Thursday, 5 March 2009

Night of the Ghouls

1959
Dir. Ed Wood

Whilst investigating reports of dubious activities and ghost sightings at an old house in the middle of nowhere, Lt. Dan Bradford, a specialist in supernatural crimes and lover of opera, encounters the rather odd and obviously phony physic Dr. Acula. It turns out Dr. Acula has been conducting fake séances and ripping off bereaved individuals desperate to contact their dead loved ones. However, it turns out that Acula’s dabbling in the occult may actually have summoned forth a few bewildered and vengeful spirits and as the night unravels, it won’t just be his collection of skeletons that are going bump in the night. No. It will also be the rickety sets, plodding pace, atrocious acting and the unnecessarily overlong scenes of exposition rife throughout Night of the Ghouls. This is after all an Ed Wood production, so what do you expect?

Director Edward D. Wood Jnr. has (posthumously) garnered a reputation over the years as the worst director to ever work in cinema. This is not necessarily a bad thing as his legions of adoring fans will tell you. There is much fun to be had watching his films. More often than not the unintentional humour derived from watching such classics as Bride of the Monster or Plan 9 from Outer Space, are these films’ defining qualities. Wood essentially had more passion for making films than he had talent. Using the same band of faithful misfits over and over again, he would assemble a small band of loyal cast and crew and set to work filming his odysseys of inadequacy. He’s not called the ‘Orson Welles of B Movies’ for nothing.




A few familiar faces return in Night of the Ghouls, such as Criswell, lumbering awkwardly up out of his coffin to introduce the film and obviously read from an autocue. Well, I doubt they actually had anything as sophisticated as an autocue, but he is definitely reading from something. Either that or he’s drunk. When he finishes waxing lyrical about the ‘unreal’ and how mysterious stuff is, he lies back in his coffin and the film beings proper. Criswell’s voiceover intrudes upon the rest of the film at jarring intervals, giving us completely irrelevant information meant to act as characterisation or fill in for tension. For example when we are introduced to a couple of random cops Criswell informs us how long they’ve been on the job for and how long each has been married. T.M.I. dude. His voice also stands in for tension. He often tells us when ‘something strange is about to occur.’ And then, just like magic, it does. Spooky.

We are soon wondering what on earth juvenile delinquency has to do with reported ghost sightings at an old house, as an opening barrage of shots of teenagers doing ‘teenage’ things overwhelms proceedings. Criswell’s monotonous drone announces that juvenile delinquency is ‘the horror of our time.’ This is interesting in light of a recent slew of films featuring wayward youths wrecking havoc, mayhem and bloodshed in our cinemas. Films such as Eden Lake (2008), The Strangers (2008), The Children (2008) and of course Battle Royale (2001) all take this exact view that the youth of contemporary society is out of control. This is indeed an interesting concept, but one that is simply slotted randomly into the narrative of this film. Wood does absolutely nothing with it! We go from seeing purely titillating and ‘exploitative’ shots of jiving and cavorting teens straight into the unrelated story of the ghostly goings-on at an old, dark house by a lake.




The linearity of the plot is unsurprisingly a complete mess. We go from a police station (that looks remarkably like the lobby of a cheap motel) to seeing a young couple get menaced on Lover’s Lane by a vampy looking woman wearing a black dress and veil, lumbering out of the bushes at them with her arms outstretched. Being young people in a horror movie from the 50s, and an Ed Wood movie to boot, they don’t do much except scream and allow themselves to be awkwardly wrapped up in this mysterious vamp’s cloak and, er, die. Wood also slots in a completely unnecessary flashback of an elderly couple’s spooky day for night encounter with the same vampy lady as they drive in front of a back-projection of badly shot day for night scenery and talk way too much. At various points in the film we cut to this vampy lady standing under a tree or walking around ‘mysteriously.’ She turns out to be The Black Ghost.

A semi-sequel to both Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space, a number of characters reappear in Night of the Ghouls, notably Kelton, a bumbling cop played by Wood regular Paul Marco. Kelton refers to events in the other films when he says: ‘Ghosts, monsters, space people – I always get these screwy assignments. I resign.’
He spends the remainder of the film hiding out in his car, leaving it every now and again when he hears a scream, only to leap back in and hide under the dashboard. Eventually, when he musters the courage to stumble clumsily into the old house, he unwittingly saves the day.

Another reference is made to Bride of the Monster in the use of the old house that stands creepily ‘by Willow Lake’ where a mad scientist (Lugosi’s character from Bride) and his monsters (Tor Johnson) ‘were destroyed by lighting.’ Except they weren’t and Johnson’s shambolic and shuffling giant-klutz Lobo reappears in Night of the Ghouls. Lt Bradford’s internal monologue, coupled with Criswell’s helpful narrating, reminds us that Bradford worked the case in Bride of the Monster. As he wanders, seemingly aimlessly, around the house he encounters a number of things that remind him of the last time he was there. Well, go figure. ‘He remembered the cold, clammy sensation of the hand railing. Cold, clammy like the dead ... Yes, the railing was as he remembered it. Perhaps colder, perhaps more startling.’


One of the stand-out scenes occurs during a phony and downright bizarre séance. Sitting around the table are a number of fake skeletons, one of them is wearing a wig. A trumpet on a string flits past us and the head of a guy wearing a safari hat appears to mouth wordless nonsense. A cop bursts in and demands to know what is going on, only to be unceremoniously carted off by the lumbering Lobo, who gets shot a few times in the process. Dr. Acula turns to his guests who are still sitting awkwardly around the table trying to act shocked and scared and states: ‘Due to all the interruptions tonight, we shall conclude until our next scheduled descent into the everlasting pit of darkness. Peace be with you, my friends.’ This is pure Ed Wood magic.

Now, compared to Wood’s other directorial output, the most interesting thing about this film is that it is actually not that bad. And when I say, ‘not that bad’, I mean not that bad – for an Ed Wood film. The acting is still woefully inept but at least the continuity flows a bit better than in the likes of Plan 9, where Wood would consistently cut from night to day to night again in the same scene. The final scenes where Acula gets his comeuppance at the hands of a group of not very scary ghosts, does manage to evoke a vague sense of menace as he is bundled into a coffin and it is sealed up…

What the film possesses less of than Wood’s other films is that certain unsophisticated charm: while the sets inevitably collapsed around him during previous films, at least Wood’s enthusiasm shone through, whereas here, he just seems to be going through the motions, albeit slightly more competent motions.

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