The films of director Ed Wood—who also wrote, produced, starred, and performed who knows how many other duties under the poignantly earnest billing Edward D. Wood Jr.—are terrible even when evaluated by the loosest of aesthetic criterion. The films, which most famously include the Bela Lugosi-featured Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space, are gut-wrenchingly painful in their surface inadequacy. Incoherent, nonsensical, non-acted, barely written, and with virtually no production values to speak of, Wood’s films look and feel like the camcorded play sessions of a group of perhaps not-so-talented nine-year-olds in a backyard before the parents call them in for supper.
And like children playing in a backyard, Wood’s films also revel in freedom. Wood, in his fashion, is as pure a film artist as anyone who’s ever picked up a camera. For better and for worse, Wood seemed to live by his every impulse, and so his films, particularly Glen or Glenda, are characterized by a lack of self-consciousness that’s startlingly naked and confessional. And Wood’s influence can be seen in the work of far greater subsequent directors who’d mine the banal for perverse self-revelation, most obviously John Waters, David Lynch, and Tim Burton.
There’s no director better suited to make a film about Ed Wood than Burton, as Wood is a real-life Burton character—an outcast looking for his metaphorical family. Like Wood, Burton has long revered monster movies, and has used his own monsters as traditional metaphors expressive of sadness and alienation. Wood, a struggling filmmaker, a cross-dresser, eventually an alcoholic, populated his sparse film crew with a motley collection of eccentrics who could embrace and relate to him.
Ed Wood isn’t really a biography, and it isn’t too concerned with the ins and outs of no-budget filmmaking either. The film is dreamy myth-making, as Burton’s first obvious aim was to resurrect Wood’s films and imbue them with the transcendent power their filmmaker intended. Burton used his directorial acumen, which is considerably greater than Wood’s, to release the trapped subtext of Wood’s work.
The brief recreations of scenes from Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space are often the film’s high points. Having previously incorporated the aesthetic into Edward Scissorhands, Burton understands the flat, tacky, dead-center framing of 1950s monster movies intimately and he recreates that banality while complementing it with some of the most gorgeously lush black-and-white cinematography to ever be seen in a Hollywood movie. Burton gives us the ideal B movie of our deepest imaginations.
Burton, an imaginatively unhinged visual prankster who occasionally moonlights as a major director, never before or ever again exhibited the astonishing range of talent he displayed in Ed Wood. The film is an example of that most rewarding sort of artistic mastery: It feels effortless, and there’s no deadening sense of “craft” that often kills Oscar winners. The tone, in particular, walks a fine tightrope between comedy and despair that never falters, which is notably impressive in a scene in which the faded star Lugosi (Martin Landau) pleas to Wood (Johnny Depp) to allow him to kill them both off in a blaze of intended glory.
Depp is an institution now, so it’s easy to forget that he was once one of America’s most promising and inventive actors. As Wood, Depp is casually fearless; you never catch the actor editorializing or distancing himself from the character, and he plays the director as a 12-year-old huckster, a wunderkind who’d never truly be. As Lugosi, Landau gives one of the definitive portraits of self-loathing and emotional collapse, yet he never lets you forget that Lugosi, that tragic old dog, had deep reservoirs of resentment and narcissism. It’s a brilliant, respectful, defiantly unsentimental performance. The supporting cast, which includes Bill Murray, Mike Starr, Patricia Arquette, Sarah Jessica Parker, G.D. Spradlin, and Jeffrey Jones, all vividly elaborate on the film’s texture of faded quixotic dreams. As American films became more and more polished, more impersonal than ever before, Ed Wood, a testament to following your own inner tune despite almost certain personal oblivion, is looking more and more like one of America’s great movies.
The Blu-ray image isn't a huge upgrade from the previously released DVD, but the beautiful black-and-white cinematography is still crisp with the appropriate intended levels of grain. The transfer of the whites is especially noteworthy, as those colors tend to lose definition when indifferently or merely competently transferred. In short, Ed Wood still looks great, but the visual difference between DVD and Blu-ray isn't revelatory, and a viewer can probably get close to the same presentation by watching the DVD on a nice HD screen. The sound mix, though, is noticeably richer. Howard Shore's lush score sounds better than ever, and the diegetic and non-diegetic effects have greater texture and depth.
The extras are appealing and passionate, but unfortunately they're not new to this Blu-ray edition of the film. The audio commentary, which includes an unusually talkative Tim Burton, is informative and refreshingly lacking in scene-by-scene narration. The most interesting contributors are screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, who detail the script's origins as a partial reaction to their frustration with penning what would eventually become the atrocious Problem Child movies. The featurettes—"Making Bela," "Pie Plates Over Hollywood," "Let's Shoot the F#*%@r!," "The Theremin" documentary—provide bite-sized portraits of various aspects of making the film without resorting to obnoxious PR banalities. Rounding out the package are deleted scenes, an odd, sexy music video featuring Lisa Marie, and the theatrical trailer.
A more-than-competent transfer of one of American cinema's unsung gems, but Ed Wood deserves Criterion-level respect.