10. Night of the Ghouls (1959)
Two words: Ed Wood. Or, if you prefer a slightly longer word and two abbreviations, Edward D. Wood Jnr, best remembered these days through Tim Burton’s wonderful 1994 biopic. Those who know Wood’s work, beyond Johnny Depp’s onscreen portrayal, will be familiar with Bride of the Monster (1955) from its Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, while Plan 9 From Outer Space (made in 1956, released in 1959) remains one of the most famous bad movies of all time. What many fail to realize is those two films were part of a loose trilogy made by Wood, with Night of the Ghouls completing the set. Not that anyone knew this at the time, for although filming NOTG wrapped in 1959, the film went unreleased until 1982, as Wood (who died in 1978) couldn’t afford to have the film processed, and it wasn’t until fan Wade Williams located a copy of NOTG and paid the lab fees, that the final part of Wood’s trilogy was available to view in its complete lack of glory.
By all accounts, Wood was a decent guy who cared deeply about those around him, while convinced he made pictures at least the equal of regular Hollywood horrors, if not better. NOTG proves the former correct, as Wood cast several of his usual associates in the film (Paul Marco, Criswell, Harvey B Dunne, Tor Johnson), but as for quality productions, well, only in your own ‘ead, Ed. NOTG, although more conventional than the likes of Glen or Glenda (1953) or Jail Bait (1955), exhibits the usual Wood failings and obsessions: newspaper cover-ups, scenes set in police stations, a belief audiences are scared by a few lame horror props, a skewed sense of geography, hyperbolic narration and, you guessed it, angora sweaters.
The film opens with Criswell, the supposed clairvoyant who also opened Plan 9, warning viewers they may faint as the shocking story unfolds. As usual with Criswell, what’s said has little bearing on what comes to pass. For example, Criswell’s ominous declaration “for our talk, I must take you to your town, any town,” is undermined by the sign “County of Los Angeles, Sheriff, East Los Angeles Station” we see filling the screen in the opening shot.
The story Criswell narrates, needlessly the most part, involves police investigating reports of ghosts at the “old Willows place by the lake,” the same house in which Dr Varnoff (Bela Lugosi) conducted his crazy experiments in Bride of the Monster. Charged with this “screwball assignment” are lantern-jawed Lt Bradford (Duke Moore) and clueless comic relief Patrolman Kelton (Paul Marco), the only character to appear in each part of Wood’s trilogy (“Monsters! Space people! Mad doctors! They didn’t teach me about that at the police academy!”).
The cause of the commotion is a fake swami, Dr Acula (geddit?), played by Kenne Duncan. Dr Acula is running a scam, convincing elderly widows and widowers he can contact the dead, and raise them back to life in their casket just long enough to give pertinent legal and financial advice from which Acula will benefit. Acula’s girlfriend, the vivacious Sheila (Valda Hansen), wards off the curious by wandering the grounds dressed as a ghost known as ‘The Woman in White’; predictably, this ploy has the opposite effect. There’s also a ‘Woman in Black’ (Jeannie Stevens) who, rather oddly, is an actual ghost, and accepted as such Dr Acula: “the first I raised from the dead,” he tells Bradford.
Also on the premises is the lumbering man-mountain Lobo (Tor Johnson), last seen at the fiery conclusion of Bride of the Monster, and looking much the worse for the experience. Say what you like about Wood’s films, but I sure wouldn’t like to bump into Tor Johnson if he can fit down a dark alley, and the giant former wrestler is a concerning sight, especially here, with Tor sporting some pretty good scar tissue make-up.
Elsewhere however, Wood provides the same old warmed-up Halloween nonsense. Most laughable are the seance scenes, with Dr Acula and clients sharing a table with three skeletons (one of whom wears a wig!), complete with a skull as a centerpiece. Acula creates a ‘spooky’ atmosphere with a levitating trumpet which sounds like Lobo with bad gas; a man running around with a white sheet over his head (Tom Mason, the chiropractor who infamously stood in for the dead Lugosi in Plan 9); a black man spouting nonsense with an electronic synthetic voice and wearing a lid on his head; oh, and a floating ceramic jar. Frightening.
Among other treats are Lt Bradford’s detailed thoughts on a handrail, Kelton’s travails in locating a patrol car, an invisible owl, and the awkwardness in getting police to believe you’re not kidding when you tell them your name is ‘John Doe.’ At once ridiculously low-key and over-inflated with its own pompousness, NOTG is as scary as a pug dressed as a pumpkin, and yet only slightly less lovable; not the effect Wood, bless his heart, had intended. That said, Wood does create a nice twist for NOTG‘s conclusion, with Criswell and fellow ghouls returning to life to punish Acula (unwittingly a real medium) and Sheila.
Sample dialogue: “I’ve been so lonely these years, alone.”
Sample conversation: “The police are in the drape room!” “Go up there and hold them off.” “How?” “You’ve got a gun, haven’t you?” “Oh yeah.”
The final line is from Criswell, and acts as an epilogue to our list of inanity: “And now we return to our grave, the old and the new, and YOU – will join us soon.”