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When horror meets horrible, it's all camp

A new DVD collection honors the best of 'the world's worst director,' Edward D. Wood.

March 11, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

IMMORTALIZED in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic as a wide-eyed, stick-to-it naif (endearingly played by Johnny Depp), Edward D. Wood Jr. is often called "the world's worst director." This sobriquet, not entirely accurate though extremely catchy, is largely responsible for Wood's posthumous celebrity. It dates to 1980, when a book called "The Golden Turkey Awards" declared him the worst director of all time and his 1959 sci-fi oddity, "Plan 9 From Outer Space," the worst film of all time.

Since then, Wood, who died at 54 in 1978, has become perhaps the ultimate cult director. Burton and Depp's loving hommage ("Ed Wood") is perversely earnest and meticulous in replicating the tawdry, bargain-basement atmosphere of Wood's filmmaking milieu. Most of the time, though, the man is ironically celebrated as the epitome of the so-bad-it's-good principle.

The new, suitably budget-priced two-disc collection, "The Ed Wood Collection: A Salute to Incompetence," compiles six of Wood's better-known films (as many as anyone really needs to see) and provides an opportunity to ponder the director's special brand of awfulness as well as the appeal of awful movies in general.

Like most certified turkeys, Wood's films tend to be appreciated in the "Mystery Science Theater" sense, with a sniggering superiority. But at their best -- which is to say their worst -- they inspire not laughter but a dazed wonder. In some cases these movies are so breezily uninhibited by the basic rules of film grammar as to practically count as a form of subversion (or surrealism).

Wood's primitive resourcefulness is a mark of his lunatic conviction. He wrote, directed, edited and acted in his films, and he never encountered a stock footage shot he couldn't repurpose. But as depicted in "Ed Wood" he was hardly a one-man operation. In fact he was self-styled guru to a revolving sideshow of assorted misfits and has-beens. His regular stars included TV psychic Criswell, gothic siren Vampira and, most memorably, a decrepit Bela Lugosi, by then well past his "Dracula" prime.

Lugosi died of a heart attack in 1956 after shooting preliminary footage for "Plan 9 From Outer Space." The loss led to one of the most egregious continuity lapses in a Wood film -- the dogged director hired a stand-in for Lugosi and instructed the actor to obscure his face with a cape.

Wood's first and most distinctive feature, "Glen or Glenda?" (1953), remains one of the most bizarre autobiographical films ever made. "If you want to see me, see 'Glen or Glenda?,' " he once said. "That's me. That's my story."

It is not hyperbole to say that there has never quite been a film like this (if you discount the pornographic '90s remake "Glen and Glenda"). Variously known as "I Had a Sex Change," "He or She," "Transvestite" and "I Led 2 Lives," "Glen or Glenda?" is a complex, conflicted and ultimately moving account of transvestism. As a plea for social acceptance, it is at once agonized and out-and-proud. Wood was a (heterosexual) transvestite who claimed to have worn women's underwear under his World War II military fatigues. Here he plays a version of himself: Glen, a strapping young man often seen peering longingly into lingerie shop windows.

"Glen or Glenda?" is not so much bad as transcendently weird. The only thing that appears more frequently than the mocked-up newspaper bearing the headline "WORLD SHOCKED BY SEX CHANGE!" is the ominous flash of lightning that punctuates every moment of import. One narrator is a shrink; the other is a mad scientist played by Lugosi, who sits in a lab surrounded by test tubes and skeletons and intones non sequiturs such as "Bevare of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep!"

Glen is saved by the love of a good woman -- and access to her wardrobe of angora sweaters. But the redemptive ending that he contrived for his alter ego -- and indeed that Burton contrived for Wood -- did not materialize in real life. Having descended into alcoholism and having turned to pornography to make a living, he died depressed and destitute, two years before his first brush with cult fame.

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