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.