For most of his lifetime, only a privileged few knew about the work of the late, great Ed Wood. Wood’s fobiles were obvious: the dreadful actors he dug up, jaw-droppingly appalling production values (Wood’s best known movie, the breathtaking Plan 9 from Outer Space has a continuity and common senes errors list that runs into the dozens of entries, and that’s not even counting the famous double for the late Bela Lugosi, who died just after filming had begun), a seeming lack of familiarity with the basics of establishing a scene or a character or even a shot. But they brought him some notoriety late in his life; an alcoholic ruin, he had drifted away from the little slice of Hollywood he had carved out for himself and was making softcore movies and writing hardcore books. The Golden Turkeys rescued him from obscurity. Randy Dreyfuss and Harold and Michael Medved cranked out a book giving their views of the worst films in the history of Hollywood, and Ed Wood, that conflicted visionary who had brought the world Bride of the Monster and The Sinister Urge, was their selection for the worst director in Hollywood’s history and Plan 9 the worst movie. Wood’s reputation grew; film festivals and midnight screenings began to occur; people like Tim Burton, who would go on to make his best and least likely movie about Wood’s life, discovered his work and became fans. And why not? People love exploitation films. Whether they’re made by the delightful Russ Meyer (who describes his work variously as "crowded on one side by hardcore films and on the other side by major product that is very explicit" and a worthwhile opportunity to get into starlets’ pants) or the repugnant Andy Milligan, cheap movies can be dreadful (the climax of a current favorite of mine, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, features a hair metal guitarist wrestling Satan WWF-style), but they are rarely boring. Movies that become shorthands for disaster are often much better filmed, with bigger stars, bigger budgets, and bigger ambitions. In fact, that’s almost precisely why they become known as true stinkers, world-class bombs. Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests that Ishtar became a figure of Hollywood run amok because the press was so thoroughly sick of Warren Beatty’s ego; Kathryn Hepburn’s 1938 screwball classics Holiday and Bringing Up Baby bombed at the box office and drove her out of the movies and back to the stage with a reputation for being a difficult actress to work with. Cleopatra nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox (it featured the largest set ever built for a movie), and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate actually did bankrupt a studio, tanking United Artists, the studio that had been founded by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford. Despite the spectacular expense and refusal on Cimino’s part to trim out the interminable period-establishing dance sequences, Heaven’s Gate isn’t a terrible movie; it’s probably better than his much more celebrated The Deer Hunter, a movie saved by its actors. But it was not just a flop, it was an expensive flop; Around the World in 80 Days, with its nine-digit production budget and $23 million domestic gross, may someday be a legend like Ishtar, like Waterworld, like Heaven’s Gate. But it will never be a legend like Ed Wood.
When former marketing maven Herschell Gordon Lewis was cranking out grindhouse classics, he may not have known much, but he knew how to put the audience in the seats (lots of blood and lots of female flesh) and he knew how to bring a movie in cheap. The latter lesson came easily to Ed Wood; his over-budget Glen or Glenda? still came in at $26,000, an amazingly cheap movie even in 1953. (Every dollar shows.) But the first lesson eluded him, even if Glen or Glenda? and his other grindhouse work turned a profit. All he wanted was an audience. It’s easy to mock Wood’s movies; that’s practically the only pleasure they afford. Terrible movies made by people who know better should be scorned, but terrible movies made by people who don’t can sometimes show flashes of genius. Even when they’re not outsider art, they can be magnificent, campy fun. And when they’re not campy fun, they can at least remind us that somewhere out there, someone thought it was a good idea to make a movie where the chief special effect was Bela Lugosi wrestling a motionless rubber octopus. It’s a funny old world, and Ed Wood, dying in the gutter and making pornography, having outlived the monster movies and tough dame flicks he loved, knew that as much as anyone.
Ed Wood, on discovering that a film festival was being held in his honor. He was ecstatic. "Isn’t it nice," he said to a fellow pornography writer, "that someone remembers me? That someone thinks of me?"