We all know the story. Johnny Depp writes this great part for his girlfriend, Sarah Jessica Parker, only to obtain funding he has to give the part to Drusilla from Buffy. This week, I tackle the movie within that movie, Bride of the Monster. Starring Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson, this Ed Wood classic that is just as wonderfully bad as its reputation.
Tagline: The Screen’s Master of the WEIRD in his NEWEST and MOST DARING SHOCKER!
More Accurate Tagline: Lugosi was paid in morphine. Cheap morphine.
Guilty Party: Edward D. Wood, Jr. is often called the worst director of all time. This is not a case where someone deserves critical rehabilitation; Wood really does suck at storytelling. Still, there is a charming, innocent quality to his films, which makes them almost refreshing to watch and in some ways more enjoyable than actual good movies. There are many worse filmmakers out there who can’t even make an entertaining movie by accident. Wood’s biggest deficiency by far comes in the writing department. A good writer has an idiosyncratic point of view that he somehow makes accessible to others. Wood does the exact opposite.
Synopsis: A monster haunts some swamps, dragging local rednecks to their doom. Intrepid reporter and possible mannequin Janet Lawton investigates. She finds a house occupied by exiled mad scientist Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi) and his mute assistant Lobo (Johnson). Vornoff captures her while Lobo falls in love with her angora hat.
Dr. Vladimir Strowski, another refugee from Vornoff’s unnamed country, starts looking around the swamps. Meanwhile, the police, including parakeet enthusiast Captain Tom Robbins, Janet’s fiancee Lt. Dick Craig, and the timid Officer Kelton (Paul Marco), follow her trail to the old house.
Strowski finds Vornoff first, and is treated to Vornoff’s origin story. Turns out the crazy old bugger, feeling hated and rejected by the world, is creating a race of atomic supermen. He plans to rule the world that once shunned him. Problem is, he can’t get the formula right. And people keep showing up at his house and have to be fed to the giant octopus he keeps as a pet. This is the monster from the beginning, but the film is a little unclear. I assumed the titular “monster” to be Lobo, since the octopus never has obvious romantic feelings about anyone. Maybe the title was referring to an arranged marriage rather than a love match?
Right, so anyway, Lobo easily knocks Dick and Vlad out, but only Vlad gets thrown to the octopus. Dick gets chained to the wall while Janet is strapped into the machine to get turned into an atomic superman or possibly killed. Vornoff, always bipolar, starts whipping Lobo, but the angora hat gives him the willpower to stand up to his abusive master. The giant mute monster exchanges Janet for Vornoff on the table and turns on the machine. You know, the one that gives people atomic superpowers?
Well, that turns out as well as you’d think. A newly giant and superpowered Vornoff kicks Lobo’s ass, burns the house down, and runs off into the swamp with Janet. The police pursue, and Lt. Dick manages to knock Vornoff into the lake with his octopus. They wrestle for a little while and explode.
Life-Changing Subtext: Sometimes the atomic superman you create is the one inside yourself.
Defining Quote: Vornoff: “Home? I have no home. Hunted. Despised. Living like an animal. The jungle is my home!” So to recap, he has no home, and the jungle is his home. That, my friends, is the magic of Wood’s writing.
Standout Performance: Harvey B. Dunn as Captain Tom Robbins. It’s never addressed in the film, but he spends every scene in his office playing with a tiny parakeet. It’s adorable.
I also want to single out Paul Marco here. He played the same character, Officer Kelton, in three of Wood’s films, creating what has become known as the Kelton Trilogy. This is entirely too grand a name for three awful films that feature the same whiny, incompetent policeman.
What’s Wrong: The octopus has his own room. Makes sense, right? You don’t want him tracking seawater and mollusk juice all over the living room carpet. Open a door in the lab, and there he is, sitting in about a foot of water, totally lifeless and still. Only the water level is clearly way over the top of the door, based on the way Vornoff looks through the windows of his lab at the beast. This is the kind of attention to detail for which Wood was famous.
Flash of Competence: Lugosi was a good actor for his time. Though his performances were never what you would call naturalistic, he has a commanding screen presence and an undeniable charisma, even diminished by age and hard drugs. He delivers his terrible, unsayable lines with gravitas they do not deserve and in the process creates as interesting a character as he possibly could.
Best Scenes: While Dick Craig and his partner Marty look around the swamp for Vornoff, they have to pause while Craig muses about the swamp like he thinks it’s a supervillain or something: “This swamp is a monument to death. Snakes, alligators, quicksand… all bent on one thing: destruction.” Maybe he doesn’t know about the rich ecosystem present in the nation’s swamps. Or maybe he just wants an excuse to pull his .38 police special and just go apeshit on some gators, which he totally does later.
Transcendent Moment: After Vornoff gains superpowers, Lugosi only plays him in close up. In all far shots, he’s a huge guy in Frankenstein shoes, desperately hiding his face from the camera. Newly transformed, Vornoff totally hulks out on Lobo, then grabs Janet and drags her into the swamp. The police pursue, and after futilely pumping Vornoff full of bullets, they’re fresh out of ideas. Sadly, no one thinks to hurl their gun at him, because that never worked on Superman. Anyway, a now shirtless Craig manages to knock a large boulder into Vornoff, sending the monster scientist tumbling down a hill into a shallow pond where the octopus waits.
And wouldn’t you know it, but the damn thing doesn’t recognize his old master. This is the same cephalopod that waved to Vornoff in its first scene (seriously), now attempts to devour him. Only it’s really obvious that Vornoff is the one flopping around and moving the tentacles. But no matter, because suddenly both of them explode in a giant mushroom cloud, proving you should never, ever pack your giant octopus with fissionable material.
To sum it all up, Captain Parakeet looks wistfully into the false sunrise and says, “He tampered in God’s domain.”
Bride of the Monster is Wood’s best, most coherent film, which isn’t saying much. Still, you have an enjoyable Lugosi performance, some of the most wooden acting this side of Keanu Reeves, and it’s only 68 minutes of your life.