By and large, Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s reputation as the “worst director ever” is unearned. It’s not that none of his films were ever hampered by a puzzling command of dialogue or lack of proper funding, but what circumstances granted him such infamous agency over the likes of William Beaudine or Chester Novell Turner are beyond me. All it took was one mention in one book for the label to stick, with few considering how Wood’s schlock wasn’t especially different from that which other studios were shoveling onto screens at the time. Take, for example, 1955’s Bride of the Monster, ol’ Ed’s contribution to the decade’s cinematic fascination with creatures spawned by the atom. It certainly wasn’t the first or last flick of its kind that had to make do with inferior sound equipment, unsteady acting, or that most ubiquitous of B-movie staples, stock footage. But in spite of these factors and more working against it, Bride of the Monster finds other means by which to engage and entertain viewers, in ways similar low-budget horror shows would’ve set on autopilot entirely.
Some mighty strange things are afoot over at Lake Marsh. Twelve people have gone missing in the area, which intrepid reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) considers to be the work of a bloodthirsty beast. The police — including her beau, Lt. Craig (Tony McCoy) — dismiss her claims as a load of hooey, but unfortunately, she’s not as nuts as they think. The crazed Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) has set up shop near Lake Marsh, using an abandoned mansion as a base of operations from which to run all manner of awful experiments. In addition to siccing his own private giant octopus on potential intruders, the doctor has taken to kidnapping locals, with the aim of transforming them into atomic-powered superfolk. All of the mad Vornoff’s efforts have resulted in death thus far, so when Janet’s nosiness lands her a spot on the slab, Lt. Craig leaps into action to save her before it’s too late.
Though not the stuff of Z-grade cinema legend as Plan 9 from Outer Space‘s making-of is, the tale behind Bride of the Monster‘s creation is still a page torn from “Ed Wood’s Guide to Frugal Filmmaking.” At $70,000 (much of which was supplied by McCoy’s father, who insisted that Tony be cast as the star), Wood’s budget was fairly robust, given what the director was used to, yet thriftiness is nonetheless evident just about everywhere you look. From the doctor’s scientific accoutrements having seen better days to actors being call upon to wrap themselves up in the octopus prop’s tentacles rather than vice versa, one can almost see the pennies being pinched before their very eyes. Such sights weren’t uncommon amongst the era’s genre fare, and Wood’s foibles shouldn’t get a pass purely because others were guilty of them, too. However, by the time all of its God’s domain-tampering has reached its zenith, Bride of the Monster has amassed a number of legitimately enjoyable checks in its favor. Frank Worth’s score is some truly bombastic stuff, the look of Vornoff’s lab and surrounding estate have a creepy streak going for them, and the collectively melodramatic delivery of the screenplay’s already hokey dialogue (“Everything points to an inhuman violence!”) is well worth a hoot and a half.
But at the heart of Bride of the Monster‘s ultimate charm is Lugosi himself, a little surprising given the nature of his role and the state of his career when he filmed it. While he played a mute character in 1956’s The Black Sleep and appeared posthumously via stock footage in Plan 9, this turned out to be the man’s final speaking role, the cap-off to many years spent getting kicked around Hollywood’s horror dregs. Cast as yet another scientist with conquering the world on his mind, one might be initially inclined to roll their eyes at how Lugosi is used in Bride of the Monster, but to Wood’s credit, our star is given decidedly meatier material to work with than normal. There’s a real verve to his performance here, an energy that matches Vornoff’s fanatical aspirations; look no further than the doctor’s monologue explaining why he’s doing what he does for evidence that Lugosi was completely committed. The remaining performers can’t help but come across a bit sheepishly in the wake of his dominating presence, though a good deal of them aren’t half-bad, either. King’s Janet possesses a nice degree of spunk, Harvey B. Dunn is lovably folksy as the local police captain, and as Vornoff’s assistant Lobo, wrestler Tor Johnson is…well, still an ox of a man lumbering about the joint, but even the smidgen of inner turmoil his character is granted does go a long way.
Should your mind still be inquiring as to Bride of the Monster‘s overall quality, then, yes, it’s “bad,” though not incompetent or devoid of fun by a long shot. The stock premise, goofy effects, and aggressively noticeable change when Lugosi’s stunt guy takes over are all undeniable, yet these elements contribute to a vehicle that, in the end, skews endearing more so than insufferable. As crummy around the corners as it might be, Bride of the Monster just makes itself too hard to hate.