Without question, the most celebrated bad director is Ed Wood. He is the portal through which so many people discover the joys of the terrible film. He stands out from so many contenders because his films are not ordinarily bad. They are deeply felt, deeply earnest. He meant what he was saying, whatever that was. And his style, particularly his screenwriting style, is unmistakeable. Insanely purple, banal, and incomprehensible, it cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s work. It is as individual as the writing of the Co…n Brothers, but for all the wrong reasons.
But Wood is far from being the only deity in the badfilm pantheon. There are other directors who vie for his throne. And it is one of those I’m here to tell you about today: Doris Wishman.
Even if there were nothing remarkable (for good or ill) about her films, Wishman would still warrant attention, given that she was one of the few women directors to specialize in the extremely male world of the exploitation film. She was one of the pioneers of the nudie cutie, with such titles as Nude on the Moon, but was also in on the roughie movement (where sex and violence were made one and the same) and, late in her career, dabbled in horror as well (A Night to Dismember). But her films are also notable for as distinctive a “style” as Wood’s. Arguably, her technique is even more bizarre.
Watching a Doris Wishman movie is an experience like no other. You become profoundly aware of the language of cinema, because her mangling of it reminds one of a stroke victim trying to re-learn how to speak. The building blocks of filmmaking are present, but jumbled into surreal nonsense. Wishman knows what cutaways are, for instance, and uses them extensively, but it does not seem to have occurred to her that she should be cutting away to something somehow related to the scene at hand. So we find our attention being drawn to doorknobs, ducks potted plants and cats for no reason at all. There is no direct sound in her films, so one has atrocious dubbing (frequently with the speaker’s back to the camera – or out of the room entirely – to save the trouble of synchronizing the speech with the lip movements) and endless voice-over that eliminates the need for dialogue altogether. There are many, many, many shots of feet. Why? Don’t know. A Night to Dismember has slow-motion scenes created by having the actors move slowly. I kid you not. And the list goes on. Like Wood, Wishman was the kompleat auteur: she wrote and produced, as well as directed, most of her films. The storylines are just as insane as everything else, but this makes the films more appealing than simple hackjobs.
Something Weird and Image have collaborated on the release of a number of Wishman DVDs, and there’s a bit of everything out there. If you want to see one of Wishman’s roughies, the double-bill of Bad Girls Go to Hell and Another Day, Another Man, is just the ticket, with the former being something of a career highlight (I use the terms loosely, of course). But for the Wishman experience at its most bizarre, look no further than her two productions starring Chesty Morgan. This lady’s terrifying endowments are the title objects of Deadly Weapons (wherein she smothers to death the gangsters who killed her boyfriend) and have their dimensions described in the title of Double Agent 73 (both out on the Image label as well). Morgan is a figure who would send Russ Meyer running for the hills. These movies have to be seen to be believed. Words simply cannot do them justice. When it comes to being objects morbid fascination, train wrecks pale with envy. If nothing else, they are examples of the stereotypical male fantasy taken to its ultimate limit, at which point it turns into a nightmare.
Ed Wood died a few years before his cult of celebrity would be born. Wishman, however, only passed away a couple of years ago, and so lived to see PhD theses written about her, film festivals devoted to her, and, of course, to provide a commentary track on a DVD. Hear her in action on Elite’s release of A Night to Dismember. Jaded, naive, feisty, irascible, surreal, this is a commentary track unlike any you have ever experienced. That her voice and opinions have been preserved for posterity is one of the great cultural milestones of the turn of the millenium.