Porn Loser

Long before film critic Michael Medved became the insipid defender of family values and de facto darling of the Quayle campaign he is today, he had something a critic desperately needs or he's dead in the water, a quirky sense of humor. Medved, with the help of his brother Harry, co-authored The Golden Turkey Awards, a gut-achingly funny compendium of the worst in cinema, a veritable Mount Trashmore of movies, movie stars, and movie directors. Some of the final choices, delivered in the hackneyed "And the winner is..." manner of the Academy Awards, were mean-spiritedly brilliant (Raquel Welch as the Worst Actress of All Time), others merely mean (Richard Burton edging out Victor Mature for the men's award). But the honoring of Edward D. Wood, Jr. as Worst Director, and his unspeakably wonderful space-age caper, Plan Nine From Outer Space, as Worst Film, was so right you had to stand up and cheer.

My first glimpse of Plan Nine -- for I've seen it many times since, and guiltlessly -- was some fourteen years ago, before I had read the Medved brothers. In the middle of the night in a New York hotel, it was on the tube. The film begins with an electrifyingly hyperbolic intro intoned by Criswell, a creation of the late Fifties whose alleged oracular wisdom and flamboyant theatricality were festooned throughout America's radio and television stations and book stores. Caped and bulging-eyed, Criswell bellows: "The incidents, the places, my friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty; let us reward the innocent." And then the clincher: "My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about...grave robbers from outer space!?" It was confusing, and transfixing.

Briefly, Plan Nine is supposed to be a film about aliens seeking to destroy mankind before mankind destroys the universe. Thus, there's scarcely a plot to speak of, let alone narrative coherence. The filmmaking seems deliberate in its credulity-stretching badness. The bulk of the action takes place in a suburban graveyard (and the production values are such that tombstones, seemingly made of plywood, teeter and lurch at the proximity of every passing footstep). The film features the last performance of Bela Lugosi, such as it is: Lugosi, heroin-addicted and forgotten by the industry that made him a star as Dracula, died before the completion of this film. The director, meanwhile, left with some extant silent footage of the elderly Lugosi posing outside a house and entering, hired a double to complete the scenes -- a double about a foot taller than Lugosi who covers his face with a black cape and whose ears protrude like Dumbo's. Plan Nine's innovations are inspired.

Other members of the cast include another Fifties exploitation queen, Vampira, who somnambulistically traipses, hands outstretched, toward objects around the graveyard, plus the obese Swedish wrestler, Tor Johnson, who plays a dead sheriff risen from the grave. The dialogue, acting, and editing have dreamlike lapses of logic -- in one sequence, there's a chase in which the camera cuts between the chasers filmed in daylight and the chasees in nightlike darkness. Never having hallucinated as Lugosi did, my first encounter with the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. -- among whose other work the even more inspired Glen or Glenda takes pride of place -- was the next best alternative. And so it remains.

Earlier this year, a book on this insuperably camp director was published, Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., a well-researched "oral history" offering plenty of information regarding the elusive Wood. It's all there -- Wood's early heroism in World War II, his fetishistic transvestism (a love of angora sweaters is well documented), his cheaply thrilling forays into pornography back in the early Sixties, his voluminous writing of trash novels (Death of a Transvestite is about a cross-dresser on death row who wants to die in tights), and his drinking and early death in 1978 at age 54. Long before Russ Meyer and John Waters created a niche for themselves in the celluloid underground, the book suggests, Ed Wood had already frolicked and prospered there.

The author will be in Miami Beach this Saturday at 9:00 p.m. to perform a book signing at Books and Books in Lincoln Road. That event will be followed, as befitting Halloween Night, by a screening of Wood's 1960 pornographic expose, The Sinister Urge, at the Alliance Film/Video Project next door. Less hokily outre than Plan Nine though equally mouth-opening, the story deals with a "smut picture" racket allegedly resulting in multiple murders of young women. I shall not give much else away, other than to repeat this delicious morsel of dialogue, a response by the town sherriff to a concerned citizen about the police raids: "Show me a crime and I'll show you a picture that could have caused it."

That's the wonderful thing about Ed Wood -- long before the Fundamentalists crusaded against Penthouse at convenience stores, the man just knew that pictures of naked girls were the cause of crime across America. What a guy.

THE SINISTER URGE
Written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.; with Kenne Duncan, James "Duke" Moore, Jean Fontaine, Carl Anthony, and Dino Fantini.

Unrated.
Plays Saturday at midnight at the Alliance Film/Video Project, 927 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; call 531-0954 for further information.

 
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