Wood Rises Again
Mismatched scenes, loads of stock footage, cheap library music, bad acting – all are the hallmarks of the work of one of cinema’s most unique visionaries. Gotta hand it to independent writer/director Andre Perkowski. Nobody in the world has purposely set out to imitate the legendary Ed Wood, Jr. Until now. Perkowski seeks to not only revive the spirit of Wood, he plans to keep him around for awhile.
Devil Girls is just the first of a projected trilogy of films based on Wood stories. This was one of the more successful of the scores of pulp novels Ed churned out in between porn flick assignments in the ’60s and ’70s, while always hoping to make some kind of Hollywood comeback. The idea is that the films are supposed to look as if Wood made them himself, in the style of his 1950s psychotronic classics. Though the novel was written in the mid-’60s, that style is still appropriate, since Wood was always a bit old fashioned in his tastes, even when writing his most fetishistic hard core porn.
Perkowski uses Woods familiar narrator Criswell (Rob Gorden, in a lame imitation) to set the scene, appearing from silhouette just like in Plan 9. While the novel was as gritty a slice of JD fiction as you were likely to find in paperback at the time, Perkowski wraps the tale in the cautionary language of roadshow exploitation. The streets of Chicago look great on film, but are unconvincing standing in for the novel’s Texas border town.
Actually, the girl gang of the title – a trio known as The Chicks – is often quite subordinate to the action, due to the large cast of characters. Also, the girls may be bad, but their actions are often overshadowed by those of their male companions. Rhoda (Katie Dugan) and Babs (Fanny Madison) are barely under the control of The Chicks’ current leader, a wild-eyed junkie named Dee (Jody-Anne Martin). Dee is dependent on her boyfriend Lark (Mike Cooney) for heroin. Lark, in turn, has The Chicks at his command for whatever dirty job he has in mind, including making Dee the victim of torture dished out by his brothel of sadistic whores.
But Lark is none too happy with The Chicks at the moment. Recently, they brought on undue attention by killing their teacher, and added more fuel to the fire by burning the substitute’s car. The Chicks’ boyfriends Lonnie and Rick (Victor Grenata & Nate Sands) go over the top by trying to kill the substitute Miss O’Hara (Arlene Cooney) in a daredevil car wreck. The Chicks are ordered to eliminate the boys, framing them for all the crimes and blowing them up in a cabin. This leaves Lark free to plan a big job, smuggling loads of heroin across the border.
While all this is going on Sheriff Buck Rhodes (Paul Hofmann) is left to drink hooch, rant about automation, and chase his tail. The only friends he has on the wrong side of town are the Reverend Steele (David Hayes, whose scenes are all cut in) and grill owner Jockey (Kevin Marquette, in a role I’d always imagined as made for Mickey Rooney). Jockey may only run a cheap hash joint, but he refuses to exploit the local kids’ trust in him by letting pushers like Claude (Keith Heimpel) peddle their wares in his place. When things get rough, Jockey’s “chief cook and bottle washer” Lobo (Lobo) steps in to throw Claude through a window. This takes place, like much of the action scenes, discretely off screen.
This illustrates the main flaw of Devil Girls: it’s even cheaper than any film Wood ever made (with the possible exception of Take It Out In Trade). Wood always sought to get at least competent technical people, notably cinematographer William C. Thompson, who was able to do quite a bit with what he was given. Perkowski, who says Devil Girls cost about $500 to make, shot on digital video with an inexperienced crew. Unlike Wood’s static-but-well-composed style, Perkowski’s camera is hand-held for most of the movie. Afterwards, the film was transferred to black & white, then submitted to an overzealous “wash” which added dust, scratches and annoying flutter to appear aged. As it turns out, the effect is too distracting and should’ve been abandoned.
However, considering the budget, and the difficulty of adapting the novel, it’s not bad. The loose plot, which wanders away from the girls too often, comes together with the appearance of Lila (Sandra Delgado), Rhoda’s murderous sister who busts out of jail to heat up the action. Lila’s the only one of the girls who can stand up to Lark, and her menace is enjoyable. Other highlight performances are that of Marquette, whose heroic chemistry with Lobo is entertaining, and Mike Cooney, who makes Lark even more repellent than Wood could write him.
For what it’s worth, Perkowski is well aware of the flaws in, and has taken steps to correct them for his nearly-completed The Vampire’s Tomb (also shot in Chicago). Though Wood is better known now than he’s ever been in the past, the guy had plenty more stories in him that would make… interesting films. I can’t wait to see what Perkowski will bring us next.