Ed Wood: Hubcaps on a String
Updated: Jan 17
Prompted by the publication of a new book about his films called The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood, I unearthed this look at Mr. Wood from from a media column I wrote in 1993, a year before he entered the mainstream via Johnny Depp.
For those of you unafraid to leave the safety of the beaten path, I offer a glimpse of pure, unfiltered, unmentholated badness. Badness that not only merely occurs, but is maintained and sustained over the entire career of one man --- Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Ed Wood, Jr. is best known by most people as the producer, writer and director of what is regularly referred to as "the worst movie of all time" --- 1959's Plan 9 From Outer Space (aka Grave Robbers from Outer Space) starring Bela Lugosi. While Plan 9 is not by any means the most wretched film you'll ever watch, it'll still make you want to place orange cones and flares around your TV set, as if to say, "Look out, drive around – big accident here." The whole thing seems like it was written in a very messy room.
Ineptitude rears its head in nearly every scene ---
Sample narration at the beginning of the movie -- "Greetings my friend...we are all interested in the future – for it is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives...and remember, my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future." What?
The film constantly jumps from night to day and back again (an Ed Wood trademark in most of his work). In the Ed Wood universe, a car with its headlights on, even against a bright midday sky, represents pitch-black night.
A commercial airline cockpit is represented by two guys sitting in front of a cardboard wall with a shower curtain nailed to it.
With the movements of every passing actor on the "cemetery" set, the carpet of "ground" and plywood "tombstones" slide and wiggle.
It's as if Wood lacked that little voice inside that would normally say, "C'mon, Ed; hubcaps on a string just aren't gonna cut it as flying saucers." (Makes a great title, but it's a trope that was not at all accurate. See note and photo at the end of this story.)
Watching the movie is strange enough, but a little research adds another sticky layer of weirdness to the experience ---
It's widely known that the drug-addicted Bela Lugosi (in his final role) appears in only the three scenes Wood was able to shoot before Lugosi died. These scenes are repeated over and over, with no relationship to the scenes preceding or following them, to establish the entrance of Lugosi's character. For example, you are treated to the same shot of a menacing Lugosi crossing a field (with traffic clearly visible in the lower right portion of the screen) at least three times. An obviously much taller double appears in the rest of the "Lugosi" scenes with his cape thrown over his face. What is lesser known, however, is that Lugosi actually died before filming on Plan 9 began --- the footage used in the film is simply generic material Wood shot nearly a year earlier.
Wood took investment money from the local Baptist church to finance Plan 9. Before filming could begin, a condition of the deal was that the entire cast and crew become Baptists. They all did so, including the giant former wrestler Tor Johnson, a fun-loving sort who faked drowning during his baptism.
The eerie and nearly waist-less Vampira agreed to do the movie on the condition that her character remain mute -- a bright move that allowed her to emerge from the film without having to emit embarrassing Wood-composed dialogue.
An odd biography of Wood constructed out of reminisces of those around him called Nightmare of Ecstasy (by Rudolph Grey [Feral House]) provides a look at what led to and came after Plan 9.
Believe me, this book serves up huge Texas-style helpings of weirdness.
It turns out that by the time Ed Wood died in 1978 at age 54, he'd written over 80 books and made close to 32 self-funded films. He was a decorated Marine who saw extensive action in World War II.
Also revealed; he spent the war wearing women's underwear under his fatigues.
Yes, throughout his adult life Ed Wood, Jr. was a heterosexual crossdresser with a cashmere fetish. In fact, he wrote, directed and starred in his manifesto Glen or Glenda, the story of a transvestite's coming out and its consequences to those around him. Bela Lugosi (!) again appears, this time as a god-like narrator at the beginning of the film. (The fact is, Lugosi owed nearly 100% of his screen work during his drug-addled final years to Ed Wood. Along with Tor Johnson and the TV psychic Criswall, Lugosi was the common thread in many of Wood's films. At Lugosi's funeral, Wood served as a pallbearer).
Drinking steadily and needing income badly, Wood later descended into the world of paperback pornography (Devil Girls, Sexecutives, Sex Museum) and "exploitation flicks" (The Peeper, The Sinister Urge, Necromania). The 1965 film Orgy of the Dead ("Ed Wood, Jr.s masterpiece of erotic horror --- filmed in gorgeous and shocking SEXICOLOR!") is available on videotape at most Blockbusters. It is truly unbelievable to watch --- an old and tired cue card-reading Criswell, wearing Bela Lugosi's cape, is some sort of Master of the Dead who makes long speeches and orders naked dead women to do interpretive dances before him.
And they do.
And they do.
And they do.
And they do.
Ten different themes, one at a time. The film creeps along like a slug on the sidewalk. Don't attempt to view this movie without a fully operational fast forward button on your remote, folks.
There will be no Edward D. Wood, Jr. archives or library; Wood lost everything when he was tossed out of his last squalid apartment. He died as a drunken and homeless former Marine who never got a break, nor necessarily deserved one. His films are amazing to watch because they reveal the single-minded vision of a man who refused to give up his struggle to create, even in the face of his own complete lack of talent. In the end, after all his travails and efforts, he'd merely earned the right to have "Writer-Producer" listed on his death certificate under "Primary occupation of the deceased."
While it makes a great title, it should be noted that Wood used actual plastic models as his miniatures in Plan 9 From Outer Space. They are currently part of the collection of Bob Burns (that's me with them circa 1996), and you can see them on page 57 of my book, It Came From Bob's Basement, alongside the "paper plate" saucer props made for the 1994 Johnny Depp film.