Ed Wood Jr. directed Final Curtain as a pilot for a proposed television series to be called Portraits in Terror. In it, an apparently disturbed actor recounts the strange happenings in what appears to be a haunted theater.
The pilot was thought to be lost for decades and maintained a fascination for Wood's cult of admirers. What sort of television show, they wondered, would come from the director of Plan 9 From Outer Space?
Made in 1957, Final Curtain wouldn't resurface until a copy was found by the great-nephew of Paul Marco, an actor in the Ed Wood stock company. It was given a premiere of sorts at the Slamdance Festival in 2012, and has since faded back into oblivion. Still, there's much about it to be admired. It's not the oddball curio for which Wood's fans may have hoped, but it shows a different side of Wood. The pilot also has a lot of folklore behind it, which may have superseded its arrival.
Wood had written the script as a possible vehicle for his friend Bela Lugosi. According to legend, it was the script Lugosi was reading when he died. The irony was tasty for fans of the Wood/Lugosi team, and for all we know, it's a true story. If it's not true, it should be.
According to Wood biographer Rudolph Grey, Final Curtain was one of Wood's favorite projects. Grey doesn't provide any specific incident where Wood said as much, but if there's reason to believe Wood was fond of this pilot, it probably had to do with the subject of haunted theaters. As Wood's third wife Cathy said in Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy:
"He told me he went to Northwestern University (in Chicago) after he got out of the Marine Corps. I'm pretty sure he took up acting, and I think writing. And that's when he told me he lived in an abandoned theater, or a theater that was dark most of the time, and that's where he got the inspiration for Final Curtain. He felt the vibes, as we say."
The story, what there is of it, concerns an actor wandering around in the theater where his show has closed. We hear his thoughts in a voice-over narrative read by Dudley Manlove (known to Wood fans as Eros in Plan 9 From Outer Space) and it's pure, over-the-top Wood, with a lot of hokum about "the witching hour," and and how spirits come out to cavort in the darkness, "to die, and re-die, to live and relive..."
Eventually the actor (played by Duke Moore, who would appear in several Wood projects) is lured to a storage room where he discovers a strange mannequin in a closet. She comes to life, and beckons him to join her. She's one of Wood's great creations, her long fingernails reminiscent of Vampira's. Say what you will about him, but Wood could create a striking tableau. Tor Johnson coming out of the grave in Plan 9, for example, is comparable to anything from the Poverty Row horrors of Wood's youth; this mannequin, played by Jenny Stevens, is equally unforgettable. Sure, we can see her arm moving slightly, so we know she's a human and not a doll, but she's creepy. The actor flees, and eventually comes to his own morbid end. It's like Tales from the Crypt, without the sexy stuff.
If we need proof of Wood's fondness for this 20-minute episode, consider the ways he recycled it. First, he took the great scene of Jenny Stevens' alluring mannequin and inserted it into one of his next films, Night of the Ghouls (1959). In 1963 Wood was still tinkering with the omnibus idea, proposing a film version of Portraits in Terror that would include Final Curtain along with another of his short films, The Night the Banshee Cried. When Wood wrote the novelization of his own Crypt of the Dead (1965) he incorporated much of the Final Curtain story. In his 1975 paperback collection, Tales for a Sexy Night Vol. 2, he included a prose version of Final Curtain. Finally, some of the verbiage in Final Curtain sounds suspiciously like material from Plan 9. It was undoubtedly a story Wood wanted us to know.
One reason Wood should have been proud of Final Curtain is its look, which is a few shades better than most of Wood's movies. Filmed in an actual theater at Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica, it doesn't distract you with cheap sets and makeshift scenery. Wood and his longtime cinematographer Bill Thompson (who made his debut in 1914, filming King Baggot in Absinthe) lurk around the theater, filming backstage and along the lonely corridors; they knew where the spooks were hidden. They also get some great shadowy shots of Moore on a spiral staircase, as if Wood had been spending his free time watching Fritz Lang movies.
Looking slightly overstuffed in his tuxedo, Moore is a credible stand-in for Lugosi. Would Lugosi, Wood's original choice, be any better? Perhaps for camp value. Moore, to his credit, takes the role seriously, peering around the corners of the dark theater as if fearing what he might see. By '57, Lugosi was too dissipated; Moore looks robust, and we can believe he was some sort of theatrical idol. With Wood directing him as if he's in a silent movie, Moore is gallant.
Where Wood disconnects from some viewers is that he was irretrievably stuck in the 1930s. The B movies, the Saturday matinee serials, The Mummy and Dracula, the comic books and radio shows he'd loved as a kid, had such a profound impact on Wood that his strongest desire was to recreate them. His detractors like to say that if he'd had bigger budgets, he'd still make a cheap, tasteless product. That may or may not be true. Besides, if you gave Ed Wood a million dollars, he'd probably give most of it to Lugosi, just to keep the old guy out of trouble.
Unfortunately, if you can't get past Wood's penchant for angora sweaters, or the Johnnie Depp movie, or Wood's reputation as the worst director of all time - a title that certainly doesn't fit him considering the dross that plays in our cinemas and on cable every week - you're missing out on the work of an idiosyncratic artist who, against odds that would cripple most of us, practically willed his ideas into existence. Worst of all time? Sometimes I think Ed Wood is nothing less than a hero.
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