11 April 2007

"I Woke Up Early The Day I Died": I've Seen It, You Probably Won't!

In honour of the sudden interest in…er…less than “prestigious” motion pictures, I thought I’d repost my 1998 review of a film that--to my knowledge--has never been released beyond a few festival screenings. Based upon an unfilmed screenplay by the late Ed Wood Jr.,--yes, the notorious transvestite visionary behind the immortal “Plan Nine From Outer Space” and immortalized onscreen by Johnny Depp—“I Woke Up Early The Day I Died” headlined Billy Zane, Christina Ricci, and Jonathon-Taylor Thomas (!) in a perhaps too-calculated stab at “so bad it’s good” hipsterdom…

The sign of an utter dearth of creative ideas in Hollywood? A heartfelt all-star tribute to the final vision of a misunderstood artist? How the hell should I know? What I can tell you is that for whatever reason, “Demon Knight” star Billy Zane decided to not only to headline, but also produce, this whacked-out screen realization of an unfilmed script by the notorious “bad movie” visionary Edward D. Wood Jr. If you don’t recognize that last name, I suggest you may have clicked on the wrong URL.

Wood conceived of this paranoid-noir back in 1974, based on his 1960 script “Night Of Silence”. Ever the iconoclast, Wood intended from the beginning that the film contain no dialogue and utilize only sound FX and music, possibly in honor of Grade-Z peers Coleman Francis (“The Beast Of Yucca Flats”) and Art J. Nelson, Jr. (Lake Tahoe’s only monster movie “The Creeping Terror”). The project was nearly a reality, with Aldo Ray set to play the Thief, John Carradine pegged to portray the undertaker, and John Agar and David Ward all but cast as policemen.

Director Arlis Iliopulos had to convince widow Kathy Wood that he’d remain true to her husband’s “artistic vision” and promised he would not add dialogue to what was Ed’s pet project up until "the day he died” in 1978. Iliopulos then immediately approached friend Billy Zane (on the set of “Titanic”), who signed up immediately.

It’s impossible to evaluate “I Woke Up Early The Day I Died” as a good or a bad movie, because it was clearly never meant to be a “real” movie in the first place. But you’ve got to admit that for most of us, this one surpasses Universal’s much-lamented “Psycho” remake as the shameless curio of the year.

Zane hams it up in full throttle Buster-Keaton-meets-Tod-Slaughter mode as the “Thief” suffering from Roderick Usher syndrome (he’s sensitive to noise and high pitched sounds rattle him to crime). He tracks down his misplaced fortune across an ecletic roster of cameos that includes: Ann Magnuson (Loan Office Clerk), John Ritter (mourner/ carnival cowboy), Christina Ricci (jailbait hooker), Summer and Rain Phoenix (barmaids), Bud Cort (thrift shop owner), Mailia Nurmi (the original “Vampira”), Tippi Hedren (deaf mourner), Eartha Kitt (nightclub performer), Will Patton (suspicious priest), Andrew McCarthy (cop), Steven Webber (another cop), Ron Perlman (bagpipe playing gravedigger), Jonathon Taylor-Thomas (kid on the beach), and Sandra Bernhard (mourner/stripper).

The filmmakers have faced a difficult task here: to create the oft-attempted-and-usually-failed “deliberately bad movie”. We’ve all see these things crash and burn, haven’t we? “Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes” anyone? Or Stephen King’s self-confessed “moron movie” “Maximum Overdrive”? Luckily, Iliopulos’ cheesy process shots, non-existent continuity, unconvincing stock footage, and cheap effects DO manage to suggest vintage Ed Wood circa “Orgy Of The Dead”.

Iliopulos’ best visual touch is his periodic inclusion of actual excerpts from Wood’s script superimposed over shots in a blotchy typeface, complete with “Ext” and “Int” cues, page numbers, and stage directions. And the Thief’s escape from an asylum while clad in nurses’ drag, is an immortal Ed Wood moment. Every script from this man must’ve been a desperate cry for help.

If I could change one thing about “I Woke Up” (just one thing, some would ask?), it would be its soundtrack (supervised by Zane). Save for Eartha Kitt’s performance of “Wherever I Lay My Heart”, the film is driven by an adrenaline surging wall-to-wall trip hop and techno music assault. Wood would’ve raided the public domain music library for something a little more genre-specific (although the droning “Jail Bait” refrain immediately refutes that theory!). The film could do with more of the sleazy sax and cheesy music stings, a little less Soho “rave”.

Not a bad try overall, Arlis and Billy. But for a follow-up, may I suggest Wood’s “Mice On A Cold Cellar Floor” or “Bob Steele Of The Border Patrol”?

Late breaking (2007!): Who knews? The film's "official" site is still up and you can play the Flash-based "Makeover Game" here.