Category: Ed Wood

Inventory: The Old Cult Canon: 16 cult films that paved the way for the new cult canon

5. Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972)

A line of Spanish conquistadors and their Indian porters wind their way down the mountainous slopes of Amazonian Peru, nearly swallowed up by the jungle like a puny stream of ants. This long, unhurried, and gorgeous tracking shot opens Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, the breakthrough movie for Werner Herzog, one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Aguirre was also the first of five movies teaming Herzog with Polish-born actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s bleak view of human nature was enlivened by, and gave shape to, Kinski’s uncontrolled ferocity. Their relationship was stormy, to say the least; they loved each other like brothers, hated each other like enemies, and together made the best work of either man’s career.

Kinski stars in Aguirre as a mutinous, scheming soldier in Pizarro’s army. Sent into the rainforest to find the illusory golden city of El Dorado, he seizes the opportunity to rebel and claim South America for himself. Inspired in part by Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, it’s far from an action film—it’s moody and slow, with long stretches of inactivity. But it builds to a suspenseful, dreamlike state of dread—the cruel, seemingly infinite jungle makes a mockery of Aguirre‘s dreams of conquest, as his expedition descends into chaos before they see a single native to oppress.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Sure. Existential dread doesn’t follow a clock.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Apocalypse Now, Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Mission, The Blair Witch Project, Herzog’s blistering documentary My Best Fiend

13. Suspiria (1977)
The Italian film genre known as giallo enthusiastically embraces the most lurid, trashy side of the scary movie, thanks in part to the abiding influence of the particularly sex-and-violence-crazed Italian pulp fiction that was its immediate predecessor. Dario Argento crowned himself king of the giallo film with his 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, the first in a loose-knit trilogy based on three female spirits of darkness mentioned in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions Of An English Opium Eater. Jessica Harper stars as an innocent young woman who discovers that her new ballet school is also the home of a murderous coven of witches, and works to uncover its secret while the body count rises and supernatural menaces loom ever larger. Suspiria‘s plot is often thin, and the acting is haphazard at best (all the dialogue was dubbed in postproduction), but logic has never been Argento’s goal. He thinks on a grander scale to create a nightmare world that feels like a monstrous version of a fairy tale. He achieves this through a bold, inventive mix of bright colors (using a palette based on Disney’s Snow White), whip-crack editing, and an aggressive, creepy score by Goblin, the rock band that also worked on George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Not really. Almost all horror is more effective in the dark, and this is no exception.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street, the slasher-film craze of the 1980s

15. Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959)
Ed Wood’s sci-fi crapterpiece has often been called the worst movie ever made, which isn’t quite true. There are movies with worse scripts, flimsier set design, clunkier acting, and more boneheaded directorial choices—several from Wood himself—but Plan Nine From Outer Space is entertaining nonetheless, because the sheer volume of incompetence makes the film more loveable. Wood’s catalog of blunders and heroically misjudged attempts to overcome disastrous setbacks are seemingly innumerable, starting with the basic storyline, a nonsensical plot about aliens whose previous eight attempts to conquer Earth have failed, and who have decided to try reanimating the dead this time. The script is full of clumsy lines and howlers, such as the narrator’s solemn pronouncement “Future events such as these will affect you in the future.” The flying saucers are clearly on strings, and the cardboard gravestones in the cemetery set tend to wobble when the actors lurch past them. The tiny budget left room for only a single take of most shots, resulting in reams of flubbed lines, visible boom mics, and other mistakes. Most egregiously, Wood’s plan to have Plan Nine star his friend Bela Lugosi, the iconic star of Dracula who had since fallen into Z-grade obscurity, were scotched by the actor’s death. Instead, Wood used a few minutes of previously shot Lugosi footage and filled the rest out by recasting the role with his chiropractor, who was a foot taller than Lugosi and “disguised” his lack of resemblance by keeping his cape over his face at all times. It wasn’t meant as a comedy, but Plan Nine is best viewed as an unintentional one: Call it a secret success.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? This movie doesn’t work no matter what time it is. But this is really a midnight flick: Plan Nine is best enjoyed with a crowd of fans who will laugh when Tor Johnson trips over the gravestone.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Without Plan Nine to cap his career, Wood’s legend might not have lasted long enough for Tim Burton to memorialize him with the biopic Ed Wood. The movie’s more lasting influence is probably subtler: Who knows how many budding filmmakers were emboldened by Plan Nine? After all, if Ed Wood could make movies, anyone can.

Originally published on Sept. 11, 2008 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Suspiria. Read the complete article.

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