Film #118: Glen or Glenda (1953)

film 118 glen or glenda

Rating: 3/5

“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even the lounging outfit he has on, and he’s the happiest individual in the world. He can work better, think better, he can play better, and he can be more of a credit to his community and his government because he is happy.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin. Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood’s feature debut and his most overtly personal movie, is easily one of the most (in)famous badfilms around – so much so that it has become something much more. Watching it without any knowledge of the filmmaker is an entirely different experience, but I can barely remember those days. Now my head is filled with Ed Wood trivia, anecdotes, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and all of these have inevitably, irrevocably altered my perception of the film. Let me clarify my position. Glen or Glenda is a bad movie. It’s inept and incoherent, obviously low-budget, and clearly spliced together from a mass of unrelated stock footage. Yet it’s also deeply personal, oddly progressive (with regards to certain groups of people; in contrast, the gay community are entirely vilified), and strangely fascinating. Ed Wood is not a good director in classical terms, but there is something about Glen or Glenda. In many ways, Wood is barely responsible for this re-evaluation – it’s the amount of extratextual information available that transforms way the movie is now viewed.

Viewers who are unaware of the conditions under which Glen or Glenda emerged will be understandably bemused by it. In the context of classical narrative cinema, it is truly inept – following the death of a transvestite, a police inspector (Lyle Talbot) visits a psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell) for advice. The good doctor relates two stories: the first follows Glen, a transvestite engaged to Barbara but afraid to admit his fetish to her; the second follows Alan, a pseudohermaphrodite who finally becomes Ann thanks to the wonders of medical science. So far, so boring, but this framing device is just the tip of the iceberg. As well as the doctor’s voice-over, horror star Bela Lugosi features as a god-like figure called The Scientist, sitting among voodoo totems and bubbling lab equipment, making powerful statements like “Bevare the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep!” and “Pull the stringks!” There’s a surreal dream sequence involving Glen, Barbara, and a devil (played by the wonderfully named Captain DeZita, who also intriguingly plays Glen’s father in one brief scene – whether the connection is meant to be noticed remains unknown). A whole host of off-screen voices make bizarre claims about transvestites, while the doctor continues with his scientific lecture, emphasising that Glen is “not a homosexual” and arguing that men suffer from receding hairlines due to their hats being too tight. At one point Barbara asks Glen what’s troubling him, and a herd of stampeding buffalo suddenly burst onto the screen. The story is entirely abandoned for some eight minutes towards the end, when a series of burlesque scenes involving scantily-clad females tying each other up interrupts the action. There’s no sense of time passing, no real narrative progression, no believable connection between the transvestite and the hermaphrodite. No wonder Glen or Glenda has been considered one of the worst films of all time.

And yet. Glen or Glenda doesn’t appear in IMDB’s Bottom 100 (indeed, no Ed Wood movie does, despite his fame). In badfilm writing, there’s a strange tension when it comes to Glen or Glenda. It has to get mentioned, because to not acknowledge it would be to imply a serious omission in knowledge, but the actual reviews are frequently far more sympathetic and supportive than one might expect. Much is made of the personal, biographical nature of the film: Wood was a transvestite himself, and he plays Glen. His then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller is Barbara. In one particularly iconic scene, recreated in Tim Burton’s excellent biopic, Barbara demonstrates her acceptance of Glen’s alter-ego by symbolically removing her angora sweater and handing it to her fiancé – as any Wood fan will be aware, the filmmaker had an angora fetish that pops up in many of his movies. So much of the film seems biographical: the doctor’s claims that Glen’s mother wanted a daughter and dressed her son up as a girl; remarks about soldiers wearing lingerie beneath their fatigues – these are personal touches, little insights into the filmmaker himself. Even the fact that the film’s message is one of tolerance, emphasising the internal struggle of men who cannot reveal their true identity to the world, is because of Wood’s own struggles – the film, produced by exploitation magnate George Weiss, was originally meant to capitalise on the scandal of Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change operation, but Alan/Ann’s story is completely sidelined, given only a brief mention towards the end of the movie.

The exploitation origins of Glen or Glenda are crucial also. Classical exploitation had its own distinctive style – anyone interested in reading more should check out Eric Schaefer’s excellent book. These movies eschewed the conventions of classical narrative cinema, positioning themselves as a lecture or documentary rather than fiction, as a way of bypassing censorship. By emphasising the “educational” and cautionary aspects of the film, exploitation filmmakers could show all the shock and scandal they wanted. If Glen or Glenda seems particularly incoherent and bad in the context of classical narrative cinema, when compared to other exploitation films of the period, it’s unexpectedly generic.

So much has been written about Glen or Glenda, and so much has been repeated that it often feels as though there’s nothing new left to say. It has been “riffed” and mocked as a bad movie, praised as a deeply personal, if naïve, insight into a filmmaker struggling on the fringes of Hollywood, reclaimed as an avant-garde work of art. Personally, I struggle with the latter position – a work of art suggests something has been deliberately created. Through his own incompetence, somehow Wood has managed to create a film that is so incoherent and illogical, so cobbled together, that it encourages the audience (if they are so inclined) to actively search for justification, to find some way of explaining the weirdness on screen. Yet was Wood himself ever aware of his affect? Probably not. Was he trying to subvert conventions? Doubtful, when Glen or Glenda is so typical of the style of other classical exploitation at the time. Yet he was trying to get his message across. His plea for tolerance and understanding completely dominates the film, bringing a truly (if unintentionally) personal twist to the events on screen. For viewers who are so inclined (and many are), it’s this fact that makes the film so endearing, so sympathetic, so fascinating. Glen or Glenda originated as a generic exploitation film and became a bad movie. It’s still both those things, but such is the film – and filmmaker’s – reputation today that it transcends such seemingly reductive categorisation.

Bonus! You can watch Glen or Glenda in its entirety here!

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Film #97: The Giant Claw (1957)

film 97 the giant claw

Rating: 2.5/5

“Something, he didn’t know what, but something as big as a Battleship has just flown over and past him.”

Finally released on DVD as part of a Sam Katzman Collection, The Giant Claw is notorious for its monster, described as a “bird as big as a battleship” in the film, and an “extraterrestrial turkey” by everyone watching it. As a result of this alien invader, the film has made it (rather appropriately) into the Son of Golden Turkey Awards, the Medveds’ sequel to their infamous Golden Turkey Awards – unfortunately it doesn’t win the the award it’s been nominated for, the Most Laughable Concept for an Outer Space Invader, with that dubious honour going to the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror instead.

Despite containing some of the classic “bad movie” elements, The Giant Claw is more kitsch than terrible. The voice-over narration that introduces the story is typically emphatic and serious in tone, discussing – as so many of them do – scientific progress and the implications such progress has. Once the world was big, the narrator tells us, but now “the farthest corner of the Earth is as close as a pushbutton.” Fully engaged in scientific development, we are then introduced to our hero, an engineer, Mitch McAfee (Jeff Morrow) who is conducting special radar tests when he encounters a UFO (in the truest sense of the word) that, inexplicably, doesn’t appear on the radar. Needless to say, no one believes him, but as more pilots begin reporting unidentified objects before disappearing off the face of the earth, eventually the officials are forced to take notice.

There is a bit of a paradox at play in The Giant Claw. The UFO itself remains out of view for quite a long time – when it appears, it’s shown in blurry swooshes as it rushes across the screen, too fast to see. This effectively keeps the viewer guessing – like so many movie monsters, the anticipation is often more scary or impressive than the final reveal (Cloverfield, I’m looking at you). The film’s fairly low budget too, so this is an economical and pragmatic decision to make. However, the problem arises when the alien is finally revealed. By not showing it immediately, the anticipation grows and, inevitably, the creature not only fails to live up to expectations (if you’re looking for something genuinely imposing, that is) but shatters those expectations in an instant. After several attacks on buildings, planes, and farmsteads, this UFO, with the strength, speed and appearance of a “battleship” turns out to be a giant turkey-creature – a shoddily-made puppet with the most wonderfully comic Villain expression. Even now, I don’t know who’s got a better static evil expression, this or It from It Conquered the World: both have pantomime eyebrows and manic, unblinking eyes; they’re both a joy to look at, but neither are even remotely scary.

The story itself is fairly generic – along with Mitch, his mathematician girlfriend Sally (Mara Corday) and some other men in uniform attempt to stop the bird, which transpires to have travelled across galaxies somehow to lay its eggs on Earth. The creature is actually quite sympathetic, despite its ridiculous features, primarily because the humans are unpleasantly trigger happy. They take great pleasure in destroying the poor bird’s eggs, and there are no attempts to communicate with it (I know that sounds silly, given its appearance, but perhaps it’s an incredibly intelligent animal – they usually try communicating with the human-shaped aliens). Meanwhile, the bird, in its rage, destroys lots of places with the power of recycled footage taken from far better 50s sci-fi movies (The War of the Worlds, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers) and ends up ripping off King Kong as it tries to turn the Empire State Building into its new home.

The film is, apart from the monster, no better or worse than any of the other movies of the time – and, in truth, many of the beasts in these “creature features” were daft. To be fair, The Giant Claw‘s concept is rather barmy, but it’s a fun movie as a result. There’s a real pleasure to be gained from witnessing that bird, with its comically angry face, swooping down to swallow up some hapless people. Morrow, who had battled far more impressive opponents in other movies (This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us) reported that none of the cast knew what they were reacting to during filming – they were just told to look terrified, and were assured that the alien would be an indomitable foe. Unfortunately, the production ran out of money and the result, immortalised forever more on screen, is one of the most entertaining monsters around.

Films #92-95: Ed Wood Marathon

film 92 93 94 95 ed woodathon

Ratings: The Violent Years (1956), 2.5/5; Night of the Ghouls (1959), 3/5; The Sinister Urge (1960), 2.5/5; Ed Wood (1994), 5/5

“I look at this slush and I try to remember, at one time I made good pictures.” – Johnny Ryde, The Sinister Urge

Edward D Wood Jr is a fascinating character; those who have heard of him will probably already know all the famously quirky anecdotes surrounding him – he was a transvestite, he was the worst director of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film of all time. He is best known for three movies: his debut feature Glen or Glenda; mad scientist movie Bride of the Monster; and sci-fi/ horror hybrid Plan 9 (it’s also these three films that feature in Tim Burton’s big budget biopic). The films I watched for this Woodathon represent some of his lesser known features. Arguably none of them are as “bad” as his better known films, and probably none are as entertaining as a result. What is important to remember is that being known as the “worst director of all time” doesn’t mean that there can’t be moments that work – Night of the Ghouls in particular, while obviously low budget, actually suggests the writer-director-editor-actor-producer wasn’t entirely oblivious to his previous films’ failings. But more on that later.

First up, The Violent Years. Written by Wood, this juvenile delinquency movie is directed by William Morgan, better known as an editor (his work includes several episodes of Lassie, and Portrait of Jennie). While the language is clearly Woodian, the picture itself is a far more gloomy affair: particularly in later years, with long-time collaborator William Thompson working as Director of Photography, Wood’s films were visually sparse, but crisp, and this sharpnesss is missing from this movie. The plot itself is fairly unremarkable – a judge introduces the story (to add gravitas) of a young girl who, not receiving any attention from her parents, turns to a life of crime with her girlfriends. It’s a typical kind of movie for the time, with a typical kind of conclusion not dissimilar from the earlier exploitation pictures – it serves both as titillation (girl gangs, guns, fights, lots of smooching, and even the implied rape of a young man by the gang) and as a warning against considering such a lifestyle, cheekily justifying the presentation of such titillation in the first place. Jean Moorhead is good as Paula Perkins, the leader of the gang; the rest of the girls are non-distinct. Poor Mr and Mrs Perkins get all the blame – at barely an hour in length, oddly the “violent years” themselves are notably brief and Wood’s script gets significantly more preachy as it progresses, with the judge berating the parents and, oddly, claiming that a return to religion would fix this ghastly teenage problem. An interesting, short little curio, the film is largely unremarkable, though undoubtedly benefits from the Wood connection.

Next, Night of the Ghouls. This is Wood’s best known later film and, at the risk of sounding controversial, one of his most interesting movies. It’s his most light-hearted picture, and his most self-aware; it’s also his first feature film not to star Bela Lugosi. This is a shame, because Dr Acula (yes, you’ve read that correctly) is in many ways a role made for Lugosi, initially at least – Kenne Duncan, a legitimate actor with over 270 credited roles, does bring some authenticity to the performance, and seems to be having fun with the ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek premise.

After a strange introduction from legendary hack psychic Criswell, appearing as himself, which includes some vague social commentary about the youth of today (over footage of Ed Wood himself and Wood regular Conrad Brooks having a fight outside an icecream parlour before a car spins wildly out of control and careens down a cliff) Night of the Ghouls starts properly. Despite this introduction, the film is actually about a fake medium, Dr Acula (aka Carl), who preys on mourners for monetary gain. It’s also a kind-of sequel to Bride of the Monster – Acula’s home is built on the ground of the house on Willows Lake, and characters specifically refer to the events of that film. Lobo (Tor Johnson) also features here, having apparently survived the atomic blast that ended Bride of the Monster; so too does Kelton the Cop (Paul Marco), who confuses matters even more by lamenting his latest assignment: his remarks of “Monsters! Space people! Mad doctors!” implicitly also refers to this characters’ appearance in Plan 9 as well.

And there’s more: there’s a crude “Wanted” poster on the wall of the police station, with a headshot of Wood himself below. The lieutenant (Duke Moore, another acting veteran) does his entire investigation wearing a top hat and tails, most probably so that Wood could include a whole section of the short film Final Curtain in this production (legend has it that Lugosi was reading the script for Final Curtain when he died). But most interesting are Acula’s methods of conning his victims. His seances, which take place in barely constructed sets (lots of curtains, bits of carpet lining parts of the floor), include some particularly shoddy effects – a trumpet floats, with the strings holding it up clearly visible in the shadow; a person wearing a sheet (yes, really) crab-walks across the frame; a cup and saucer bob around in front of yet another curtain. These effects are terrible, yet no worse than the UFOs in Plan 9, but – and here’s the point, they are revealed to be fake. On first viewing, knowing the infamy of Wood’s previous films, it’s easy to revel in the ridiculousness of his effects, but the joke is on us in the end. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it’s easy to do with Wood’s movies), but surely the fact that he actually includes a flying (cup and) saucer is a deliberate nod to his previous film’s inadequacies?

Night of the Ghouls, for whatever reason, has never received as much notoriety as Wood’s earlier movies – it’s best known for being the movie that remained unreleased for twenty-three years due to the director being unable to pay the lab processing fees. Perhaps part of the reason it is not as cherished as Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda is that, quite simply, it lacks the naivety of these badfilm classics. It seems as though Wood is having fun here, but also that he is at least somewhat aware of his limitations and, importantly, he’s intentionally playing with the audience’s expectations. In the realm of badfilm, even the weakest attempts at self-awareness are not particularly embraced – it’s the innocence and unintentional badness that captivates people, and with Wood in particular no one wants to believe that he was ever anything other than enthusiastic, but hopeless.

Next, The Sinister Urge. This film serves as a warning against pornography and “smut” pictures, taking on a similar format to The Violent Years. Ironically, it is the last feature film Wood made before his descent into pornography (see One Million AC/DC as one of the last surviving Wood pictures). Much like The Violent Years, it is neither a particularly good movie, nor is it bad enough to be considered one of Wood’s “masterpieces” – as much as people may not want to admit it, his later films did contain significantly more acceptable filmmaking standards, suggesting that the man was learning and developing his technique. The Sinister Urge is fairly unmemorable, save a few moments: one includes an entirely unrelated fight that takes place in an icecream shop – yes, that’s Wood and Brooks grappling around in the sand, with the scene taken from Night of the Ghouls. In typical Wood fashion, there are some winks to the Wood-universe: posters for his previous films line the walls of one of the smut directors, who says they are “made by friends of mine.” There’s also a large subplot about a girl arriving in Hollywood from a small town that is repeated in (or taken from) Hollywood Rat Race, a truly fascinating book written by Wood on how to “succeed in Hollywood.” Other than that, the film is generally unremarkable – there’s a brief moment of actual nudity, which is unusual, and there’s a fun game to be had in seeing just how many outfits Jean Fontaine’s porn-kingpin wears over the seventy minutes, but it’s a fairly dry movie, with too much time spent in the police station and, for a film all about the porn business, not half enough nudity.

Interestingly, none of these films are mentioned in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s fanboy biopic. It’s a wonderful film nonetheless, inspired by Rudolf Grey’s excellent biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy, with Johnny Depp bringing a wonderful, boyish energy to the enigmatic director. Yet it’s as much a film about Lugosi as it is about Wood – Martin Landau is superb as the former star, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance (ironically Lugosi never received such acclaim). The film emphasises the friendship between the director and star – and, by all accounts, they truly were friends, with a mutual respect and admiration at the core of their relationship. It is, of course, a highly stylised biopic, with plenty of liberties taken; whole sections are fabricated, including an important pep-talk Wood receives from his (real) hero Orson Welles – so too is the way in which Plan 9 is finally shown to the world. Yet all the strangest, weirdest bits are true: the stolen octopus and its missing motor; the entire cast and crew getting baptised in a swimming pool so that Plan 9 would get its funding; the reasons for Bride of the Monster ending with a nuclear bomb… And there are parts that may or may not be true – not even Grey manages to establish the “truth” in his biography, with personal anecdotes contradicting each other and Wood himself reiterating myths and legends.

Burton’s biopic, as loving and inoffensive as possible, glosses over the darker side of Wood – the film ends with Plan 9‘s first screening, and only alludes to the filmmaker’s troubles after that – and is arguably as instrumental as the Medveds in establishing the cult of Ed Wood. Shot in black and white, it’s ironically a big budget, expertly shot, well crafted movie, one that pays homage to Wood but never makes fun of him, presenting him as always optimistic, charismatic and handsome, filled with enthusiasm, surrounded by a random assortment of Hollywood rejects (portrayed with aplomb by the likes of Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones and, in a particular coup, bona fide wrestling legend George “the Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson) yet always upbeat and prepared for success that somehow never quite materialises.

I always wonder how Wood would have felt about his films being considered some of the “worst of all time.” He died two years before the Medveds’ readers voted him worst director, a bloated, homeless alcoholic. While today his fans like to think he would be pleased at his films’ current popularity, surely it would sting just a little to know the reasons for their fame? As he said, in Hollywood Rat Race: “It’s terrible to hear someone say about someone else’s work, ‘Ahh, that stinks.’ Yet the critic probably couldn’t ink his way out of a paper bag. You put it on paper. Good, bad, or indifferent. At least you had the guts to put it there.”

Film #61: It Conquered the World (1956)

film 61 it conquered the world

Rating: 3/5

“You think you’re gonna make a slave of the world… I’ll see you in Hell first!”

Directed by Roger Corman, It Conquered the World is best known for its baddie, an alien from Venus frequently described as a giant cucumber. It’s a surprisingly difficult film to get a hold of, considering its reputation and director – my copy is a second-hand VHS yet still manages to be one of the most expensive films in my collection. I bought it for two reasons: first, to see this infamous monster; and second, because it was later remade as Zontar: The Thing From Venus, by notorious badfilmmaker Larry Buchanan. Zontar is a pretty dreadful movie (which will be reviewed shortly), and I was curious to see how the two films compare. With regards to this film, I was pleasantly surprised.

Made right in the middle of sci-fi’s most prolific decade, It Conquered the World shares much with the other, better known films of the time. It’s now widely acknowledged that the sci-fi movies of the fifties exploited social and political fears – the threat of nuclear war or the spread of communism in particular – and this film is no exception. Lee Van Cleef is Tom Anderson, a scientist in direct communication with a being from Venus (or so he claims). Despite the scepticism of his wife Claire (Beverley Garland) and friend Paul Nelson (Peter Graves), neither of whom can hear anything other than static on Tom’s radio set, the scientist is convinced that the creature he’s communicating with is going to be of great benefit to mankind. Naturally, he’s deluded about its true intentions, and things rapidly take a turn for the worse.

It Conquered the World invites several comparisons. The alien, officially named Beluah by its creator Paul Blaisdell, lands on Earth and quickly stops all technology (except for that of its allies) – cars, house lights, telephones, even the water supply ceases instantly, at 3.03pm. Yet this is not a peaceful display of power, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but a way of stopping communications and making a human retaliation more difficult. It also has strange little flying creatures who bite human hosts and transform them into mindless pod people – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (made in the same year), these people look the same, but they are all controlled by their Venusian leader. The idea of one’s neighbours, family and friends suddenly becoming the enemy, without any visible indication of their new status, is a recurring one in 50s sci-fi, perfectly capturing the social paranoia regarding the apparent threat of communism. This was the final year of the Second Red Scare in America, when McCarthyism had reached its peak – anyone could be the enemy. Here, Lou Rusoff’s screenplay makes the metaphor blatant, with characters at one point even specifically discussing communism – it’s obvious now, but it’s still effective.

Like many of Corman’s movies, there are several interesting aspects hidden below the drive-in, teen-friendly narrative. Tom’s wife is a headstrong and determined woman (in a decade when women are almost always secondary characters) – her actions may prove futile in the end, but she is a strong and self-assured character, who at least attempts to stop the madness going on around her. Tom himself is an interesting leading man – far more interesting than the more steadfast Paul. He is utterly convinced that he is helping humanity, but this deluded arrogance is what enables Beluah to come and (attempt to) take over the planet. Lee Van Cleef, a classic bad guy (dark hair, little moustache), is cold and scientific – ruthless even, and cruel to his wife in particular. Van Cleef plays well against the traditional “good” looks (both in terms of physicality and character) of Graves.

Ultimately, however, it is Beluah itself that is the most memorable character here. The creature is truly a sight to behold – its flying minions are daft and never particularly visible, but Beluah is eventually unveiled in all its glory. Officially it’s a kind of sentient fungus, which is in itself a unique and intriguing concept, but it’s difficult to take the thing seriously. What does impress is the actual size of the creature – it’s a cumbersome, awkward and immobile object, with a pantomime villain’s expression, but when shown alongside the characters, is impressively large. That’s about all that’s impressive, however – it fails entirely as a horrifying villain, but I can think of few other creations that really match it in terms of visual entertainment (perhaps the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror come close; good ol’ Ro-Man should also get a mention).

Despite the obvious budgetary constraints, Corman does deliver. The film is surprisingly professional considering its meagre shooting schedule of just five days; it’s acted well, with a coherent narrative and some engaging, topical (if not particularly original) concepts running underneath. Viewed today, it’s enjoyably kitsch, predominantly because of Beluah. They don’t make ’em like they used to, that’s for sure.

Film #60: Robot Monster (1953)

film 60 robot monster

Rating: 2/5

“I cannot – yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I must – but I cannot!”

The final film of the day’s badfilm bonanza is the wonderfully kitsch Robot Monster, first acknowledged by the Medveds in their book, Fifty Worst Films of All Time, way back in 1978. It was also one of the primary reasons for its director, Phil Tucker, being nominated as Worst Director of All Time by the Medveds two years later (Tucker was defeated by Ed Wood). Since then, this movie has remained a firm favourite of badfilm aficionados, and it is widely acknowledged as one of the worst films of the 50s. Continuing the trends of the day, it also features a precocious child in a prominent role, but there’s no renditions of Row Row Row Your Boat here, sadly. That would have been too strange!

After an afternoon of particularly bad movies, Robot Monster actually emerges as a fairly successful film – in contrast to the terrible 90’s sheen of Troll 2 and the washed out incompetence of Manos: The Hands of Fate, this is actually rather accomplished. It’s shot reasonably well, the acting is not particularly stilted, and it benefits from a general kitsch appeal of old 50s sci-fi movies. Yet I make it sound better than it is, because a film about a robot monster called Ro-Man from planet Ro-Man who’s clearly a man in a gorilla suit with a space helmet on his head is never going to be very good. It is harmless, however, and quite endearing, despite being completely illogical and stupid.

Robot Monster has a tiny cast, and was reportedly shot in only four days. George Moffett is young Johnny, an adventurous kid with an active imagination who runs into some archaeologists during a day out in what appears to be a gravelly canyon. Then, for no apparent reason, there’s a sharp cut to some recycled footage depicting some (real) reptiles fighting and some (model) dinosaurs roaming around. When we next see Johnny, he’s living in a derelict building with his mother, older and younger sisters, and his father – the archaeologist shown previously. The world has been decimated by Ro-Man, we learn, who is now living in a cave down the road with a bedroom dresser (sorry, I mean a communication screen) and a bubble machine. The latter gets its own mention in the credits – its official title is the Automatic Billion Bubble Machine by N.A. Fisher Chemical Products, Inc.

It’s difficult to not be significantly dislodged by this sudden shift in narrative, but the story established in the opening sequence is easy to forget, namely because it isn’t referenced or acknowledged until the final scene. The recycled footage, which bookends the film along with its shock twist (followed by another shock twist, just to layer some more incoherence onto the already confused screenplay), is audacious and very obvious – it’s also really forced into the story by the Great Guidance, Ro-Man’s superior who dictates actions from the safety of a space craft somewhere. Both the aliens are played by George Barrows, a character actor renowned for playing gorillas – in fact, Ro-Man’s appearance was directly influenced by the fact that Barrows had his own gorilla costume. He should be commended for his role here; traipsing around the desolate desert landscape in a heavy outfit like this couldn’t have been easy.

While the hu-man cast are all quite generic – nice but forgettable – there is something endearing about Ro-Man. His conversations with the Great Guidance reveal him to be a rather pitiful, browbeaten character, who becomes increasingly conflicted because of his developing feelings towards Johnny’s older sister Alice. Despite his annihilation of all but six of the human race, and even after his brutal killing of one of those remaining, it is difficult to ever think of him as anything more than a pathetic, confused, and tragic figure. It is also Ro-Man who gets the most memorable lines (except, perhaps, the archaeologist’s assistant’s quick-fire retort to Alice: “I’m bossy? You’re so bossy you oughta be milked before you come home at night”) – Ro-Man and the Great Guidance discuss their mass genocide in theatrical, overblown language that is entirely incomprehensible, made all the more ludicrous by the physicality of the characters.

Certainly, there are elements of general badness throughout Robot Monster, but it would appear that the main reason for this film’s notoriety is Ro-Man. The recycled footage and negatively-exposed shots – not to mention the narrative incoherence – undoubtedly help, but it is the sheer preposterousness of this character that gives this little sci-fi/apocalypse picture its charm. It’s a harmless film, completely enjoyable and consistently entertaining and, in many ways, no better or worse than any number of equally low-budget 50s movies; a rather quaint addition to the elastic category of badfilm.

Film #52: It Came From Outer Space (1953)

film 52 it came from outer space

Rating: 4/5

“If we’ve been seeing things, it’s because we did see them.”

There were some wonderfully thought-provoking and intriguing science fiction films in the 1950s – it was a great time for the genre, and It Came From Outer Space is one of the classics. Directed by Jack Arnold (The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), based on a story by Ray Bradbury, it’s one of the quintessential sci-fi films of the decade, perfectly encapsulating many of the themes running throughout the genre at the time.

It’s widely acknowledged that, particularly in the 1950s, science fiction and horror were particularly successful in capturing the zeitgeist of the times; it was a decade of great uncertainty about the future. Scientific technology was advancing, and the potential consequences of nuclear experimentation were dire, and the world was in the midst of great political uncertainty, with the Cold War in full swing. It’s little surprise then that the science fiction and horror films of the 1950s were filled with atomic monsters, alien invasions, and pod people. It Came From Outer Space deals with some of the underlying social fears in the United States with a great deal of intelligence under the guise of entertainment, combining a plea for tolerance and understanding with some well-placed gimmicks and impressive, albeit reasonably low-budget effects.

Richard Carlson (The Creature From the Black Lagoon) is John Putnam, an author and amateur astronomer who is one of the first people in a small town in Arizona to witness what appears to be a meteor falling to Earth. With his girlfriend Ellen (Barbara Rush), the next morning he goes to investigate, and is the only person to see what really landed before falling rocks buries the object. Naturally, the townspeople dismiss his claims about the meteor’s real identity, but John remains steadfast, and his beliefs are compounded when his friends and neighbours start acting strangely.

Thematically, It Came From Outer Space echoes some of the sentiments of earlier sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and pre-empts the pod-people concept made famous by 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens here are not trying to cause harm, having accidentally crashed on Earth – they do not pose a threat, and are merely trying to get off the planet without incident. Instead, it is humanity that offers the most danger, to both the aliens and themselves. The human instinct to fear the unknown, and fight it, is the most hazardous thing in the film; this is emphasised by the mob mentality of the townspeople when confronted with the possibility of invasion. While John and Ellen are initially fearful, they quickly realise that tolerance is key to everyone’s survival, and they become the aliens’ only allies in a town more concerned with a witch hunt. It’s a slow-burning narrative, with some impressively realised sequences and an intelligent, forward-thinking message, particularly pertinent for the time.

Arnold does not forget that this is a genre picture first and foremost, and he uses his budget well. Originally shown in 3D, the moments designed for this extra dimension are still obvious, but not intrusive, while the aliens – shown only briefly – are great designs, otherworldly and horrible, yet not quite as gruesome as they appear to think themselves to be. Most famously, however, It Came From Outer Space boasts an unusual first person (or should that be, first alien) perspective, allowing the viewer an odd chance to witness our world in an entirely new light. This also adds a valuable sense of empathy with, and relationship to, the aliens, with Arnold literally putting the viewer in the aliens’ position. It’s a great touch, and makes the big reveal all the more anticipated and relevant.

I’ll always have a soft spot for these kinds of science fiction movies – the ones that conceal smart ideas behind seemingly trashy, drive-in aesthetics. The acting is solid, though some of the dialogue is clunky (the constantly repeated claim that the “meteor” landing is the “biggest thing to ever happen” is over-emphasised, for example). Some of the effects are dated, but they add to the kitsch appeal of the film. Yet it is a smart movie, with a valuable and particularly pertinent message – one that remains just as relevant today as it did sixty years ago.

Film #46: Bride of the Monster (1955)

film 46 bride of the monster

Rating: 3/5

“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.