini biographies of 67 historical eccentrics. ("The world's most peculiar geniuses," according to the back cover.) These biographies, each about three to five pages in length, were all written by journalist and novelist Carl A. Posey. Each one was illustrated by a different, acclaimed comics artist, which gives the book a great deal of visual variety, similar to Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. 

The titular Weirdos have been sorted into various categories: tycoons, inventors, writers, etc. Ed Wood, Jr. is included in the chapter about artists and entertainers. This puts him in rarified company, alongside Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Vincent van Gogh, and others. Keep in mind, however, that inclusion in The Big Book of Weirdos is not necessarily an endorsement; Hitler is included in the chapter on autocrats and dictators, while Idi Amin is among the military men.

For the most part, though, this book is a celebration of its subjects, including Eddie. The three-page comic about his life hits the same basic bullet points as Ed Wood or most of the articles and documentaries about Eddie. Marine at Tarawa? Check. Wore bra and panties under his uniform? Check. Worked with an opium-addicted Bela Lugosi? Check. Worst director of all time? Check. You know the drill. I applaud Carl Posey for mentioning some deep cuts from Nightmare of Ecstasy, including references to the Hindenburg, the Ice Capades, and Eddie's alleged stint as a "carnival geek."

Some Woodian deep cuts from The Big Book of Weirdos.

The real draw here is the evocative, almost lurid artwork by the legendary Mitch O'Connell, who also drew the gorgeous cover for the recent Criswell biography. I'd describe Mitch's style as a cross between Daniel Clowes and R. Crumb, though he'd probably reject that description. Like his contemporary, Drew Friedman, O'Connell proves eerily adept at capturing the spirit of Ed Wood and his various oddball associates. In The Big Book of Weirdos, we get stylized portraits of not only Eddie and his wife Kathy but Tor Johnson, Joanna Lee, Captain DeZita, Criswell, Bela Lugosi, and even Texas Starr! I've talked about how Eddie's unproduced script Trial by Terror should be adapted into a graphic novel. Well, I can't imagine a better artist for the assignment than Mitch!

My favorite part of the mini-biography is its ending, and here I will have to give due credit to both Carl A. Posey and Mitch O'Connell. In the final panels, we see Kathy Wood seated on a couch, smoking a cigarette and reminiscing about the day Eddie died. Her dialogue comes directly from Nightmare of Ecstasy: "What do you suppose he saw in those last few moments? What do you suppose he saw?" This scene ends the story in a mysterious, haunting way, which I think Eddie himself might have appreciated. I also appreciated the various props and furnishings O'Connell has added to the scene, since they have a kitschy, early 1960s feel to them. On the wall behind Kathy, for instance, there is a painting of a sad-eyed puppy dog that looks like it could have been painted by Margaret Keane.

The good news is that The Big Book of Weirdos is available fairly cheap on the secondary market and is interesting from cover to cover. If you're of a mind to appreciate Ed Wood and his movies, you'll probably enjoy this entire book. I can definitely imagine taking this book along with me on a long trip. It's the kind of volume where you can flip to just about any page and find something worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "Chachi Balboa"

Scott Baio and Henry Winkler on Happy Days.

The writers of Happy Days were not usually too keen on exploring particular themes—this isn't that kind of show—but they ended up exploring some anyway during the show's eleventh and final season. Specifically, a lot of these episodes are about the characters growing up and feeling the need to prove themselves as full-fledged adults. They're no longer children, and they want the world to know it! 

In "Because It's There," Fonzie (Henry Winkler) needed to prove he was "a man" by riding his motorcycle up Suicide Hill. In "Welcome Home," Richie (Ron Howard) proved he was an adult by ignoring his parents' wishes and moving to California to become a screenwriter. In "Glove Story," the episode we're reviewing this week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, Chachi (Scott Baio) tries to prove himself to Fonzie by becoming a boxer. 

It seems that, in Season 11, the characters on Happy Days are all trying to put childhood behind them and establish themselves as adults who deserve some R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Weirdly, they all go about it in ways that seem foolish or dangerous to me. Richie could end up broke and homeless, while Fonzie and Chachi could end up hospitalized or even dead! Oh well. I guess that's what it takes to prove yourself in this universe.

You can find out what we thought of "Glove Story" by listening to our latest podcast. Conveniently, it's available right here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 164: NECA Toony Terrors: Vampira (2023)

I'm going to call this a Plan 9 from Outer Space toy. Try and stop me.

If I ever won the lottery, I'd spend at least a million dollars of it on toys. Instead of talking to a financial planner or stockbroker like a mature and responsible adult, I'd be on eBay and Amazon immediately, buying up every action figure, playset, and vehicle I ever wanted, including vintage classics from the '70s and '80s as well as items made more recently for the collector market. I'd devote an entire room -- or two or three -- of my house to that wonderfully useless plastic junk and spend many hours there. Eventually, I'd become a Howard Hughes-type recluse, content to stay indoors with all my fabulous possessions. Finally, finally, I could die happy.

This will never be my life.

The sad reality is that a lack of shelf space and a lack of money prevent me from becoming this kind of collector. Like just about everything else these days, toys are getting pricey. So I have to content myself with a few modest shelves of action figures, many rescued from dollar and discount stores and worth virtually nothing. Every once in a great while, however, I find a new item that's too tempting to resist.

Earlier this year, the NECA toy company, which mainly caters to adults, announced the lineup for Series 8 of its Toony Terrors line of horror figures: Svengoolie, Captain Spaulding (from 2003's House of 1000 Corpses), and Vampira. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I'm an obsessive viewer of Sven's Saturday night spook show on MeTV. I'm also a longtime fan of cult movie star Sid Haig and have greatly enjoyed his ghoulish, gleeful Captain Spaulding character. But obviously, the main draw of Series 8 for me was that Vampira figure.

All three figures in Series 8 of Toony Terrors.
And so, way back in April, I preordered a set of all three figures from a site called Clark Toys. And then I waited. And waited. And waited some more. I was on the verge of giving up hope. Finally, just a few days ago, a box arrived at my doorstep containing Sven, Captain Spaulding, and our beloved horror hostess. I'd never purchased anything from NECA before and didn't really know what the Toony Terrors figures would be like. I thought maybe they'd be bobbleheads or similar to Funko Pops.

As I soon found out, Toony Terrors are six-inch action figures that give us slightly cartoony or caricatured versions of famous horror characters. ("Bring the fun of Saturday morning cartoons to your horror collection," the packaging declares.) Articulation is minimal. The heads are on ball joints, and the arms can be moved as well. Otherwise, the figures are immobile from the waist down. Each figure comes with an accessory. Svengoolie has a rubber chicken sculpted permanently in his left hand. (He's also the only figure with articulation at the wrists.) Captain Spaulding has an alternate, swappable head with a different facial expression. And Vampira has a prop skull that can also double as a swappable head for the Toony Terrors figures. Buyers should know that the sculpt of Vampira's hair prevents her head from being posed too dramatically. You can slightly tilt her face to the right or left, but that's about it.

Since both articulation and accessories are limited in this line, the real draw of Toony Terrors is the quality of its sculpts. All three figures in Series 8 were sculpted by Adrienne Smith, and I am pleased to say that they are uniformly excellent in terms of design, managing to be both cute and creepy at the same time. Fans of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) will immediately recognize Vampira. Her Morticia-like black dress, her hair, her facial expression, even her eyebrows -- all just as you remember them from the movie. Best of all, you can pose her with those long, pointy fingernails of hers sticking straight out. I'm positive Ed Wood would have purchased one of these figures himself if he'd been around in 2023. 

I'm not a collector who keeps his toys in their original packaging, but NECA has kept mint-on-card collectors in mind with Toony Terrors. The packaging design is quite attractive, made to look like the marquee and ticket booth of an old time movie theater. The back of each card can also be used as a "bonus backdrop display." Vampira's card shows a velvet curtain, some fog, and some candles. I'm guessing it's meant as a recreation of the set of her 1950s TV show.

There's not much licensed, official merch related to Ed Wood, so this Toony Terrors Vampira figure was quite a treat. Sure, the toy is kind of stiff and static, but so was the real Vampira! Her character in Plan 9 was supposed to be a reanimated corpse, after all. I'm pleased as punch to have a little plastic replica of Maila Nurmi on my shelf. To keep her company, I've paired her with a 1990s Toy Biz figure of Marvel's Kingpin that's a dead ringer for Tor Johnson. They make a great couple.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "Richie Punches Fonzie Right in the Face!"

Henry Winkler and Ron Howard on Happy Days.

Generally, in the week before we cover an episode of Happy Days on our podcast, I screen that episode several times, take copious notes on it, and ponder what I want to say about it when we record on Saturday. In other words, the episode is on my mind frequently during those days. But I'm taking in a lot of other, non-Happy Days media as well during that same time. And sometimes, that other media affects how I think about Happy Days.

I'll give you an example. 

This week on These Days Are Ours, we're covering the classic Season 11 two-parter "Welcome Home." I bet you remember this one. Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) comes home from a three-year hitch in the Army, only to tell his family that he wants to move to California and become a screenwriter for the movies. His parents, Howard (Tom Bosley) and Marion (Marion Ross), are worried that Richie won't be able to provide for his pregnant wife Lori Beth (Lynda Goodfriend) and his young son Richie, Jr. (Bo Sharon) as an aspiring writer, so they pressure him to take a job as reporter for The Milwaukee Journal. As a result of obeying his parents' wishes, Richie plunges into depression and goes on a drinking binge, even punching his best friend Fonzie (Henry Winkler) in the face. The episode ends happily, however, as Richie decides to move his family to California so he can pursue his showbiz dreams. Lori Beth, Howard, Fonzie, and Marion all support Richie in this risky decision.

Very nice, right? Well, the week before we reviewed "Welcome Home," I finally saw the notorious Danish exploitation film The Sinful Dwarf (1973). This spectacularly unpleasant flick—a sleazy horror/porn hybrid—tells the story of Peter (Tony Eades), an idealistic young writer who is so broke that he and his beautiful young bride Mary (Anne Sparrow) have to move into the grungiest, most ominous boarding house in the world. They simply can't afford to live anywhere nicer. The place is run by a hardboiled ex-cabaret singer named Lila Lash (Clara Keller) and her sadistic dwarf son Olaf (Torben Bille). Needless to say, Peter and Mary soon regret ever setting foot inside this place.

I realize it's ridiculous to compare or somehow equate Happy Days and The Sinful Dwarf. They're miles apart in terms of tone and content. But I just couldn't help having ominous feelings about Richie moving himself and his family to a tough, unforgiving city like Los Angeles when he lacks money and a place to stay. Sure, Lori Beth supports his dream wholeheartedly, but that poor lady from The Sinful Dwarf supported her husband wholeheartedly, too, and look where that got her!

Anyway, I'm rambling. You can find out what I really thought of these episodes by listening to the podcast below.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 163: Criswell's 'The Dying Planet' (1955)

Criswell told an amazing tale in the April 1955 issue of Spaceway.

The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record, and there are alarming news stories about catastrophic weather events seemingly every week. It often feels as if we're on a collision course with oblivion and that there is no turning back. Sure, we collectively survived Y2K a couple of decades ago, but the human race may well be extinct by the time Y3K rolls around.

In short, these would be great times for Criswell (1907-1982), the well-coiffed prognosticator who became not only Ed Wood's good friend but also an important member of the Wood repertory company with his roles in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), Night of the Ghouls (1959), and Orgy of the Dead (1965). More and more these days, we seem to be living through one of the many outlandish doomsday predictions that Criswell made over the years through his columns, books, and other media appearances.

Recently, reader Rob Huffman, host of the YouTube series Sin & Sci-Fi in the '60s, sent me one of those apocalyptic Criswell pronouncements: "The Dying Planet," which Cris wrote for a pulp sci-fi magazine called Spaceway in April 1955. A relatively short-lived publication from William L. Crawford's Fantasy Publishing in Los Angeles, Spaceway lasted only from December 1953 to June 1955 with a brief revival in 1969 and 1970. Criswell was a regular contributor to Spaceway and even appeared on its cover a couple of times. (L. Ron Hubbard also contributed to Spaceway, if that tells you anything.)

Some artwork by the great Paul Blaisdell accompanied this Criswell story.

Spaceway April 1955.
"The Dying Planet" captures Cris at his bonkers best. In this article, the great seer tells us of a distant yet inhabited planet called Bellarion—whose society mirrors ours in many ways—that is veering away from its usual orbit and will enter our solar system in the "very near future." Our planet will not necessarily perish because of this catastrophe, but there will be numerous consequences ranging from bizarre to tragic to merely inconvenient. Among them:
  • "Your hair will not remain combed, but will stand up in wild disarray, due to the coming electrical disturbances."
  • "Huge buildings will become loosened from their foundations and will fly off into space."
  • "Pregnant women will explode."
  • "The skies will rain blood because of the millions of crushed bodies floating in space."
  • "In cemeteries, the dead will be lifted from their graves through a strange magnetic force which will influence only dead cells."
That last one I mentioned is especially noteworthy because it presages both Ed's own Plan 9 as well as George Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). In Romero's film, the zombie plague is apparently caused by the Venus Space Probe and the radiation it brought back to our planet.

Speaking of classic sci-fi and horror, the Spaceway article is accompanied by artwork from the great Paul Blaisdell (1927-1983), who created iconic monster costumes and other props for such classic B-movies as It Conquered the World (1956), The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), The She-Creature (1956), and many more. Occasionally, Paul himself would climb into the costumes and portray the monsters himself. It's regrettable that Paul Blaisdell and Ed Wood never had the opportunity to work on a film project together.

Immediately following "The Dying Planet," the April 1955 issue of Spaceway also includes a biographical article about Criswell attributed to one "Charles F. Wireman." I put that name in quotes because "Charles" is pretty blatantly Criswell writing under a pen name. He doesn't even bother to change his telltale writing style from one article to the next. In "The Dying Planet," for instance, Criswell refers to "trend, pattern of habit, and the unalterable laws of cycle," a phrase I also recognized from Criswell's delightful 1970 album. Then, "Charles F. Wireman" uses the exact same phrase on the very next page! So much for covering your tracks.

Regardless of its authorship, the biographical article has some interesting Criswell trivia in it. For instance:
Criswell's favorite character in history is Napoleon, and his favorite age in history is from 1890 to 1900. His favorite American writer is Edgar Allen Poe. Criswell's most cherished newspaper interview was with the late H.G. Wells, who proved to be a great influence.
The article stops short of telling us Criswell's turnons and turnoffs, and for that, I am grateful. I am also grateful to Rob Huffman for sending me this wonderful example of Criswell arcana.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "Deep Shvitz"

Anson Williams, Ted McGinley, and Scott Baio on Happy Days.

For a show whose entire purpose is getting viewers to remember the past, Happy Days has a surprisingly spotty memory for its own past. Continuity was simply not a priority for the writers and producers of this long-running ABC sitcom. Fairly major life events could be repeated (such as Fonzie having his tonsils taken out) or forgotten (such as Marion returning to college) without anyone noticing. Actors could come back as multiple, different characters (as both Ken Lerner and Warren Berlinger did), and no one would be the wiser. And even recurring cast members could vanish from Happy Days with scarcely a comment. This was the ignominious fate of Chuck Cunningham, Eugene and Melvin Belvin, Flip Philips, K.C. Cunningham, and more. 

So it's somewhat touching that, when Ashley Pfister (Linda Purl) and her daughter Heather (Heather O'Rourke) were dropped from the show at the end of Season 10 for budgetary reasons, the writers of Happy Days bothered to give us a reason for their absence. In the Season 11 episode "Where the Guys Are," Fonzie (Henry Winkler) informs us -- or, more specifically, informs guest star Rita Wilson -- that his relationship with Ashley ended when Ashley's newly sober ex-husband resurfaced, wanting to reconcile with her. Sure, this same basic thing happened to Fonzie back in Season 6 (during the "Kid Stuff" episode), but a recycled explanation is still better than none at all.

You might've noticed that picture up there of Anson Williams, Ted McGinley, and Scott Baio wearing towels and wondered what that has to do with Linda Purl leaving Happy Days. Well, it'll all be explained in this episode of our podcast. Why not listen and find out?

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Jean Stevens in White and Black (Guest Author: James Pontolillo)

Ed Wood gave us two sides of actress Jean Stevens.

In his magnum opus Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), writer-director-producer Edward D. Wood, Jr. summoned an iconic femme fatale – TV horror hostess Vampira as the striking Vampire Girl – to haunt men for decades to come. Plan 9’s cult status and the fervor directed toward Vampira have caused Ed’s other femme fatales to be largely overlooked. 

Two of his lesser-regarded films – Final Curtain (1957) and Night of the Ghouls (1959) – feature a [White] Vampire and a Black Ghost, respectively. Each role was played by the same little-known actress who managed to exude a mysterious, foreboding air of eroticism not unlike that of Vampira herself. A large measure of credit must be given to the cinematographer, William C. Thompson, whose knack for capturing feminine beauty in crisp, moody black-and-white mirrored the timeless Universal horror classics of the 1930s and 1940s. The young actress in question, Jean Stevens, was no newcomer as far as Ed was concerned. He had known her since his earliest days in Hollywood.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "The Ballad of Joan-bone and Chach-crotch"

Erin Moran and Scott Baio on Happy Days.

Over the course of reviewing 11 seasons of Happy Days, I've really come to respect Erin Moran (1960-2017) as an actress. Some viewers may not know that she was the third Joanie Cunningham, after Susan Neher (a redhead from the first pilot) and Audrey Pfeiffer (a blonde from the second). The kid sister of protagonist Richie (Ron Howard), Joanie could easily have been a nothing character, doomed to live in the shadow of her more celebrated sibling and only occasionally allowed to crack wise at the dinner table. Joanie didn't even make it into the opening credits until Season 3! I'm convinced it was Erin's spirited portrayal that made Joanie an important part of Happy Days. She carved out a place for herself on this overcrowded series, episode by episode.

I don't feel that the show always treated Joanie well, however. Like I said, they didn't even bother to add her to the opening credits for the first two seasons! During the early years of Happy Days, most of the good stories went to either Richie or Fonzie (Henry Winkler), though Joanie got occasional spotlight episodes like "Smoking Ain't Cool" and "Joanie's Weird Boyfriend." Starting in Season 5, Joanie became romantically involved with Fonzie's slightly sleazy cousin Chachi (Scott Baio), and this drastically altered the course of her character. She was no longer just Richie's sister; she was now Chachi's girlfriend.

But what if she weren't? This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we're talking about the Season 11 episode "The Ballad of Joanie and Chachi," in which our two lovebirds realize  that they're just not compatible for each other because they want different things out of life. It's a more dramatic, downbeat episode than Happy Days usually does. Is this change of pace good for the show or not? Let's find out together.