Ed Wood was an idiosyncratic filmmaker working from the early 1950s through the early 1970s. There is much to like in his work. I have been a fan for a very long time. But his enduring appeal to me is not just because he made some great films; it is also because he has been wronged by a few generations of supposed film lovers.
Ed Wood had long been dismissed as a “bad filmmaker.” But it became institutionalized with the Medved brothers’ The Golden Turkey Awards. It awarded Ed Wood the title of “Worst Director of All Time” and his film Plan 9 From Outer Space, “Worst Film of All Time.”
So you had these two know-nothings. (Actually, I’m a little sympathetic toward Harry; Michael went on to be a film “critic” and political blowhard, so I give him most of the blame.) They had a good time mocking Wood’s films that were made under difficult circumstances with few resources.
As a result, scores of even less creative know-nothings have followed along with the Medveds’ mockery. It’s to the point where most people who dismiss Ed Wood haven’t even seen his movies!
The truth is that I don’t even know what it means to say that someone is the “worst director.” I doubt that Wood would have made films that were any worse than those made today by Michael Bay — assuming Wood had had all the money Bay has had to produce his.
What people seem to mean when they mock “bad” films are technical mistakes. I understand that I’m not a “details guy,” but that’s a pretty sad way to look at a film. I am far more offended by technically competent films that lack any real creativity. You know, like a Michael Bay film.
Glen or Glenda (1953)
None of this is to say that Ed Wood made “good” films. But he did something that is much more difficult: he made amazing films. Glen or Glenda is almost indescribable. The closest I can come is to liken it to Eraserhead — a supremely idiosyncratic masterpiece that most people never want to sit through twice.
But Wood’s film is brave while Lynch’s film, as is typical of his whole career, ultimately has nothing to say — all style and no substance. (That doesn’t mean I dislike David Lynch’s work; I admire much of it a great deal.) Wood has something to say and he says it with quite a lot of style:
Jail Bait (1954)
Wood’s second film showed that even with a small budget, he could make a perfectly decent B movie, Jail Bait. Of course, people dismiss it as bad because it was directed by “the worst director of all time.” I quite like it; it has an excellent twist and it’s nice to see Dolores Fuller get to act a bit:
Bride of the Monster (1955)
Next came Bride of the Monster. I think it is one of Wood’s weakest films with a particularly bad script. But like most of Wood’s films, it mostly wants for second unit work — a common problem with low budget films. And it does have this amazing scene with Bela Lugosi:
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957)
What is hardest to understand is the hatred and mockery of Plan 9 from Outer Space. It is a remarkable film in its anti-Cold War subversion. People tend to miss that the film is apocalyptic.
The aliens come to earth to stop humans before they develop a bomb that if used will destroy the entire universe. The aliens, quite rightly, think that humans are too immature to possess such power.
In fact, in the most powerful scene in the film, the nominal hero, Jeff Trent (love that name), totally misunderstands the message of the aliens, “So what if we built this solonite bomb? We’d be an even stronger nation than now!”
But unlike in The Day the Earth Stood Still, there is no hopeful ending. Wood has the aliens destroyed, and the humans going forward blissfully like drunken teenagers driving along a winding mountain road.
But most viewers would rather just focus on the fact that Tom Mason doesn’t make a very good Lugosi stand-in. This is true, but not very interesting.
Ed Wood’s Later Films
Night of the Ghouls (1958) is probably Wood’s best straight-horror film. It lacks the politics of Plan 9, but it hangs together better than it or Bride. It is also written to make all three films part of the same fictional universe, which is clever for the time.
The Sinister Urge (1960) is unusual in that it was made during the peak of the nudie cuties, is more violent like the later roughies, but contains no actual nudity. Otherwise, it’s a solid crime drama — more indication that Wood was a good writer and competent director.
From there, Ed Wood made a number of porn films. I’ve only ever seen Necromania (1971). It has a strong focus on cunnilingus. Other than this, it’s pretty typical of hardcore porn of that period. (If you want to see it, check out porn websites; it’s around.)
The Two Careers of Ed Wood
It is best to think of Ed Wood as having two careers. He was a director through the 1950s. But by the end of the 1950s, he was a writer. That’s how he made his living — publishing somewhere around a hundred novels, countless short stories and nonfiction articles, and a number of screenplays.
Ed Wood was a remarkable man. He deserves to be taken seriously. It’s definitely true that he produced quantity over quality. But there are works of his — like Glen or Glenda — that are nothing short of genius. It’s sad that few people recognized this during his lifetime.