February 7 at Doc Films: “Ed Wood”

HeraldBlog Film Critic

When Pacific Rim came out last year, it garnered a very mixed reaction from audiences and critics alike. Basically, whether you liked the film boiled down to whether or not you bought into director Guillermo del Toro’s attempt to create his own version of the cheeseball robot/monster flicks he adored as a child. Understanding Pacific Rim rested a lot on understanding the parts of the film that were bad were supposed to be bad and could actually be considered good in the whole picture.

Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood, showing at Doc Films on Friday, February 7, and again on Sunday, February 9, posited this same question of good and bad twenty years ago. In making his slightly fictionalized biopic of Edward D. Wood, Jr., famed bad director of  “worst film ever made” Plan 9 from Outer Space, Burton turned his own film into one of Wood’s, filling the story with poor acting, cheesy dialogue, and of course, classic 1950s black and white.

Pacific Rim worked so well because even if you didn’t 100% buy into del Toro’s fanaticism, there’s still something about watching giant robots fight giant sea creatures that entertains on a very base level. Ed Wood, on the other hand, deals with subject matter that’s a little bit more difficult to enjoy. Admittedly, since their initial poor reception in the 1950s, a lot of films like Plan 9 from Outer Space have enjoyed new life in cult status, and there are plenty of people (Burton ostensibly being one of them) who genuinely love them for all of their idiosyncrasies. But that’s just the thing with cults; you have to be initiated before you can really be a part of them.

Ed Wood therefore plays like a cult film by and for members of the cult of bad cinema, and to that aim, it’s quite successful. Viewers who have spent hours laughing at films like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or who regularly attend midnight showings of Plan 9 from Outer Space will love seeing those kinds of films deconstructed and explained as to how they became so hilariously bad. Johnny Depp as Wood is absolutely manic as he throws away every sensible suggestion (like fixing basic continuity problems) from his Plan 9 funders in an effort to make the film cheaply and quickly.

However, if you’re not yet a member of that cult and have never seen Plan 9 (like I haven’t), the flaws in the film stand out that much more strongly. Intentional or not, the film has a tendency to just feel bad, especially when it comes to much of the acting in the film. Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Wood’s actress girlfriend Dolores Fuller in the first half of the movie, is the worst of them all as she moves through the film delivering ill-timed and often inappropriate reactions to the events of the film.

On the opposite end of the acting spectrum from Parker is Martin Landau’s awe-inspiring take on actor Bela Lugosi, most famous for playing the canonical Dracula. Ed Wood fictionalizes quite a bit with the Lugosi character, creating instead a downtrodden and washed-up actor by the time Wood steps in to offer Lugosi roles in his movies. Landau thus plays the role with inimitable poise and a hint of sorrow, acting his way toward a much-deserved Best Supporting Actor win at the Academy Awards.

When I mentioned the above criticisms to a friend of mine, he countered with the idea that Ed Wood succeeds as a film because it’s easy to feel the pure joy and adoration for the subject material coming from Burton, Depp, and the other actors on set. I agree to some extent – and it certainly seems like Ed Wood would have been a fun set to be working on ­– so the film is still worth watching regardless of whether or not you’re a member of the cult. It’s just those few moments of exclusivity that bring it down a few levels from being great.