PRINT December 1994


Ed Wood

People! All going somewhere. All with their own thoughts, their own ideas, all with their own . . . personalities. One is wrong, because he does right. And one is right . . . because he does wrong. Pull the string! Dance to that . . . which one is created for!
—Bela Lugosi, in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, 1953

AT THE BEGINNING of his strangely autobiographical first film, Glen or Glenda?, Ed Wood introduces an inexplicable framing device that, absurd as it is, may be the film’s most telling moment: he offers an aging Bela Lugosi as God, sitting above humanity, watching with disgust, and babbling non sequiturs better suited to a deathbed Nietzsche than a benevolent Creator. Lugosi is an unreliable puppet master, yanking strings at random, dragging contradictory realities—found footage of charging buffalo, iron foundries, L.A. traffic—into the film world over which he presides. While the character of the crossdressing Glen, whom Wood plays, exposes the private Ed Wood, Lugosi’s puppet master may be taken as representing the warped auteur/bricoleur Wood was to become over the course of his thankless “career.”

Unfairly tarred as the “worst director of all time,” Wood made no-budget films that were howlingly inept—full of continuity errors and garbled dialogue, flimsy sets and wooden acting. His scripts are notorious for hilarious platitudes: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives . . . and remember, friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.” Nevertheless, Wood’s films float to the top of the slag heap of ’50s horror/sci-fi/exploitation cinema because of their unmistakable passion and honest idiot glee.

Tim Burton’s recent film Ed Wood recuperates this Orson Welles of schlock cinema in a loving whitewash of a biopic. Mercifully abbreviated to omit Wood’s descent into alcoholism and pornography, Burton’s film traces Wood’s most fertile period, from Glen or Glenda? to Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956, released 1959). As a picture about Hollywood, Ed Wood offers a kinder, gentler Tinseltown, a sweet ’50s playground full of great cars, Wayfarer sunglasses, and tight angora sweaters. Typical of the Hollywood-picture genre, the film is full of self-conscious references to the filmmaking process itself, particularly to Wood’s own “methods.” Burton’s love letter to a long-lost kindred spirit, Ed Wood is a genuine gift of revisionist history and sincere tribute.

Burton wisely foregrounds the relationship between Wood and the pathetic, morphine-addicted Lugosi, so much so that an agent might pitch the film as a buddy movie. The film paints Johnny Depp’s Wood as a faithful puppy-dog of a friend who comes to the rescue whenever the dope-sick Lugosi bottoms out in the middle of the night. There is a genuine love between the two men, and Martin Landau’s moving portrayal of Lugosi almost forces you to love him too, and, by extension, Burton’s movie. Burton treats Wood like Wood treated Lugosi—resuscitating a washed-up, dubious talent through the power of film. In fact this emphasis on friendship, though not necessarily historically accurate, points to a large theme of Burton’s—how film sustains life, even for the dead. In this context it is almost poetic that Wood’s “masterwork,” Plan 9 from Outer Space, based around several minutes of random footage he shot with Lugosi days before the actor’s death, allowed Lugosi to “star” in one more film, even from the grave. The fact that the film’s working title was Grave Robbers from Outer Space is just another of the ironies that percolate through Wood’s life and work.

Burton’s use of black and white film stock represents another form of filmic redemption. Today, black and white is the mark of the auteur, conjuring the ghost of Welles and classic Hollywood. This is an age when Steven Spielberg can enjoy an image overhaul simply by making a black and white film. Burton’s major-studio black and white movie, backed by enough money to shoot hours of color stock, by extension grants Wood posthumous status. Though Wood had to shoot in black and white, Burton’s self-conscious choice transforms Wood’s economic constraint into an artistic decision. Furthering Burton’s recasting of Wood as an auteur is a fabricated scene in which Wood meets his hero Orson Welles at Musso & Frank’s, and the two kindred spirits complain about invasive money-men and the indignities of artistic compromise. (Welles, referring to Touch of Evil, moans, “They want me to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican.”) While ridiculous, this scene places the two directors on equal footing—even though Wood is wearing a dress.

In a “money talks, bullshit walks” Hollywood, Burton has a Midas-touch reputation—he has never made a bomb, and his Batman films set box-office records. Kitsch king John Waters, who was initially approached with the script, said Burton was “the only director who could get that movie made.” Burton’s clout may have made him perfect for Ed Wood, but the film, written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, was also easily adaptable to his familiar themes. Wood becomes another in his line of misunderstood, naive misfits, struggling to succeed in hostile or unspeakably bland communities. The parallels between Wood and Burton are few but significant: both men deeply admired elder, over-the-hill horror actors—Lugosi and Vincent Price respectively—whose careers they briefly resuscitated near the end of their lives. Both found themselves struggling in a Hollywood that was creatively stifling and homogenizing. And both had an affection for the bizarre and campy world of early horror and sci-fi films.

Armed with an $18 million budget, Burton painstakingly restaged scenes from Wood’s films, none of which cost more than $80,000 to make. In a financial and methodological paradox, he used professional set designers and multiple takes to recreate scenes of one-take laissez-faire ineptitude. It is an obsessive fidelity to a magical silliness. While shooting, Wood accidentally created a kind of realism by refusing to retake when someone knocked over a gravestone or bumped into a cardboard wall. In a kind of hands-off verité, he kept whatever the camera caught on the first take, regardless of error. “That’s real,” says Depp’s Wood, after Tor Johnson (George Steele) can’t get through a door, nearly toppling the entire set; “In reality, Lobo would have that problem all the time.”

A tongue-in-cheek film theorist might argue not only that Wood was a true surrealist (in his ability to deliver the uncensored unconscious to the screen with a directness that an intellectual like Luis Buñuel could never manage) but that he was a radical-avant-garde filmmaker, unpacking the hidden ideology of film by revealing its apparatus. When confronted by his backers over a clearly botched scene, Depp’s Wood yells, “Filmmaking isn’t about the little details, it’s about the big picture!” Burton has made a big picture, but his attention to little details in restaging Wood’s scenes radically departs from Wood’s own scrappy methods. Like Wood, he intentionally captures the unintentional, but to different ends: as repetition endows meaning on the meaningless, Burton’s precise re-creations of Wood’s scenes alchemically transform “bad” art into good. Ironically, not only Burton’s directorial skill but his touch of gold have reached back to Wood, as buzz on Ed Wood has sparked Wood revivals, video reissues, and renewed critical interest across the country.

Perhaps the most persuasive model the film offers for Wood’s creative process is the Frankenstein subtext that counters the explicit Dracula presence of Landau’s Lugosi, who repeatedly curses Boris Karloff, his more successful rival, and bemoans his own rejection of the Frankenstein role that made Karloff famous. The opening of Ed Wood parallels the opening of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein by including a “warning” to the audience: here, Wood regular Criswell cautions that the “shocking facts of the horrible truth” of Ed Wood, Jr.’s life may be too much for the audience to stand. A similar Frankenstein-versus-Dracula dialectic courses through other Burton films. Although his porno goth esthetic lies mainly with the Count (bats, darkness, deep blues and purples), Burton created his own misunderstood monster in Edward Scissorhands, 1990, in which he asked his own Lugosi, Vincent Price, to play the mad creator. And his early short Frankenweenie, 1984, explored the consequences of a boy’s reanimation of his dead dog.

In Ed Wood, Frankenstein serves as a metaphor for Wood’s filmmaking. A guerrilla bricoleur, Wood frequently “grave-robbed” shelved stock footage and studio props, and clumsily sutured together “films” combining this found footage with his own, poorly shot, jerry-rigged scenes. The resulting creations were jumbled, incomplete jigsaw puzzles of films that became more than the sum of their parts only through their creator’s near-psychotic determination. Wood’s drive was not to create something perfect, but to create something, anything, that would justify his wild-eyed ambitions.

Home—I have no home. Hunted—despised—living like an animal—the jungle is my home! But I will show the world I can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of people—a race of atomic supermen that will conquer the world!
—Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vornoff in Wood’s Bride of the Monster, 1955

For Wood as for Dr. Vornoff (a mad scientist in the Frankenstein vein), creation is redemption. Whether it be a race of atomic supermen or Plan 9 from Outer Space, giving life to one’s fantasies is the ultimate achievement—esthetics be damned, the thing walks. In Frankenstein the mad doctor cheats death, however briefly, but his creation’s life, like his own, is finite. Through the power of film, Burton has given new life to Wood’s monstrous creations, conferring vampiric immortality on a filmmaker whose deranged work might easily have died with him. As if to confirm Dracula’s—and Wood’s—triumph over death, at the end of the film Burton notes that today, Lugosi memorabilia far outsell Karloff’s.

Andrew Hultkrans lives and writes in San Francisco. He is the former managing editor of Mondo 2000.