by Will Ross
Following Glen or Glenda and Jail Bait, Ed Wood somehow managed to get his hands on a budget more than triple that of his first two films, and used it to make his most overtly melancholic picture, a riff on the Universal Frankenstein films that starred Boris Karloff. As the second (and most substantial) collaboration between Wood and Bela Lugosi, this film gives the old horror star a role as Dr. Eric Vornoff, a long-banished scientific genius of some European power, who has committed himself to using atomic energy to create superhuman soldiers and revenge himself upon a world that jeered him and took his home away.
This is the first and most expensive film in Wood's legendary Kelton Trilogy, and in many ways it shows: sets frequently resemble the locations they aim to represent, camera movements are fairly regular occurrences, and the lighting is more elaborate and attractive than anything seen in Plan 9 from Outer Space or Night of the Ghouls. What's more, while the film's construction is shabby by any typical Hollywood standard of craft, this provides more genuine technical showmanship than any other Wood movie I've seen, with ambitious and well-motivated movements, expressive blocking, and a daring willingness to slow the pace down — and yes, it’s on purpose.
It is also, by far, the most melancholic Ed Wood movie I've seen — and the Kelton Trilogy does not lack for melancholy. Vornoff is, unequivocally, a villain — delighting in siccing his giant octopus(!) on people, beating his mute, mentally disabled assistant Lobo (who is heavily implied to be the result of a failed experiment), and lamenting the death of his home and the ruin of his name. Twice he ruminates that his name is little-recognized; the erasure of his existence and his gift weigh heavily on him. Meanwhile, a very low-stakes feeling main plot draws a newspaper reporter and her police lieutenant fiance into their own respective investigations of Vornoff and the rumours of a giant monster killing people in the swamp.
All this is peppered with just enough Wood-ian moments to make it an enjoyable viewing experience; sometimes those moments are risible, and sometimes reaches for and achieves a true poetry, as in one scene where two police officers reflect on the swamp that serves as the center of the story, and as they speak Wood cuts to a lengthy lateral tracking shot that slinks across a river as the trees on the far shore slide past. "This swamp is a monument to death," Craig says, and for a moment a true sense of mortal anxiety palpably emerges.
It all seems to be a slightly battier progression from Jail Bait's mostly-conventional plotting and presentation, and therefore primed for placement among Wood's minor work. Then Lobo knocks out Vornoff, places him on his own operating table, and the film goes absolutely nuts, escalating until its explosively discordant ending.
There are more than a few resemblances between this film and Kiss Me Deadly, a film released only a week after this one, which similarly deconstructed and criticized its genre before an ending that explodes the film's structure itself with a nuclear flash. Bride takes this atomic explosion even further — both in terms of its rapid narrative deterioration and by the depiction of an actual nuclear test footage when Vornoff and the octopus are inexplicably destroyed by lightning. The doctor is, at last, disintegrated, not only his name but every atom of his body cast into the fire.
In this sense, the film is Wood's most direct and successful allegory for the threat of nuclear weapons, a threat that churns reason into madness and whose logical endpoint is illogical destruction. Plan 9, of course, would deal with similar themes, but takes inter-cultural paranoia as more of an interest than nuclear devastation. It may not have the scene-for-scene bombast of Wood's other great works, but it trades that for his only honest-to-god big-picture structural setup and payoff, one that renders the ending all the more astonishing and confusing and entertaining by its relative meekness in advance. That makes it a perfect introduction to Ed Wood, whose internal sense of poetry will not be shackled by the strictures of conventional "quality" filmmaking.
"He tampered in God's domain," intones the old police chief as he and the film's other stars watch the mushroom cloud. As a caution against overreaching science, it's not especially convincing — after all, this guy had no way of even knowing about Vornoff's experiments. But take the other possible meaning of that phrase, and it becomes apropos, even poignant. Wood, an avowed cross-dresser and artist who was punished again and again just for who he was, must have felt acutely for the man who was destroyed for having a unique mind. It wasn't for challenging the rights of God to create life that Vornoff was shunned and finally annihilated; it was trying to rise above the circumstances of his fortune-blighted existence that earned him his cosmic judgment.