Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MST3K Does Ed Wood: "Bride of the Monster"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The video I brought over was the copy of Ed Wood’s 1955 horror/sci-fi epic, Bride of the Monster, starring Bela Lugosi in his last speaking role. (He completed a film for producer Howard Koch, The Black Sleep, afterwards, and started Plan Nine for Wood — in which, according to the book Nightmare of Ecstasy, he was supposed to have played Mona McKinnon’s grandfather; “I had to kill him off earlier than I planned because he actually died,” Wood told Lugosi biographer Robert Cremer in an interview Cremer gave to Rudolph Grey to use in his Wood bio — but in both of those films he was mute.) I’d originally seen this one in a drive-in in the early 1970’s, on a triple bill with two Japanese monster movies, War of the Gargantuas and Monster Zero (Gargantuas was lousy, but Monster Zero was kind of trippy; the title character was a pterodactyl with three heads, done with better-than-usual special effects, and two of Toho’s other monsters, Godzilla and Rodan, appeared in this one on the side of good); it wasn’t announced on the marquee, and as it ran people began honking their horns as a demand to the projectionist that he take it off. (He didn’t.)

Bride is full of the usual Ed Wood trademarks — bizarrely cut-in stock footage, a profound uncertainty as to whether the scenes we are watching take place in day or night, jarringly inappropriate dialogue and quirky performances — though it’s somewhat better acted than usual in his films. In Nightmare of Ecstasy, Dolores Fuller said that Loretta King took the part of Janet Lawton, the female lead, away from her by putting money in the film; while King herself said that was a lie because she didn’t have any money at the time — and the screenwriters for the Ed Wood movie put those two stories together and came up with the idea that King had got the part because Wood thought she had money to invest in the film, when she really didn’t. Based on the actual film, it’s evident that Loretta King was a much better actress than Dolores Fuller and deserved the part on her own merits; within the limits of her part and Wood’s almost unspeakable (literally and figuratively) dialogue, she actually tried to give her hard-boiled reporter character the kind of 1930’s screwball sauciness it needed.

And Tony McCoy, even if he did get his part only because his father put up the completion money, isn’t bad either — he’s certainly at least as credible a leading man as Gregory Walcott, a much more experienced actor, was in Plan Nine (and we get to see him with his shirt off in the climactic scene). There’s also a charming vignette by actor Harvey B. Dunn, who plays a police captain who holds a pair of glasses in his hand so his pet bird, who otherwise flies free throughout his office, can perch on them (he’s never seen wearing the glasses, and there’s no indication he actually needs them to see, so we get the impression he has them only to give his bird a place to perch other than the glass on top of the water fountain). In fact, the worst performance in the entire movie was given by George Becwar as Strowski, the government official from the unnamed home country of Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi — Wood told Robert Cremer he wanted to suggest it was Russia without actually coming out and saying so), who is not only unbearably hammy but also hopeless in his foredoomed attempt at an accent to convince us that he and Lugosi’s character are from the same country.

The biggest problem with Bride of the Monster is that it’s basically your standard generic Bela-Lugosi-as-mad-scientist-determined-to-conquer-the-world movie, and aside from the laughably low-budget production (including the most outrageously false wallpapering job in movie history — we’re actually supposed to believe that those hideous splotches on the wall of Lugosi’s lab represent cobblestones) it’s really no different from the performances Lugosi had already given in this part in film after film after film (with a few admixtures of Dracula and Wood’s favorite of Lugosi’s previous films, White Zombie, in giving him the power to hypnotize people even when they’re in a different room). In fact, Charles said he actually thought Plan Nine from Outer Space was a better film than Bride of the Monster — even though its physical production was, if anything, even tackier — and we came to the conclusion that at least in Plan Nine, the film Ed Wood was ripping off his plot from, The Day the Earth Stood Still, was better than all the tacky Lugosi mad-scientist melodramas Wood pastiched into his script for Bride of the Monster. — 6/28/96


I dug out a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 disc Charles had just brought over and played their version of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s camp classic Bride of the Monster. Surprisingly, Charles and I both liked the movie itself better this time around — yes, it has the usual Woodian sloppiness, with stock footage scenes (mostly of real-life menaces like crocodiles and octopi) that don’t even begin to match the new scenes, shots intended as day-for-night scenes that are arbitrarily spliced in with night-for-night scenes since Wood couldn’t afford the optical work needed to make them properly nocturnal, and hilarious lapses of continuity, including one the MST3K crew pointed out where county clerk Tillie (Ann Wilner) is questioned by police captain Tom Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn) and reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King), and in the close-ups of her interrogators with her shoulder and the back of her head in the foreground she’s wearing a pencil in her right ear, while in her own closeups the pencil is gone.

But it also has an energy and vitality that most ultra-low-budget productions in the 1950’s didn’t have; for all his limitations as a filmmaker, Wood simply didn’t have it in him to make a movie as dull as Fire Maidens from Outer Space. (No, I never in a million years thought I’d ever write that a movie Ed Wood didn’t direct would have been better if he had — though, come to think of it, I probably said that about The Violent Years and Orgy of the Dead, both deadly-dull movies based on scripts by Wood but directed by others.) Bride of the Monster also has Bela Lugosi in his second-to-last film (counting Plan Nine from Outer Space as his last and The Black Sleep, his last completed film, as the one between) but his final speaking role, and he does the big speech at the end — “Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal! The jungle is my home. But I will show the world that I can be its master!” — the one that was highlighted (and brilliantly delivered by Martin Landau) in the Ed Wood biopic — so movingly that for once I actually resented the MST3K crew talking through it and wanted to tell them to shut up.

They had a lot of fun with this movie overall, including the continuity problems (I joked myself that this movie didn’t have a continuity person, it had a discontinuity person) and Wood’s fabled reputation as a heterosexual cross-dresser, as well as such non-Wood issues as the enormous size of the cars people drove then (little did they know that these tank-like vehicles would recur in the 1990’s as SUV’s and hasten the end of cheap gas!), but along with the obvious ridicule Bride of the Monster also deserves a degree of love and respect. No, Wood wasn’t a great director by any means — not even one of those genuinely great directors like Robert Florey and Edgar G. Ulmer who spent most or all of their careers trapped in the “B”’s — but he was a damned sight better than a lot of his contemporaries in the micro-budget salt mines and he certainly doesn’t deserve the “Worst Director of All Time” opprobrium; and, as I noted the last time Charles and I watched Bride of the Monster au naturel, Loretta King actually acts: she turns in a genuine performance obviously modeled on the spunkiness of Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell in similar girl-reporter roles in Warners movies in the 1930’s (though she’s dark-haired and Blondell and Farrell were blonde) and is a cut above the usual damsel-in-distress portrayal one would expect from the actress playing the title role in a film called Bride of the Monster. — 8/12/08