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 #117: The Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964)

film 117 the monster of camp sunshine

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

“The motion picture that follows is a fable. In it there are many nudists but only one monster. In life, it is generally the other way around.”

The strange, Gilliam-esque opening credits may hint at the oddity that is The Monster of Camp Sunshine, but even they can’t really prepare you for what’s to come. It’s a nudie cutie with a horror twist and, in our collection, comes as part of a double feature released by Something Weird Video – if there are any other versions of it available, avoid them. Something Weird have created an entire drive-in movie experience, complete with retro adverts for hotdogs, beer, and Vespas, with the added bonus of a whole selection of nudie trailers and short movies (including a particularly entertaining one featuring a large woman and a rather scathing voice-over narrator). The first film in the double feature, The Beast that Killed Women, is reasonably amusing for its badness; The Monster of Camp Sunshine matches that badness with complete and utter deliriousness.

Shot as a silent film with shoddy dubbing in post-production and a ponderous, haphazard voice-over narrator, The Monster of Camp Sunshine has not aged well. It’s delightfully quaint and retro now, of course, but chances are that even when it was first released it looked dated – the swinging 60s fashion is spot-on, and New York looks pretty hip, but the film’s frequent use of intertitles, its uninspiring special effects, and monochrome cinematography make it more like a 40s exploitation movie than a mid-60s nudie flick. The intertitles in particular are a strange addition – the film begins with them, harking back to a far earlier type of cinema, although they are increasingly revealed to be rather tongue-in-cheek. In truth, much of the film is silent – once the leading ladies and their small party leave the Big Apple and arrive at Camp Sunshine upstate, the voice-over is abandoned, the intertitles take precedence, and dialogue is virtually non-existent.

The film opens in New York, in the cluttered apartment of Claire (Deborah Spray) and Marta (Sally Parfait), two young nudists with what is easily the coolest hanging ashtray in existence. Claire narrates the first half of the movie, filling the narrative with flashbacks and events that she couldn’t possibly know about. She’s a fashion model, while Marta works as a nurse in a hospital that appears to have no patients but lots of animal testing. While Claire models topless swimsuits on top of a New York skyscraper (the Empire State Building looming in the background – it’s a dizzying photoshoot, beautifully captured on film), Marta accidentally pours toxic liquid onto some of the lab mice, turning them into vicious monsters who attack her so violently that she ends up precariously hanging out the window, about to plummet to her death. Fortunately, a kindly doctor happens by, and this proactive man quickly disposes of the deadly liquid – by casually chucking it into the Hudson. In a series of highly unlikely events relying entirely on coincidence, the jar ends up contaminating the stream running through nudist retreat Camp Sunshine, transforming the owner’s simpleton brother Hugo into a rabid monster (his dodgy black wig and tissue-paper boils would be the envy of Tor Johnson’s Joseph Javorsky).

As nudie cuties go, The Monster of Camp Sunshine is surprisingly focused on narrative. The film itself is slow – despite the opening intertitles claiming there are many nudists, there really aren’t, and they only feature for a few scenes. That being said, they are proper nudists – whereas films like Nude on the Moon and Orgy of the Dead make sure that their naked beauties resolutely keep their knickers on, here both men and women are fully nude, although modesty is preserved through an assortment of carefully positioned hats, towels, books and musical instruments, while men in particular seem to be constantly walking away from camera. (On a side note, the men’s tan lines are so vividly pronounced that it frequently looks like they’re wearing white shorts.)

Claire’s voice-over disappears once the party – now including Claire’s photographer boss and an inexperienced office assistant who hopes to lose her inhibitions through nudism – leave New York, and after some long, slow scenes in which not much happens, everything kicks off. After fifty minutes or so of fairly generic, mildly entertaining badness, the Hugo-monster escapes his shed-prison and all hell breaks loose, with a quite literal explosion of stock footage. Marta, somehow instantly arriving at the highly improbable yet correct conclusion that the chemicals from the hospital are the cause of Hugo’s new insanity, calls her doctor friend, who races off to the nearest airfield, boards a plane and parachutes into the camp holding a syringe. He may be the “forces of mercy” but somehow the “forces of violence” have also been contacted and, sure enough, soon they also arrive, complete with vast armies. The cavalry arrive. Cannons are let off. There’s a beach invasion! Soldiers from what appears to be the War of Independence drop by, while others peer through the viewfinder of giant missiles. It becomes dark, but Marta, who Hugo ruthlessly attacked with an axe, is still lying in the middle of the field rolling around. The doctor continues making silent pleas from the top of the van, where he expertly landed. More soldiers! Bombs go off, Claire’s boss shoots Hugo with a small pistol, before lobbing a whole load of dynamite (!!) at him. In the midst of the chaos, the small group of naked ladies run amok. It’s deranged, completely unexpected, and quite possibly the most insane, exaggerated, and utterly ludicrous conclusion to a film I’ve ever seen. Nothing quite prepared me for the barrage of lunacy. Badfilm fans will find plenty to love about The Monster of Camp Sunshine, but it’s these five minutes of utter surrealism that really make it.

Films #75 & 76: The Mighty Gorga (1969) & One Million AC/DC (1969)

film 75 76 the mighty gorga one million acdc

Ratings: The Mighty Gorga, 1/5; One Million AC/DC, 1/5

“We’re still just a couple of outsiders in a green hell.”
“I’m off to see the lizard.”

A prehistoric double bill, both are utterly terrible films – The Mighty Gorga has, at least, an actual story. One Million AC/DC (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the rock band), written by Ed Wood using the pseudonym Akdon Telmig, which is one letter away from being Vodka Gimlet in reverse, is basically just a soft-core caveman porno. Both, however, feature quite possibly the greatest dinosaurs ever – and I say both, because it’s the same T-Rex in both movies. I had read about the special effects (ha!), but I can honestly say, no one had really convinced me that they would be as bad as they were. The fact that not one, but two filmmakers had the sheer audacity to include them in their movies is mind-boggling – trust me when I say that a four year old could have created the exact same scenes using their sandbox and some plastic toys.

First up, The Mighty Gorga. A fairly straight-forward, no budget exotic location/ giant ape movie, it stars Anthony Eisley (Dracula Vs Frankenstein) as Mark, a circus owner desperately trying to increase revenue. There’s a brief subplot introduced at the beginning of the movie, in which his brother (or someone) is sabotaging the business, but as soon as Mark arrives in the Congo (which looks suspiciously like a national park in California) any problems “back home” are quickly forgotten. He befriends a feisty female wild animal breeder whose father went missing trying to find a giant ape and, with native “Indian” George in tow, head into the wilderness to find either or both the monkey and the dad.

The film’s low budget is all too obvious, from the frequent day-night issues (just look at the sequence in which the bison’s pen is burned down) to the uninspiring, visibly un-exotic location, to the gorilla itself. Gorga, who apparently protects a local tribe’s village on an isolated plateau, is a man in a gorilla suit – not one of the many gorilla actors working at the time, but the director himself, David L Hewitt. The suit is truly dreadful; the ape’s eyes bulge with a permanently surprised expression (this comes in handy later on, when the beast is apparently completely dumbfounded by a bandage on his giant pinky). Even more bizarre, we never see below the gorilla’s torso – not even when he’s fighting the dinosaurs or leering over the village’s huts. Despite Gorga supposedly being a giant gorilla, somehow Hewitt succeeds in not even making it seem human sized – particularly when it fights the tiny plastic dinosaur, with its snapping mouth and bobbing movements, it is hard to accept that Gorga is anything other than an equally inanimate toy.

Much of the film is dedicated to Eisley and his female companion attempting to convince the audience that they are in peril. Their exploration, which, thanks to the terrible editing, seems like it takes about five minutes, is supposed to last for days. Their ascent of the cliff-face to the plateau above involves them walking slowly along a gentle path. Their beige jungle clothes never get even the slightest hint of dirt on them. Up on the plateau, they discover giant roses and a prehistoric nest with some peach-coloured eggs – Mark says they’re purple. They quickly find the missing father, and plan to escape from the tribe by fleeing down a secret volcanic tunnel that contains, as legend dictates, King Solomon’s treasure. Poor Solomon must have been a truly rubbish king, because the riches consist of a single chest with some Mardi Gras beads scattered around. Eventually the group leave the plateau, arriving out of Ro-Man’s cave in Bronson Canyon and staring upwards at the destruction they’ve left behind – we’re supposed to believe that stock footage lava has somehow destroyed everything, though no one seems even the slightest bit concerned by the whole situation.

There’s little to praise about The Mighty Gorga. Oddly, for a jungle movie, the only animals to feature are all clearly in captivity – the circus/zoo at the beginning provides the most animal spectacle, with the subsequent jungle visibly devoid of any animal life whatsoever. There are a few reasonably clever moments (or one, anyway) in the script, largely revolving around the assumptions of the “outsider” – Mark’s pained attempts to communicate with the black slave-native George (Lee Parrish), only to discover that the local only speaks English, is actually quite funny. I am struggling to think of any other genuinely “good” moments; luckily the bad ones provide more than enough entertainment for the right audience. I stared, open-mouthed at the “epic” fight between the dinosaur and Gorga – it truly is a thing to behold.

While I was certain that One Million AC/DC couldn’t possibly match The Mighty Gorga in terms of shoddy effects, it turned out I was wrong. The same, snapping-mouthed, bobbing dinosaur reappears here to eat a barbie doll! It fights another dinosaur! It peers over an embankment! It’s not in this movie enough. Poor Ed Wood, who was by this time not even on the fringes of Hollywood, had succumbed to alcohol, domestic violence, poverty and pornography – the later years of his life were dominated by shoddy sex stories. There’s little of his distinctive screenwriting style here, although there are hints – the fat man first seen at the beginning of the movie takes on a strange narrator-role, commenting on the events going on around him. Primarily, however, One Million AC/DC has little dialogue – maybe ten minutes in total, and all rather inane. The “plot” revolves around a cave full of orgy-loving, furry-bikini-clad neanderthals. Outside, a dinosaur tries to eat them if they leave. A gorilla kidnaps one of the cave girls, who spends the whole movie trying to escape his clutches (at the end they appear to be a happy couple). And that is it. Like Orgy of the Dead, also written by Ed Wood, the main aim of the movie is titillation. This is more hardcore than Orgy; luckily the virgin’s sacrifice at the beginning of the film remains the most explicit scene. The girls, all stick-thin with protruding rib cages, are pretty enough, but it’s all rather seedy and unpleasant, with rape implications frequent throughout. The actual sex consists of a lot of frenzied writhing and groaning, mainly from the women (although some of the men emit freakishly guttural, animalistic grunts to ensure the viewer cannot possibly find any of it even remotely erotic).

The constant sex is interspersed with shots bad movie fans will find suspiciously familiar. At least some of the footage is taken from One Million Years BC, and at least two different sequences reappear (again!) in Horror of the Blood Monsters. Not to mention the footage ripped from The Mighty Gorga, and the generic volcanic stock footage beneath the opening credits. As this is filmed in colour, the recycled shots have been tinted (like in Horror of the Blood Monsters) – here it’s so badly done that it’s difficult to even see what they’re trying to show.

About ten minutes into One Million AC/DC I was certain that, finally, Children of the Living Dead would no longer be the sole worst-reviewed movie of our collection. At least that movie was supremely entertaining: this is virtually unwatchable. Michael Adams described Ed Wood’s porno as “the tar pit of cinema,” and I was equally ready to dismiss it. Then, out of the blue, came the scene that elevated this dire caveman sexploitation picture to a glorious 1/5: a sing-along. Yes, as the tribe plan to destroy the dinosaur using a newfangled bow and arrow designed by a pervy cave painter, the chief and his woman pause in their sexcapades to sing a song straight to camera. It goes like this: (to the tune of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow) “The spear goes into the monster (x3), And the monster loses his mind.” Finally, something other than that darn dinosaur to stare open-mouthed at. It was a moment of sheer surrealism, completely unexpected, entirely out of place, and reassuringly bizarre, making up for the seventy-five minutes of dire copulation that went before it – but only barely.