Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Podcast Tuesday: "Second Best Western"

Fonzie (right) meets his doppelganger on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.

Recording a very unnecessary Happy Days podcast involves a surprising amount of solitary, tedious labor, namely researching and editing. But it's all worth it for the fun my cohost and I have when recording. I live alone and don't really have anything to say at work, so doing a podcast might be the only conversation I have with anyone all week. The problem is, I have so many words stored up that I turn into a real motormouth when I'm on mic. And because I converse so rarely, I tend to ramble and interrupt and go off on tangents.

As you might guess, then, each episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast has to be heavily edited before it can be posted. A lot of my digressions wind up on the proverbial cutting room floor. This week, one of the casualties was my lengthy explanation of the character of Cupcake (voiced by Didi Conn), the ditsy "future chick" who accompanies Fonzie (Henry Winkler), Richie (Ron Howard), and Ralph Malph (Don Most) on their misadventures through time and space. I felt that including this material in the podcast would have slowed down the conversation too much, so out it went.

But this blog is just for my own amusement, so I'll give the explanation here. Basically, my guess is that Cupcake is the spoiled yet nice daughter of a wealthy man from the 25th century. ("Cupcake" is just a nickname her daddy gave her.) She's never really had any responsibilities, and she was too focused on having fun to focus on her studies. That's why she's often so useless in crises and has such poor control over her magic powers. Daddy gave her a time machine for her 18th birthday, and she took it for a spin before learning how to operate it. She soon crashed in 1957 Milwaukee and recruited Fonzie and his pals to help her. (In the opening credits, you can see her sitting dejectedly on the hood of a car when Fonzie approaches her.)

That's my "head canon" for Cupcake on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang. You won't hear it in our review of the cowboy adventure "Westward Whoa!" but you'll hear plenty of other things we had to say about the episode. And there's an easy way to do it: just press play.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 185: 'Beach Blanket Bloodbath' (1985) and the 'Sleazemania' series

The Sleazemania videos offered viewers a crash course in sex and sin.

Harry and Michael Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards brought Ed Wood unlikely posthumous fame in 1980, naming him the worst director of all time and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) the worst film, but that doesn't mean Ed's movies were instantly accessible to fans who wanted to watch them. In the early 1980s, you generally had to rely on revival houses and late night television to see Eddie's work. And even then, you weren't in control of which movies were being shown or when you could see them.

Fortunately, the home video revolution helped change that. VCRs brought a dizzying variety of entertainment into people's living rooms—not just recent blockbusters and Hollywood classics but all kinds of specialty titles, too. Pornography and horror famously flourished on VHS, but so did exercise videos, concert movies, vintage TV shows, and low-budget cult flicks that hadn't been widely seen in decades. This proved to be great news for Ed Wood fans. (Too bad Eddie himself wasn't around to enjoy it; his death in 1978 came at a terribly inconvenient time.) It really cannot be overstated how important VCRs were in bringing Eddie's movies to the masses in the pre-internet era.

One of Rhino's Sleazemania videos.
Leading the charge was Rhino Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based company that started in the 1970s as a quirky record label specializing in novelty songs and reissues. By the 1980s, they had branched out into the burgeoning home video market. By focusing on kitschy oddities from the past, Rhino proved a natural home for the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. It was a marriage made in cult movie heaven—or trash movie hell, depending on your point of view.

Although far from the only home video distributor of Eddie's work in the 1980s and '90s, Rhino was arguably the most prominent. The company released its own editions of Plan 9, Bride of the Monster (1955), Night of the Ghouls (1959), Glen or Glenda (1953), Jail Bait (1954), Orgy of the Dead (1965), and The Violent Years (1956). Rhino even produced and distributed Ted Newsom's colorful documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (1994). As late as 2000, when DVD had replaced VHS as the home video format of choice, Rhino reissued Love Feast (1969) under the title Pretty Models All in a Row. A whole generation of fans, including me, got their first exposure to Ed Wood's movies through Rhino.

While we're talking about the subject of Rhino and Ed Wood, though, we should really discuss the original Sleazemania videos that the company released in 1985 and 1986. These strange, highly enjoyable tapes were compiled by the one and only Johnny Legend (1948- ), aka Martin Marguiles, a rockabilly musician, pop culture historian, wrestling manager, and film producer who has played a significant role in popularizing the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and other low-budget directors, including Stephen C. Apostolof. 

With his Rasputin-like beard and flashy wardrobe, Legend is most famous for writing and producing "Pencil Neck Geek," a 1977 novelty song by wrestler "Classy" Freddie Blassie. Blassie and Legend also teamed up for the infamous pseudo-documentary My Breakfast with Blassie (1983), starring comedian Andy Kaufman and distributed by (you guessed it) Rhino Video.

The Sleazemania videos, each about an hour in length, consist of movie trailers for exploitation and sexploitation films from the 1930s to the '80s, supplemented with a few burlesque shorts and drive-in advertisements. If this sounds to you like the typical fare released by Seattle's Something Weird Video, you're right; much of this same exact footage turned up on SWV tapes and discs in the years to come, But back in 1985, SWV didn't even exist, nor did video-sharing sites like YouTube, so these trailers and other clips were not commonly available to the public. 

I'd balk at calling the Sleazemania videos "documentaries." Legend deliberately opted not to have any explanatory narration in these compilations, and the clips are not presented in any particular order, either chronological or thematic. The second entry in the series, Sleazemania Strikes Back (1985), uses the movies of Ed Wood as somewhat of a connecting thread, but even it feels like a jumble of random footage designed for pure sensory overload. In his liner notes for a 2009 DVD rerelease of the original trilogy, Legend explains his stylistic choices:
At the time (1985), there were only a handful of trailer compilations, usually specific to one genre like horror and hosted by the likes of John Carradine and Elvira. I decided on no talking heads, hosts or whatever, and went straight for the jugular, pure sleaze and exploitation. In the ensuing years, most of the classic titles appeared on labels like Rhino and Something Weird (Pin Down Girls, Curfew Breakers, Jailbait, etc.), and I premiered many of these myself on the various labels.
In other words, the Sleazemania videos are extremely bare bones, right down to their quaint, homemade-looking credit sequences. Johnny Legend lets the clips speak for themselves, which is a wise decision. The trailers tend to be fast-paced and action-packed, so no embellishment is needed. Sleazemania III: The Good, The Bad, and The Sleazy (1986) includes a tongue-in-cheek title sequence inspired by Rocky III (1983), but that's about as fancy as this series gets.

What can Ed Wood fanatics get from these Sleazemania videos? Probably not a great deal that they haven't seen elsewhere, but these compilations do provide some interesting context for this material. As you make your way through these compilations, you'll see trailers and clips from Ed's movies interspersed with trailers and clips from lots of other directors' movies. These filmmakers were Ed Wood's contemporaries, collaborators, and competitors, and they were going after the same dollars that he was. As idiosyncratic as Eddie's films may seem to us now, it's important to remember he spent his career following entertainment industry trends and trying to produce commercially viable work. In other words, he was trying to fit into the American film marketplace. Through Sleazemania, you'll get an idea of what that marketplace was.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 184: Did Ed write "It Takes Two for Terror" (1970)?

Only one can survive! Or maybe both. Or maybe neither. One of those.

Ed Wood wrote a truly staggering amount of material, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He had to; it was his only real means of survival during the last, desperate decade of his life. Booze doesn't pay for itself, you know. It was either sell a story or go without. So Eddie wrote at a furious pace under a variety of names, including his own, for scores of publishers, He did it all—novels, short stories, nonfiction articles, editorials, etc., etc. While Ed did keep track of his writing credits, some of his magazine work has gone undocumented.

Because of this, fans have taken it upon themselves to scour through old pulp magazines from this era looking for Ed Wood's work. Sometimes, they find it. Other times, however, all they come up with is fool's gold. In their enthusiasm, they've seen Wood where there is no Wood. I've done this myself in the past and will undoubtedly do so in the future. This week, I present for your consideration a colorful story from the early '70s that shares some themes with Ed's recognized fiction. But does that make it the genuine article? Let's examine the facts.

The story: "It Takes Two for Terror," originally published in Adventures in Horror (Stanley Publications), vol. 1, no. 2, December 1970. Anthologized in The Horrors of Wood (Ramble House, 2001) as part of the Woodpile Press series. Credited to "Obadiah Kemph." The entire issue has been archived here.

A map of the story's action.
Synopsis: A pretty, virginal young woman named Beth begins working as an assistant at the Brooklyn Museum, which has recently received a 3,000-year-old mummy from an anonymous donor. One especially hot day, Beth's boss, Mr. Long, asks her to stay late after the museum closes to help unpack the sarcophagus. She happily accepts, not only because she needs the money but because she'll have the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Helmut Shiller, a famed Egyptologist.

That night, Beth, Long, and Shiller venture down into the basement of the museum and start carefully opening the crate that contains both the mummy and the sarcophagus in which he was buried. By translating the hieroglyphics on the mummy's tunic, Shiller concludes that this was the corpse of a head chamberlain named Ka. Beth trips over piece of the packing crate and briefly lands on the mummy, briefly panicking Shiller. The scientist says that Ka was cursed for having fallen in love with the pharaoh's daughter and will come back to life with a maiden's kiss. Beth and Long scoff at this.

Meanwhile, in nearby Prospect Park, a man suddenly transforms into a snarling werewolf. He goes searching for human beings, especially women, and enters the museum through a basement window. Once inside the building, he hears Shiller and Long arguing about the age of an amulet that they found in the sarcophagus with the mummy. Beth says she can settle the dispute with a book about ancient Egyptian jewelry. When she goes to look for the book, the werewolf chases after her and tears off her dress.

Incredibly, just as Shiller foretold, Ka comes back to life. The nearly-naked Beth runs away from the werewolf only to encounter the mummy looming over her. She faints, and Ka puts her into his coffin. The werewolf and mummy begin to fight ferociously before each realizes the other is invincible. Shiller and Long finally arrive, and Shiller decides to light some cotton on fire and throw it at the monsters. Ka burns up into ashes, while the wolfman escapes into the night. Shiller reasons that the amulet is the cause of all of this, and he smashes it to pieces.

The story as it originally appeared in Adventures in Horror magazine.

Excerpt: "Part of the mummy’s upper torso was exposed. Dry, ancient leather. The man-wolf attached his teeth to it but couldn’t separate the strands of shriveled flesh from the bones. Down, up, both children of the Devil tumbled, wrestled, fought for the female each wanted to possess. A stalemate—both products of darkness were too evenly matched. The wolf could no more kill the mummy than the Egyptian corpse could put an end to the man-animal. But they were pitted by destiny to fight forever—teeth tearing, choking, death-bound each, but neither would slay the other."

Reflections: I would never have heard of "It Takes Two for Terror" had it not appeared in an anthology entitled The Horrors of Wood alongside other pieces known to be authored by Edward D. Wood, Jr. This tale of terror first appeared in a 1970 issue of Adventures in Horror, a short-lived magazine from a New York company called Stanley Publications, Inc. This particular publisher is never mentioned once in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992), but a description of Adventures in Horror at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is extremely promising:
A magazine of generally low-quality horror fiction with a distinctly erotic flavor, with such lurid titles as "The Naked Slaves of the Master of Hell" (October 1970) and "Trapped in the Vampire's Web of Icy Death!" (December 1970). The magazine became Horror Stories from issue #3 (February 1971) onward. It is of some interest as a popular title among collectors of media magazines devoted to monster movies, partly because the infamous film director Edward D. Wood, Jr. reportedly wrote much of the contents under various pseudonyms. This is plausible enough: Wood wrote a number of pornographic novels after his career in films ended.
They even mention Eddie by name. Could there be a hidden treasure trove of Wood work at Stanley Publications? That's worth exploring.

While it is within the realm of possibility that Ed Wood penned some pieces for Adventures in Horror (aka Horror Stories), I have grave doubts that "It Takes Two for Terror" is his work. Sure, the juxtaposition of a mummy and a werewolf will remind fans of Orgy of the Dead (1965), and the plot of "It Takes Two" could be broadly interpreted as a mashup of two known Wood stories, "The Day The Mummy Returned" (1971) and "Howl of the Wolf" (1973). Eddie even liked to use the word "terror" in his titles. We've already discussed Portraits of Terror (1957), Trial by Terror (1958), "The Whorehouse Horror: A Touch of Terror" (1973) and "Bums Rush Terror" (1972). 

But "It Takes Two" doesn't have the cadence of Ed's writing at all. His favorite vocabulary words are conspicuously absent, for instance. I started to smell a rat when our heroine, Beth, was described as "beautiful" instead of "lovely." And the author doesn't bother describing Beth's outfits either! We know that the werewolf rips her dress off, but we don't know the style or color of that dress or which undergarments she had on that day. Eddie would've lingered on that topic a while. The story also lacks the philosophical, often morbid digressions that are so integral to Ed's writing.

Where the story really lost me, though, was when it briefly referenced a "careless custodian" who's been making mistakes around the museum lately. Mr. Long mentions him to Beth just a few paragraphs into the story, and I wondered if that detail would pay off later. And, sure enough, it did: the werewolf enters the museum through a window that our custodian friend accidentally left open. That kind of fussy foreshadowing isn't Eddie's style. That's just not how he wrote, at least not in my experience of reading his work.

So I did a little digging to see if any author had laid claim to "It Takes Two for Terror." And, yeah, one definitely had: none other than R.L. Stine (1943- ), creator of the fabulously successful Goosebumps books. The Stephen King of the lunchbox-and-crayons set? That was a twist I didn't see coming.

Stine's memoir from 2015.
In his 2015 memoir, It Came From Ohio!: My Life as a Writer, Stine humorously describes some of his early experiences, struggling to make it as a writer in New York City. After getting fired from one magazine for not knowing anything about the production side of the industry, he applied for another publisher that operated out of a 95th Street apartment rather than an office. He was hired by a middle-aged woman named Nancy and immediately began writing phony "interviews" with pop stars for teenage fan magazines. Happily, the company also decided to launch a magazine called Adventures in Horror, which gave Stine his first experience writing horror fiction! Here's how he describes it:
It was while I did my part to help celebrities get a make-believe life that I wrote my first horror fiction. Nancy’s boss agreed to try a horror magazine, Adventures in Horror. “Bony Fingers from the Grave” was written under the name of Robert Lawrence—my first and middle names. “Trapped in the Vampire’s Web of Icy Death” and “It Takes Two for Terror” were mine, too. I worked at this job for about a month. I must have written a hundred phony interviews! Then the company went out of business. I was out of work again. The fan magazines paid me one hundred dollars a week. My checks were big enough for an occasional restaurant meal. With dessert. And I could afford to treat myself to those great pretzels they sell at food carts on the streets of New York. But if I didn’t find work pretty quick, that’s where I’d find myself—homeless on the streets of New York.
So there you have it. The true author of "It Takes Two for Terror" was not Ed Wood but R.L Stine. While I'm sad to lose it from the Wood canon, since it is a pretty fun little bit of genre fiction, I think the story's actual attribution is a delightful surprise. By sheer coincidence, the Goosebumps movie from 2015 was cowritten by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also scripted Ed Wood (1994). What a world, what a world...

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Podcast Tuesday: "It's Like Treasure Planet... But on an Island!"

Fonzie (right) duels with Blackbeard as Cupcake looks on.

When I was growing up, our entertainment options were relatively limited. There was no internet or streaming in the late '70s and early '80s. Home video and cable existed way back then (sort of), but nobody had them yet. At least not in our neighborhood. We really were dependent on the three big TV networks to see movies that were no longer in theaters. It was a big deal when Walt Disney would show its older films as part of The Wonderful World of Disney. I still have fond memories of making my way through the entire Herbie series starring Dean Jones and Buddy Hackett. My whole family watched those.

But even better than Herbie was Disney's Treasure Island (1950), based on Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 novel of adventure on the high seas. So taken was I by this tale of pirates, parrots, and buried treasure that I had my parents read me the original novel as a bedtime story. I was particularly obsessed with the character of Ben Gunn, the bearded old hermit who has been marooned on an island for three years. For a while there, I would go around the house pretending to be Ben Gunn, imitating the voice of actor Geoffrey Wilkinson from the Disney film.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, I get to revisit my Treasure Island days. We're reviewing "Bye Bye Blackbeard," a pirate adventure in which Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and his pals travel back to the 1700s, assist a treasure-seeking maiden named Lucy Primrose, and match wits with the dastardly Blackbeard. There's even a Ben Gunn-type character named Uncle Horatio.

You can find out what we thought of "Bye Bye Blackbeard" by listening to the latest episode of our podcast. And guess what? You won't need a treasure map to find it because it's right here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 183: "Domain of the Undead" (1972)

A scientist disrupts the natural order and pays the price for it in Ed Wood's "Domain of the Undead."

There are few pleasures greater for me as an Ed Wood fan than finding one of Eddie's short stories that I've never reviewed or studied. Maybe I ignored it, forgot about it, or never knew it existed in the first place. Who knows? Somehow or another, it flew under my radar. But when I finally discover it, that story gets my full and undivided attention. I found such a story recently, and I am excited to share my thoughts about it.

The story: "Domain of the Undead," originally published in Horror Sex Tales, vol. 1, no.1, Gallery Press, 1972. Anthologized in The Horrors of Wood (Ramble House, 2001) as part of the Woodpile Press series. Credited to "Kip Gebakken," which is Dutch for "fried chicken."

The contents of Horror Sex Tales.
Synopsis: Professor Thorndyke, who has been doing some experimental research in extending human life, travels to the home of a wealthy and beautiful woman named Carlotta. She has agreed not only to fund his controversial work and provide him a fully-staffed laboratory but also to take him to new heights of sexual ecstasy. This last item especially interests the professor, who has not had sex in the seven years following his wife's death.

Thorndyke arrives by chauffeured limo at Carlotta's hilltop mansion, bringing his incredible machines with him. He is taken by servants to a strange underground throne room containing an altar-like platform where he is to do his work. This suits him just fine, and he is especially pleased when Carlotta seemingly makes good on her promise and offers her incredible body to him. However, while performing cunnilingus on his benefactress, Thorndyke realizes he has been drugged and falls into unconsciousness.

When Thorndyke regains consciousness, he makes some terrible discoveries. Carlotta is the leader of a demonic sex cult and wants to live forever. Worse yet, his head has been severed and connected to one of his own machines, replacing the chimp's head that had been there previously! If Thorndyke wants to survive, he will have to continue with his research and experiments. In the meantime, forever tethered to the terrible device, he will be forced to watch Carlotta's orgies in the throne room.

Wood trademarks: Secluded mansion where strange sex rituals take place (c.f. Necromania, The Only House, "The Whorehouse Horror," "Breasts of the Chicken," etc.); words "lovely," "pink," and "soft" (three of Ed's favorites); ellipses (Ed's signature punctuation); looking at oneself in a full-length mirror (a persistent motif in Ed's writing, e.g. Drag Trade); wealthy woman obsessed with youth (c.f. Elizabeth Bathory in Bloodiest Sex Crimes of History); scientist interfering in natural order (c.f. Bride of the Monster, Venus Flytrap); sheer nightgown (c.f. Glen or Glenda, many of Wood's stories and novels); drugging someone during sex (c.f. The Erotic Spy) .

Excerpt: "As the last of the blur left his eyes, Thorndyke watched the tall black chauffeur, now naked but for a tight loincloth, stride quickly from the room. Seconds later, he returned with the butler, similarly attired. They were carrying the naked body of a fantastically beautiful young girl. The sight made the Professor’s eyes open wide, but he felt no physical surge of excitement in his body. Instead, he felt only a vague, empty feeling of acute longing. It was the way he had sometimes felt upon seeing a particularly lovely girl in one of his classes at the university. It was an agonizing feeling of frustration, of longing, of desire."

The perfect job for Ed Wood.
: It's a damned shame that Ed Wood didn't live long enough to work on Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996). That cultishly beloved HBO anthology series took its inspiration directly from the ghoulish horror comics of the 1950s, specifically the ones published by EC, but added the sex, profanity, and gore that modern audiences have come to expect. The show's producers—a mighty roster including Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Richard Donner, and more—were successful filmmakers who had grown up on comic books and exploitation movies and wanted to pay tribute to their roots. I'm certain they would have known of Ed Wood and even given him an opportunity to write or direct an episode of the show if he'd still been around in the '90s.

One of the unspoken rules of Tales from the Crypt is that its characters can gleefully violate the laws of God and man, just as long as they're punished sufficiently in the end. Typically, the punishments (or "just desserts") will fit the crime perfectly. Often, the transgressor will fall prey to the same kind of cruelty or perversity he inflicted upon his victims. Had The Human Centipede (2009) been a Tales from the Crypt episode, for instance, it would have undoubtedly ended with Dr. Heiter (Deiter Laser) finding himself as the middle link in one of his own ghastly creations. Failing this, the characters on Tales from the Crypt will usually meet a dreadful fate that in some way comments on their own faults and failings. They reap what they sow.

This kind of thinking abounds in Ed Wood's works, both cinematic and literary. Wood movie characters who get what's coming to them include Dr. Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) in Bride of the Monster (1955), Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell) in Jail Bait (1954), and Dr. Acula (Kenne Duncan) in Night of the Ghouls (1959). These men violate the natural order and suffer in ways that are commensurate with their respective crimes. Acula, for instance, falsely claims to be able to communicate with the dead, so the dead rise up and attack him. Brady seeks to change his identity and "succeeds" in the worst way possible. And Vornoff becomes the final subject of his own ghastly experiments.

But this theme is even more prevalent in Eddie's writing, especially his short stories. While reading "Domain of the Undead," I was reminded of "Breasts of the Chicken," the truly gruesome and twisted tale Eddie wrote for Gold Diggers in 1972. That was about a businessman, Rance Wilkerson, who goes to a strange cannibal restaurant... only to find himself on the menu. Dr. Thorndyke's ominous voyage to Carlotta's mansion is very similar to Rance's trip to the sinister restaurant. And I suppose they're both inspired by Jonathan Harker's (or Renfield's) perilous journey to Dracula's castle. Also like Rance Wilkerson, Professor Thorndyke is indifferent to the suffering and death of young women. Both men are too driven by their own sexual lust to consider the moral implications of their actions. And look what it gets them!

If there's ever another anthology of Ed Wood's short fiction, "Domain of the Undead" is a prime candidate for inclusion. How it evaded me this long, I can't say. But it's Wood at his Woodiest, complete with some of his classic tropes and themes. Perhaps in some parallel world, there's a Tales from the Crypt-style anthology series based on Eddie's stories, and "Domain of the Undead" is one of its best-known episodes.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 182: Fred Olen Ray's Deep Red (2023)

Director Fred Olen Ray has written an Ed Wood-inspired horror novel.

One of the reasons that Tim Burton agreed to direct Ed Wood (1994) was that he identified with the title character in a number of ways. Like Ed, Tim had received his share of brutal reviews, especially for his first couple of features, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988). More significantly, Ed had the privilege of working with his idol, Bela Lugosi, right before Bela's death in 1956. Tim could relate, having worked with Vincent Price on both the short film Vincent (1982) and the feature Edward Scissorhands (1990). (Price died in 1993.)

Ed Wood in 1978.
Something similar happened in late 1978 between Ed Wood and filmmaker Fred Olen Ray, only this time Ed got to be the industry veteran working with the up-and-comer. And Fred wasn't exactly an Ed Wood superfan, at least not at the time. Back then, Fred was 23 and embarking upon what would be a long-lasting, incredibly prolific career as a writer, director, and producer of low budget films of every description, from softcore to horror to Christmas and beyond. Ed, meanwhile, was on his last legs, mere months away from being evicted from his apartment and dying penniless.

Fred was eager to work with an industry veteran and was familiar with two of Ed's films, Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). Fred and Ed met through a mutual friend and began a brief collaboration. I'm not sure exactly how long the two knew each other, but it was long enough for Fred to interview Ed and for the two to hash out the plot for a feature film to be called Beach Blanket Bloodbath, a parody of William Asher's 1965 comedy Beach Blanket Bingo, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. (That film must have really made an impression on people, since it also inspired the 1975 adult film Beach Blanket Bango starring Rene Bond.)

Fred Olen Ray paid Ed Wood $500 for his screenwriting services, and I am grimly certain that Ed spent the money on alcohol instead of food or rent. Eddie died at the age of 54 in December 1978, having never completed the script for Beach Blanket Bloodbath. Fred might have shrugged off the entire experience if Ed hadn't achieved remarkable posthumous success due to the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards by Harry and Michael Medved in 1980. So Fred began thinking of ways to salvage what he could from his $500 investment.

Circa 1984, Fred used the story he and Ed Wood had devised for a script called Blood Tide. That film never wound up being produced. However, in 1985, Ray used the sets and actors from his upcoming film Star Slammer (1986), to make a short promo for Beach Blanket Bloodbath as if it were a real, completed movie. (Apart from its title, the four-minute film bears almost no resemblance to Wood's story outline.) That promo was then edited into Johnny Legend's Sleazemania Strikes Back (1985) and has popped up here and there as a DVD extra.

Finally, in 2023, Fred used the Beach Blanket Bloodbath outline as the basis for a full-length horror novel called Deep Red. (No relation to the 1975 Dario Argento classic.) Fred is careful in his foreword to the novel to explain that "Ed Wood wrote not a single word" of it. Furthermore, the author makes "no representations as to its literary quality or entertainment value." Nevertheless, I believe that this book represents the best-possible version of the legendary Fred Olen Ray/Ed Wood collaboration that we are ever going to get. That is, unless Fred decides to turn Deep Red into a movie.

A B-movie in the form of a novel.
What we have here is a classic, sleazy drive-in monster movie in novel form. The plot revolves around a vengeful half-man, half-shark character that terrorizes a small Florida town called Pine Level in the summer of 1983. Over the years, I have sat through a great many cheaply-made creature features, and I can assure you that Deep Red contains all the best tropes of the genre. We have: a rugged hero, a sexy heroine, a town of suspicious locals, a mysterious laboratory, a gruff sheriff, a useless mayor, a mad scientist whose sinister experiments defy God, and a hapless creature who was once human. I don't think Fred and Ed missed a trick here. Even the novel's humid Florida setting was very familiar to me, since the Sunshine State became a haven of low-budget independent filmmakers in the 1960s and '70s. As I made my way through Deep Red, I thought of the underpaid actors sweating and squinting their way through Herschell Gordon Lewis' Florida-made movies.

In his foreword, Fred Olen Ray compares Deep Red to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), the second and final sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). But I was also reminded of the middle film in that trilogy, Revenge of the Creature (1955), starring John Agar, particularly since Deep Red's protagonist, rookie police photographer Mike Reardon, stays in a neon-lit motel, just the way Agar does in Revenge.  But viewers who have seen Zaat (1971) or Sting of Death (1966) or The Horror of Party Beach (1964) will be reminded of those films while reading this book. 

Fred Olen Ray calls Deep Red a "novelization," and it truly feels like the textual equivalent of a movie. The pacing, for instance, is very B-movie-like, with long stretches of exposition between the more exciting monster attack scenes, sex scenes, and sex scenes that turn into monster attack scenes. From a lifetime of watching these movies, I knew there would be a moment in which the good guys examine some strange footprints and wonder what kind of creature could have made them. In fact, Deep Red was so reminiscent of other horror films, particularly the ones about fish monsters, that I actually started having false memories of seeing the damned thing on late night television, even though it was never produced! I could even imagine what kind of film stock would have been used on the project.

So is Deep Red nothing more than a repository of B-movie clich├ęs? Not quite. What makes this novel stand out—and worthy of carrying Ed Wood's name on its cover—are its eccentricities. Fred Olen Ray does not skimp on the quirks here. For instance, the novel features a cute dog named Michelob who goes missing from the aforementioned laboratory. Now, viewers who have seen Revenge of the Creature will rightly fear the worst for this poor pooch. But I was unprepared for the animal's grotesque fate, which seemed like something out of Re-Animator (1985) or The Return of the Living Dead (1985), two of the wilder horror films of the mid-1980s. 

How I picture the shark monster.
And then there are the novel's villains, not just the pitiful shark monster himself but the wildly misguided scientists who accidentally created him. Chief among these is Dr. Sylvia Trent, who heads an initiative called the Triton Project. Our shark monster pal, once named Steven, is an unfortunate side effect of that project. Sylvia never meant to sic him on the world; it just sort of happened. But she doesn't seem the least bit morally concerned about it. She's a surly, arrogant lesbian carrying on an affair with her assistant, Gail. In one of the novel's boldest developments, Sylvia has even involved the story's heroine, an ex-Triton employee named Nicki, in a bizarre sexual blackmail scheme. In his foreword, Fred Olen Ray writes that "the two wicked, lesbian mad doctors are pure Ed Wood."

I thought I also caught a glimpse of Ed in the character of the kooky proprietor of the local filling station and bait shop. Newly arrived in town after having being banished from Miami for sexual indiscretions, cocky Mike Reardon gets his first clue that things are amiss in Pine Level when he stops at a run-down gas station and finds it seemingly abandoned and badly damaged by... something. He briefly chats up the place's owner and returns to the site later in the book to look for clues to the mystery. Longtime Ed Wood fans will see obvious parallels here with The Revenge of Dr. X (1970) and its own pivotal gas station scene. Eddie even played a similar character himself, Pops, in Steve Apostolof's Fugitive Girls (1974).

Reading Fred Olen Ray's Deep Red was a surprisingly satisfying and entertaining experience. The breeziest of breezy reads, it was over before I even realized it. While Fred is much better known as a filmmaker than a writer, his novel has the confident cadence of good genre fiction. Those looking for sex, violence, gore, and perversion will find them here. I'd be halfway interested in seeing this book made into an actual movie. Obviously, much of it would depend on the appearance of the shark monster. I kept picturing the thing as a character from Street Sharks (1994-1997). Fred claims he got as far as making a mask for the character back in the 1970s. I suppose the character might be CG (or at least CG-enhanced) these days. I wonder what they could do with little Michelob in a movie today?

Oh, the possibilities. 
Autographed copies of Deep Red may be purchased here. The novel is also available as an e-book.
P.S. If Deep Red is actually made into a movie, I have two requests: (1) Go back to the title of Beach Blanket Bloodbath. Deep Red is taken. (2) If it's set in 1983, lose the reference to a Bart Simpson beach towel. Bart wasn't around until 1987, and Simpsons merch like beach towels wouldn't hit shelves until 1990.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Podcast Tuesday: "A Whole New Fonz"

Fonzie and the gang ride on a magic carpet with Princess Charisma.

The depiction of the Middle East in popular culture has changed drastically during my lifetime. See, I grew up in the '70s and '80s. Back then, in my mind, the Middle East was a land of mystery, intrigue, adventure, and magic. A story set in Arabia would include most or all of the following elements: genies, magic lamps, turbans, scimitars, flying carpets, camels, harems, the phrase "open sesame," and lots of sexy girls in revealing outfits. And it would be set many hundreds of years ago. Beyond some palace intrigue, there would be no politics whatsoever. And outside of some vague mysticism involving magic words and crystal balls, there would be no religion either.

This was the way it was in American pop culture for years. Way back in the 1950s, for instance, Ed Wood made a short film called The Flame of Islam. Today, a film with such a title would be about the Islamic faith and would likely be the subject of great controversy. But Eddie's movie was simply a filmed burlesque show, and the term "Islam" was merely meant to suggest someplace exotic and far away.

All this started to change in the 1980s  and '90s as the Middle East became more and more of a presence on the evening news. The Gulf War of 1990-91 did a lot to change American's view of the region, and subsequent Middle Eastern wars have only made the changes more profound. The Arabia of old, the land of One Thousand and One Nights, is gone from the Western imagination. Disney's Aladdin (1992) got in just under the wire. (Yes, I realize there have been sequels and a remake since then, but they don't count since they're tied to the original, well-loved movie.)

In short, we've gone from The Thief of Bagdad (1940) to The Hurt Locker (2008). Is this an improvement? I don't know, honestly. The old depictions of the Middle East had nothing to do with reality, but they had a charm of their own.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we're talking about the episode "Arabian Knights." From the title onward, it's obvious that this is one of those dreamy pre-Gulf War depictions of the Middle East. But does that make it a good episode? Click the magic play button below and find out.