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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Burning Pits of Passion, Gore, and Cheap Special Effects:Pt. 1

The CIA’s formal research into UFOs began with the Robertson Panel in 1953. Fearful that another phone tie-up, such as that which had occurred during the Washington sightings, would create a major threat to national security, the CIA set out on a campaign to “debunk” them. In his book Hollywood vs. the Aliens, Bruce Rux posits that the CIA set out to debunk UFOs by seeding a lot of money and disinformation--i.e. accurate information from a disreputable source--into the production of b-grade movies during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

You’d often find these types of flicks at the local drive-ins, nicknamed ‘passion pits’ for reasons other than the on-screen sexual content. By the late-1940s, teenagers with no place of their own, found cars to be sort of a mobile bedroom. Drive-in owners consequently wondered why they were paying good money for real films, since fewer and fewer of their patrons actually watched them. They found it more profitable to play cheaply produced, cheaply distributed fare to serve as a background. If the movie were scary, all the better. Teenaged lads could prove their bravery by withstanding the countless scenes of gore that would rocket their dates into their arms for comfort. If the movie had (how shall we say?) tawdry content, then that could spice up the action too. Thus, over the course of the 1950s, a number of movies destined for the passion pits, proudly featured oodles of sleaze and blood, preferably at the same time.

Drive-in movies represented the epitome of disrepute. The films were horribly written, ineptly directed, and indifferently acted -- hardly things that would entice a true cinema connoisseur. The ‘passion pit’ moniker that they picked up during the 1950s made their audiences seem shady as well. The CIA might very well have seen them as the perfect vehicle for disinformation.

Former US Marine Ed Wood became a Hollywood legend for arguably being the worst movie director who ever lived. Yet, his first stab at professional filmmaking came at the behest of The United States Department of Defense, who asked him to prepare a series of documentaries on a major defense contractor, Autonetics Incorporated. Since he completed the series, we can safely assume that the Pentagon was satisfied by his efforts. They didn’t fire him after he made one or two. Surely they would have done so if the quality of that work weren’t at least fifty times better than the normal Ed Wood fare. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know how good those pictures were. All of Wood’s films for Autonetics are still classified.

While such efforts as Jail Bait, The Violent Years, and The Sinister Urge were god-awful films, many consider Wood’s masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space, to be the worst movie ever committed to celluloid. I can personally vouch for the film’s lack of quality. For starters, it had a confused and bizarre plot. Secondly, most of the cast consisted of proudly untalented amateurs, who ponied up production money just so they could say that they made a movie. Worse yet, the film’s star died several weeks before it went into production.

Wood had used over-the-hill, monster movie icon Bela Lugosi in previous movies. Hampered in his later years by declining health and a virulent morphine addiction, Lugosi looked forward to working with Wood, a good friend and the only director who would hire him. With no script in mind, Wood decided to shoot some footage of Lugosi romping around in his Dracula costume. Lugosi wore the same outfit at his own funeral the following week.

Undaunted, Wood saved two of the shots: a sequence that shows Lugosi exiting his house and smelling a flower, and another shot where Lugosi, dressed as Dracula, walks down a hill, strikes a vampire pose, then walks back up the hill. This is the about the only Lugosi footage you ever get to see in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and for that, Bela got star billing. Just so that the moviegoer didn’t feel gypped, thinking that he or she has shelled out money for what was billed as the great Lugosi’s last film, Wood repeated the second shot about thirty or forty times in the picture (that should give you some idea of why many consider it to be the worst film of all time).

Of all of his movies, some of which are actually watchable, Wood genuinely admired Plan 9 as his greatest work, his masterpiece. But it’s an odd film, even for Wood. One has to wonder why he made it.

Perhaps Wood launched the project because it would be the last chance to star his old friend Lugosi. But that doesn’t explain it’s content. Why not just make a monster flick if a vampire is what you wanted to base your film on? We do see some Robertson Panel themes in it. Nevertheless, while these themes and Wood’s intelligence background might have suggested that the movie was pure disinformation, it doesn’t necessarily explain the timing. Is there anything that explains both?

Not really. But, I’d like to interject an outlandish explanation all the same, based as it is (believe it or not) on another b-grade movie, this one made in 1995.

1 Comments:

Blogger Rinda Elliott said...

Which one?

9:05 PM  

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