The theatrical trailer for the faux Ed Wood sci-fi picture The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (Tristar Pictures) is two or three minutes of happy delirium—a barrage of images from the collective unconscious of ‘50s schlock enthusiasts. Here are the starkly quivering titles, the skeletons on wires, the pitifully earthbound “aliens” in silver jumpsuits trying to speak in the higher diction, the monster with the ping-pong-ball eyes staggering under the weight of the supine blonde, and those same damn Bronson Canyon boulders that have formed the backdrop for our dumbest screen-dreams since the days of silent two-reelers.
Watching this heady distillation, I had a rush of sense memories—of dope-and-Doritos dorm-room hazes, at a time when getting stoned and laughing at some bad old movie was a novel experience. I learned as much about cinema that way as in any pointy-headed film class: mostly about how artificial a medium it is, and how much skill it takes to edit together disparate images to give the illusion of continuity. What makes the work of Ed Wood interesting, at least for a half an hour or so in an altered state, is that it causes you to forget that shots ever can flow together to look like something actually happening. And his films are not entirely devoid of artistic merit. In a 1988 interview with me, long before he thought he’d ever make a movie of Wood’s life, Tim Burton spoke tenderly of being moved by the director’s clunky earnestness: “It’s like you’re watching someone’s strange mind,” he marveled.
I’m stalling like mad here to avoid addressing the actual feature-length Lost Skeleton, which is one of the deadliest things I’ve ever sat through and which doesn’t display someone’s strange mind—only someone’s predilection for sniggery camp. After three minutes of strenuously stilted dialogue, choppy editing, and mismatched film stocks, the thorough archness of the project takes hold, and then there’s nothing more to watch except the actors’ varying degrees of skill at impersonating bad ‘50s actors. They play this stuff with a straight face, but you can imagine the screenwriter (and director and star) Larry Blamire cackling over every melodramatic repetition or meandering, cliché-clotted exchange, as if it’s some kind of achievement to write tone-deaf dialogue. Ugly, one-dimensional compositions glimpsed for a second or two in a trailer make you laugh. Experienced for a minute or two in a theater, they induce a kind of sensory deprivation.
The movie has a couple of good things. The prim woman alien (Susan McConnell) with the nasal diction is very embodiment of an aging dipsomaniacal C-movie actress, and Jennifer Blaire has a funny, sexy presence as “four forest creatures” turned into a slinky leotarded cat-woman by the aliens’ “transmutron.” The climactic battle of the giant three-eyed mutant and the cackling skeleton is a riot of maladroit angles. There’s a deft scene in which sundry aliens attempt to pass themselves off as human to fool the strait-laced scientist and his wife—but this owes more to farce (and sitcom) than to anything in an Ed Wood movie. There aren’t many good things, actually. You could get them all into a single trailer.
Blamire has talent. I used to see his plays in the ‘80s in the Boston area, and I admired his attempt to bring lowbrow genres back to the theater. (Why should a multiplex or your TV room be the only places to see rattling-good melodramas?) But he has sold himself short and movies shorter. The idea of bad movies is always more fun than the reality of them. If great art teaches us to make quantum leaps of imagination, bad art reminds us of the pratfalls and belly-flops we take every day. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a miserable victory for untranscendence.