Monday, October 02, 2006
Random Movie Report #12: Bride of the Monster
Edward D. Wood, Jr. is the most problematic man in cinema. Was he the worst filmmaker of all time? Consensus is shifting towards "no", if only because, thanks to MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, we have seen so much worse. (And a certain talented amateur boxer has also been in the running for the title lately- though I can't actually say myself, since I haven't seen any of his movies.) Was Wood even bad? Most say yes, but I'm still not convinced. Wood lacked the technical craft needed of a truly great filmmaker, but he had... something. Some attribute this to the pure enthusiasm he had for making movies, others to the "so-bad-it's-good" element. I'm not satisfied with either explanation; enthusiasm doesn't automatically translate into watchability, and there are many directors whose films are as bad or worse, but aren't as entertaining. I also have my personal bias towards Ed Wood- I see in him the worst-case scenario of what any wanna-be creator (myself included) might become, destitute and unloved. (If you haven't read NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY, Rudolph Grey's exquisite biography of the artist, you absolutely must.) I've got to suppress that when looking at his movies. So, recently, motivated by curiosity, I revisited BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, one of Wood's more troubled productions and the last real hurrah for screen legend Bela Lugosi. That I was looking at a particularly bad VHS copy didn't help things, but I think I've got a better grasp of the work. Ed Wood was neither a genius nor a hack, but he had... something.
The movie opens on two hunters lost in the swamp (we're never sure quite where) in the middle of a storm. They go up to the Old Willows Place, thinking it deserted, but it's inhabited by mad scientist Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi), and his hulking henchman Lobo (Tor Johnson.) One of them is killed by the legendary monster of Willows Lake, a giant octopus. The other is captured by Lobo and made one of Dr. Vornoff's experiments- he's trying to breed a race of atomic supermen, and most of them (like this poor fellow) end up dead. Well, you can't make an omelette, etc. Somehow word of the deaths gets out, and Janet Lawton (Loretta King), enterprising reporter, is out to prove all the monster stories. Her boyfriend, Lt. Dick Craig (Tony McCoy), is a policeman assigned to the disappearances by his quirky boss Captain Tom Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn). He's assigned to visit Willows Lake with Professor Strowski (George Becwar), but Janet beats him to the punch by going up there herself, in the middle of a storm. Her car crashes and she's rescued by Lobo and brought to the Willows Place, and Dr. Vornoff decides she'd make an excellent test subject. Craig has to search out his girlfriend while unravelling the mystery of the monster and the Old Willows Place, while Professor Strowski seems to have an agenda of his own.
More controversy surrounds this film than any other made by Wood, which is saying something. First, there's the writing credit. In NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY, Alex Gordon claims he sold a vague idea for a script called "The Atomic Monster" to Wood, who wrote a script loosely based on it. In a later interview with the magazine CULT MOVIES, however, Gordon claimed that he had written a substantial portion of the screenplay, including the famous "I Have No Home" speech where Vornoff rants about his ejection from his home country somewhere behind the Iron Curtain (paralleling Lugosi's own departure from Hungary.) Gordon went so far as to call ECSTASY a wildly inaccurate book and disparage the reputation of author Grey. However, since the book contains very little editorial input from its author and is largely an oral history comprised of quotes from people who knew Wood (as well as quotes from Wood himself from an early Seventies interview with Lugosi biographer Bob Cremer), I'm inclined to believe the "official" version of events. (Wood's tendency to draw heavily from his own experiences also supports the idea that the speech came from him.)
Secondly, there is Loretta King. In the movie ED WOOD, King (delightfully played by Juliette Landau) agrees to finance BRIDE so long as she gets to play the lead. This was in accordance with accounts in ECSTASY from Wood's then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller. However, in a later FILMFAX interview with King herself, she denied having promised any financing to the production, and suggested that story may simply have been Wood's way of trying to placate his girlfriend. This is the kind of dispute it may be impossible to settle, Wood being dead and his life so poorly documented. Still, it's kinda neat to think about these kinds of issues when watching the finished film. I won't even get into the allegedly-stolen octopus prop.
So what of the movie itself? It's actually one of Wood's slickest films- the ultimate financier, meatpacker Henry McCoy, seems to have given the production at least a D-level budget, and Wood himself, dealing with a familiar formula, was able to stretch that out surprisingly far. As usual he was aided by an abundance of stock footage, here mostly swamps, snakes and alligators, and a normal-sized octopus to fit with the motionless prop monster (of which we usually see only tentacles.) His use of the footage is not what one would call adept; there's a scene where Craig falls in quicksand and is approached by either one bulletproof alligator or several normal ones (or rather, alligator/crocodiles, because I'm sure the footage switches.) But it does manage to add action that the production couldn't afford, and doesn't feel like padding. Really, and if I haven't said this here before don't worry because you'll hear it again, the reason most low-budget exploitation movies are duller than Wood's is that they have to pad the film with long stretches of pointless material just to reach feature length, because they can't afford to film anything interesting. The art of being a good low-budget filmmaker is one of maximizing resources and, perhaps more importantly, spreading them over at least seven reels. BRIDE OF THE MONSTER is an eventful 68-or-so minutes, a crude mash-up of plot twists and horror-movie perils that plays as a minor homage not only to Lugosi's classic Universal horrors but to the myriad cheap imitations of the Forties. Like Wood's other films, it's a melange of seemingly random but interesting things combined into what is, in the end, a unique story.
Of course, the film is a vehicle for Lugosi, and it turned out to be the actor's last speaking role (his proper final film, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE notwithstanding because those clips were basically cut in to an as-yet-uncertain story, was THE BLACK SLEEP, in which his character was mute.) Though he's obviously seen better days, Lugosi gives a terrific performance, adding real gusto to what is already a fairly meaty part. In his meeting with Professor Strowski, he gives Dr. Vornoff pathos and a sad anger; futzing about his lab with Lobo, he demonstrates a ghoulish good humor and breaks out a few hypnotic hand gestures that recall the physicality of his Dracula. It goes without saying that he out-acts everyone else in the movie, but the other performances are actually borderline competent; King and McCoy are both untried, but they muddle through, while Dunn's quirky police captain with a fondness for his pet bird adds a nice light touch, and we also see the first appearance of Paul Marco's lovably goofy Kelton the Cop, who would make return visits in PLAN 9 and NIGHT OF THE GHOULS. And then there's Tor, giving not so much a performance as an image, a memorably mammoth hulk who seems like a mutant even though the plot is unclear on that particular point.
And finally, there's the writing end. Wood displays his usual flair for oddly placed monologuing and random poetic imagery, with characters displaying the sort of unexpected eloquence and verbosity that would become more commonplace with the rise of independent art films. There are also a few interesting random plot tidbits thrown out, like the apparent implication that Vornoff has something to do with the Loch Ness Monster (kind of weird since legends of the monster date back to before Vornoff could have been alive, but hey.) Threads like that are used to give the story a grandeur that can't actually be shown on screen, something that would also be prominent in PLAN 9, with its references to an early alien encounter that killed the inhabitants of an entire town and the military's development of a "language computer." It's stuff like this that makes me wonder if Wood would not have found actual commercial success writing comic books; he could put together a plot as good as the average for the sci-fi titles of the period, and it's not like his florid prose wouldn't have been welcome. If only he had moved to New York instead of L.A....
BRIDE OF THE MONSTER is far from Wood's most entertaining or engrossing film, but it could be said to be his "best" in some respects. Around the twin assets of a great horror actor and a guy who didn't need makeup to look monstrous, he crafted a solid, if cheesier-than-usual, B-programmer that does what it sets out to do and, unlike a lot of its contemporaries, delivers what it promises. Wood may remain a difficult and tragic figure in the history of exploitation cinema, but his body of work, as crude and slapdash as it is, speaks for itself.