Directed By: Edward D. Wood Jr.
Starring: Kenne Duncan, Duke Moore, Tor Johnson
Trivia: Tor Johnson reprises his "Lobo" role from Wood's 1955 film, Bride Of The Monster
For me, discovering an Ed Wood movie I’ve never seen before is like finding a cool prize at the bottom of a cereal box: you know it’s not going to be a quality product, but it makes you smile all the same. Well, that’s the exact feeling I had watching Wood’s 1959 opus, Night of the Ghouls. The story goes that, because Wood was unable to pay the processing fee, the lab that worked on Night of the Ghouls held it for ransom until 1984, when film archivist Wade Williams finally paid the bill and became the movie’s new owner. I’m awfully glad he did, too, because Night of the Ghouls is just as terrible, and therefore just as entertaining, as the other classically bad movies in Wood’s filmography.
While out driving one evening, an elderly farmer (Harvey B. Dunn) and his wife (Margaret Mason) have a run-in with a mysterious woman in white (Valda Hansen), who’s wandering in the woods near the old Varnoff house (Dr. Varnoff was Bela Lugosi’s character in Bride of the Monster, making Night of the Ghouls a sequel of sorts to that film). Convinced they’ve seen a ghost, the couple rushes off to the police station to report it, and because he was involved in the Varnoff incident a few years back, Lt. Bradford (Duke Moore) is assigned to the case. Accompanied by the reluctant Officer Kelton (Paul Marco), Bradford heads out to the old Varnoff house, which is now owned by a psychic named Dr. Acula (Kenne Duncan), who cons rich widows out of their inheritance. Yet, despite the fact Dr. Acula (get it…. DR. ACULA!) is a fraud, Bradford does encounter a few real-life horrors during his investigation, including Varnoff’s now-deformed assistant, Lobo (Tor Johnson), and an actual ghost in the form of a woman in black (Jeannie Stevens).
Night of the Ghouls has everything that makes an Ed Wood picture such a fun watch, and even references some of his earlier works. The movie is introduced and narrated by Criswell, who served the same function in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and his dialogue here is every bit as hyperbolic as it was in that film (“Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!”). Another Wood regular, Tor Johnson, plays Lobo, the same character he portrayed in Bride of the Monster (this time around, his face is deformed, and to my surprise, the make-up job they did on him was pretty impressive). Wood’s penchant for ridiculously over-dramatic dialogue, a staple of each and every one of his movies, runs rampant in Night of the Ghouls; when the elderly couple is at the police station reporting the ghost, the husband suddenly blurts out “It was a nightmare of horror!” And if you thought the cockpit of the plane in Plan 9 from Outer Space represented the low point of set design in an Ed Wood picture, just wait until you get a load of this film’s police station, which looks like a basement rec room save a single picture on the wall with the word “WANTED” stapled to the top of it (the picture they used is actually a publicity still of director Ed Wood).
But then, the police in this movie don’t deserve much better. In fact, aside from Criswell and Lobo, the most recognizable character in Night of the Ghouls is Officer Kelton, portrayed by longtime Wood associate Paul Marco, who played the same role in both Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space (Wood allegedly referred to the three movies as his “Kelton Trilogy”). A whiny little bitch, Kelton is arguably the worst cop ever depicted on film, a sniveling coward whose sole purpose is to add a bit of comic relief. But with material as hilarious as this film’s séance sequence (perhaps the strangest séance in cinematic history), Officer Kelton’s antics fall way short of the mark.
When it comes to director Ed Wood, the term “So Bad It’s Good” isn’t so much a description as it is its own genre. In films like Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Night of the Ghouls, Wood’s complete lack of talent was rivaled only by his unbridled enthusiasm for making movies. I’m sure there are some who think Ed Wood should have never been allowed near a film set, and based on the quality of his work it’s hard to argue with them. Personally, his pictures have given me hours of enjoyment, and I’m holding out hope that, at some point during my lifetime, a “Lost” Ed Wood film will be discovered.
“Ed Wood should have never directed movies”? Hell, I wish he made more!