Bride of the Monster (1956) -***½
Some might say that it makes little sense to talk about a director like Ed Wood having a best movie, and perhaps it seems at first glance that they’d be right. Those hypothetical people would obviously have forgotten about Bride of the Monster, however. Granted, this is a cheap, shoddy, stupid, and ridiculous movie. But truth be told, it is no more cheap, shoddy, stupid, or ridiculous than a great many other 1950’s monster flicks whose creators’ names have not become a universally accepted shorthand for hopelessly incompetent filmmaking. Indeed, it possesses those qualities to a significantly lesser degree than a number of contemporary movies helmed by halfway respectable directors, and a close look at Bride of the Monster will make it considerably easier to understand how the backers of Wood’s later films could have gotten it into their heads that he more or less knew what he was doing.
Even the selection of Wood’s infamously recurring stock footage is mostly logical this time around. I mean, you can’t have a mad scientist movie without a thunderstorm, and why go to the hassle of rigging up your own lightning effects when so many people before you have let the fruits of their lightning-creating labors lapse into the public domain? Caught out in the stock-footage tempest are hunters Mac (Bud Osborne, who played inconsequential and mostly uncredited roles in nearly 500 bargain-basement Westerns) and Jake (John Warren), who had been stalking the boggy woods around Marsh Lake. They’re not happy about getting rained on, and they’re even less happy about the prospect of being struck by lightning, so the two men seek shelter in what is supposed to be an abandoned house— the old Willows place out on the lakeshore. The hunters are taken off guard when Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) answers their precautionary knock, and it comes as an even bigger and more unpleasant shock when the doctor refuses to let them wait out the storm in his house. Jake is plainly thinking about getting rough with the old man when the latter calls out to Lobo (Tor Johnson, from The Beast of Yucca Flats and The Unearthly), his hulking, mute henchman, to roust the interlopers. The woods around Marsh Lake have been rumored of late to be the home of a deadly monster, and one look at Lobo’s scarred face and mountainous physique convinces Jake and Mac that the stories are true. But in their flight from Lobo, the pair encounter the real Monster of Marsh Lake, a gigantic octopus which seizes Mac and drags him down to his death on the lakebed. Meanwhile, Lobo catches up with Jake, knocks him out, and brings him back to the house. When Jake regains consciousness, Vornoff has him strapped to a gurney beneath a device which we’re not supposed to recognize as a photographic enlarger. The doctor tells Jake that he will soon be as big and as strong as a giant— either that or dead “like all the others”— and then zaps him with a ray of atomic energy. Jake does not survive the treatment, and soon Lobo is throwing his body to the octopus (which we now learn to be the product of one of Vornoff’s earlier experiments) for disposal.
The next day, the local newspaper features a front-page story crowing about the latest victims of the Marsh Lake Monster. This does not please Captain Tom Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn, of Teenagers from Outer Space and The Sinister Urge), the policeman leading the investigation of the disappearances, and it places his top subordinate, Lieutenant Dick Craig (Tony McCoy, who appears to have come by his starring role through fronting a considerable fraction of Bride of the Monster’s budget), in an extremely uncomfortable position. His girlfriend, you see, is Janet Lawton (Loretta King), the reporter under whose byline the vast bulk of the monster stories have appeared. Janet doesn’t believe Robbins and his men are doing enough to crack the case, and she never misses an opportunity to castigate Robbins, Craig, or any other cop who happens to come within arm’s reach for their insistence upon discounting reports of something inhuman prowling the woods around the lake. One doesn’t have to spend too much time hanging around the precinct in order to share Janet’s outlook, either— Robbins really is a hapless ninny, Craig hasn’t a lot more to recommend him, and the less said about Officer Kelton (Paul Marco, later of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls, in the first of three sallies as this intensely annoying character) the better. A talk with both the captain and her boyfriend convinces Janet that the only way anyone will ever disentangle the mystery is for her to do it herself, and she hits the clipping room for some preliminary research.
Meanwhile, the cops receive a visit from one Dr. Vladimir Strowsky (War of the Colossal Beast’s George Becwar). Strowsky, too, has a bug up his ass for monsters; his most recent spate of fieldwork took him to Loch Ness to search for evidence of its fabled cryptozoological denizen. The scientist believes he sees parallels between the Loch Ness stories and those surrounding Marsh Lake, and he offers his assistance in investigating the disappearances. Robbins, still hell-bent on not believing in monsters, grumbles a bit, but he eventually agrees to send Craig and a second detective named Martin (Don Nagel, of Jail Bait) to meet Strowsky at Marsh Lake the next morning.
Then all hell breaks loose. Strowsky doesn’t seem to be there when the detectives arrive at the lake to keep their appointment. Janet does show up, however, and manages to ram her car into a tree and get herself collected by Lobo for use in Dr. Vornoff’s next experiment. It also turns out that the reason for Strowsky’s vanishing act is that he’s really an old colleague of Vornoff’s, come to woo him back to his home country. The government there had banished him because of his seemingly mad work in the field of atom-powered critter-enlargement, but Strowsky’s own research has convinced the Politburo or whoever that Vornoff was on to something. But to Strowsky’s dismay, and to the great disadvantage of practically everybody, Vornoff will no longer be content with professional vindication. Now he will settle for nothing less than creating his own race of “atomic supermen” and launching these radioactive übermenschen on a campaign of world conquest in his own name. Strowsky gets fed to the octopus, Janet gets hypnotized (with the same suite of hand gestures Lugosi used to control his undead slaves in White Zombie, no less!), and Craig finds the wreck of his girlfriend’s car beside a trail in the swamp. While Vornoff prepares to use his embiggening machine on Janet, Craig and Robbins scramble (though honestly it plays more like a mosey than a scramble) to figure out whither she might have disappeared. A quick chat with Tillie (Anne Wilner) in the clipping room pinpoints the Willows house as Janet’s likely destination, and soon there’s a whole army of incompetent cops surrounding the place while a stock-footage thunderstorm rages, and every mad scientist movie cliché from the past 30 years threatens to erupt all at once.
It might cause a slight reevaluation of Ed Wood’s capabilities if more people would actually watch Bride of the Monster for themselves, rather than taking the scenes reconstructed for Tim Burton’s Ed Wood at face value. Despite all the things that are undeniably wrong with it, it is by no means an across-the-board train-wreck like Plan 9 from Outer Space. Sure, there’s the completely inanimate rubber octopus rented, borrowed, or stolen (depending on which version of the story you prefer) from Republic Pictures, which really is as bad as you’ve been led to believe. Sure, there’s the inexplicable moment during the first laboratory scene when Vornoff appears to chastise Lobo for giving Jake a hickey (“Lobo!” *slap!* “You’ve corrupted my patient!”), and I have no idea on Earth what to say about that. And, of course, there’s the usual Woodian orgy of stock footage, a title that characteristically bears little recognizable connection to the plot of the film, and principal cast-members who expectedly aren’t quite qualified for roles of such magnitude. But of all the Ed Wood films I’ve seen, this is the one that could most easily be mistaken for an actual movie. The model representing the exterior of the Willows house is pretty good, and Vornoff’s lab is well stocked with equipment even if the mundane origin of all that gear is a little too obvious. Also— although I doubt this was deliberate— there’s a sort of warped propriety in Wood’s use of a photographic enlarger for a machine that’s supposed to turn men and animals into giants. The bulk of the dialogue (by which I mean to exclude every line uttered by Captain Robbins) makes something like sense. The acting isn’t any worse than that in half the cheap-ass horror and sci-fi flicks released during the 1950’s, and Lugosi summons up an astonishing amount of dignity— the overall quality of the movie aside, his performance as Dr. Vornoff is one that any ailing, geriatric has-been would be proud to call his own. Wood plainly recognized this first time around that Tor Johnson was good for little beyond being huge and menacing, and he avoids the mistake of giving him any dialogue. And of the greatest importance, this movie, together with The Corpse Vanishes, might legitimately be taken as the quintessential Bela Lugosi poverty-row programmer. Bride of the Monster and the earlier Monogram film have more in common than their star and their comparably miserly budgets, too, for the present movie’s most striking feature is a retro sensibility that has somehow gone mostly overlooked for the past half-century. Apart from the largely irrelevant detail of Vornoff using nuclear power to effect his mad science (and from the stock-footage mushroom cloud that bemusingly accompanies the deaths of the villain and his octopus), Bride of the Monster could just as easily have been made in 1943 as in 1956, and the well of influences from which Wood drew its screenplay runs at least as deep as 1925’s The Monster. I wish I had some idea of how Bride of the Monster fared at the box office— it would be interesting to know how 1950’s audiences accustomed to tales of flying saucers and juvenile delinquents responded to such an unapologetic throwback.