An October Film Review: Ed Wood (dir by Tim Burton)


From start to end, the 1994 film Ed Wood is a nearly perfect film.

Consider the opening sequence.  In glorious black-and-white, we are presented with a house sitting in the middle of a storm.  As Howard Shore’s melodramatic and spooky score plays in the background, the camera zooms towards the house.  A window flies open to reveal a coffin sitting in the middle of a dark room.  A man dressed in a tuxedo (played to snarky and eccentric perfection by Jeffrey Jones) sits up in the coffin.  Later, we learn that the man is an infamously inaccurate psychic named Criswell.  Criswell greets us and says that we are interested in the unknown.  “Can your heart handle the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr!?”

As streaks of lightning flash across the sky, the opening credits appear and disappear on the screen.  The camera zooms by tombstones featuring the names of the cast.  Cheap-looking flying saucers, dangling on string, fly through the night sky.  The camera even goes underwater, revealing a giant octopus…

It’s a brilliant opening, especially if you’re already a fan of Ed Wood’s.  If you’re familiar with Wood’sfilms, you know that Criswell’s appearance in the coffin is a reference to Orgy of the Dead and that his opening monologue was a tribute to his opening lines from Plan 9 From Outer Space.  If you’re already a fan of Ed Wood then you’ll immediately recognize the flying saucers.  You’ll look at that octopus and you’ll say, “Bride of the Monster!”

And if you’re not an Ed Wood fan, fear not.  The opening credits will pull you in, even if you don’t know the difference between Plan 9 and Plan 10.  Between the music and the gorgeous black-and-white, Ed Wood is irresistible from the start.

Those opening credits also announce that we’re about to see an extremely stylized biopic.  In the real world, Ed Wood was a screenwriter and director who spent most of his life on the fringes of Hollywood, occasionally working with reputable or, at the very least, well-known actors like Lyle Talbot and Bela Lugosi.  He directed a few TV shows.  He wrote several scripts and directed a handful of low-budget exploitation films.  He also wrote a lot of paperbacks, some of which were semi-pornographic.  Most famously, he was a cross-dresser, who served in the army in World War II and was wearing a bra under his uniform when he charged the beaches of Normandy.  Apparently, the stories of his love for angora were not exaggerated.  Sadly, Wood was also an alcoholic who drank himself to death at the age of 54.

Every fan of Ed Wood has seen this picture of him, taken when he first arrived in Hollywood and looked like he had the potential to be a dashing leading man:

What people are less familiar with is how Ed looked after spending two decades on the fringes of the film business:

My point is that the true story of Ed Wood was not necessarily a happy one.  However, one wouldn’t know that from watching the film based on his life.  As directed by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood as being endlessly positive and enthusiastic.  When it comes to determination, nothing can stop the film’s Ed Wood.  It doesn’t matter what problems may arise during the shooting of any of his films, Wood finds a way to make it work.

A major star dies and leaves behind only a few minutes of usable footage?  Just bring in a stand-in.  The stand-in looks nothing like the star?  Just hide the guy’s face.

Wrestler Tor Johnson (played by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele), accidentally walks into a wall while trying to squeeze through a door?  Shrug it off by saying that it adds to the scene.  Point out that the character that Tor is playing would probably run into that wall on a regular basis.

Your fake octopus doesn’t work?  Just have the actors roll around in the water.

The establishment won’t take you seriously?  Then work outside the establishment, with a cast and crew of fellow outcasts.

You’re struggling to raise money for your film?  Ask the local Baptist church.  Ask a rich poultry rancher.  Promise a big star.  Promise to include a nuclear explosion.  Promise anything just to get the film made.

You’re struggling to maintain your artistic vision?  Just go down to a nearby bar and wait for Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) to show up.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s best film.  It’s certainly one of the few Burton films that actually holds up after repeat viewings.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that Wood and Burton shared a passionate love for the movies and that Burton related to Wood and his crew of misfits.  It’s an unabashedly affectionate film, with none of the condescension that can sometimes be found in Burton’s other film.  Burton celebrates not just the hopes and dreams of Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson and Criswell but also of all the other members of the Wood stock company, from Vampira (Lisa Marie) to Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray), all the way down to Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Loretta King (Juliet Landau).  Though Ed Wood may center around the character of Wood and the actor who plays him, it’s a true ensemble piece.  Landau won the Oscar but really, the entire cast is brilliant.  Along with those already mentioned, Ed Wood features memorable performances from Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette (one playing Wood’s girlfriend and the other playing his future wife), G. D. Spradlin (as a minister who ends up producing one of Wood’s films), and Mike Starr (playing a producer who is definitely not a minister).

For me, Ed Wood is defined by a moment very early on in the film.  Wood watches some stock footage and talks about how he could make an entire movie out of it.  It would start with aliens arriving and “upsetting the buffaloes.”  The army is called in.  Deep delivers the line with such enthusiasm and with so much positive energy that it’s impossible not get caught up in Wood’s vision.  For a few seconds, you think to yourself, “Maybe that could be a good movie…”  Of course, you know it wouldn’t be.  But you want it to be because Ed wants it to be and Ed is just do damn likable.

As I said before, Ed Wood is a highly stylized film.  It focuses on the good parts of the Ed Wood story, like his friendship with Bela Lugosi and his refusal to hide the fact that he’s a cross-dresser who loves angora.  The bad parts of his story are left out and I’m glad that they were.  Ed Wood is a film that celebrates dreamers and it gives Wood the happy ending that he deserved.   The scenes of Plan 9 From Outer Space getting a raptorous reception may not have happened but can you prove that they didn’t?

I suppose now would be the time that most reviewers would reflect on the irony of one of the worst directors of all time being the subject of one of the best films ever made about the movies.  However, I’ll save that angle for whenever I get a chance to review The Disaster Artist.  Of course, I personally don’t think that Ed Wood was the worst director of all time.  He made low-budget movies but he did what he could with what he had available.  If anything, Ed Wood the film is quite correct to celebrate Ed Wood the director’s determination.  Glen or Glenda has moments of audacious surrealism.  Lugosi is surprisingly good in Bride of the Monster.  As for Plan 9 From Outer Space, what other film has a plot as unapologetically bizarre as the plot of Plan 9?  For a few thousand dollars, Wood made a sci-fi epic that it still watched today.  Does that sound like something the worst director of all time could do?

Needless to say, Ed Wood is not a horror film but it’s definitely an October film.  Much as how Christmas is the perfect time for It’s A Wonderful Life, Halloween is the perfect time for Ed Wood.

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Music Video of the Day: Ed Wood by Howard Shore (1994, dir by Tim Burton and Toni Basil)


Hi, everyone!  Lisa here, filling in for Val.

In 1994, Tim Burton released Ed Wood, a film that I consider to be his best.  (In fact, it’s one of the few Tim Burton films that I feel actually improves with repeat viewings.  Don’t start yelling at me about Beetlejuice.)  The score, which so evocative of Wood’s style of filmmaking, was composed by Howard Shore.  This video features the actress Lisa Marie (who played Vampira in Ed Wood) dancing to Shore’s theme music.

Before anyone says it, I did not pick this video just because it features a dancer named Lisa Marie.  I’m not the egocentric … well, actually, I am.  In fact, I’m so egocentric that I’m shocked that I have yet to dedicate an entire post to just listing words that rhyme with Lisa.  (Sadly, there’s not many.  Visa is a good one.)  But still, I did have other reasons for picking this video than just the fact that I am also named Lisa Marie and I also enjoy dancing in cemeteries.  Those reasons will hopefully become obvious as the day develops here on the Shattered Lens.

Anyway, both Tim Burton and Toni Basil are credited with directing this video.  I’m going to assume that Burton’s directorial credit is largely due to all of the scene of Ed Wood that are spliced into the footage of Lisa Marie dancing.  Toni Basil, who also did the choreographed this video, is one of our favorite people here at the Shattered Lens.  Just check out my review of Head and Val’s review of Slaughterhouse Rock.

Enjoy!

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #5: We Are Still Here (dir by Ted Geoghegan)


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The fifth film on my DVR was the 2015 haunted house film, We Are Still Here.  I recorded We Are Still Here off of the SyFy channel on March 20th.  Sad to say, I really can’t remember what I was doing or watching on March 20th while my DVR recorded one of the best horror movies of the previous year.  I was probably watching something pn Lifetime.  That usually seems to be the case.

But anyway, let’s talk about We Are Still Here.

As a self-professed lover of both horror and old grindhouse exploitation films, there is really no excuse for it to have taken me this long to see We Are Still Here.  We Are Still Here is one of those wonderfully low-budget indie films that mixes a traditional genre — in this case, the haunted house film — with a far less traditional view of humanity.  With its mix of bump-in-the-dark horror and cynicism about human nature, We Are Still Here feels like a mix of the Coen Brothers and H.P. Lovecraft.

Anne (Barbra Crampton, a veteran of horror films like Castle Freak and You’re Next) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig, who played the mysterious antagonist of Upstream Color) are a married couple who are struggling to deal with tragedy.  Their son, Bobby, was recently killed in a car wreck.  Anne is trapped in a prison of depression, while Paul just wants to move on with their lives.  Hoping that it will help them to forget their sadness, Paul and Anne buy a house in New England.

(New England, not coincidentally, was also the home of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as being the setting for some of his best-remembered stories.)

But, of course, the house proves to be anything but therapeutic.  From the minute they move in, Anne is convinced that they are not alone.  With every mysterious sound and strange happening within the house, Ann becomes more and more convinced that the spirit of Bobby is with them.

If you’re a horror fan, you will not be surprised to learn that they are not alone.  There is a presence in the house but is it Bobby or is it something far more sinister?  Shortly after moving in, Anne and Paul meet their new neighbors.  As friendly as they may be, there is definitely something off about Dave (Monte Markham) and his wife, Cat (Connie Neer).  Dave tells them that the house was originally a funeral home an about how it was owned by the mysterious Dagmar family.  The Dagmars were reportedly forced to leave town after it was learned that they were selling the bodies brought to them for burial and burying empty coffins.  Could this have anything to do with the strange vibe that Anne and Paul both get from the house?

Despite Paul’s skepticism, Anne invites her friends, May (Lisa Marie) and Jacob (Larry Fessenden), to come for a visit.  May and Jacob are both spiritualists and Anne hopes that they can contact Bobby’s spirit.  Again, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that they do contact something.  The surprise comes from what they contact and what happens as a result.

We Are Still Here is a chilly and dream-like film, one that wisely devotes as much time to creating and maintaining a properly creepy atmosphere as it does to all the expected scare scenes.  When the presence in the house is finally revealed, it’s a scary moment but for me, the most haunting scenes in the film are the shots of the snow-covered landscape surrounding the house.  The icy roads are as cold and unforgiving and as potentially dangerous as anything that might be living in the old Dagmar house.  And, just as the weather cannot be controlled, neither can the paranormal.

We Are Still Here is a deliberately paced film.  In fact, it’s probably a bit too deliberate to really be effective when viewed with commercial interruptions.  We Are Still Here works because it creates an atmosphere of foreboding and certain doom and it’s hard to maintain an atmosphere when, every 20 minutes or so, the action has to stop for a commercial about Tide pods.  To best appreciate this film and what it has to say about loss, faith, and delusion, it’s necessary to watch the story unfold without any pause to the narrative.

Fortunately, this intelligent and well-acted horror film is currently available on Netflix, where it can be viewed without commercial interruption!  If you’re a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to watch.

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Insomnia File No. 6: Frogs For Snakes (dir by Amos Poe)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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If you were suffering from insomnia last night, at around two a.m., you could have turned over to Flix and watched the 1998 film Frogs For Snakes.

And if you were suffering from insomnia, watching Frogs For Snakes would probably have been a good idea because this film is amazingly dull.  In fact, I am not sure that I have the words to express to you just how tedious Frogs For Snakes truly was.  It may be necessary for me to go back to school and learn how to speak in a dead language in order for me to express the boredom that I felt while watching Frogs For Snakes.

And yes, I realize that I’m talking about an obscure film that was released nearly 20 years ago and it might seem kind of petty to, at this late date, make a big deal about how terrible this film was.

But seriously, Frogs For Snakes was really, really bad.  In fact, it was disturbing to think that a film this bad could have actually been made.  It was even more disturbing to consider that this film was apparently given a theatrical release and, all these years later, still pops up on cable so that it can proudly display its overwhelming mediocrity.

Now, I’m going to tell you what Frogs For Snakes is about and you’re going to think, “That actually sounds like it might be kind of interesting.”  Don’t be fooled!  The film may sound interesting but it’s not.

Frogs for Snakes takes place in a stylized, neo-noir version of New York City.  Eva Santana (Barbara Hershey) is an aging actress who claims to have quit the business, though it’s clear that it’s more a case of the business quitting her.  She talks about leaving New York and raising her son in a better environment.  However, until she gets around to leaving, she’s making ends meet by working as a waitress at a diner owned by the kind-hearted Quint (Ian Hart).  And, of course, when she’s not waitressing, she’s working as a debt collector for her ex-husband, a loan shark named Al Santana (Robbie Coltrane).

That’s right, this actress has a gun and she uses it frequently.  However, because Eva is good at heart, she rarely kills anyone.  Instead, she just shoots them in the foot and tells them to pay back their loans while they lay on the floor and scream in agony.  (All that agonized screaming got pretty old after a while.)

As for Al, he’s not just a loan shark.  He’s a theatrical impressario.  He’s planning on putting on a production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo.  He promises his driver a role in American Buffalo on the condition that the driver assassinate Eva’s new boyfriend (John Leguizamo, of course).

Soon, actors all over New York are literally killing to get a role in Al’s play.  Meanwhile, Eva just wants to retire and get out of New York but first, she has to do one last job for Al…

In between all the killing, the characters frequently launch into monologues that have been lifted from other films.  John Leguizamo does a Brando imitation.  Lisa Marie (Tim Burton’s ex, not yours truly) delivers the cuckoo clock speech from The Third Man.  A suggestion for aspiring filmmakers: if you’re going to make a bad film, don’t remind your audience that they could be watching The Third Man instead.

Anyway, the plot sounds interesting but none of the potentially intriguing ideas are explored.  I imagine that the film was meant to be a satire of Off-Broadway ruthlessness but ultimately, the film is just another tediously violent indie film from the 90s.  This is one of those movies where nobody can do anything without spending an excessive amount of time talking about it beforehand and, when things do turn violent, it’s the worst type of quirky, sadistic, drawn-out, “look how crazy we are” violence.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Al shoots a group of people in a bar.  This is intercut with clips from the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin.  As Al leave, he shoots the TV showing Battleship Potemkin and, I have to say, that really annoyed me.  Seriously, just as a bad filmmaker should not remind people that they could be watching The Third Man, he shouldn’t invite them to compare his film to Battleship Potemkin unless he’s willing to back up the comparison.  When Al shot the TV, I found myself hoping that Sergei Eisenstein would pop up and shoot him.

Frogs for Snakes is one of the worst films that I’ve ever seen.  It may, in fact, be the worst but I would need to rewatch Ted 2 before I said that for sure.  But, if you have insomnia, Frogs For Snakes will at least put you to sleep.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice