Celebrating the worst movie director of all time. Reviews of a new doc — 'Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora' — and two of the awful auteur's own flicks on home video

By Glenn Kenny
Updated October 07, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Celebrating the worst movie director of all time: Ed Wood

Long a beloved cult figure among midnight-movie addicts, cross-dressing auteur Ed Wood has finally become famous famous, courtesy of Tim Burton. Suddenly, Wood viewers will be interested in becoming Wood viewers, if only to see if the work is really as bizarre as Burton’s film makes it out to be. They may be delighted — or befuddled — to discover that it’s stranger still. Three new releases from Rhino Home Video: Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora, a documentary on the filmmaker; the so-called director’s cut of Jailbait, a 1954 potboiler; and a newly minted edition of the sci-fi travesty Plan 9 From Outer Space, make a nice Wood starter set.

It’s funny to recall that it was famed prig and movie critic Michael Medved who got the Wood revival started back in 1980, when he and brother Harry toured the country with their World’s Worst Film Festival to promote their book The Golden Turkey Awards, which decreed Wood ”The Worst Director of all Time.” But subsequent experts on Bizarro World cinema rejected that view; They’ve argued that Wood’s frequent use of stock footage, his mind-bogglingly peculiar dialogue (some of his sentences are like verbal Mobius strips), and his delirious technical ineptitude constitute a unique creative vision that is far more appealing than anything mainstream Hollywood has to offer. Look Back in Angora tries to have it both ways. Written and directed by Ted Newsom, its narration scrupulously points out the wildly illogical juxtapositions and visual non sequiturs that are the hallmarks of Wood’s style; but it’s read in ultra-campy tones by former Laugh-In announcer Gary Owens. Much of the documentary footage of Wood and a dissipated Bela Lugosi is intriguing but rather pathetic; so, too, are the reminiscences of Wood’s widow, Kathy. As a result, the schizoid tone that this documentary eventually achieves is more disquieting than it wants to be.

Jailbait is a film that most Wood connoisseurs come to late, and it’s a bit of a disappointment. Its technical gaffes are of a more ordinary sort than the ones found in Wood’s ”masterworks.” Indeed, it’s kind of astonishing that Wood made this fairly ordinary cheapie a mere year after his most dizzying piece of cinematic bricolage, the legendary ode to cross-dressing, Glen or Glenda. By comparison, Jailbait is a familiarly lurid no-budget thriller (although future Hercules Steve Reeves turns in an amusingly awful performance as a cop). This director’s cut merely adds an excised striptease scene. Hubba hubba.

Plan 9, however, remains the sine qua non of absurdist angst. Shockingly nonlinear, boasting a cast of the once great (Lugosi), the never-even-good (Lyle Talbot, Tor Johnson), and the unbelievably motley (”psychic” Criswell, cinch-waisted Vampira), its 79 minutes are jam-packed with insanity, and those tin plates on strings that Wood tries to pass off as flying saucers are the least of its delights. From Criswell’s ripe, nonsensical opening monologue (”Future events such as these will affect you in the future”) to the climactic explanation of the ”Solarmanite” bomb — the spelling’s approximate, since none of the actors pronounce the word the same way twice — it never lets up; it’s schlock at a zenith of relentlessness. Angora: C (Following grades based on reverse scale; the worse the movie, the higher the grade.) Jailbait: C-; Plan 9: A-

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