Bad movie directors are a dime a dozen, yet Edward D. Wood Jr. remains perennial. A lot of that’s on his reputation as making the “worst movie ever”–with infamously obvious continuity errors, low production values, and reliance on stock footage–but having watched Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster (the latter of which played in Jackson’s Michigan Theatre last Saturday), it almost seems harsh to judge them as the worst ever. Especially when Wood seems to be wrestling with themes of alienation almost as much as he had Bela Lugosi flailing the mechanical octopus prop (which couldn’t move, due either to malfunction or the crew failing to steal the motor that powered it, depending on the anecdote of your choosing*), which puts it a heads above mercenary blockbusters like The Amazing Spider-Man, for example, which are equally incompetent. By comparison, Wood almost approaches artistry.
What stood out to me about Bride was the arc of Tor Johnson’s Lobo, the Igor to Lugosi’s Frankenstein-as-supervillain, Dr. Vornoff. A lumbering man capable of bursts of unstoppable violence, Lobo nevertheless exudes the awkwardness of a sheltered child, curious for new experiences, in every scene he’s in (Vornoff describes him as “harmless as a kitten”). When he first encounters leading lady Loretta King Hadler, who is “menaced” by a boa constrictor and faints, he becomes fixated on her, in true monster movie fashion. Lobo’s interest isn’t overtly romantic or sexual (the way it is with King Kong, Dracula, Gill-Man, etc.), but rather because he is drawn to her angora cap. He repeatedly caresses it, its softness gaining his sympathy and ultimately inspiring him to betray Vornoff when he attempts to turn Hadler into one of his atomic super-people (which he plans on using to conquer the world).
Angora has a certain significance in Wood’s movies: as a cross-dresser, it was his preferred fabric, and he would have his actresses wear sweaters made from it. It could be argued Lobo’s fascination with Hadler’s cap is an extension of Wood’s personality, and even fears about others’ reaction to it. In one scene, when Lobo gets too close to Hadler, Vornoff becomes furious and whips him. The image of the whip as a tool of oppression is a powerful one, employed by Wood to signify the denial of Lobo’s inner self as a man who enjoys women’s clothing. That Vornoff has the whip at his side implies years of beating Lobo into a specific cultural role (ironically a role Johnson himself is best suited for, as is the case in Plan 9 from Outer Space. He bungles his dialogue, but does fine as a zombie). This keeps Lobo obedient, for a time, especially since Varnoff can be seen as a father (having raised him) and a kindred spirit (exiled from his homeland for the weird, dubious scientific ideas he espouses).
Eventually, though, Lobo rebels to save Hadler, and in the process zapping Vornoff with his own atomic ray. And this is where Wood’s fears of being ‘out’ manifest: rather than embracing him as a hero, Hadler’s character and her cop boyfriend (played by Tony McCoy, son of the movie’s producer Donald McCoy) react with fear, recalling the Universal monster movies. McCoy attempts to kill him, though the fight is one-sided (and not in his favor), only for Vornoff–now super-powered–to rise and beat Lobo to death**. In doing something noble, he ‘outs’ himself as being infatuated with women’s clothes, having touched Hadler’s cap before betraying his master, a taboo that must be met with rejection and violence. This takes on a personal dimension when one considers Wood’s military service in World War II: he claimed to be afraid of being wounded in combat, and having his fellow soldiers discover he wore a bra and panties under his uniform as a result. Since homosexuality, transgenderism, and cross-dressing were (and in some segments, still are) seen as deviant behavior, it’s easy to see the fascination of a man finally expressing who he is on the inside, only to be killed for it. In this way, Bride of the Monster could be seen as a companion to Wood’s Glen or Glenda (which was both semi-autobiographical and about the sex change operation of Christine Jorgensen), the subversive message to that movie’s idealistic call for acceptance.
Wood often seems more interested in weirdos, oddballs, anti-socials, and outcasts; whether out of necessity as a Hollywood outlier or genuine sympathy and affection, they tend to take center stage in his movies more than his lead characters (for instance, Wood devotes a significant portion of two scenes in Bride to a police official playing with, and giving water to, his pet bird, which would not be out of place in a modern, quirk-filled ‘indie’ comedy). This would anticipate the rise of ’60s counterculture, which was precisely built out of people who didn’t fit in with America’s ideal vision of the nuclear family. It only makes sense he would devote so much attention to Lugosi (whose star had faded by the time he was working with Wood) and Johnson (a wrestler whose very gait always makes him seem uncomfortable in his own skin).
That this is all masked behind the silliness and incompetence of a poorly-done B-movie is both Wood’s biggest failure and greatest triumph. The “dramatic” lightning footage, the hammy acting, Lugosi flopping those limp octopus arms around like a child playing with a pool toy, the pithy moral (“He tampered in God’s domain”) delivered hilariously casual before the credits (after a nuclear explosion that doesn’t seem to harm anyone standing five feet away from it); these all help make Bride of the Monster–like all of Ed Wood’s movies–an easy target for mockery. Yet, it’s that same laughable quality that helped Wood gain a second life, appreciated by a different set of weirdos, oddballs, anti-socials, and outcasts. A more competent director could have realized the artistic potency of Wood’s images and themes; but more competent directors didn’t even bother.
*Being a fan of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, like any proper American, I prefer the theft story.
**Lobo would get better, and return in another Wood movie, Night of the Ghouls. Which is kind of a happy ending for him, I guess.