Sunday, 20 January 2013

I Woke Up Early the Day I Died

Director: Aris Iliopulos
Writer: Edward Wood Jr
Producers: Chris Hanley, Billy Zane
Cast: Billy Zane, Christina Ricci, Eartha Kitt
Year of release: none!
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK trade preview

How’s this for an oddity? A silent movie based on an old treatment by Edward D Wood Jr, which attracted an all-star cast, was filmed in 1998, but was then never released. Anywhere!

Strictly speaking this isn’t ‘silent’ in the conventional sense of not having a soundtrack - it’s just that nobody actually speaks, much like the films that Eric Sykes used to make (The Plank, It’s Your Move etc). Billy Zane (The Phantom, Demon Knight) stars as a character (called ‘The Thief’) who escapes from a mental hospital disguised as a (female) nurse and goes on a low-rent crime spree, and there is some sort of plot concerning attempts to retrieve an important briefcase which has been accidentally buried in a cemetery by a weird quasi-supernatural cult. But in all honesty this is a typical Ed Wood story and makes no real sense.

What is astounding is the cast: Christina Ricci, former Batgirl Eartha Kitt, Carel Struycken (Lurch in the Addams Family movies), Ron Perlman, Ann Magnuson, Andrew McCarthy (Weekend at Bernie’s), John Ritter, Tippi Hedren (The Birds), Sandra Bernhard, River Phoenix’s sisters Summer and Rain - and Vampira! This is exactly the sort of oddball cast that Wood enjoyed putting together, and crucially none of them overact. It would be very easy to have played the whole thing for laughs, hamming and mugging for the camera, but that would have ruined the film. The beauty of Ed Wood’s movies is his utter conviction, and that is maintained here.

Similarly, the decision to shoot without dialogue is laudable, and reflects Wood’s intentions when he wrote the piece in the 1960s under the title The Silent Night (his motivation was probably simply saving money). Any dialogue would have had to be invented and would only end up sounding like a pastiche of Wood. So the talk-free film is not only more faithful, but its sheer oddity makes it all the more Ed Wood-ian.

So how come you’ve never seen this film? Well, I caught IWUETDID at the London pre-MIFED trade screenings in 1998; I was pretty much the only person in the cinema, it must be said. But after one or two trade shows and a few festival screenings, so far as I can tell, the production company (Cinequanon) hit major financial problems and the film was one of their assets seized. Hence no more screenings, no actual theatrical release, no video, no DVD, nada. A chap called Greg Gilleland created the website for this movie and is understandably bitter about never having seen any money from Cinequanon. When he’s raised enough money from interested parties to cover what he’s owed, he’s planning to make the site available to all.

Should this movie ever sneak into circulation, all fans of Ed Wood should seek it out. It’s a sincere and genuine homage to the man’s work which celebrates rather than lampoons his poverty row productions. And the fact that the film disappeared just as it was about to be released is just one more sparking diamond in the jewels of Wood’s career. Even looking on from the grave, the man’s still got it.

MJS rating: A
Review originally posted before November 2004

[Addendum: A US theatrical release for I Woke Up Early the Day I Died has now been announced. It is expected to open at The Screening Room in New York on 3rd September 2003, a mere five years after the trade show I attended.]