Ed Wood holds the ignoble distinction of being the “worst director of all-time.” However, he spawned a cult around his films, and twenty years after his death, a legally-recognized religion. His nonsensical films tanked at the box office and should have disappeared. Instead they continue to be celebrated/derided as tasteless trash, artful camp, and more often than not, both.
With titles like Jail Bait, The Sinister Urge, Excited, Orgy Of The Dead and Necromania, the shocking themes that run through Wood’s body of work as both writer and director are self-evident. The cross-dressing director launched his career of failure with several terrible Westerns before shooting the autobiographical Glen Or Glenda? starring a washed-up Bela Lugosi as the narrator and Ed Wood as Glen/Glenda, a confused newlywed who wrestles with telling his wife about his transvestitism.
His films are filled with catfights, crossdressers, topless ghouls, hallucinations, stock footage of bison stampedes, incoherent plots, incomprehensible dialogue, pornography, anti-pornography propaganda, bestiality, necrophilia, Swedish wrestlers, Hollywood has-beens and famous LA strippers. And not a one of them really make any sense at all.
And yet they have endured. In 1980, Plan 9 From Outer Space, considered the worst film ever made, was re-released. It became an instant cult classic. His catalog was subsequently re-released and quickly became fan favorites on Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark and other camp celebrations of B-movies. Night Of The Ghouls, which had been confiscated by the lab because Wood couldn’t afford to pay the processing costs, was an especially noteworthy treasure.
Tim Burton’s fond 1994 film, Ed Wood reintroduced the infamous auteur to the world by way of Johnny Depp’s loving portrayal. Wood’s screenplay, I Woke Up Early The Day I Died, which he risked bodily harm to rescue from a burning house, is finally seeing the light of day thanks to director Aris Iliopulous. In a Woodsian manner, Iliopulous intercuts old hygiene films with the story of a cross-dressing thief’s story of an escape from the Casa de la Loco Sanitarium and a run-in with the Mob. Billy Zane joined young Hollywood’s Christina Ricci, Rain and Summer Phoenix, Abe Benrubi and cult favorites Karen Black, Bud Cort, Eartha Kitt and Vampira to hoorah the efforts of Hollywood’s most notoriously awful filmmaker.
Why is Wood and his work so lingeringly endearing? A decorated WWII-veteran Marine and former circus performer, Wood loved films. He lived and breathed films. When finally given a chance to make films, he made them with a vengeance--with no budgets and painfully bad actors. He made spectacularly bad films. But it is so obvious, frame after frame, that he made them with love.