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.

An Ed Wood-adjacent film.
That being said, the Sleazemania videos do not skimp on the Ed Wood (and Wood-adjacent) content. The first volume, simply titled Sleazemania! (1985), contains the trailers for Jail Bait and Orgy of the Dead, plus the trailer for Racket Girls (1951) under the title Pin-Down Girl. That last one isn't an Ed Wood movie, but it has lots of Wood connections. It was produced by George Weiss for Screen Classics, was shot by William C. Thompson, and features Wood regular Timothy Farrell in the cast. All of this makes it a sibling or first cousin of Glen or Glenda. The film's director, Robert Dertano, also worked as an art director on Orgy of the Dead.

The second volume in the series, Sleazemania Strikes Back, is by far the Woodiest of these compilations. It includes the trailers for Glen or Glenda and The Violent Years, plus The Sinister Urge (1960), The Class Reunion (1972), The Beach Bunnies (1976), and even Fugitive Girls (1974) under the title Five Loose Women. The Women trailer uses the same footage from the more-circulated Fugitive Girls trailer, but it is narrated by a woman rather than by Ed Wood.

Better yet, Sleazemania Strikes Back repurposes footage from the notorious Glen or Glenda dream sequence in some humorous ways. Wood fans undoubtedly know that producer George Weiss edited some burlesque and bondage footage into Glenda, accompanied by jazz music, to give the film a little more sex appeal and pad the running time. Sleazemania Strikes Back takes that same footage, complete with the familiar music, and turns it into a title sequence. The onscreen captions read: "Johnny Legend Presents Sleazemania Strikes Back featuring Ed Wood, Jr. and 'Bela.'" (I'm not sure why Bela Lugosi's name is presented in quotes; it just is.) Later in the film, the girlie footage from Glen or Glenda is presented as a standalone short film called "Bela's Bondage Boutique." The same footage and music re-re-reappear during the closing credits.

But we're not done yet! Some additional Ed Wood content has been included in Sleazemania Strikes Back, following the end credits. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how filmmaker Fred Olen Ray collaborated on a never-to-be-made movie called Beach Blanket Bloodbath in the late 1970s. Ray turned the unused story outline that he and Ed concocted into a very entertaining novel called Deep Red in 2023. I briefly mentioned in my review that Ray made a short film called Beach Blanket Bloodbath in 1985, using the sets and cast from his sci-fi women-in-prison movie The Adventures of Taura: Prison Ship Star Slammer (1986). The current DVD edition of Sleazemania includes not only that entire four-minute film but also a chat between Johnny Legend and Fred Olen Ray about its creation.

Beach Blanket Bloodbath itself is a curio, to say the least. An onscreen disclaimer tells us that the film "features little of Wood's lost script, but is interesting from a completist's standpoint." Having read Deep Red, which is about a half-man, half-shark monster terrorizing a Florida beach community, I can attest that this short movie bears almost no resemblance to it. Perhaps someday, Fred Olen Ray will turn that story into a film of its own.

What we have instead is a campy, jokey sci-fi/horror parody in which an Annette Funicello-ish beach bunny named Bee Bee (Susan Stokely) is held captive by a blonde dominatrix-type mad scientist (Bobbie Bresee) and her lab coat-wearing minions (Forrest J. Ackerman and Martin Nicholas). Fortunately, before these fiends can perform an unscheduled lobotomy on poor Bee Bee, she is rescued by her hunky boyfriend Surfer Bob (David O'Hara) and a leather jacketed tough girl named Erika (Dawn Wildsmith). The mad scientists seem to think that Bob's surfboard is a loaded weapon, so they allow Bee Bee and her pals to escape unharmed.

Are there any thematic or narrative connections between Deep Red and Beach Blanket Bloodbath? A few... if you squint. The (unnamed) female mad scientist character in the film is vaguely analogous to Dr. Sylvia Trent in the book, and the sinister laboratory where she works is reminiscent of the Triton Project headquarters from Deep Red. Also, the action of the film seems to take place somewhat near the beach. Other than that, it feels like Fred Olen Ray took an old title and applied it to an unrelated project just for fun. Nothing wrong with that. 

The Sleazmania DVD.
There is further Ed Wood content in Sleazemania III, albeit not nearly so much as in Sleazemania Strikes Back. The third film begins with the oft-censored scene from Glen or Glenda in which a lurking homosexual (Bruce Spencer) hits on an unreceptive stranger (Conrad Brooks) he meets on a street corner. Johnny Legend again uses the Glen or Glenda dream sequence music over the opening and closing credits. We also get trailers for a whole slew of Timothy Farrell movies, including the aforementioned Racket Girls, plus Test Tube Babies (1953) and Dance Hall Racket (1951), plus trailers for a few more movies directed by Steve Apostolof, including Office Love-In (1968) and Motel Confidential (1969).

Even if you've already seen the Ed Wood material available here, including Beach Blanket Bloodbath, the Sleazemania trilogy is still worth checking out. These compilations take us back to the "hard sell" era of movie marketing, when low-budget exploitation flicks were hawked as insistently and shamelessly as used cars. Nearly every trailer has a booming narrator insisting that an upcoming film is the most decadent, depraved spectacle ever brought to the screen.

Naturally, these Sleazemania trailers focus on sex, violence, lawlessness, substance abuse, and general mayhem. (It's really remarkable how much they were allowed to show in those days.) If it weren't for the cheery burlesque shorts and family-friendly drive-in ads to give us some variety, it might all become a bit numbing. Even so, I wouldn't advise watching these compilations back-to-back. Three hours of this stuff in one sitting may be a bit much for even the most desensitized viewer.

P.S. I understand that some Ed Wood fans would like to see the bondage/burlesque material removed from Glen or Glenda altogether, since it was added to the film in postproduction without the director’s consent. While I appreciate their concern for Ed’s artistic integrity, I feel that excising this footage would be a terrible mistake. Part of what I enjoy about Glenda is its grab bag nature; it's a film pieced together from lots of random parts, connected only by the loosest of threads. The burlesque scenes are no more out of place than the footage of the iron foundry, the shots of Los Angeles traffic, or the infamous stampeding buffalos. As for the charge that the "girlie show" material disrupts the flow of the movie, I would remind readers that Glenda is already a film with multiple narrators and flashbacks within flashbacks. In other words, there is very little flow to interrupt. I say, leave the BDSM footage as it is.