Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Perfect Book for Halloween: Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays

For years, eccentric cinephiles have obsessed over the minutiae of the strange and wonderful careers of writer/director Ed Wood, subject of the award-winning Tim Burton biopic, Ed Wood (1994), and actor Bela Lugosi, star of such classic horror films as Dracula (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), White Zombie (1932), and The Black Cat (1934).  In the 1950s, Wood and Lugosi teamed up to  make a series of low-budget films that have become the gold standard of what is now referred to as "psychotronic cinema," movies so bizarre they often make the viewers question if these cinematic epics weren't produced by a particularly bad fever dream as opposed to a professional Hollywood film crew.  These Wood/Lugosi collaborations include:

• Glen or Glenda (1953), an avant-garde docudrama about the trials and travails of an all-American cross-dresser named Glen (and/or Glenda), clearly based on the personal life of Wood himself;

• Bride of the Monster (1955), a horror/science fiction hybrid about a mad scientist named Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi) who intends to "take over the vurld" with his "race of atomic powered supermen"; 

• and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), the sine qua non of psychotronic cinema that revolves around a covert plot hatched by a group of alien invaders intent on dominating Earth through the reanimation of dead humans.  Thanks to footage filmed not long before Lugosi's untimely death from a heart attack, the actor appears in the finished film as one of the revived, murderous, alien-controlled ghouls.

Wood/Lugosi fans have often read about several projects the pair attempted to get off the ground without success.  The scripts for these unrealized films have now been conveniently collected in a single volume entitled Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays edited by Gary D. Rhodes with illuminating contributions by such film historians as Tom Weaver (co-author of Universal Horrors, Poverty Row Horrors!, The Creature Chronicles, and many other excellent books) and Robert Cremer (author of the 1976 biography, Lugosi:  The Man Behind the Cape).  The first forty-five pages of Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays are filled with Gary Rhodes' captivating insights into the dramatic ups and downs experienced by Wood and Lugosi as they attempted to bring to fruition their infernal Hollywood dreams.  

The particular dreams contained within this volume include two complete screenplays, The Ghoul Goes West and The Vampire's Tomb, as well as a treatment for a feature film called The Final Curtain.  Rumor has it that Lugosi was clutching the treatment for The Final Curtain in his hands when he passed away in the bedroom of his modest Los Angeles apartment at 5620 Harold Way only a couple of months before what would have been his 74th birthday.  Whether that deliciously ironic detail is true or not, it certainly makes a good legend.  And over the past sixty years, that's exactly what Wood and Lugosi have become, genuine Hollywood legends, something neither man would have predicted during their desperate final days.  Though they both suffered from incurable problems involving alcohol, women and financial debt at the time of their respective deaths (Lugosi in August of 1956 and Wood in December of 1978), I'm certain they would have been pleased that their contributions to the cinema of the fantastique is now appreciated by devoted cinephiles all around the world.  

The unprecedented opportunity to take a peek at the "what if" alternate universe in which these aborted Wood/Lugosi projects were actually filmed is a most welcome one indeed.  Of the three projects on display in Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays, I would have loved to have seen The Ghoul Goes West reach the silver screen before Lugosi's demise.  According to Rhodes, Wood almost nabbed Western icon Gene Autry as the hero of this film.  The notion of seeing a 49-year-old gunslinging Autry co-starring with a 73-year-old Lugosi in a horror/western mash-up is almost too tantalizing for words. 

Though we can't experience such a film in real life, we can at least experience it in our own minds when reading Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays, the perfect tome to read while immersed in this autumnal season overbrimming with spectres, witches, demons and zombies (none of which, one hopes, are being remotely controlled by violent aliens hellbent on world domination).

"And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future!"
--The Amazing Criswell, Plan 9 from Outer Space

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