“I was classed as a madman, a charlatan, outlawed in a world of science which previously honoured me as a genius. Now here in this forsaken jungle hell I have proven that I am all right.”
There will always be a special place in my heart for Bride of the Monster; as “bad” movies go, it’s one of my favourites and, as a Bela Lugosi fan, there is something undeniably special about his performance. Ed Wood’s third feature (following his transvestite exploitation film Glen or Glenda and crime/plastic surgery movie Jail Bait) is arguably his best, although some may prefer to describe it as his “least worst.” It is by no means a good film, though it falls short of being a truly terrible one; as Wood’s most narratively conventional movie, I’d be happy to state that it is generally no worse than any number of Poverty Row pictures and equally low-budget horrors of the time.
After so-called “worst film of all time” Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, this is by far Ed Wood’s best known film. It sees Lugosi reprise his many, many roles as a mad scientist who inevitably gets killed by his henchman (former Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as the mute Lobo), and features the most obviously fake rubber octopus ever shown on screen – stolen from a Republic Studios’ warehouse, it had previously appeared in the John Wayne film Wake of the Red Witch. Wood, however, forgot to also grab the motor for the tentacles so, when hapless victims are thrown into the monster’s lair, they have to flail around on top of what is clearly an inanimate object. George Becwar, who played Professor Strowski, dies a particularly undignified on-screen death; it’s perhaps no wonder that he complained so much about the sub-standard conditions of Wood’s set.
Bride of the Monster follows a fairly formulaic plot – after a number of people have gone missing near the old house in the swamplands of Lake Marsh, a plucky reporter (Loretta King) and her detective boyfriend (Tony McCoy) decide, separately, to investigate. Unbeknownst to them, Dr Vornoff (Lugosi) is responsible; not content with his gargantuan henchman and his monstrous giant octopus, he’s still trying to perfect an experiment that will transform normal people into a “race of atomic supermen!”
Yet despite the film’s narrative conventionality, Wood still manages to drop in some familiar tropes. Lobo develops an angora fetish when he saves Janet (King) from the swamp’s numerous creatures – it’s this fetish that causes him to eventually turn on his master. Even King’s character’s name is a recurring feature in Wood stories and films. As is now expected of the director whose directorial debut contained roughly 20% recycled footage, there are numerous scenes that are clearly taken from existing footage – most audacious are the scenes featuring a real octopus gliding around a tank, but a harrowing sequence in which Detective Dick Craig (McCoy) nearly becomes crocodile food is almost as memorable. It should be pointed out that the film’s final scene, in which the rubber octopus and Dr Vornoff are inexplicably destroyed by an atomic blast, happens not because of Wood’s incompetence, but because his financier demanded the inclusion.
While most of the acting is substandard, or average at best (despite Wood’s ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller’s anger that she was edged out of the lead role in favour of King who allegedly pretended that she could offer financial investment to secure her spot, King is, as evidenced by the brief scene between the two, far less wooden than Wood’s previous leading lady), Lugosi is a delight. Physically, he’s a shadow of the man he was during his heyday – he’s gaunt and obviously elderly and infirm, but he displays a joie de vivre and an emotional vitality throughout. It was during the film’s post-production that Lugosi checked himself into rehab for his drug addiction, and Bride of the Monster shows him at his frailest. Yet, accounts of his professionalism are unanimous, and he delivers one of the finest speeches of his career in this film. His impassioned “home? I have no home” monologue is heartbreakingly close to the bone, right until he claims he’s going to conquer the world with his army of atomic supermen. Prior to this, he could be discussing his own life – outcast and abandoned by the people who had once praised him, dismissed as a hack, thrown into the wilderness of increasingly limited options and low-budget productions. Watching Lugosi here is not always easy – Wood makes him not just a mad scientist, but one with psychic and hypnotic powers, so that the man who was once Dracula could repeat motions (hand gestures, the piercing close-up of his eyes) that echo back to a far more lucrative and successful era – but, while reception of his performance may be tinged with a slight sadness at his decline, I can’t help but remain captivated. He dominates the film, even though he barely fills his suit and, among a cast of mediocrity, Lugosi is (metaphorically) heads above the rest.
So Bride of the Monster is conventional, but entertaining – it’s a brief 69 minutes in length, which ensures it finishes before it can become tedious. Bad movie fans can enjoy the many, many gaffes and the stilted dialogue, the failed gags, the sparse laboratory set, the inexplicable partnership between Captain Robbins and his pet bird, Vornoff’s dramatic statement that Janet will become a “Bride of the Atom” (the film’s working title), and the oddly ominous claim that the swamp is both “unnatural” and a “monument to death”. Yet it’s not necessarily as terrible as it’s been made out to be. Claims that Vornoff asserts Lobo is as “harmless as kitchen” when he’s clearly saying he’s as “harmless as a kitten” may have been validated by Wood himself, but he was doing himself an injustice by reinforcing such demeaning statements. Although, there is always the problem of the octopus. Oh, it truly is a thing to behold. Honestly, if Lugosi’s performance is the main reason to watch this film, the octopus comes in at a close second.