1930s, Horror/Eerie

White Zombie (1932)

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Director: Victor Halperin
Screenwriter: Garnett Weston

By Roderick Heath

Victor Halperin’s White Zombie holds status as one of the true oddities of classic Hollywood Horror cinema. The Chicago-born Halperin and his brother Edward, who often served as his producer, were entrepreneurial Hollywood players: Victor broke into moviemaking penning the screenplay of 1922’s The Danger Point, debuted as a director on Greater Than Marriage (1924), and served as writer, producer, and director on the Agnes Ayres vehicle When A Girl Loves (1924). Like many other Hollywood talents the Halperins had difficulty negotiating the transition to sound, but when the enormous popularity of Béla Lugosi’s star-making vehicle Dracula (1931) unleashed a craze for Horror films, the brothers mounted what was then a relative rarity, an independently produced film, filmed on a budget of $50,000, making canny used of Universal Studios’ infrastructure and staff and managing to land Lugosi for one week’s work a few hundred dollars. Today Halperin is best remembered by far for White Zombie. The film’s profitability and popularity gained Halperin a fresh studio contract with Paramount, although his two horror follow-ups, Supernatural (1933) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936), were interesting but sketchy disappointments, and the director himself reportedly disliked working in the genre despite his affinity with it. Later Halperin worked at the Poverty Row studio PRC, managing the occasional oddity like the Jack London adaptation Torture Ship (1938), before retiring from directing at 47: he would live for another 41 years.

White Zombie also owes some of its stature to being the first zombie movie, albeit one with few links to the subgenre as we recognise it today. The infamously hard-living journalist and travel writer William Seabrook had grabbed international attention with his report on Haitian voodoo practises in his 1929 book The Magic Island, popularising the word “zombie.” A play by Kenneth Webb took the word as its title and gave inspiration to Halperin, but legal tussles obliged Halperin to amend his own title. The film’s early vignettes, including Haitians burying bodies in the middle of the road to prevent them being resurrected, are drawn directly from Seabrook’s book. One famous episode recounted in the book was the story of a young bride who realises she’s attending a wedding party where all the guests are dead: Halperin references this with his own benighted wedding but inverts the situation so it’s the bride who joins the undead ranks. But White Zombie is really more a classical fairy tale, with its central villain, the notorious dark sorcerer “Murder” Legendre (Lugosi) offered as a figure akin to Koschei the Dread from Slavic myth or Atlantes from Orlando Furioso, a figure of vast and evil power ensconced in a fortress, snatching away the decorous maiden and suborning all to his will.

Like Karl Freund’s The Mummy from the same year, White Zombie’s minatory charge stems from the way it hovers stylistically in a grey zone between silent and sound cinema, between generic Horror cinema and something more primal and poetic. The film’s opening credits unfold over the burial in the road, the ritual singing of the funeral party offering a stark and throbbing rhythm on sound. Upon this scene intrudes a horse-drawn coach carrying the young about-to-be-marrieds Madeleine Short and Neil Parker (Madge Bellamy and John Harron). Neil and Madeleine have come to Haiti to be married after accepting the hospitality and patronage of Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), a local plantation owner they met on a cruise, with the promise of a job for Neil as Beaumont’s agent in New York. “A cheerful introduction for you to our West Indies,” Neil comments to Madeleine after rolling over the fresh grave. Halperin follows this immediate with the first and most notable example of his peculiar imagistic imagination, cutting to a shot of the carriage rolling along the lonely, shadowy country road with a pair of huge, glowing eyes appearing as a spectral presence tracking the vehicle’s passage, before revealing a tall figure standing by the road waiting for the carriage.

The huge eyes become smaller and zero in on the figure’s head, telling the viewer this figure is an uncanny, threatening, very interested presence with supernatural power. The driver (Clarence Muse) halts to ask the figure for directions, and we gain our first proper glimpse of Lugosi as Legendre, a Satanic figure with blazing, mesmeric eyes, widow’s peak sharp as a scalpel, flaring eyebrows and inward-crooking beard forks. Legendre approaches the carriage and clasps Madeleine’s trailing white silk scarf even as he holds her and Neil rapt with his powerful gaze. Against the night horizon, upon a slope above the road, a procession of slowly moving, disquieting figures, men the coach driver recognises instinctively: “Zombies!” The driver whips up the horses and charges away, leaving Legendre with the scarf in hand, much to his satisfaction. When the carriage finally arrives at the Beaumont house, a place of lush splendour and genteel pretence, Madeleine and Neil listen to the driver’s credulous explanation that the people they saw were the living dead, and the driver points to the line of figures moving down a slope silhouetted against the sky in fear, declaring these to be the zombies.

A mysterious man approaching through the shadowy garden of the Beaumont estate proves to be Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary and theologian who’s been invited by Beaumont to officiate at the couple’s wedding and a hearty, reassuring figure. He dispels the eerie atmosphere, but only to a degree, as even he admits that Haiti is a place filled with such mysteries that would “turn your hair grey.” Bruner becomes uncomfortable as he listens to Neil and Madeleine’s explanation of why they’re here and what Beaumont has promised them, noting that Beaumont never struck him as such an altruistic romantic. Halperin illustrates how right Bruner is, as Beaumont (Robert Frazer) is seen instructing his manservant Silver (Brandon Hurst), asking if he’s heard anything from “that gentleman” and quickly enough revealing that his actual motivation for inviting the young couple is because he’s in love with Madeleine and wants to find some way to cleave them apart. Even as he greets the couple warmly and declares himself ready to help them along, Beaumont is planning to head out and visit Legendre, a dark sorcerer and voodoo master, who promises he can render Madeleine Beaumont’s passive and obedient slave.

Beaumont’s visit to the sugar mill Legendre owns is one of the more delicately strange and important sequences in Horror cinema. Legendre’s zombie slaves toil in shuffling, dead-eyed ranks to feed cane into a huge grinding machine, itself driven by zombies turning the gears, machinery still working obliviously as one of the zombies trips and falls into the feed chute to be chewed up along with the cane. Halperin betrays unique awareness of how sound cinema could operate in the genre here, allowing the unnerving creak and grind of the machinery and the unnatural silence of the zombies to forge the uncanny atmosphere as well as draw out the fascinating thematic undercurrents of what we’re seeing. Later, he uses the ambient croaks of frogs and insects, and the bloodcurdling shriek of a vulture to equally odd and unnerving effect. Seeds for the ominous sound design of David Lynch in this, conjuring oneiric and psychological dimensions beyond what visuals can gain on their own. Indeed, White Zombie, described by Phil Hardy as “one of the underground classics of horror,” feels like a root leading as much to Lynch, Kenneth Anger, and other icons of underground and experimental cinema and surrealist music videos, as it does to George Romero’s Dead movies and his manifold imitators.

White Zombie certainly birthed a subgenre followed by zombie movies with highly varying levels of ethnographic validity and dramatic tension, like Roy William Neill’s Black Moon (1934), Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Edward L. Cahn’s Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), and on to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979) and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987). But the film’s more vital influence feels more rarefied, writing cheques more exalted filmmakers like Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, and Lynch would cash. Something about White Zombie seems to sit outside the normal boundaries of the liminal. Some of this air of the alien is due to the archaic, shoestring production, like the wheezing, tinny classical music on the soundtrack: the glaze of oldness as an aesthetic unto itself has a taunting appeal, the awareness of the limitations of past technology operating in its own way as a force of black magic itself, sustaining the ghostly presence of people long dead. But it also connects to the otherworldly charge of Halperin’s carefully composed visuals, which by contrast to the primitive sound still retain vibrant lustre. The early shot of the huge, spectral eyes that shrink and find their place in Legendre’s head is a marvellous jolt of visual invention, whilst the column of gnarled and mindless zombies tracking Legendre around the dark Universal backlot standing in for Haiti are a memorable, eerie sight, bolstering the idea of the land beyond the wrought iron boundaries of the plantation as ruled over by primal and unnatural forces which know no easy quieting, where the dead walk and the irrational still rules.

Legendre’s sugar mill offers a wealth of hallucinatory space around the dark grinding machines and hobbling black bodies. The stout but carefully crafted gates that separate Legendre’s managerial space evoke the pretences of Old World civility erected as a barrier to separate from the ruler from the ruled, whilst also allowing Halperin to work through his recurring fascination with images captured spying through barriers and loopholes. Beaumont’s visit to Legendre sees the self-deluding and desperate planter begging Legendre to facilitate his desire to make Madeleine fall in love with him – “If she were to disappear for a month!” – but Legendre tells him with detached thoughtfulness that she is too deeply in love with Neil and implies his only option for obtaining her is to make her into a zombie. Legendre hands him a vial of the powder he uses for the zombie-making ritual and tells him a pinprick will suffice on some object, but Beaumont initially announces his refusal to take this option. Legendre hovers outside Beaumont’s house whilst the wedding proceeds within, Beaumont making desperate entreaty to Madeleine to her love-struck disinterest.

This finally provokes Beaumont to a desperate, fateful gesture that directly engages a folkloric feel as he hands Madeleine a rose impregnated with the zombifying powder. This causes her to pitch over and collapse, apparently dead, at the wedding banquet. The visuals in this sequence are particularly memorable in the sharp alternations of romantic and sepulchral imagery. The impending wedding amidst the splendour of Beaumont’s mansion with its gilt fixtures and candelabra and flowers has some of the teeming lushness of Josef von Sternberg. Legendre without exists in a hoary netherworld as he presents the equally folkloric figure of death intruding upon a wedding, standing before an ornate gateway as the master of life and death, the dark antithesis to the settled, ordered pretence and ritual sustained within the house. Legendre, watched over the harshly shrieking vulture that seems to be his familiar, clutches Madeleine’s white scarf as he takes a candle from a carriage lamp and carves it into a voodoo doll so he can work his influence over the hapless bride.

Another seminal 1932 Horror film White Zombie bears a striking similarity to is Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, a resemblance particularly keen when comparing Dreyer’s tour of a mysterious abode where the shadows of dancers play on walls with Halperin’s take on the same idea, finding a way of acknowledging the world beyond the primal drama consuming the protagonist without dispelling the mood of oneiric isolation. Neil is glimpsed in a tavern drinking away his sorrow after Madeleine’s burial, the revelry around him casting shadows on the wall, amidst which he sees Madeleine’s spectral, pleading visage. Neil, close to madness with grief and drink, stumbles up the path to the cemetery to visit Madeleine’s mausoleum, only for Halperin to fade out as his scream echoes from within in finding Madeleine’s body gone. The fairy tale qualities of the film, focusing on objects like the cursed rose given at the wedding and the climactic images of the possessed princess in the dark tower under the sorcerer’s spell, connect with a nascent surrealist sensibility. Neil’s desperate liebestod comes touched with a morbidly hysterical, almost necrophiliac edge as he goes to join Madeleine in the grave, intercut with the sight of Legendre and Beaumont supervising as the zombies remove Maadeleine’s coffin from its place and open, revealing her doll-like form, nominally dead now the perfect, passive feminine love object. Years later Buñuel would approximate aspects of Halperin’s vision in Abismos de Pasion (1953), whilst Halperin’s insidious feel for animal life infesting his conjured world is also Buñuel-like.

Halperin and his screenwriter Garnett Weston deliberately tried to lessen the reliance on dialogue, to make the production easier and expecting beforehand that on a stringent budget they weren’t likely to land particularly good actors. It’s commonly noted that the two romantic leads, Bellamy and Harron, are insipid, and Frazer, with his shock of dark hair and sensual lips, has a Byronic quality that’s good for his part even as he often walks the edges of the overripe. All the more space for Lugosi to dominate. Lugosi’s star wattage was at its zenith when he made White Zombie, which makes it all the more interesting that he was willing to appear in a low-budget independent film, particularly after he had so recently turned down the role of the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), in doing so handing over an opportunity to the man about to be his great, even eclipsing rival as a horror star, Boris Karloff. The attraction of the role is obvious, however, offering Lugosi, Dracula notwithstanding, his greatest genre role. Legendre is a perfectly iconic villain with his unmistakeable appearance and costume, a figure of dread and sepulchral stature supllying an intelligent brand of evil, relishing the power he wields with an edge of vengeful purpose.

Weston’s dialogue registers on a more subtly sinister key than Lugosi’s better-known Dracula lines, allowing Lugosi to turn his much-mimicked but still unique intonations to drawing out an undercurrent of sardonic and self-satisfied menace, most pointedly in his comment to Beaumont as the planter slips ever deeply under his power after once snubbing him, gripping the sorcerer’s hand in a bleakly useless appeal to his humanity: “You refused to shake hands with me once, I remember…Well, well. We understand each-other better – now.” Legendre watches Beaumont succumbing with a quiet, almost indulgent sense of entertainment whilst he whittles another candle down to a voodoo doll of the planter. White Zombie exploits the image that had been built around Lugosi even well before he started playing Dracula on stage, as a man imbued with preternatural stature and mesmeric eyes often highlighted with pencil spotlights. In Dracula this was part of his role as the ultimate dark seducer-destroyer, a bringer of sexual evil, whereas Legendre is in that regard a more ambiguous creature.

It’s signalled that Legendre is driven on by resentment and a cruel sense of poetic justice, as he points out the members of his favoured zombie cabal, consisting of people who tried to control or sit in judgment on him, including his former mentor in sorcery, a minister of the government, and the state executioner “who might have executed me!” Beaumont immediately and unthinkingly gets on Legendre’s wrong side when he neglects to accept the sorcerer’s proffered hand at their first meeting. Legendre’s delight in controlling people has the inevitable dimension of claiming the virginal young beauty as he zombifies Madeleine but also gains a homoerotic edge as he does the same to Beaumont, taunting him in his bleakly transforming state with the dread knowledge, “You are the first man to know what is happening,” and regretting that Beaumont can no longer speak to describe the experience. The sight of Beaumont, twisting up, slowly losing control of his limbs and faculties as a malignant force takes him over, speaks eloquently nonetheless of a state that actually seems to live up to the old cliché of a fate worse than death.

Where the vampire becomes in death a wielder of mysterious power and therefore has long served as a metaphor for potency ranging from the political to the erotic, the zombie is the opposite, driven on purely by either the will of a master or the remnant of a life instinct. Zombie movies have long since become detached from the zombie figure’s roots in the black magic esoterica attached to voodoo religious tradition. That’s largely for understandable reasons: dealing with voodoo obliges storytellers to anchor their stories in a specific cultural and historical dimension, often with an edge of racist assumption even despite the best intentions of the filmmakers. But the figure of the mindlessly shuffling walking dead nonetheless retains a potency that can be applied to a variety of paradigms. Despite its pointed metaphors and mindful aspects White Zombie doesn’t entirely avoid such discomfort, sporting one actor in blackface playing ancient witch doctor Pierre (Dan Crimmins), who Bruner visits to learn more about Legendre, whilst Muse’s performances manages to imbue his part with an edge of baleful awareness and solicitous purpose even as it also treads the edges of bug-eyed, timorous stereotype.

The very title of White Zombie invokes games of racial coding – a white zombie is something else again from a black zombie, apparently. But Halperin’s film also predicts the later detachment of concept from root in the scene at Legendre’s mill, the zombie immediately and plainly rendered a vessel of potent metaphorical malleability. Legendre is also a classical figure of devolved European culture, with his great gothic castle grafted onto a new world shore like some cancerous offshoot. The vision of Legendre’s sugar mill zeroes in on the ghostly echo of slavery sustained in zombie folklore with Legendre as a Baron Samedi figure, whilst also linking it to a more general, mordant portrayal of exploitative labour that must have echoed with excruciating clarity for a Depression-era audience: “They work faithfully,” Legendre tells Beaumont as he encourages the planter to take them up for his own workforce, “They are not worried about long hours.” The perfect state of capitalist endeavour.

It’s also tempting to view Legendre as an analogue for the rising tide of totalitarianism in Europe, a prototypical fascist dictator suborning people to his will, as well as embodying the dark side of western colonialism and exploitation. The zombie cadre that follows Legendre consists of defeated and enslaved enemies from the ranks of the local law and politics, as well as rivals and his former mentor in magic “whose secrets I tortured out of him,” rivals in power suborned in a fashion comparable to fascist takeover of the mechanisms of civic democracy, although at the same time he also exhibits a mischievously subversive attitude towards state power. In this regard he also rather strongly resembles the type of gangster-outlaw hero so popular in films around the same time, subverting the machinery of justice and morality to service his own will. His enthralled servants wear the symbols of defeated creeds – one has an iron cross slung around his neck, whilst his former mentor still wears a robe inscribed with cabalistic signs. Halperin would reiterate this shade of political commentary, however clumsily, in Revolt of the Zombies, where the story revolves around trying to bury the potential zombie threat stemming out of a misbegotten attempt to use them as soldiers during World War I.

The theme of domination also resonates on a more interpersonal level. White Zombie offers a dark lampoon the concept of the trophy wife, the beauty suborned to plutocratic ego as both Legendre and Beaumont in their way attempt to impose their will on Madeleine. Beaumont’s desperate passion shades into a sense of entitled prerogative that drives him, despite his scruples, to impose on his beloved a most terrible fate, only to then cringe in remorse as he beholds her, a dead-eyed, blank-minded automaton playing piano in Legendre’s castle, a prettified object. Beaumont is remorseful as he perceives the ultimate logic of his choices, only to quickly pay the price. For Legendre, such perfect annihilation of personality and agency seems on the other hand the most relished edge of his power, steadily consuming every being that comes into range, happy to force the mindless Madeleine to slay Neil when he comes to rescue her, and having his zombie cadre carry the screaming Silver out to the castle battlements and drop him into the whirlpool churning below.

After finding Madeleine’s body missing, Neil visits Bruner, who speaks sceptically about the supernatural even as he readies for a contest of magic, showing Neil statutes in Haitian law against poisoning in a form that reproduces the appearance of zombiehood. Bruner has no pretences to being a sorcerer but explains in his position as a preacher he’s picked up lore from all sorts of sources. Bruner and Neil set out across country and approach the territory where Legendre dominates, a veritable fiefdom of death where he rules unchallenged, and camp on the wave-tossed beach beneath Legendre’s citadel, Neil stricken with fever. Legendre’s keep, based around a central set redressed from Dracula, is a marvellously incongruous outpost of gothic architecture and outsized aristocratic pretence, a space entrapping Legendre’s dark fantasies and egotisms as well as his human pets, with an interior replete with odd and inchoate dimensions, including a flooded dungeon and a whirlpool below for easy disposal of unwanted guests. Halperin returns to liebestod imagery as he splits his frame between the mindless Madeleine hovering on a high balcony in the keep whilst Neil, visionary in his feverish state, senses her presence and the bond of their love achieves its own, delirious spiritual force, and the young husband begins a stumbling journey towards the castle.

White Zombie occasionally signals the relative freedom of the pre-code independent filmmakers as Halperin offers glimpses of Madeleine before her nuptials in her underwear, and gore, as when Neil shoots a zombie only behold the bloodless hole it leaves in its chest, tame of course by later standards but provocative enough for the time, particularly the latter touch, at a time when Lugosi’s Dracula wasn’t even shown biting anyone or being staked. Moreover such touches simply feed rather than disrupt the weird atmosphere, marking out the corporeal stakes of the magical drama. Halperin’s unusual, oblique, reality-destabilising grammar approach is maintained even as the film nears its ending. Legendre mesmerically directs Madeleine to stab the collapsed Neil after he manages to penetrate the house, stirring the white-clad captive from her bed and drawing her through the cavernous twists of the castle for the deed, filming her through a loophole in a balustrade in a frame charged with a sense of onerous constriction. As she moves to stab Neil, a hand reaches into the frame and grips her wrist, staying the killing blow, the unseen figure’s black cape also visible.

This helps identify that it’s actually Bruner who stops her blow, having followed Neil into the house and dressed in the cape in literally assuming the mantle of opposing white magician, but Halperin transforms the gesture into something rather more abstract, almost like the hand of fate, or the author, intervening to break the chains of Legendre’s control. As the zombies shuffle in to aid their master in the final battle, Halperin shows their ragged, stalky shadows cast on a wall, incarnations of the darkness scuttling out of its burrow to meet the white of Madeleine’s nightgown and Neil’s suit. As Madeleine takes up Legendre’s dagger the sorcerer’s command from the table where he was talking at Beaumont, the latter attempts in his last throes of transformation to prevent her, with no success. The climax comes as sudden, hysterical blur of action as Neil finds himself surrounded by the zombies, Bruner offering an amusingly curt answer to Legendre’s vast necromantic power by sneaking up behind him and knocking him out with a blow to the head, before ordering the zombies to leap over the battlements into the surging surf.

The recovering Legendre smashes a vial of his zombifying powder on the masonry when Bruner and Neil try to charge him, and holds them at bay with his will, only for Beaumont, advancing with the last of his human strength and purpose, to ambush and grab the sorcerer, and drive them both over the precipice to their deaths, whereupon Madeleine returns to life. The film’s simple yet rich narrative closes a tragic circle as Beaumont undoes the evil he set in motion and even provides a proof that his passion was as authentic for Madeleine as Neil’s, as he uses his last breath to save her and the man she loves as well as avenging himself. Halperin signs off with a leave-‘em-laughing touch of Bruner interrupting the couple’s reuniting kiss to ask for a light for his pipe, but it actually comes as a welcome release from the atmosphere Halperin has sustained despite all limitations for the previous seventy minutes, that suffocating netherworld where the dead walk and romance has poisoned thorns under the pretty petals.

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1990s, Biopic, Comedy

Ed Wood (1994)

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Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

By Roderick Heath

The career of Edward D. Wood Jnr. went thus: he made bad movies, was not rewarded for this, and died young, poor, weird, and obscure. A simple narrative, one obeying seemingly cast-iron rules of art and industry, a ready example of an almost natural law at work—except that we sometimes tend to rebel against such obvious arcs, a temptation that’s especially strong today when movies can cost $200 million and still be less coherent, personal, or fun than the films Wood slapped together on rock-bottom budgets. Wood’s status as a hero of cash-strapped delirium has passed through phases, from roots in the punk era’s camp-hued affection for trashy antitheses to the slick emptiness of much popular culture, through to genuine, if sometimes over-earnest, attempts to embrace him as the essence of the outsider artist and a ramshackle surrealist.
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In fact, Wood was a schismatic creature, at once a filmmaker who packed his movies with peccadilloes and private delights, and a hack who tried to winnow his way into Hollywood with his own ineffably clueless takes on material he thought popular. Wood lamely attempted to ape his betters, but also was a secret rebel twisting their noses with his characterful statements in favour of acceptance and against nuclear-age blustering, reflecting a general inability to fit into the conformist world of the 1950s, as if he was a prototypical, half-unwilling beatnik lost in a jungle of coldly commercial professionalism. Yet, it was precisely his inability to recreate the art that pleased him and to express his serious ideas in a serious manner that makes his work so disturbingly thrilling at times, the simultaneous horror and delight in the obviousness of the intention and the depth of failure. Edward D. Wood Jnr. has become the Charlie Brown of cinema icons, locked in an eternal frieze, trying to kick that cultural football and missing.
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Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, spun from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is as much a film about the art and the idea of Wood and what they meant and could mean for other artists and filmmakers, as it is a traditional biopic. Ed Wood views his life through a prism of decades of semi-underground art movements, to celebrate those movements and their clique-happy enthusiasm. Burton feted Wood’s career through a series of ironic contrasts, reproducing his tacky special effects and cardboard motifs with large-budget, detail-driven zest and exacting technical competence, precisely the qualities Wood so badly lacked. Mimicking Wood’s style in the visuals of the film freed Burton somewhat from having to devote too much time to depicting the products of Ed’s work. Burton seemed to latch onto Wood as a personal avatar, another natural outsider, a singular oddball with a strange power for attracting and employing a posse of glorious misfits to whom he could offer a protective wing. Burton also found the same essential pleasure in cinema as a way of exploring the ephemera of things readily dismissed as tacky and corny, and yet which lingered with strange intensity from the shoals of childhood memory and adolescent fixation.
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Wood’s story, at least the notable phase of it depicted in the film extending from 1953’s hallucinatory Glen or Glenda? through to his sci-fi anti-epic Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959), offered plentiful raw materials for a tragicomedy. The film concerns itself mostly with Wood’s friendship with the aging, haggard Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau) and others inhabiting the Hollywood fringe, including TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), monster movie hostess Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (Lisa Marie), temporary fiancé and future tunesmith Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), gloriously gay socialite Lyle “Bunny” Breckenridge (Bill Murray), and hulking pro wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele)–a gallery of characters to rival the Addams Family for incongruous charm and the Keystone Kops for incompetence in the line of duty. Ed Wood is unusual as a movie narrative in many ways, then, because unlike most films, especially biopics, which lead us towards either a singular triumph or cathartic collapse, it becomes instead a snapshot of people fending off the ravages of time with fellowship, and the only triumph is an illusory one. Wood’s employment of the footage he took of Lugosi in Plan Nine is, here, no longer merely a man using a desperate gimmick for box office appeal, but an instinctive poet’s attempt to stave off mortality’s victory and the inevitable dissolution of the weirdly beautiful world he’s built around himself.
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By presenting a biography of a director where the resulting work is, implicitly, negligible, Burton offers one of the most beguiling portraits of the artist as young self-deluder ever. Johnny Depp’s Wood is a creature of manic-depressive highs and lows, sometimes gnawed at by self-doubt suppressed with alcohol, but often skating along on the back of enthusiasm, process, and the druglike rush of believing in his own brilliance. Burton captures the latter attitude in a perfect visualisation: stock-footage explosions and patriotic parades are superimposed over Wood’s beaming face as he marvels at his own achievement, blending both the man’s defining traits and his techniques into a seamless, singular image. Ed Wood is the essence of every artist who has remained convinced of their own worth even whilst every force in the universe seems to be contradicting them.
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For Burton, Ed Wood was a departure, and it remains a stand-out in his career, not only as his best film to date, but also in how he tackled a true story and transmuted it into both companion piece and negative image to his other works, executed with an uncommon economy, yet still stuffed with stylistic coups. Coming after his uneasy rise to the higher ranks of Hollywood through his Batman films, and his still-beloved diptych of black-comedy satires on family and suburbia, Beetlejuice (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton indulged a measure of self-analysis, possibly casting his thoughts back to his own brief partnership with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands in regarding Wood’s and Lugosi’s alliance, and extrapolating the image of himself as a man locked in a contradictory posture of eccentric, individualistic creativity finding a niche in a world with opposing priorities and values. Leading man Depp’s interpretation of Wood seems partly channelled through his one-time director John Waters, whose Cry Baby (1990) helped give Depp his first move beyond the teen stardom of “21 Jump Street.” (Waters’ own early efforts were something like Wood’s, though operating from a perspective of self-aware absurdist chic). In spite of the overt artifice Burton indulges, like black-and-white photography and flourishes of generic parody, and indeed largely because of this, Ed Wood is also a film with a sense of time and place so vivid you can practically smell the shady bars, two-room apartments, seedy low-rent studios, and bunkerlike offices of fly-by-night producers. This milieu is inseparable from Wood’s own work, with its location filming in deepest San Fernando and the down-market corners of Los Angeles. Ed Wood captures that atmosphere with an intensity that’s at once tactile, seamy, nostalgically affectionate, and occasionally, as in the opening, transformed into an adjunct of Wood’s shoestring-Expressionist worldview. Ed Wood remains a daydream about the underside of ’50s Hollywood.
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Ed Wood commences with Criswell warning the audience in the manner of his introduction for Wood’s Revenge of the Dead (1960), from a coffin in the Old Willows Place of Bride of the Monster, about the dread experience the audience is about to witness, before the opening credits explore the environs of Wood’s iconography via an extended piece of brilliant model-work, resolving on a soaring vision of Los Angeles transformed into a Gothic wonderland. Wood is found fretting over the lack of press turning up for the premiere of a play he’s putting on. The glimpses we see of the play offer the Wood sensibility already fully formed: a giddy mix of the naively poetic and the woodenly terrible. Wood’s fearsome optimism proves resilient even in the face of a bad review served up by a leading critic’s copy boy, though his fiancé Dolores mournfully takes to heart its jabs at her (“Do I really have a face like a horse?”). Ed’s fairy godmother Bunny cynically dismisses the whole thing with his knowledge of the forces that really run Hollywood: sex, power, and money.
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Ed, whose day job is carting around props at Universal Studios, is a man constantly trying to understand the business he’s involved in, marvelling at the forces which can produce camels for a bit of backlot flimflam, and yet its resources of magic remain ever out of reach, even as he finds possibility and excitement in detritus like the reels of stock footage an older employee digs out and then files away. Wood’s adoration for and grasp on the potential in the marginalia of this world extends to his spotting of Lugosi, whom he happens upon as the aging, haggard star is checking out coffins at an undertaker’s for the next exhausting tour of a production of Dracula, hanging onto the last vestige of his fame and means of making a living. Ed makes friends with Lugosi simply by offering him a ride in his car, saving the once wealthy star from having to catch the bus.
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Ed’s tale is as much about trying to subsist and thrive within the precepts of the grand narrative of American and Hollywood success, whilst also, almost accidentally, trying to resist the pulverising conformity those 1950s narratives could assert, as it is about making bad movies. Late in the film, Ed and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminisce over their childhood love of the figures of wonderment broadcast to them through the highways of pop culture, from pulp radio serials to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, evoking the way such enchantments change lives even in the boondocks. Ed’s attempts to get into that game himself retain this innocent quality. Ed’s troupe become something akin to a family, accumulating members, some gleeful, some resistant, but all glad to find a temporary shelter and the shreds of dignity Ed’s drive gives them. Lugosi entrances Ed with a nostalgic, pseudo-intellectual paean to delights of the classic Gothic horror film, complete with Freudian jive about the felicities of Dracula as spur to scoring with the ladies in a humorous tilt that seems aimed as much at the psycho-sexual desolation of most contemporary genre film as at the ’50s giant monster craze Lugosi derides, as well as the spectacle of two horror nuts trying to lend their obsessions a veneer of profundity. (No, I wouldn’t know anything about that.) Mostly, it establishes Ed and Lugosi as men fundamentally out of step with their technocratic and fashionable time, one in which Lugosi is grievously humiliated on a live TV comedy show where the host’s improv mockery overwhelms Lugosi. The sequence suggests the real way Lugosi had been reduced to a comic foil in Abbot and Costello and Bowery Boys movies. Ed can’t even get Dolores to dredge up Lugosi’s name in making her guess who he just met (“You met — Basil Rathbone!”).
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But Ed, in finding himself a star who needs money, gains through Lugosi a ticket into the great world of movie directing, even if it’s only a film about sex changes, hastily redrawn from a Christine Jorgensen biopic after the rights get too expensive for producer George “I make crap” Weiss (Mike Starr). Ed, after catching the article about Weiss’ efforts in Variety, makes his initial pitch to the bewildered producer, trying to compel him with his own secret kink, his love of cross-dressing (“You a fruit?” “Oh no, I’m all man. I even fought in WW2”). He manages to draw the beefy, volcanic Weiss in with eager interest with tales about making parachute landings in the war whilst wearing a bra and panties. Ed’s desire to be a success is constantly stymied by, and also inseparable from, his desire to present himself unmasked to the world, and to explore himself and his obsessions through his work, lacking the essential inner censor who can corral such impulses into professional limits. Late in the film, he convinces Baptist Church stalwarts Reynolds (Clive Rosengren) and Reverend Lemon (G.D. Spradlin) to give him the money to make Plan Nine from Outer Space, or Grave Robbers from Outer Space as it’s initially called, promising to make them enough cash to bankroll their own pet project, a series on the 12 apostles, only for the uptight religious financiers to take umbrage at Ed’s habit of putting on the angora sweater and blonde wig to relax on set.
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One comic highlight here is the striptease Ed does for the for Bride of the Atom wrap party, with Criswell slipping cash into his garter and concluding with Ed unveiling to display his beaming, dentureless face in a moment of pure camp-grotesque cool. Fittingly, it’s both the moment of Ed’s personal liberation and the final straw for Dolores, who announces she’s leaving him to write songs for Elvis Presley. Ed’s personal identification with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio and Maurice LaMarche) as the symbol of youthful, all-encompassing genius presents the hope of the artist-rebel as transcendent titan, as opposed to Wood, doomed to be the image of the artist-rebel as ant. The climactic (fictional, but readily imaginable) encounter of Welles and Wood spells out the similarities in their career troubles and dreams in sarcastic, and yet oddly accurate terms. For artists, Ed Wood constantly suggests, the only hope for such contrary personalities is to try to reconceive the world through the personal prisms of creativity, making no distinction between good and bad artists. Wood’s attempts to do so culminate when he uses his draft screenplay to reveal his predilection to Dolores, his doting partner rising in realisation from the chair in their kitchen to open the door upon Ed in full drag, like a sweet-tempered Frankenstein’s Monster.
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Whilst art is liberating in Ed Wood, it is also enslaving. Lugosi finally, happily embraces association with a single role to the extent of having himself buried in Dracula’s cape, a fate many actors would recoil from precisely because it’s the last chance to force reality to obey their own will. Lugosi, in readily adopting his Dracula guise, is photographed taking his fixes in shadows, as if he’s become one of his own expressionist grotesques, and is finally found lolling in a pool of despair and self-pity; composer Howard Shore uses strains of Swan Lake, the theme of crepuscular romanticism from Tod Browning’s film, to lend undertones of tragedy to Lugosi’s attempts to hold onto his final alternate identity. The generally jokey movie quotes segue into outright horror, in the glimpse of Lugosi tied up in rehab, screaming at detox horrors, a vision transmuted through a B-movie nightmare. In counterpoint to Ed’s awkward emergence as the man he really is comes a transformation of Dolores herself, one which Parker exposits in a key of cleverly stylised archness. Dolores moves through stages of twentieth century American femininity, souring slowly from the ever-chipper, supportive wife-to-be, to a domestic terrorist who knocks Ed with a frypan brandished in Amazonian ferocity, as well as a wisecracking professional who leaves Ed in a mixed fury of personal and professional frustration. Ed offers movie stardom to Tor Johnson, who believes he’s “not good-looking enough” to be one: “I believe you’re quite handsome,” Ed assures him. He gives the girl just off the bus, Loretta King (Juliet Landau), a chance to become a star, too, even if it’s only because he mistakes her for a rich kid who can invest in his movie, and the act of trying to capitalise on this results in the start of the breakdown of his relationship with Dolores.
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The secret codes of show business remain, however, constantly undecipherable to the wonderstruck Ed, even as Criswell tries to clue him in: “People believe my folderol because I wear a black tuxedo.” The spectacular failure of Glen or Glenda? leaves Weiss threatening to kill Wood if he ever sees him again, and Universal Studio exec Feldman (Stanley Desantis) thinks it’s a practical joke foisted on him by William Wellman, before declaring to Ed that it’s the worst movie he’s ever seen. “Well, my next one’ll be better!” our hero replies without missing a beat, only to meet dial tone. Still, Ed tries to make the movie he thought up on the spur of the moment when talking with Feldman, Bride of the Atom, both for his own sake and for Lugosi’s, as the actor becomes increasingly distraught over his lack of money and doubtful future. This time, Ed attempts to raise funds independently, cueing a series of excruciatingly funny attempts to fool rich people into giving him money. Ed reaches an abyss of humiliation after a chance encounter with Vampira leaves him begging on his knees, looking like the biggest schmuck in history. Vampira herself describes the same downward arc as the others, only quicker, for when the moment of success is exhausted, she’s reduced to travelling on the bus in full arch-brow, décolletage-flashing Goth garb on the way to a job for Ed, unaware of how she provides a barren stretch of L.A. with a sketch of surrealist delight. “You should feel lucky,” Kathy admonishes her when she’s mournful about sinking to appearing in one of Ed’s film,: “Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t cast judgement on people.” “That’s right,” Ed adds, “If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.’
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Ed Wood is first and foremost a comedy, and indeed it is, to me at least, one of the most truly, consistently funny films ever made. Alexander and Karaszewski’s dialogue is absurdly quotable—back in the late ’90s when I was often trying to shoot no-budget, hand-crafted movies with family and friends, every new shot was presaged by our own ritual quote, “Let’s shoot this fucker!”—and the film is littered with tiny bits of comic business that provide endless pleasure. Much of the humour resembles those little sketches in the margins in MAD Magazine, captured in throwaway flourishes of wit, far too many of them are worth mentioning but impossible to cram in here. Wood’s labours, from running from police because he lacks a filming permit to breaking into a studio warehouse to steal a giant octopus prop, inhabit the realm of farce.
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Burton leavens it all with his most precise comedic rhythm and staging. There’s strange magic in Ed setting his impish helpmates and actors Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Conrad Brooks (Brent Hinkley) to find props and dig up body doubles for the deceased Lugosi, scurrying into action like lost members of the Three Stooges; in Ed and Lugosi watching Vampira on the TV presenting White Zombie (1932), with Ed irked by her sarcasm whilst Lugosi marvels over her jugs, attempting to hypnotise her through the TV screen; in Bunny submitting to a baptism for the sake of getting financing for Plan Nine, Baptist beatitude and nelly enthusiasm finding a bizarrely beautiful accord; and in stealing the octopus for Bride of the Atom, a moment in which Tor takes on the persona of Lobo to wrench away the lock on the warehouse door. The film’s set-piece comedy sequence, one of the funniest scenes in anything, revolves around the disastrous trip Ed and his troupe make to attend a premiere of the retitled Bride of the Monster, only to find the crowd going berserk, an event that sees them mugged by lecherous adolescents, lost in a maelstrom of popcorn (“I gotta save ‘em!”), and chased down the street by rioting movie fans, after the hearse they arrived in is found being stripped down by street hoods. For a moment, all the boundaries between persona and person, movie and reality, dream and discontent dissolve in a frenzy of anarchic delight.
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For Burton, Ed Wood’s formal rigour, as well as the concision of its humane yet raucous spirit, remains unsurpassed. The lucid, often bald and unflattering, and yet also often textured, swooning beauty of the Stefan Czapsky’s photography is one of the film’s great qualities. Burton and Czapsky find actual expressionism lurking behind Wood’s half-assed attempt to find it in his jerry-built sets and location shoots. They transform the interior of Lugosi’s shell-like prefab house into a Gothic castle littered with remnants of former greatness and Lugosi’s past—the beauty, mystery, and threat of the exotic imprisoned in suburbia. Burton actually extends the dualistic contrast of Wood and Welles by constantly using Wellesian technique to depict Wood’s world, with soaring camera surveys of models that seems liberated from physical limits, passing through glass, in and out of water, with the sort of joie de vivre Wood himself seemed to be chasing haplessly; deep-focus, multiplaned shots and deadpan, medium-long shots, sometimes engaging in dramatic spoof or comedic contrast, and just as often leaving his characters stranded in their hapless pathos. Such dazzling cinema is often the very opposite of what Wood was infamous for, and yet his own flourishes of oddly inspired low-rent hype, like the lightning strike that announces his own name at the start of Plan Nine from Outer Space, are faithfully reproduced. One of my favourite shots in the film comes when Lugosi gives an impromptu recital of his famed “Home? I have no home” speech from Bride of the Monster, with Burton’s camera shifting to frame Lugosi under a building façade that provides him with a suitably sepulchral proscenium arch. Equally terrific is Shore’s scoring, one part satire on the tinny stock music slapped onto Wood’s films, one part celebration of retro weirdness, complete with theremin whistling eerily over driving beatnik bongos.
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Many biopics tend to reduce their subjects, and that’s true to a certain extent here. Ed’s sideline as an equally terrible screenwriter for hire is left out, and Lugosi, who had an entire politically tinged history in Hungary, is a touch less than the commanding figure he was. But considering the film’s theme of how show business turns everyone, for better or worse, into the image they create for themselves, such diminution is understandable. Suffice to say Landau’s performance deserved every one of his copious plaudits, and the rest of the cast is impeccable. For Depp, though the film gained him little real reward at the time, it remains one of his best, most cleverly pitched performances, one that proved he could move into adult roles and introduced him as that most contradictory of figures, a star character actor. The film’s powerful undercurrents of melancholia, even tragedy, as it encompasses Lugosi’s sad final months and the start of Wood’s alcoholism, does not overwhelm the comedy, and in some ways even enhances it. Landau’s professed ambition to make Lugosi both funny and sad describes the film as a whole, as both emotions here well out of the same fundamental details—the try-hard aping of mass commercial culture, the struggle to retain a sense of personal beauty in the face of impersonal forces, the ravages of age and the hopeless delusion of youth. It’s a note that becomes especially keen in the closing moments when Kathy and Ed leave an imaginary triumphal premiere for Plan Nine to get married in Las Vegas. Ed’s real story was doomed to run out of gas somewhere out there in the California desert he and Kathy are last seen heading off into, but his legacy remains. The roll call of the characters’ fates listed in the prologue rams home the ephemeral nature of their labours, even though time has proven kinder to so many of them than they might have expected. The true cheat of Ed Wood’s life was his death barely months before his rediscovery commenced.

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