by Greg Carlson
Greetings, my friends. We all love a mad genius, someone who overcomes great obstacles to bring his or her off-kilter vision to the general public, whether it’s a song, a painting, or a movie. Every era has produced such misfits and eccentrics, and there will be future misfits and eccentrics that will be entertaining us in the future. And now, my friends, let us go back to the story of a film director who never found success during his short lifetime, but whose own personal masterpieces endured over the years, bringing him the acclaim he so desired. Can your heart stand the shocking facts about the filmography and memorabilia of Edward D. Wood, Jr.
From the publication of the 1980 bad cinema book The Golden Turkey Awards up through the 1994 release of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s excellent biopic of “The World’s Worst Director,” the legacy of Ed Wood went from forgotten also-ran to notorious auteur, boosted by the curiosity of fellow outsiders and fans of cult cinema. It made me wonder how Wood’s oeuvre fits in with the current pop-culture climate, where fellow actor/director/producer/screenwriter Tommy Wiseau turned The Room into a traveling cottage industry, and specialty home entertainment studios/basic-cable channels intentionally pile on the cheesy dialogue, confusing plot points, washed-up actors, and low-rent CGI to gain instant camp classic status. While current studio suits and low-budget auteurs alike attempt to one-up each other in so-bad-it’s-good product, Mr. Wood’s opus is now classified as “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.
A year before Ed Wood hit the screens, many an independent comic book store had sets of Ed Wood Players trading cards behind the counter, illustrated by (who else?) Drew Friedman. In addition to the meticulously crafted illustrations, the back of the cards list the random trivia and legends associated with each Wood associate, such as the later songwriting career of actress/Wood’s girlfriend Dolores Fuller, and Plan 9’s flamboyant “alien ruler” John “Bunny” Breckenridge’s family lineage to former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckenridge. Also in the 36-card set: actors who were famous in their own right, such as bodybuilder/actor Steve Reeves (who worked with Wood on 1954’s Jail Bait), and Lyle Talbot, a journeyman film and television actor who wasn’t included in Ed Wood, despite having significant roles in Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space (perhaps he was too “normal” for Burton’s film.)
I was curious to see if Ed Wood-related merchandise is still popular in the surviving brick-and-mortar fringe boutiques and collectible shops, so I traveled to Orange Dracula in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Another State of Mind in Portland, Oregon. After perusing the shelves, it appears that Vampira is the lone Ed Wood Player whose likeliness is still used on merch, from buttons to trucker hats. It makes sense – Vampira’s distinct features combined with her menacing and mysterious persona (a stark contrast to Elvira’s comical, innuendo-laden caricature), would still resonate with the younger goth crowd and horror cinema fans, even if they’ve never seen an Ed Wood movie or tracked down footage of her late-night television program. Upon completing my research, I purchased a Vampira patch from Another State of Mind to add to my collection.
My most prized possession from Walmart’s $5 DVD bin is a copy of Plan 9 from Outer Space. It’s a poor transfer, the cover art looks like it was printed from a third-generation color copier, and the distributor’s logo constantly appears at the bottom right-hand of the frame – it all seems appropriate, as opposed to viewing the film via a cleaned-up Special Edition Blu-ray. Revisiting the film brought back great memories and gave me a new perspective on its place in cinema history. For all of its incompetencies and questionable dialogue, I enjoyed what Wood and his skeleton crew were attempting to create, and there were a few scenes, that, for a ‘50s sci-fi/horror B-movie, actually worked. DVD extras include Ed Wood press junket interviews with Johnny Depp and Martin Landau, as well as with then-surviving members of Wood’s stock company (fun fact: Dolores Fuller was not impressed by Sarah Jessica Parker’s diva behavior while she promoted the biopic.) Also included is rare interview footage of Bela Lugosi appearing cheerful and optimistic as he’s leaving the hospital after seeking treatment for methadone addiction, which made me wish that Burton re-created it for his film.
My friend, you have read these anecdotes and critiques based on the author’s first-hand accounts. Did it really happen? Did a once-mocked director wind up with a body of work that eventually spawned evening screenings, merchandise, and visual homages from a new generation of directors and film fans? All signs point to yes, and with advances in technology and portable electronic equipment, we will be witnessing offbeat stories by ambitious storytellers in many years to come. God help us in the future.
Greg Carlson is a film fan and memorabilia hunter who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. His top three films are (in random order): Time Bandits, Repo Man, and Taxi Driver. For more pop-culture musings, follow him on Instagram at gregario72.