The very things that collectors of bad cinema prize it for are its shoddy sets (including a mad scientist lab that mostly consists of kitchen appliances up against a laughably painted backdrop), its looney tunes plot (mad scientist with pet octopus and hulking mute servant tries to create his own race of “atomic supermen”), its bad dialogue, its rampant use of stock footage, etc.. In other words, its failings are its virtues. And yet, it’s also the closest director and co-writer Ed Wood ever came to making a good movie. By itself, that may not be saying much. Even taking his nonexistent budgets into account, there’s no getting around the fact that Wood was simply magnificently untalented — albeit in a glorious way. As one of his associates once remarked, “Ed could have had a million dollars and he’d still have made a piece of shit.” But there’s something appealing about a guy who wouldn’t let a lack of money, a dearth of actors, no sign of interest from sane people, and even no discernible talent stop him from making movies.
Ed Wood is the great example for people who insist on incorrectly using the term “auteur” as a barometer of quality. It simply means that the director is clearly, identifiably the author of the work. It doesn’t mean the work is any good. Well, there’s no doubt who the author of Wood’s movies was, or that their peculiar qualities — cross-dressing, angora fetishes, arbitrary beefcake, bad acting, bad dialogue, lamebrained plotting, makeshift sets — are distinctly his. So, yes, Ed Wood qualifies for auteur status — much more so than a lot of folks currently working whose contracts specify “a film by” credit. You look at Wood’s movies and there’s no question of who to blame. You could say that with old Ed the buck stops here, but with his budgets it’s probably only a quarter.
Bride of the Monster differs from Wood’s other movies in that it’s reasonably coherent. By that, I mean you can actually follow the story. For that matter, it generates a certain credible atmosphere. On occasion, it even — probably accidentally — manages to pull off a shock effect. But that’s not its claim to fame. No, its fame rests on how threadbare and ludicrous it is. The depiction of its making in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) isn’t too far from the truth — at least in spirit. License has been taken in some instances, e.g. Tor Johnson had been in movies (usually in small parts) for 20 years when Bride of the Monster was made and knew what he was doing. Plus, it’s very obvously Lugosi’s stunt double who “wrestles” with the rubber octopus in the real film, but Burton’s version makes for a better scene. Most of it, though, is pretty accurate.
However — and for all its faults — the film is the last hurrah of horror master Lugosi — who at 73 and addicted to both morphine and Scotch, still gives the film everything he’s got. And it’s almost enough to make you forget all the things the movie hasn’t got … almost. He has one last great moment — the famous “I have no home” speech that is justly celebrated in Ed Wood — when it’s impossible not to realize you’re in the presence of one of the giants of film. For this — and for the casual insanity of the rest — it’s a kind of classic. Put is this way — very few people have a clue what the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1955 was, but they probably know Bride of the Monster. That’s a cockeyed triumph in itself.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Bride of the Monster Thursday, Nov. 20, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.