The current generation of young ‘Z-grade’ cult film lovers, say, between the ages of 18 to 28, for the most part have either seen or heard enough about ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ (1956, released July 1959), to have formed a fairly solid enough opinion of this benchmark of cinematic incompetency, from the film or through sources such as comedic B-movie compilations on video and YouTube, or books with titles like The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made, of which ‘Plan 9’ is consistently listed amongst the worst, in most instances rewarded with the top spot.
The visionary behind ‘Plan 9′, director/writer/actor/producer/editor/cameraman/best boy and wardrobe assistant, Ed Wood, has achieved a synonymous recognition and accompanying notoriety alongside ‘Plan 9′ through the years following its original release, due to increasing video exposure generating curiosity and education as to the works accumulated by this bizarre, impulsive, cross-dressing film auteur who conceived of such a movie. But Wood’s prolific output would result with each new discovery (‘Glen or Glenda’, ‘Bride of the Monster’, ‘The Violent Years’) revealing the infinite range of absurdity he employed as no other film-maker could sustain the desire for.
Director Tim Burton’s 1994 film, ‘Ed Wood’, is certainly where the majority of moviegoers would begin to have any recognition of this sympathetic yet ever-optimistic person. Burton’s break-through movie, the highly original ‘Beetlejuice’, impressed the box office enough to allow him the creative control in the first ‘Batman’ reboot, and his filmography from then up to now is extensive, unique, and well-known.
As one who could hardly be called a fan of Burton’s resume’, all the weird, fantastical nonsense and other memorable film projects Burton and his muse-slash-partner-in-perplexity Johnny Depp have produced over the years, I have to say that ‘Ed Wood’ is one of the most beautifully-realized, authentic and expertly-crafted films ever committed to celluloid, and the critical source of character humanization achieved from first-hand recollections and intimate memories of which the bulk of this film’s screenplay is adapted, Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy, makes the actual story more amazing, and poignant, and fascinating than Burton could manage to fit into one movie.
Edward D. Wood, Jr’s career and health was to quickly, and sadly, deteriorate virtually the moment after Burton’s ‘imagined’ story ends. Grey’s exhaustive research and patchwork assemblage of Wood’s life, mainly comprised of stories told by the offbeat, colorful people on the periphery of the film business, who worked with and knew him in those incredible years he was seizing the endless and limitless possibilities he believed his movie-making would approach, provides an engrossing history that informs the reader of how one individual finds his creative niche and, regardless of poor ability or nonexistent recognition, refuses to consider any other vocation or pursuit than the one he believed he was destined to have, fully aware of how ultimately, yet unavoidably, destructive it might be.
“Wood’s art is a cultural mutation. He defies comparison – there is no one remotely like him. Displaced from time, his legend and reputation grows.” Author
Ed Wood, Jr.’s filmography as director (and principal creator) spanned a little under 10 years, 1948 – 56, and spawned about as many films. Amateur attempts at Westerns with long-forgotten ‘cowboy’ actors were among his first, with a generic gangster flick, and then arguably his most ambitious effort, a personal indulgence of his love of cross-dressing and the lives of transvestites eventually titled ‘Glen or Glenda’ (1953), tossed in between horror films (‘Bride of the Monster’, 1955), man-raping teenage girl gangs (‘The Violent Years’, 1956), and deviant sex killers aroused by above-the-waist pornographic pictures (‘The Sinister Urge’, 1960) – Wood was nothing if not versatile. Burton’s film avoids most of this background, occurring during the same period, but it serves his movie well and softens the edges for a more universal appeal without making it any less honest.
Wood also loved writing, an earnest and prodigious screenplay and short story author, but of the most surreal and oblique variety imaginable; his written dialogue, in any given screenplay or tawdry paperback novel he wrote in later years, is virtually indecipherable by any linguistic standard of logic. No matter the subject, the situation or the context, it fails to conform to any rote format used by earthly beings. Attempts to quote examples of these absurdities within this context would only dilute their illogic further.
Irony was non-existent in an Ed Wood film – every action, reaction, or line interpretation, regardless of expression, intent, or final delivery, worked just fine for the young, motivated director, as long as it was captured on film and finished in time to start setting up the next scene. Wood used tons of public domain film from libraries and studios he could sneak or talk his way into, and wasn’t particular about inserting this random footage at inexplicable points in his films for completing a plot point or artistic idea that only he could make sense of. If ‘Glen’ was reluctant to articulate the need to express his inner ‘Glenda’ (Wood portrayed both and was a self-professed transvestite), some stock footage of a buffalo stampede superimposed with a pitiful, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi dramatically commanding no one in particular to “Pull the string!” would suffice to convey the character’s deeply conflicted feelings. Wood delighted in the simple act of writing and having his work seen or read by as many people as possible, coherence be damned; he made motion pictures, story-telling was beside the point!
The remainder of Wood’s life was spent heavily drinking and pounding out kinky, fetish-centered soft-core porn paperbacks and the occasional screenplay for no-budget, cheesy ‘horror’ flicks starring topless burlesque dancers for limited drive-in movie releases, and died a disillusioned, broken man in squalid living conditions. Grey’s book doesn’t so much attempt to garner sympathy or pity for this alcoholic, self-indulgent writer of sub-par talent, but eloquently brings Ed Wood’s life, with all of it’s outrageous, too-strange-to-be-true, delusionally optimistic ephemera, into an all-too-human narrative that only enhances an already enthralling life story that anyone aside from Wood himself would otherwise consider as ridiculously fabricated.
Nightmare of Ecstasy was written at the perfect time, concurrent with a renewed interest in Wood’s films in the early 80’s after the advent of home video and resultant reissues of literally thousands of previously unavailable ‘cult classics’ from fringe film directors whose movies had become legendary mainly because they were tossed aside after their theatrical runs, without any foresight of future significance or profitability. The author could easily have thrown together a slipshod collection of old publicity stills, some insignificant quotes and half-assed ‘assessment’ of Wood’s film-making years, for what most fans of the time, myself included, would have considered to be enough. But Grey’s biography is devoid of subjective criticism or needless sarcasm, giving an informative and respectful account that even now, over 20 years later, remains the most definitive, complete and insightful document of “The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.” that the most devoted of Wood’s admirers will ever need.