Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. (1996)

This 1996 documentary remains perhaps the most thorough look at the man who came to earn the reputation as the "worst director of all time". It focuses a great deal on his failures, which is also a big part of the problem I have with it.

The film consists of interviews with a number of Wood's friends and collaborators, beginning with Crawford John Thomas. Thomas and Wood set up a commercial production company in Hollywood in 1947, the year they both arrived there. Interviews with Thomas lead in to some rare behind the scenes footage of Wood directing a 16mm Western short with future collaborator Conrad Brooks, who produced the short film with his brother to serve as an acting demo reel. The footage shows Wood, impeccably dressed in a sports coat with his Errol Flynn mustache, enthusiastically directing the scene.

We next see outtakes from an unfinished early short, "Crossroads of Laredo", which Wood produced in 1948, ostensibly to sell to television, although it's hard to imagine the film, which essentially amounts to a home movie, being shown on TV at all.

The major Wood films are addressed individually, with comments from a whole host of collaborators, including makeup man Harry Thomas, actors Conrad Brooks, Lyle Talbot, Paul Marco and Gregory Walcott, even Rev. Lynn Lemon (who produced "Plan 9 From Outer Space". There are also comments from Vampira, one of the key members of Wood's cinematic entourage, as well as actresses Dolores Fuller and Loretta King. Bela Lugosi Jr. has very little positive to say about his father's work with Wood, whom he sees as a "user and a loser". This may seem rather harsh, since by most accounts Wood and Lugosi shared a deep friendship, and Wood did provide Lugosi with work, even if it was below the standards of his best work.

The problem I have with the documentary is that it focuses too much on Wood's failures. While his career in the movie business could hardly be labeled "successful" by any conventional definition, the simple fact is that Wood succeeded where so many have failed; namely, in actually making his films.

I'd like to see a serious, non-ironic study of Wood's contribution to independent filmmaking. Not that I would encourage some sort of postmodern view that elevates Wood to "auteur" status on the basis of effort alone, mind. However, as has been pointed out, Wood made very well have been the first horror/science fiction filmmaker who actively loved the earlier serials and B-movies of his youth, and who sought to recreate some of their spirit and energy. Considering that his films still hold up as entertaining more than half a century after their creation, I think it's fair to say that he succeeded in terms of entertainment value, even if the production values and technical craftsmanship are genuinely subpar. It should be noted, though, that when given a half-decent budget, as he was with 1955's "Bride of the Monster", the results are actually quite good. "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is justifiably recognized as a poorly-crafted piece of filmmaking, but one has to consider the extreme difficulties Wood faced in just getting it finished at all. And there's still no denying that Wood populated his films with memorable characters that are rather unlike anything else in Hollywood cinema of the time.

The documentary does skirt over Wood's final years, jumping from the completion of "Plan 9" to his death in 1978 in a superficially brief amount of time. Granted, the details of Wood's final years are not necessarily the kind that one would want to dwell on in a biography, but he did produce a prolific amount of work in that period which should not be ignored.

This documentary can be purchased as part of the "Ed Wood Box", a DVD set which features his major films (plus a recently-restored film "Night of the Ghouls", which Wood completed in 1959 just after shooting "Plan 9", but which he was unable to release as he never had sufficient funds to have the negative developed. The film was restored in 1983 by Wade Williams.)

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