Ed Wood’s reputation as “The Worst Filmmaker Ever” is bullshit; his talentlessness is a myth, begat in the Age of Irony as a haughty reaction to the filmmaker’s conspicuous compromises in the face of budgetary constraints. It’s easy to laugh, for example, at his Bride of the Monster from 1955—at its poorly edited-in stock footage, at many of its non-professional actors—but it’s just as easy to appreciate its virtues: the touching details (the police captain who pours a glass of water for his pet bird), its critical depiction of police (callously rounding up hobos, bullying newspaper peddlers), its sense of humor (“this is the 20th Century!” the police captain says. “Don’t count on it,” a reporter replies), its battle of the sexes banter, and its exploration of marriage vis-à-vis the vanquishing power of love.
Bride of the Monster is Wood’s mad-scientist monster movie—with a bit of sinister hypnotism for good measure—a moody B-picture with personality from a capable genre-pic helmer. Bela Lugosi stars, exercising his unparalleled ability to act through his fingers, as a brilliant biologist, Dr. Vornoff, hell bent on creating a “race of atomic supermen!”; he uses his killer cephalopod and monstrously muscular sidekick (Tor Johnson) to eliminate anyone who gets in his way, or intrudes upon his swampy lair. Nature is violence in Bride of the Monster, with its storms and killer creatures; the marshes where Vornoff makes his base serve as the last vestiges of pre-civilization’s brutality, inhabited by a mad recluse and his feral companions. (The close-ups of Johnson’s hideously made-up face are genuinely unsettling.) Nature’s most violent components, of course, are its unleashed atoms; nuclear-age anxiety underpins the entire film.
Vornoff’s fiendish plot of world domination is his revenge on a world that spurned his genius; furthermore: once robbed of his own happy marriage, he now creates unholy matrimonial alliances, trying to turn the reportrix into the Bride of the Atom (Wood’s original title for the film), whatever that means. What’s important is that he’s unsuccessful—defeated by a policeman (Tony McCoy), whose spunky newspaperwoman fiancée (Loretta King, awful) is the atom’s potential wife—and traditional marriage restored. Like David Lynch after him, Wood believed in the power of young lovers to overcome spectacular threats, even those from a race of atomic supermen. As the police captain (Harvey B. Dunn) watches Vornoff die in the arms of his own killer squid, he notes, Carl Denham-ly, that the madman met his end because “he tampered in God’s domain.” Does he mean science? Or wedlock?