Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
There's a good documentary in The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr., but it suffers from
the fact that it's an inside job. One of the producers was an old associate of Wood, which gives the
show very good access to all the classic characters who became part of Ed Wood lore. And Wade Williams
is also involved, so we're spared the dodges of lowbudget Hollywood docus, such as using trailers to
illustrate movies that can't be licensed.
But the docu loses focus and perspective on its subject, who is presented as if he were a great
filmmaker, instead of what he was, a guy who wanted to make films so badly he couldn't be
stopped. The interviewees, who are mostly still Hollywood wannabes as they slip into retirement
and beyond, are allowed to prattle on far too long and too repetitively. The show has some good
qualities, but comes off as a big valentine from the 'Ed Wood gang', mailed to themselves.
The life and wild times of maverick underachieving director Ed Wood are covered
through most of the key people in his life - his wives, his close-knit group of actors, the
wonderful Maila Nurmi who resents him even as she proudly talks of their history together. Woods'
transvestism is covered in detail (and tastefully) and many of the small distortions (and a few
big ones) of the Tim Burton Ed Wood feature are corrected.
The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. is a big opportunity for everyone to tell their story,
and although there's plenty good content here, there's also a lack of direction. Since the docu
takes no stance on Wood except to celebrate him, each speaker's drawn-out explanations tend to drag:
how they met Wood, or how he or she reacted to Wood's habit of dressing in female clothing.
Some of the special shoots and trimmings are rather fun. A Vampira impersonator helps flesh out
the interviews with Maila Nurmi, and there are some cute stage sets and graphics, that in the
main express 'Ed Woodism' very nicely. The movie even has a charming Overture soundtrack played
against a closed curtain.
But the lack of direction allows the witnesses to say whatever they want, and that can be misleading.
No matter how much the facts emphasize that
Wood was a marginal nobody, or an artist without talent, the presumption here is that he was some kind of
misunderstood genius who deserved the rewards Hollywood refused him. The truth is that Wood
was a pitiful loser almost all of the time. He didn't deserve to do better, at least not based on
the quality of his work. And the most you can say for him is that his enthusiasm and charm must have
been backed up with other good qualities, or he would never have kept such a loyal group of friends for
so long. That's what the Tim Burton movie communicates in spades - like George Bailey, even hopeless
Ed was not a failure because he had friends.
They're a pretty sad bunch. Actors big and small on their way down .. one smart cookie who went on to
a reasonably successful songwriting career ... a carny spiritualist ... some rather foolish
churchmen ... and up 'n coming actors whose lack of talent (at least in Wood's films) can't be excused
by the awful words they have to recite. Wood's sadsack enthusiasm seems to have been a magnet for
other lost souls who couldn't work 'normally' for all kinds of reasons - alcoholism, the
blacklist, or just the flat-out inability to land a real gig. You feel for them, even as you shudder
at the thought of walking in their shoes. Or are we already?
Although the witnesses try to communicate the reality of Wood's declining days in Hollywood, they really can't
tell you what a hellhole that apartment hotel on Cahuenga was like. I happened to get stuck there at 2AM
in 1976, and it was the only time in Hollywood I ever felt my life was in danger. The docu totally
sidesteps the '70s weirdos that Wood hung out with. The fools represented in Boogie Nights
are five or six notches higher on the scale than were Wood's '70s soft and hard-core crowd. His
reasonably wholesome earlier associates don't begin to detail what became a pretty depraved existence. 2
It's been said that Ed Wood's films are too watchable to be the worst ever made, which is true. But
they are still the foundation for a cult that seems to want to celebrate failure and despair.
We Famous Monsters readers were very aware of Ed Wood in the early '60s, from both the magazine and
television. His films were considered simply less competent than other inept, clueless Z pictures -
many of which we liked a lot. Creeping Terror, anyone?. When the cult revival came in in the late '70s,
Ed Wood became cultural fodder for cynics who got their kicks by pointing out bigger failures
than themselves. Think, Medved. Most of the 'cult' figures who are so proud to
tell his tale here, were at that time a lot less inclined to admit they'd ever had anything to do with him.
Let me end by repeating an old story: Once upon a time there was a filmmaker given his first break,
and he was directing on his set, but it wasn't working out. The script he wrote stank, his actors
were beginning to realize that he didn't have any control, and he didn't know what to tell them to
do. Worse, his cigar-chomping producer was glaring at him red-faced from the corner of the stage.
The director ran to the men's room and threw up. Then, clasping his hands together, he turned to
the graffiti-covered ceiling and pleaded, 'Please, God, help me. I'm at the end of my rope. Please,
I don't know what I'm going to do with myself."
Up in space, two stars began to blink and talk to each other. "Well, Joseph, it looks like another
director down there's in trouble.""Dear me yes, he needs help. What are we going to do?""Send him
the best we've got."
Joseph did a fast search but came up empty-handed. Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles,
all were unavailable because they were all off on their own shoots, happily filming away somewhere
in heaven. Finally, time was up, and Joseph had no choice: "Send for Ed Wood."
Then good old Ed magically appeared behind urinal number 3. He put his arm around the sobbing
director, and told him, "Kid, I faced suicide charges on Tarawa, and I know what it's like. Here's
what you do!" In no time at all the young director was wearing a nice, soft angora sweater and
confidently guiding his actors through their moves. The producer was happy, too. It didn't matter
that nothing made sense or that the film was being shot incompetently. The End. 1
Image Entertainment's DVD of The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. is nicely tricked out. The
well-produced film docu looks fine and plays well. The menu takes you to a host of extras introduced
by the Vampira impersonator. The personal stills and home videos of most of the cast are on display,
with publicity video coverage of the actors and producer coming together for screening parties.
Philip Chamberlain and Forrest Ackerman (here's Bela's ring!) are there for the The Haunted
World premiere at the Nuart theater in West LA. Coverage of the shoots for the new material
get pretty tedious, but there are a lot of classic stills included as well. The producer has the rights
to Wood's semi-amateur Western 'Crossroads of Laredo' so it makes an appearance, with a new track, new
video titles, and rather annoying narration. The picture also has an audio commentary by the director
that talks mostly about the production of the docu. A&E interviewed Brett Thompson and Mike Gabriel on
Wood, and that footage appears here unedited. Ed Wood aficionados and fans of his 'stars' will have
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. rates:
Movie: Good, as far as it goes
Supplements: 'Crossroads of Laredo', Wood's 23 minute first film; Audio Commentary; unedited
A&E interview; SciFi Channel coverage of the world premiere; "Behind the camera" a collection of outtakes
from the interview shoots.; Ed Wood reunion and Hollywood Premiere video footage; galleries of Ed
Wood rarities and photos.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 30, 2002
1. I don't know if he made it up or heard it elsewhere, but it was Douglas R. Haise who told
me this joke.
2. Yes, this is a value judgement, but one that's important in Hollywood.
Wood hustled and bamboozled people for decades, with the only redeeming factor being that all he
wanted to do was make movies. In Hollywood, that doesn't lead to any kind of respectable end. People
who start out here desperately in search of a dream, almost always end up just plain desperate.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson