Wednesday May 1, 1996
Brett Thompson's "The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr." is a splendid companion piece to Tim Burton's fine 1994 "Ed Wood," a bio of the Grade Z Hollywood filmmaker often dubbed the worst director in the world.
Interviewing many of those who knew Wood best, Thompson, like Burton, suggests that Wood actually was an artist, one of those whose passion outstrips their talent. This documentary, a kind of real-life "Day of the Locust," begins as an amusing documentary to be cherished by Wood cultists but gradually deepens, acquiring real poignancy as it charts Wood's downward spiral into hopeless alcoholism and desperate poverty that ended in his death in 1978 at 53.
Sometimes raw, awkward films generate unforgettable emotional power. In this regard Wood's confessional "Glen or Glenda?" is right up there with "The Penalty" (1920), in which Lon Chaney played a revenge-minded criminal whose legs had been cut off at his knees. Wood's 1953 film, in which he played a man tormented by his transvestism, as Wood was in real life, contains a moment, sure to draw laughter from some, that is a remarkably compassionate gesture: Actress Dolores Fuller slips off her Angora sweater and gives it to Wood, who so covets it.
Pretty, vivacious Fuller, perhaps the most crucial of the film's "witnesses," tells us that Wood had not let her know that he was in fact telling their own love story on the screen and that until she saw the completed film, she did not know his transvestism went beyond a peculiar liking for Angora. Fuller admits that this aberration in Wood, a handsome ex-Marine World War II vet who reportedly went into the Battle of Tarawa wearing red panties and bra under his uniform, was hard for her to accept.
When Wood gave the starring role in his next picture to another actress, Fuller finally left him and, at producer Hal Wallis' urging, turned successfully to songwriting.
She's now married to noted film historian Philip Chamberlin, restoration consultant on Wood's first effort, the 22-minute 1948 "Crossroads of Laredo," which will also screen. It's a silent vignette about a wayward cowboy who gets his comeuppance, and it's actually more cogent than much of what was to come. That film's producer, Crawford John Thomas, then 18, became Wood's producing partner; he's the producer of "The Haunted World."
In telling Wood's story, Thompson spotlights the "Wood Family," composed of actors and technicians who mainly have survived on Hollywood's fringes.
A number clearly realize that their long-ago association with Wood has become their sole claim to fame. Lyle Talbot, who died recently at 94, represents several well-known veteran Hollywood actors who worked for Wood because, as the forthright Talbot says, "I needed the money."
By far the best-known is Bela Lugosi, whose portrayal in Burton's film brought Martin Landau an Oscar last year.
Bela Lugosi Jr. says, however, that he considers Wood "a user and a loser" whose films dragged his father down to their maker's level. You can understand the son's perspective, but the sad truth is that by the '50s, not too many people were hiring the great horror star.
One of the endearing aspects of "The Haunted World" is that Thompson is interested in Wood's colleagues for their own sake and not just for what they have to say about Wood. As a result, for once Maila Nurmi, the legendary Vampira, pioneer TV horror movie hostess and one of the stars of Wood's notoriously campy "Plan 9 From Outer Space," is given her due as the vibrant, astringent forthright woman she is behind the exotic image.
One of Thompson's inspired touches is to photograph a number of his interviewees in appropriate period settings; dressed like an upscale fortuneteller, Nurmi is seated in a kind of lush Victorian "Turkish corner" worthy of Sarah Bernhardt. Cinematographer David Miller and production designer Gregg Lacy give the film a handsome, burnished look atypical of documentaries.
Along with segments from Wood films and never-before-seen behind-the-scenes clips, "The Haunted World" abounds with affectionate insights into Wood, auteur-manque who, in his earlier years, let nothing stop him in the making of his films. (He even got a forgiving Baptist minister to help finance "Plan 9" with the hope that its profits would underwrite a series of biblical films.)
Perhaps Gregory Walcott, who survived his "Plan 9" to go on to a successful acting career, sums up Wood best, offering: "Ed Wood was a very effusive, charming, lovable chap, but he was also a con artist."
The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1996. Unrated. A Wood-Thomas Pictures presentation of a Crawford John Thomas production in association with Wade Williams. Director Brett Thompson. Producer Crawford John Thomas. Cinematographer David Miller. Editor John Lafferty. Make-up and costumes Beth Kaminsky. Music Louis Febre. Production designer Gregg Lacy. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times