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.