The Killer Wore Cashmere!
By Mike White
While PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE will forever be Edward D. Wood Jr.'s best-remembered film, GLEN OR GLENDA (AKA I CHANGED MY SEX) stands as Wood's most personal work. Never letting his plea for understanding overshadow the sensationalism of the story, GLEN OR GLENDA explores Wood's lifelong obsession with transvestitism. Wood's penchant for feminine garb would occasionally appear in his later film work but emerges most prominently in his voluminous body of fiction.
Some estimates put Wood's novels at close to eighty while others claim (a more reasonable) twenty-some titles. Regardless, of the exact number of books penned under Wood's various noms de plume, the majority includes cross-dressing to some extent. Numerous Wood books use the "case study" conceit to provide stroke material in the guise of cautionary tales. His best works, however, are his original fictional tales.
In the "Wood revival" following the release of Tim Burton's biopic ED WOOD, two publishers strove to make a few entries of Wood's written work available after it had been moldering in attics and obscure bookstores for decades. In the U.S., Four Walls Eight Windows released three of Wood's books. Two, Killer in Drag and Death of a Transvestite, are a double whammy of Wood's obsessions disguised as "assassin on the run" stories (think THIS GUN FOR HIRE's Alan Ladd in pumps).
Originally published in 1963 as Black Lace Drag, the protagonist of Killer in Drag is professional killer Glen Marker who does his business as "Glenda Satin." She's a dame to die for in her angora sweaters and form-fitting skirts. Managing to stun every man who even glances at her, Glenda lands in a heap of trouble when she's in the wrong place at the wrong time. Taking those gorgeous gams on the lam, Glenda travels across country, stopping long enough to purchase a carnival. Working again from personal sideshow experience, Killer in Drag deals extensively with carny intrigue before kicking back into gear. Published four years later, Death of a Transvestite begins its narrative a little over a year after the end of Killer in Drag. The tale is a confession by Glen Marker, covering his final days as Glenda Satin. While not nearly as diverse as Killer in Drag, Death of a Transvestite is far more lurid.
Wood makes his fetish for angora sweaters known throughout his work, describing the sensations of the material in Death of a Transvestite: "It seemed to move against his skin with a sexual stimulation he had never experienced before. To be sure, very sure, he let his hands slowly caress the softness of the garment at the point where her breasts stretched the wool so invitingly. Then he was sure. The electricity of the situation shot through to his groin. He could hardly contain himself as his nervous, shaking hands unbuttoned the fur-like sweater." Both of these books, along with several of Wood's case studies books (Drag Trade, Gay Underworld, et cetera) are peppered with angora-clad men discovering the pleasure of cross-dressing while pleasuring themselves before a mirror.
Taking a much different tack, the third book re-released by Four Walls Eight Windows is a venomous anti-Tinsel Town rant titled Hollywood Rat Race. A long-winded diatribe against those who would conspire to crush Wood's dreams of being a successful auteur, the writer-director still finds time to throw in a few references to "fluffy pink angora" sweaters.
On the other side of the Atlantic, London publisher Gorse re-released Death of a Transvestite as Let Me Die in Drag along with Devil Girls, another 1967 Wood book. A twisted juvie tale of a band of hellcats destined for badness, Devil Girls is a slow-moving story that suffers from languid drug scenes and staid characters. According to the inside cover blurbs of both Gorse books, there was a plan to re-release Hell Chicks and Drag Trade, but this has yet to come to fruition.
Wood had plans of bringing Devil Girls to the silver screen with Tor Johnson in the role of Chief, an oversized Native American. However, it would take over twenty years for Devil Girls to come to the screen courtesy of Andre Perkowski, a veritable Wood scholar. The first entry in a proposed trilogy of Woodian works, DEVIL GIRLS presents an odd paradox by placing stereotypical '50s characters in a thoroughly modern setting, making the hackneyed dialogue and overwrought acting even more outlandish.
Bloated with long stretches of dialogue, DEVIL GIRLS appears to suffer from being overly faithful to its original source material. Clocking in at eighty minutes, DEVIL GIRLS wears out its welcome after a quarter of an hour, leaving the viewer longing for more references to Wood's other, lighter work or more ponderous parlance from the Criswellian narrator.
While not an official "remake" or adaptation of Wood's work, Jeffrey C. Ballentine's THEY CAME FOR THE SILION is a beautifully realized project. Taking large pieces of inspiration from PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, Ballentine employs paper plate flying saucers, cardboard sets, and wooden acting. Operating in an arena where ineptitude is a blessing rather than a detriment; SILION is ultimately an entertaining and faithful Wood homage.
Making Ed Woodian films often proves tempting to novice filmmakers who wish to make the most of their paltry budgets. Hell, Stephen C. Apostolof made his wages off of Wood works for years with films such as HOT ICE, THE BEACH BUNNIES, and FIVE LOOSE WOMEN. The strangest Wood-scripted film, THE VENUS FLYTRAP, barely blips on the psychotronic radar screen. Based on Wood's script THE DOUBLE GARDEN, this work is also known as THE DEVIL GARDEN and THE REVENGE OF DR. X. To further confuse the issue, the video release bears the title of THE REVENGE OF DR. X on the cover box while beginning with the credit sequence for THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (more often known as Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero's TOMB OF THE LIVING DEAD)!
Directed by Kenneth G. Crane, this movie has the typical Wood themes and dialogue. However, the culture clash derived from its Japanese production adds to the overall oddness. While Tor Johnson's staccato Slavik delivery of Wood's dialogue is always a hoot, to hear Wood lines in "Engrish" may top it!
THE VENUS FLYTRAP stars James T. Craig as rocket scientist Dr. Bragan. After a successful launch, Bragan decides to take some time off and dabble in his former love of botany. Violating countless customs orders, the insufferably cranky Bragan brings a Venus flytrap to Japan where he suddenly gets the idea to prove that mankind came from plantkind by turning his Flytrap into an anthropomorphic mutant.
The film ends as unexpectedly as Bragan's sudden switch from rocketry to botany leaving quite a few loose ends hanging (such as the mysterious glove on Bragan's hand-obviously an unresolved subplot of the good doctor turning into a Venus flytrap). With more (unintentional) laughs than LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and fewer thrills than THE FLY, THE VENUS FLYTRAP remains a largely unseen Wood classic.
The most recent film to stem from an unproduced Wood script is Aris Iliopulos's 1998 film; I WOKE UP EARLY THE DAY I DIED. The script is an amalgam of Wood's favorite themes with carnival (Side Show Siren, Carnival Piece) and graveyard (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, Orgy of the Dead) set pieces and obligatory transvestitism. The project was close to Wood's heart-it was one of the few items Wood took with him when rudely evicted from a Los Angeles flat shortly before his death in 1978.
Wood's inspiration for I WOKE UP EARLY was Russell Rouse's THE THIEF, a 1952 noir thriller remarkable for its lack of dialogue. Wood hoped to cast Aldo Ray as his protagonist, a homicidal maniac on the run from the law and on a quest to recover a misplaced briefcase of stolen cash. Forty years later, Billy Zane realized this role.
Populated with a cadre of character actors, everyone in I WOKE UP EARLY is "someone." There's Carel Struycken as the mortician! There's Ann Magnuson as the loan office teller! There's Christina Ricci as the buxom hooker! And, could that be John Ritter as the circus sharpshooter? Indeed it is. Luckily, no one excessively mugs for the camera with the exception of Zane who, with his bizarre faux coiffure and ever-arched eyebrow, wonderfully overplays this ham-handed role.
Without dialogue, the soundtrack of the film comes to the forefront. Luckily, the score delivers the goods with its jarring punk rock tunes and Herrmann-inspired strings. There's even a good deal of bagpipe to be heard-a noise the drives Zane into a frenzy. Along with the music and melodramatic acting, Iliopulos cleverly inserts a few on-screen snippets of screenplay along with effectively used stock footage shots-another nod to Wood's reliance on stock shots.
Unfortunately, the fate of the film is a tale that smacks of the tragicomedy of Wood's life. After a successful showing at a few film festivals, the production company for I WOKE UP EARLY, Cinequanon, found itself in financial trouble. This has halted a legitimate video release of the film in the United States and even robbed the film's webmaster, Greg Gilleland, of his pay (visitors to www.iwokeupearly.com were met for a while with a scanned image of a bounced check). Currently, I WOKE UP EARLY is available in Germany and in the U.S. via a few private video dealers. I hope that this movie will get its day in the sun sometime soon.