Monday, September 15, 2014

Monster Serial: BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, 1955


The 50s-era film auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr. is best known as the master of schlocky genre films, posthumous recipient of the Golden Turkey Award for Worst Director of All Time, and cult following that developed into an actual religion, the Church of Ed Wood. How many other directors have left that kind of a legacy?

But before the fame, or the infamy, depending on how you look at it, Ed Wood created BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, a 1955 film that may have been considered ahead of its time if it made any sense. But it doesn’t, and that’s why we love it. Wood seemed to think a full story arc was secondary to monsters and dialogue and laboratories.

The atomic age ushered in a revolution in science, technology, and weaponry, and with it an increase in the fear of outsiders and the unknown. 1953 brought us INVADERS FROM MARS, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Films at that time were concerned with space attacks and atomically-charged sea creatures. But a shift was occurring to movies that starred humans who had somehow become the monsters themselves.

In 1956 came INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, still admittedly an “alien film,” but one wherein a fear of our neighbors is the key to survival. (A little Red Scare, anyone?) THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN followed, foretelling the horrors that come from atomic energy and playing God. And, sandwiched somewhere in between is BRIDE OF THE MONSTER.

On the surface, the film combines elements of science fiction and horror, along with cheap sets, flashy gadgets, improbable science, and terrible acting. Wood was a notorious B-movie director. He seemed to believe movie stars shouldn’t act with their faces but with their mouths. Every ounce of dialogue that could possibly run quietly through a person’s head should be said out loud with furious anger and waving arms. Maybe the showy theatrics were a little bleed over from his real life since Wood was an open transvestite.

The film’s villain is Dr. Eric Vornoff, played by the aging and drug-addled Bela Lugosi. Vornoff is a man on a mission — a mission to utilize atomic energy to create the world’s first race of supermen. He straps unwilling victims to a horrifying dental chair and blasts them with atomic radiation in the name of science. In one scene, a native of Vornoff’s unnamed Eastern European homeland offers him a chance to return and restore his reputation by creating a super army for their government. But Vornoff is working for his own benefit, not for any greater cause.

Vornoff is flanked by a giant mute manservant named Lobo and also the monster of the redundantly-named Lake Marsh. The lake monster, played by very un-scary stock footage of an octopus in a tank, has eaten a dozen townsfolk. But only after Vornoff has subjected them to his atomic experiments. Having a pet giant monster octopus makes cleaning up bodies much easier.

Lobo doesn’t speak, but he does grunt a few times. In one scene, the doctor says he found Lobo in the wilderness of Tibet. In our opinion, Lobo, played by Swedish professional wrestler Tor Johnson (who was just shy of 400 pounds), was far too large and far too caucasian to play a convincing Tibetan. But, if he were a little hairier, we could picture him as a yeti.

The movie’s leading female is Janet Lawton (Loretta King), an intrepid gumshoe hot on the trail of the mysterious disappearances of 12 local people during the last three months. Two more people have just been reported missing. Janet wants answers from the local law enforcement. Of course, Janet is inexplicably engaged to one of the town’s lawmen, Lieutenant Craig (Tony McCoy.) In a real town, the reporter marrying a cop is old fashioned nepotism or something. But this isn’t just any ordinary town.

The disappearances all happened in the “jungles” surrounding Lake Marsh. We’re not sure where this middle-American town must be to have its own God-forsaken jungle swamps filled with snakes, alligators, and quicksand — all “bent on destruction” — but we’re guessing it must be somewhere in the Florida panhandle.

After being talked down to by the local law enforcement, Janet goes against the advice of Police Captain Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn) and her lawman-fiance by wandering off into the woods alone. In the middle of a thunderstorm. Not wearing sensible shoes. And she immediately drives her car off the road. Really — it’s like she’s never been in a horror movie before.

The storm activity was so suspicious, the characters even had to call it out on screen. The thunderstorm was raging for a few weeks. Coincidentally, that’s about as long as people have been going missing at Lake Marsh. Hmm. Should anyone worry about the correlation there?

By this time, the crack police team of this small Floridian hellhole have caught on that Janet is missing. Her fiance and the captain drive out into the woods to begin the search. They find Janet’s wrecked car, and decide the most logical place to look for her is at the coffee shop 10 miles down the road. They don’t find her, so instead, they get coffee and stand around for a while.

Back in the laboratory, Lugosi crosses film franchises and hypnotizes the captured Janet with his Dracula eyes. She later wakes to find herself tied to the atomic dental chair in a perfectly fitted wedding gown. Why a gown? We’re not really sure, or even where the dress came from. But we adore that mad men always have a wedding gown hanging in a back closet that exactly fits the leading lady for just these occasions.

Dr. Vornoff tells Janet the procedure will only hurt a moment, then she will emerge “the bride of the atom.” Considering the original film title was “Bride of the Atom,” that makes sense. However, also considering that every other person who’s been put in that chair so far has died, we don’t quite believe him.

His comment also fails to really explain why she’s in a wedding dress. Is she the Bride of the Atom or the Bride of the Monster? What does Vornoff plan to do with her if she survives the procedure? If you’re going to shoot a girl full of atomic energy, why dress her like a bride?

Director Ed Wood makes sure that none of these questions get answered. Lots of people say he was a terrible movie-maker. Maybe he was just ultra postmodern, leaving most loose ends up to the viewer’s interpretation. But we doubt it.

The giant manservant Lobo attacks Dr. Vornoff before he can do his experiment on Janet, leading us to believe Lobo wants the “bride” for himself. Vornoff retaliates by firing a half dozen bullets toward Lobo at close range, missing every single one. The two men grapple for a while in front of the set’s flashy electronics and walls painted to look like stones. Even moderately astute viewers can tell the doctor is now being played by a stand in. At the time of filming, Lugosi was well into his 70s and probably could not be tossed around safely.

Lobo ties Vornoff into the atomic dental chair and submits the doctor to his own ghastly experiment. Vornoff becomes the very creature he was trying to create. This man-beast has been silent the entire movie, except for a few grunts. But now, Lobo suddenly becomes smarter than the doctor, throwing switches and moving levers, making the atomic machinery come to life. Only Ed Wood knows for sure what made Lobo quickly gain another 100 IQ points.

Long story short, Dr. Vornoff ends up trapped between a rock and a giant man-eating octopus. As the thunderstorm rages on, despite the lack of rain in the general area, the atomically-charged Vornoff is struck by lightning and explodes in a stock-footage mushroom cloud. Luckily, the rest of our leading characters are, like, a good 30 feet away by then, so they’re perfectly safe.

At a running time of 69 minutes, we’re not sure if BRIDE OF THE MONSTER technically qualifies as feature length film. It’s fun while you’re watching it, especially if you like your sci-fi a little cheesy and your horror less than frightening. However, every scene feels twice as long as it should, mired in heady dialogue presented through bad overacting.

At the end of the film, the viewer is left wondering who the monster really was. Was it Lobo, the giant man with the mind of a child who did the doctor’s bidding until the inevitable turn of conscience? Was it the giant octopus that snatched locals from Lake Marsh? Was it Dr. Vornoff himself, in his quest to create a master race of atomic superbeings and his own final transformation into one? Maybe director Ed Wood is the real monster, subjecting us mortals to the greatest terrors ever known, including stock footage of atomic tests near Bikini Atoll and cephalopods.
This column is among those featured in
 BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of 
horror essays written by contributors to 
Buy it today on Amazon!

If we are to give Wood the benefit of the doubt, we would say the Monster is our own unbridled determination to unlock secrets that are not ours to know. Just as Janet almost met her destruction in her quest to uncover the mystery of the Lake Marsh monster. Just as Dr. Vornoff met his own demise after pursuing his army of atomic ubermenschen. Just as men around the world were hitting particles together to create atomic power beyond their control, we discover the greatest danger comes from our newfound knowledge, paired with the lack of experience in understanding how to use it peacefully.

For good or ill, BRIDE OF THE MONSTER has its place among the atomically-themed films of the era. It’s one man’s interpretation of the fears that would lead to the Cold War, and holds up as a classic example of a great cult director. Dr. Vornoff “tampered in God’s domain” and died for his arrogance. In an age of rising atomic superpowers, perhaps that was meant to be a lesson for us all.

JIM MACKENZIE and SARAH GIAVEDONI are the creators of and two self-proclaimed movie lovers and hijinks creators extraordinaire. Stuff Monsters Like (SML) is the most comprehensive, satirical anthology of stuff monsters like on the web, highlighting the various themes common in many horror flicks. The blog is also the proud sponsor of Intergalactic Hug A Monster Day and the prestigious annual Monstey Awards. When they are not writing about monsters, Jim and Sarah are devoted to watching horror films, running a completely unrelated nonprofit, and making money at their respective full-time jobs. Connect with SML on Facebook and Twitter.

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