Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Cinema du Fromage

By Jerry Renshaw

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  Show of hands, please; how many of you have heard of director Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Just as I thought, almost everyone. Chances are you're familiar with him because some snide, condescending movie critic once deemed him "the world's worst director" and called Plan 9 from Outer Space the world's worst movie. Well, those cinematic stuffed shirts just haven't looked hard enough. Think about it: Sure, Glen or Glenda, Wood's explication of his cross-dressing tendencies, is technically rather inept, stiffly acted, perplexing, and obtuse. It's also a raw slice of Wood's soul served up on a celluloid platter, his inner weirdness (which isn't really all that weird) laid bare for all the world to poke fun at. If Glen or Glenda were released today, by, say, the guy who did Clerks, those same dang cineasthetes would be slobbering all over their suede-elbowed tweed jackets and getting into wrestling matches to see who'd be the first to call it "a brilliant, visionary work," "a painfully honest indie effort," "a naïve but ingenious look at the transvestism phenomenon," etc. etc. What the hell do critics know, anyway? What comprises a "bad" movie?

Did you know that while Billy Wilder was walking away with Oscars for Sunset Blvd., Irma la Douce, The Apartment, and the like, his poor old brother W. Lee toiled away on another side of Hollywood over such films as Phantom From Space, Man Without a Body, and The Snow Creature? Out of all of W. Lee Wilder's films, the best known is probably Phantom From Space, a sci-fi yarn with A&E's Biography host Peter Graves being kidnapped by some truly substandard aliens wearing leotards, hooded sweatshirts, striped belts, oven mitts, and ping-pong ball halves for eyes. Wilder used stock footage of lizards and giant insects to round out the non-action in this one, with Graves making the world safe for mankind. The curious thing about his movies is their lack of humor; the absolutely deadpan tone leads you to believe he took them pretty damn seriously, and makes them a little unsettling in a wholly unintentional way. It also makes them excruciatingly dull, which is why you don't see them pop up on TV very often.



Alien alert in the headlines from Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Bert I. Gordon's stock in trade was oversized monsters (Mr. B.I.G. -- get it?).One of his early successes was The Beginning of the End, the story of a plague of atomic-mutation giant grasshoppers attacking Illinois and eventually winding up in downtown Chicago, with our man Peter Graves again saving the day. Follow-ups included l957's The Amazing Colossal Man, with a nuclear-blast witness (Glenn Langan) growing to 50' tall, wrapping a giant diaper around himself and eventually going on a rampage in Las Vegas (which in turn spawned a sequel, War of the Colossal Beast). Another Bert cheeze-fest is Village of the Giants, a '65 feature wherein a gang of delinquent teens (led by Beau Bridges ) grows to 50' or so and terrorizes a town before being thwarted by Johnny (The Rifleman) Crawford, Tommy Kirk, and little Ronnie Howard (also keep an eye out for Toni Basil!). Probably best known, though, is his Seventies excursion into H.G. Wells territory, Food of the Gods, the story of all kinds of animals (but especially rats) growing to huge proportions after eating some special growth vittles. This one does show up on TV pretty often and has a lot better SFX than most of Gordon's efforts, so keep an eye out for it. Worth a mention here is the awful Eighties sequel (not directed by Gordon), Food of the Gods II, easily one of the most careless productions you'll see, with the boom mike coming into frame so often it deserves to be in the credits ("Boom Mike as... Himself!").

Al Adamson brought out a string of impoverished movies in the Sixties that definitely are worth seeing for their high school-level acting and dime store special effects. Adamson managed to regularly rope in such talent as John Carradine and Adamson's buddy Rusty Tamblyn (at his most drug-addled nadir). Horror of the Blood Monsters is a good Al Adamson primer; a confused, Filipino/Adamson patchwork involving giant lobsters, flying bat-winged midgets, cavemen, and astronauts, featuring Carradine in a sort of figurehead role.


Vampira anf Tor Johnson as zombies in Plan 9

Satan's Sadists is probably better, though, with Tamblyn as the utterly unconvincing leader of a gang of crazed bikers who feed girls LSD, then kill 'em. Satan's Sadists is, of course, full of some doubtful acid-trip sequences and wretched rock instrumentals. Probably the quintessential Adamson foray, however, is Dracula vs. Frankenstein, with septugenarian stars J. Carroll Naish and Lon Chaney, Jr. in their last film roles. Featuring the most ludicrous Dracula in memory, more LSD sequences, bushy-haired Russ Tamblyn (again), elderly midget Angelo Rossito, and Famous Monsters of Filmland's Forrest J. Ackerman, Dracula vs. Frankenstein brings home the bacon and rubs it all over your bald spot. The 66-year-old Adamson recently turned up murdered and buried under the floorboards in his Indio, California home; last word was the police were looking for the handyman who was staying with Adamson while remodeling the house.

Texan Larry Buchanan was responsible for a rash of made-for-TV remakes of Fifties horror movies that, due to copyright problems, are nearly impossible to see anymore. However, if you do get a chance to see the lumpy green rubber-suited monster with bulging ping-pong ball eyes and a visible zipper up the back that graced such efforts as Zontar, Thing From Venus, It's Alive, and Creature of Destruction you won't likely forget it. Buchanan, always a believer in pinching a penny until Abe Lincoln's beard is all lathered up with sweat, put the same miscreant mutant in all three films. Best bet is to keep an eye on TV listings, since they do surface now and then. Probably the best-known film of his (and one of the all-time great titles) is Mars Needs Women, with Disney vet Tommy Kirk, Yvonne (Batgirl) Craig, and a bunch of romantic Martians wearing wetsuits with antennae'd headphones and looking for a little lovin' on that crazy planet Earth.



A poster for director, Phil Tucker's Robot Monster, yet another classic stinker

The envelopes, please...

  • Most Disjointed Movie Ever: Undoubtedly, They Saved Hitler's Brain. This l963 David Bradley opus was shot partly in the Phillipines, then additional footage was shot and added in the Seventies (complete with Seventies cars, clothes, hairstyles and a big old Sonny Bono mustache). It involves a group of Nazis in the Carribean plotting to start a Fourth Reich by using nerve gas and keeping the Führer's noggin in a jug while looking around for a new body to put it on. Keep an eye out for Robert Mitchum's climactic car crash unceremoniously yanked out of Thunder Road and stuck in here.

  • Most Amateurish Acting: Religious-movie director Ron Ormond's 1952 Mesa of Lost Women. Jackie "Uncle Fester" Coogan plays a mad scientist developing a giant tarantula and a super race of tarantula women with long fingernails. The rest of the cast acts either sedated or lobotomized as they encounter the many horrors Coogan has in store for them. How annoying can a classical guitar and a piano be? Check out the score in this movie, then watch Ed Wood's; Ed used the same music (presumably to drive audiences out of their minds).

  • Worst Movie Ever: Hard to say, but after plumbing the depths for a while I think they don't come much worse than The Creeping Terror. This l964 jaw-dropper is the story of a carpet that goes amok and eats people. Well, that's close enough, anyway...the "monster" devours drive-in goers, teens at a rock & roll party, a fisherman and his son, and a few others. The feet of the people under the monster are plainly visible, and the victims have to shove themselves into its mouth. On top of that, the soundtrack was lost or destroyed during production, so the movie is almost entirely narrated, documentary-style. This is one that truly has to be seen to be believed.

So, class... here's your assignment, if you dare. It's ridiculously easy to belittle and beat up on these directors and all of these movies, until you stop and consider whether the most basic intent of film is to entertain. If you think about it from that angle, something like The Amazing Colossal Man is a way better buy for your video dollar than slick, calculated Nineties Hollywood mega-turds like Independence Day. Let the film professors snort; let the average moviegoer scoff; let all the Siskels, Eberts and pointy-headed Medveds of the world rave over Mr. Holland's Opus. Who's watching the movies, and who's the final judge... them, or you?


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