NOTE: Much of this review was inspired by a post on one of my favorite blogs, BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS. Check it out! http://breakfastintheruins.blogspot.com/2011/03/some-thoughts-on-troll-2-1990-and-best.html
Certain interests will always confuse most people. When my artistic tastes began to develop, my mother was able to understand, although not share, my joy in horror and science fiction. However, she was never able to make anything out of my fascination with the infamous director Ed Wood. Her position (and it’s a tough one to dispute) was that Wood made lousy movies. Why would anyone really care? Initially, I thought my interest was limited to Wood’s place in Hollywood horror and sci-fi history. In reality, it’s much deeper and Rudolph Grey holds the key.
In his beautifully written introduction, Grey recounts how he first became aware of Ed Wood and his films. The background was the first release of classic horror films to television in the 1950s and the rise of genre magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland. The first time I read all this, I was entranced and I didn’t know why. After several re-reads, and examinations of the extensive Wood bibliography and filmography at the end of the book, I think I’ve figured it out. Grey manages to conjure up a strange, amusing and, above all, mysterious world. It is a world where, walking into a side street movie theater or a back alley bookstore, or flipping on the TV late at night, or pulling something with a lurid cover off a small magazine kiosk, you really didn’t know what you were getting. There might be ghosts. There might be aliens. It would probably be pretty cheap. Frequently, it was poorly done. At times, it was quite funny. Infrequently, but not quite rarely, it was sublime. Boredom and satiety, on the other hand, WERE pretty rare. What Grey puts his finger on is the reason why I’ll watch direct to DVD horror movies, why I’m excited when I hear something didn’t cost a lot of money, why I miss the randomness that used to be seen on late night TV scheduling and why my heart leaps when I see dollar store DVD sections, and used bookstores, and bargain bins, and remainder tables. Wood’s life and work defines this world. He had faith that all he needed was his imagination to make us believe steel factories had something to do with cross-dressing or that cardboard cut-outs were gravestones. Ed Wood was the living embodiment of this curious world. Now, he is its patron saint. Saints, however, go through intense suffering for what they believe in. Also, much of their glory only comes after death. Grey shows that Ed Wood was no different.
It should be understood that this book is not a biography in the traditional sense. Grey terms it “an oral history” and embraces the fact that people who knew Wood have conflicting, sometimes totally contradictory, memories. The majority of the book is made up of direct quotations from the interviews Grey conducted with Wood’s family, friends and associates. The chapter order loosely follows Wood’s life. There are sections on his early life, the making of his major films, his late career turn to pornography and his tragic final years. Some chapters digress to look at aspects of his personality and work habits and one focuses on some of the more colorful members of his entourage.
Through all this, Grey stays silent. We only hear the author’s voice in the introduction and in the bibliography and filmography of Wood’s work. For the most part, we are left with the people who knew Wood. This can be dizzying at times, since the speakers are only thoroughly identified in a section near the end. Also, some interviewees are a WHOLE lot more pleasant to spend time with than others. Finally, it is hard to know for sure what is true and what isn’t. Readers should probably reserve judgement at times. For the most part however, Grey’s passive approach lends an appropriately documentary film feeling to his look at a man who, everyone agrees, adored movies.
We learn much about Ed Wood’s life and passions and the movie industry he worked in. There is also a lot about the people he knew. Fans of the legendary Bela Lugosi will not be disappointed. On a less pleasant note, there is a very disturbing (assuming it is true) revelation about B movie favorite, wrestler turned actor Tor Johnson. An incredibly moving passage comes from none other than Dudley Manlove, one of the hilariously awful actors (“Your stupid minds! Stupid!! Stupid!!!”) from Wood’s magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space. By the end of his life, Ed Wood was a bitter and mean alcoholic, living in poverty. Manlove’s desperately futile attempt to help him is so sad that I can’t even laugh at his dreadful acting anymore.
In the end, no one could save Ed Wood. There seems to be a parable of warning in Grey’s book. The world Wood believed in is not real. Life will always conquer it. Wood never seemed to learn this. While other men and women who take part in the whimsical dreams and magic of Wood’s world know it is as fleeting as the joys of Halloween night and build other lives, Wood put his whole self into his fantasy. He wouldn’t accept that Halloween ends and you’d better have something else under your cool mask.
In the end, who really cares? If ever a book defined “niche interest,” this is it. If readers are not interested in any of this stuff, it’s hard to imagine them changing their minds, nor should they. But for anyone who is even slightly charmed by the magic Ed Wood was tantalized by, this book will become precious. It is a hymn to that world and its magic. That magic is real, I believe, and it still exists. It does seem a bit harder to find these days, however. This book is a marvelous place to start the search.