Often described as the "worst director in history," Wood's following has exploded since his death. For years, a small group of Ed Wood cultists treasured the two films that were commercially available—Glen or Glenda? (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)—without knowing much about the man himself. This all changed with the publication in 1992 of Rudolph Grey's reverent biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and the release of Tim Burton's runaway success Ed Wood (1994), a dark comedy based on the life, times, and movies of the infamous director.
Wood's cult status is due in part to his endearingly unorthodox personality and unusual openness about his sexual fetishes. A twice-married transvestite, Wood fought in World War II and claimed to have been wearing a bra and panties under his uniform during a military landing. His ventures into Hollywood moviemaking were ill-fated until, in 1953, he landed the chance to direct a film based on the Christine Jorgensen sex-change story. The result, Glen or Glenda?, gave a fascinating insight into Wood's own obsessive personality, and shed light on his fascination with women's clothing (an almost unthinkable subject for an early 1950s feature) by including the director's own plea for tolerance toward cross-dressers like himself. This surreal, cheap (though well over budget), and virtually incomprehensible film is notable for Bela Lugosi's role as a scientist delivering cryptic messages about gender directly to the audience. Neither Glen or Glenda? nor any of Wood's subsequent movies were commercially successful, but he continued to make films until failing health and financial need sent him into a physical and emotional decline. Grey's biography presents Wood in his later years as a moody alcoholic; sadly, the last period of his career, before his premature death at age 54, was spent directing undistinguished soft, and later hardcore, pornography.
Wood's films have been canonized by cultists as high camp, and continue to be adored for their charming ineptitude, startling continuity gaps, bad acting, and irrelevant stock footage. His best-known film is the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space, which features aliens arriving on earth and attempting to conquer the planet by raising the dead. The film is notorious for its pathetic, illogical script, cardboard masonry, ridiculous "special effects,'' and the use of kitchen utensils as space helmets. It stars the heavily accented Swedish wrestler Tor Jonson and a drug-addled, terminally ill Bela Lugosi, who died during production and is sporadically replaced by a stand-in who, even with his cape drawn over his face, looks nothing at all like the decrepit Lugosi. The film also features the glamorous Finnish actress Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, generally believed to be the first late-night television horror hostess (and followed by many imitators, including the more successful Elvira, Mistress of the Dark). Plan 9 from Outer Space contains the only surviving footage of Vampira, although she has no dialogue in the film.
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