I'm a big fan of outsider art. For me, this outré genre is best defined as something made by an amateur that attempts to pass as art yet is widely recognized as primitive and unskilled in the normal definitions of what we deem "art" --yet still holds a strong fascination.
However it may be defined, Edward Davis Wood, Jr., (1924 - 1978) both personally and professionally, remains a giant in the outsider world.
Wood's unexpected back-story does not immediately resonate with his film career. His father was a Poughkeepsie, NY, mailman and his mother so wanted a girl she dressed little Ed as such until he was 12 or so. When he was 17, he enlisted in the Marines and claimed to be among the 300 survivors (from 4000 Marines) of the November 1943, massacre at Tarawa in the South Pacific Theater, one of the most brutal in US Marine history. He said he fought while wearing a bra and panties beneath his uniform.
Wood was wounded in his leg and badly scarred. By war's end, he was missing several teeth. He joined a carnival and his injuries made him a perfect candidate to perform in the carnival freak show as a geek.
Wood was always drawn toward performance. In a way, his life was his canvas. For most of his adult life, he was a confident, creative, cross-dressing heterosexual. In Hollywood of the 1950s, he became a producer, director, writer editor and actor by default. At night he wrote quirky pulp fiction novels that were actually published!
Why five stars? Because here we are still talking about Ed Wood and his unlikely films of little merit. That's because this outsider made his mark and somehow it is more than an indelible stain on our ever morphing pop-culture landscape of ephemera. It is a fitting epitaph -- or perhaps merely the residue? -- of our all too brief existence.
That this man loved movies is a given. That he had no perceptible skill as a filmmaker was irrelevant. But that didn't stop him from getting his films made and today his films remain fascinating for their consistently crude, ragged often laughably inept "look."
If there's a theme that ties all his work together, it is this: Do what you love. The message is the fact that the movies exist at all. No doubt some university course offers a class in the "Filmic Oeuvre of Edward Wood, Jr." Not convinced? Check out Rudolph Grey's 1992 restorative, laudatory biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.
S'more Entertainment has just put together a package of 13 of the master's films on six discs. That's 17 hours of dubious yet strangely compelling entertainment.
Included of course is his signature, now certifiably iconic film, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE with horror icon Bela Lugosi captured in all the sad, poignant glory of his declining years. But on screen, he still weirdly mesmerizes.
Additional titles in the set include: BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, JAIL BAIT, VIOLENT YEARS, SINISTER URGE, FUGITIVE GIRLS, DROP OUT WIFE, HOT ICE, SNOW BUNNIE, BEACH BUNNIES, ORGY OF THE DEAD, TRICK SHOOTING WITH KENNE DUNCAN and CROSSROADS AVENGER. Be warned that many of the films are skewed toward a mature audience and contain nudity, violence and simulated sex. Missing are the semi-autobiographical GLEN OR GLENDA from 1953 and NIGHT OF THE GHOULS, 1959.
For unknown reasons, I was especially taken by the short film TRICK SHOOTING WITH KENNE DUNCAN. It stars the Canadian born B-movie villain showing off his revolver skills.
ORGY OF THE DEAD (only the screenplay by Wood) features professional psychic Criswell. He was a staple of Hollywood the town and I recall seeing him standing bewildered in his underwear and a tattered robe in the front yard his neglected bungalow just off Hollywood Blvd. His massive mound of disheveled hair blowing in the morning breeze like an undulating fog bank. I thought he looked kind of like Einstein on a bad day.
Criswell was a perfect actor for Wood, as was the dying Lugosi because Wood's films at their best captured the ephemera of Hollywood as an imaginary but disturbingly seedy under the tinsel vortex in time and space. Wood knew its soul was only a succession of dancing shadows that conjure fragments of the vast spectrum of story-telling skills that seduce and hold us captive. Sometimes the disjointed images are remote and inaccessible -- ambiguous and devoid of meaning. And other times their blunt crudity jolts with a visceral power to shock -- or invoke mockery. Either way, these fleeting forms have done their job. And like it or not, they remain shimmering at the edge of our collective awareness as a reminder how potent is the desire to be creative -- in spite of any discernible talent.
Johnny Depp's portrayal of Wood in Tim Burton's 1994 affectionate tribute beautifully captures the energy and enthusiasm of Wood, who it is said remained true to his weird inner vision up to the very end. For Wood, the audience didn't really matter and certainly not the critics. He did it for himself. And he got away with it. No irony, no tongue in cheek, no parody - just pure cinema. It boggles the mind what Wood could have done with a cheap digital camera and iMovie.
The boxed set features terrific extras including an interview with Wood's widow, Bela Lugosi hyping his next Wood project on the day he's released from drug rehab, color home films from the set of ORGY OF THE DEAD, and more.
If you need more Wood, and you know you do, look for his lurid pulp fiction paperback thriller "Killer in Drag."