Ed Wood, B-Movie King, Gets a Film Retrospective

Twenty years ago, Johnny Depp played the title B-movie director in Tim Burton’s frisky biopic “Ed Wood.” The film introduced the eccentric Wood, then mostly known to fans of cult cinema, to a mainstream audience and renewed interest in his darkly trashy works like the aliens-amok film “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959), a clunker classic that sits on many a list of the worst movies ever made.

“If you give him a million-dollar budget, his films would still be strange,” said Joe Blevins, who’s spent the last year writing a column, “Ed Wood Wednesdays,” for his blog Dead 2 Rights. “They have a weirdness that a low budget or inexperienced actors can’t explain away.”

“Plan 9” and several of Wood’s other cult pictures, including the mad-scientist yarn “Bride of the Monster” (1955) and the girl-gang drama “The Violent Years” (1956), a frenzy of female hooliganism, can be seen in The 10th Dimension: Edward D. Wood Jr., a retrospective running Sept. 11 to 18 at Anthology Film Archives. But these are practically family films compared with the X-rated turn Wood took later in life.


Credit Wade Williams Distribution

Wood, born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was off to an unremarkable start when, in his 20s, he moved to Hollywood in 1947. There, he eventually acted onstage, wrote television pilots and directed low-budget westerns. Although he admired the highbrow work of Orson Welles, Wood’s first films as a director, like the gangster film “Jail Bait” (1954), pegged him as a B-movie guy. His subsequent movies, especially “Plan 9,” found him immersed in the outré, pushing him further to the margins of Hollywood. And he was unable to get substantial work as a director after the 1960 film “The Sinister Urge,” a sexed-up police drama.

Then the sexual revolution hit, and Wood, attuned to the new vanguard, found plentiful work as a writer. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was a prolific author for publishers of mass-market erotic paperbacks and sex magazines, jobs that paid the rent. Some of his 100 or so novels, primarily written under pseudonyms, include “Death of a Transvestite Hooker” and “The Sexecutives.” With the advent of hard-core filmmaking in the early ’70s, he turned his interest in smutty fiction into explicit films like “Take It Out in Trade,” a raunchy surrealistic sex comedy.

“He was a pioneer, but he was also just carried along by economic need, and by wanting to make movies,” said Dimitrios Otis, a “porn archaeologist” who has written about Wood. “Those are the opportunities he was getting toward the end of his life.” (Wood died in 1978 at 54, a week after he was evicted from his apartment for nonpayment of rent.)

The Anthology series is just one of several new projects devoted to Wood’s late-career sex-theme work. In July, Alpha Blue Archives released “The Lost Sex Films of Ed Wood Jr.,” four DVDs of his work from the early 1970s. They include the sexploitation biker tale “Nympho Cycler,” in which a bloated Wood appears in drag, and “Necromania,” a dimension-spanning sex romp that was released in soft and hard-core versions. (Anthology will show the soft one.) In November, the distributor Alternative Cinema plans to release “Ed Wood’s Dirty Movies,” a three-film DVD collection that features “The Young Marrieds,” an X-rated movie about a couple on a sexual adventure. And in October, OR Books in New York is to publish “Blood Splatters Quickly,” a collection of more than 30 short stories written by Wood, sometimes under the pseudonym Ann Gora, that appeared in 1970s girlie magazines like Gallery.

Wood’s erotic films “are rough and tumble and ugly, and if you can accept them on that level, then good or bad stops being a question,” said Andrew Lampert, Anthology’s curator of collections.

Wood wrestled with notions of dual sexuality in his personal life. A fan of Buck Jones westerns and a decorated Marine who fought in World War II, he was also a cross-dresser with a lifelong fondness for pink angora sweaters.

He famously explored gender variance in the semiautobiographical “Glen or Glenda” (1953), a quasi documentary in which he played a cross-dresser. (An earlier title was “I Changed My Sex!”) The film’s plea for tolerance is an early example of Wood’s eagerness to depict the lives of sexual outliers, including himself, honestly on screen.

“He was being filmed, so he was drawn to be out there as a sexual character,” said Mr. Otis, who wrote the liner notes for the Alternative Cinema collection. “He wasn’t just getting his personal demons expressed from behind the camera.”


Sandy Dempsey in “Shot on Location,” also in “Ed Wood’s Dirty Movies.” Credit After Hours Cinema

“These are contradictions I don’t think you ever quite resolve,” said John Oakes, the co-publisher of OR Books. “He deserves credit as an extraordinary original who set his own standards.”

In his later films, Wood proved himself to be an erotic renegade whose exploration of unconventional sexuality belied whatever schlocky sensibility was at play in his earlier works. “He was locked in this soap-opera version of America in the 1950s, with cocktail parties and such,” Mr. Otis said. “But he was a transgressive type person.”

Even more surprising, Wood may not be getting his due as a pioneer of gay culture.

Wood, who was twice married, didn’t consider himself gay, although his somewhat public interest in cross-dressing may have led people to question his sexuality. Wood once told a friend “that he wished he was born a woman,” said Rudolph Grey, a Wood scholar whose oral biography “Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr.” is to be reissued in a revised version this year.

His erotic novels include “To Make a Homo,” in which a young man is drugged into gay sex slavery, and “The Perverts,” featuring a section on homosexuality. “The Young Marrieds,” the last film he wrote and directed, features an unusual invitation to male homosexual sex in an otherwise heterosexual hard-core film. (Anthology will show it on Sept. 14.) And Wood’s 1974 short story “The Autograph,” part of the collection “Blood Splatters Quickly,” features this homoerotic exchange between two gay men:

“Are you butch or femme?”

“Either way is good for me. Give me some young fluff and I’ll be the butch. Give me one older that makes me feel younger and I’ll be the other way round. Only I won’t be one of those screaming fairies. That’s not in my makeup. I look like what I am, and I’m as strong as an ox.”

At a time when being an original means nothing more than having an active Instagram account, Wood is a reminder of what it means to be a maverick with a camera.

“There’s a whole generation that didn’t grow up with this whispered rumor in their ear of a really bad filmmaker named Ed Wood,” Mr. Lampert said. “In our culture, I feel like if Michael Bay is a good filmmaker, then we seriously need to bring Ed Wood back to figure out what has happened to our notion of quality.”