BAD USED TO BE A BAD WORD. THIS was decades ago, when the creators and consumers of popular culture shared a notion of quality. A good movie possessed wit, style, coherence -- competence. It had a story and stars that persuaded the viewer to get lost in the fiction. Movies did what entertainment was meant to do: suspend disbelief.
Bad movies -- cheap horror films, dingy porno, old instructional pictures on dating technique -- suspend belief. They become documentaries of people trying to make a good movie. With their preposterous narratives, fractured editing, tatty sets and monotonous line readings, they play like doomed dress rehearsals. First you are drawn into the catastrophe of the filmmaking process, like a rubbernecking motorist passing a road kill. Then you notice that these movies are doubly subversive: they not only subvert themselves, they rebel against the timid rules of traditional filmmaking. In this sense, bad movies are the first modernist movies, as the French long ago realized. "Learn to go see the 'worst' films," wrote Ado Kyrou in the 1957 Le Surrealisme au Cinema. "They are sometimes sublime."
The films of Edward D. Wood Jr. used to be just the old kind of bad. Wood's transvestite tale Glen or Glenda (1953) made a stir with "The Strange Case of a 'Man' Who Changed His Sex!" -- though actually Glen only wanted to change his frocks. But Jail Bait (1954), Bride of the Monster (1955), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956), Night of the Ghouls (1958) and The Sinister Urge (1961) went right into the commode. "Ed was a loser in my book," says the B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff. "Fundamentally, there were just too many things deficient."
Deficient? The word does no justice to Wood's work -- to Bela Lugosi's mad monologues in Glen or Glenda ("Bevare of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep!" he intones between stock shots of atom-bomb blasts and buffalo herds. "He eats little boys! Puppy-dog tails! Big fat snails!"); to Bride of the Monster's rubber octopus with a broken tentacle, which Wood stole from Republic Studios; to Lugosi's double in Plan 9, who is a head taller than the star (who died during the filming) and must cover his face with a cape; to the thespian exertions of 400-lb. ex-wrestler Tor Johnson in Night of the Ghouls; to the rantings of TV mystic Criswell in the 1965 nudie horror musical Orgy of the Dead ("Torture! Torture! It pleasures me!").
Wood was, no question, a stupefyingly inept director. But he also had to make his movies in no time (three, maybe six, days) on weeny budgets (Jail Bait cost $22,000). He got Plan 9 financed by some Southern Baptists; he gave leading roles in Bride of the Monster to anyone who would fund the movie. "Eddie paid me off in cash," says actor Lyle Talbot, who was in Plan 9, "and sometimes it was a lot of singles."