When horror came back to American cinema in a big way in the 1950s, it was after receiving a face-lift: gone were creaky Mitteleuropean castles and villages, banished were old dark houses, and even the outright lifts of Expressionist aesthetic techniques were mostly snuffed out (though a genre that gets so much mileage from a well-placed patch of inky shadows as horror will never, ever be entirely free of Expressionism's influence). This was the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the era of the post-war explosion in scientific advances that everybody could see and touch in their own homes, thanks to the concurrent post-war economic boom. And so the refreshed horror films of the period were, by and large, oriented more toward science fiction than myth and fantasy. By the end of the decade, Britain's Hammer Films would prove that there was still a market for classic Gothic forms of horror, but Hollywood and the American independent scene wouldn't start to move back in that direction until the 1960s.

But I shouldn't skip ahead. Let us stay in the early years American horror's Atomic Age with a film that was very nearly titled Bride of the Atom, with hellaciously clumsy line of dialogue supporting that title left in the finished film. It was changed at executive producer Donald McCoy's insistence to Bride of the Monster for its 1956 release, but the hints of nuclear paranoia still make themselves perfectly clear. At the same time, the movie is a huge, enthusiastic throwback: it's a science fiction parable that secretly wants to be a '30s mad scientist picture, and its status as a love letter to the horror of a previous generation is all the clearer given the admiring position given to the long-since washed-up former horror icon Bela Lugosi as the wannabe Frankenstein. It is a modern (or, was modern, in the '50s) film made by a passionately nostalgic film buff, weirdly combining two eras. I mean, it has to be weird, given that the cinephilic writer and director was Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Let's make one thing clear right off: yes, it's an Ed Wood film, and that shows, but if ever the most notoriously incompetent filmmaker in the history of world cinema made a movie that's not all that bad, it was this one. Forget what Tim Burton's giddy Ed Wood told you: Bride of the Monster might be embarrassingly cheap, and it might have a script full of one impossible howler of a line after another, and it might clank through its arbitrarily stitched-together scenes like a rusted-out Chevette dragging its muffler... Remember everything that Ed Wood told you, but also temper it a little bit. Much of the film is absolute crap. Some of the film is perfectly ordinary mid-'50s programmer boilerplate. And Lugosi's performance is genuinely enjoyable and one of his "best", allowing that "best Bela Lugosi performance" isn't entirely unlike "best Ed Wood movie" in terms of compliments that really don't mean diddly shit.

But for now, let me return to my initial point about the film's Janus-like straddling of horror epochs. Like most Wood films, the film's plot is remarkably convoluted and busy for something so utterly short (a mere 69 minutes), and that's even more impressive given that he was working from somebody else's first draft in this case, that of a certain Alex Gordon. But if we carve out the deadwood, there's an old mansion called Willows House on the shores of Marsh Lake, in the woods by the swamp, which everybody thinks is abandoned, but it's actually where Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi) is busy with his human experiments. On one particular dark and stormy night, two hunters, Mac (Bud Osborne) and Jake (John Warren) run afoul of Vornoff and his hulking henchman Lobo (Tor Johnson). They become the 11th and 12th missing person cases in that region lately, and the persistent unflattering news articles penned by dauntless investigative reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King), blaming a lake monster for the disappearances have finally shamed the local police department, headed by Captain Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn) into doing something about it. So he reluctantly assigns detectives Dick Craig (Tony McCoy) - who just so happens to be Janet's fiancé - and a fella just called Martin (Don Nagel) to the case. They in turn receive help, briefly, from a Professor Vladimir Strowski (George Becwar), a European cryptozoologist. None of these people move fast enough for Janet, who heads to Willows House on her own and ends up a hypnotised prisoner of Vornoff's, her sexual magnetism captivating Lobo. Prof. Strowski, meanwhile, also heads to Willows House, were we discover that he's in fact been hunting Vornoff across the world, ever since the mad scientist was banished from their home country for desiring to create a race of atomic supermen. For attempting to stop Vornoff's nuclear experiments, Strowski comes face to face with the Marsh Lake Monster: an enormous mutant octopus, the biggest success so far of Vornoff's super-strength ray.

That was a bad job of carving, I'm sorry. But I also did mention that Wood's scripts have a tendency to get far knottier than they should be, and I managed to avoid talking about the great many blind alleys the film pokes its head into, including the introduction of the inexhaustibly annoying Officer Kelton (Paul Marco), the whiny and enormously ineffectual cop who'd show up for larger roles in Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls, the autobiographical touch of Lobo's angora fetish, or the absolute fascination the early scenes have with exploring the minutiae of people asking other people to help them find information. Or the nominally tense stand-off between a man caught in quicksand and a stock-footage alligator.

The point, anyway, is that Bride of the Monster represents a most special mash-up of ingredients ranging from its old dark house to a conversation about the legitimate, real-world terror that nuclear testing might be affecting the world's atmosphere in unknown ways. And it is, I think, legitimately interesting for doing so, even though the film's interest has to compete with a lot of baffling and bad distractions. Besides the ones I've mentioned, there's the hypnotic, inexplicable business between Captain Robbins and a parakeet, which he's gently stroking in one scene, and allowing to sit on his shoulder in another, like a pirate with a parrot, without the script even slightly acknowledging it. This isn't even typical Woodian bad filmmaking; it's so at odds with anything else that happens in the movie, it's almost Dadaist.

But the outrageously awful touches are mostly in little random chunks, while the main body of the film is, dare I say it, simply average for a penny-pinching B-movie of the time. The sets are preposterously artificial, but Wood's cinematographers, Ted Allan and William C. Thompson, take care to shoot Willows House with enough darkness that it disguises the limits of the production without looking like a mistake (the rest of the movie, especially the scenes in the police station - now those look like hell).

And even when it's no damn good at all, Bride of the Monster has a couple of cards up its sleeve: Lugosi and Johnson. The latter has a big loutish screen presence like a doughier Lon Chaney, Jr, and when he's not talking - the mistake that Wood made when giving him a showcase role in Plan 9 - he's legitimately good at bringing in a sense of sad-sack pathos. His mooning over Janet is, in an undeniably weird and misconceived way, actually touching. As for Lugosi, he's just fun. It was the actor's last speaking part, and not meaningfully better than the dopey villain rules he'd been able to scrape up for most of the decade preceding this release, but some combination of a director who openly adored him, and a role full of thick and chewy monologues heavy with tragedy and rage, led to Lugosi being in a visibly better mood than he was at virtually any other point in his career. Moaning about his painful past, tinkering with smoking carafes of what are undoubtedly bright-colored chemicals like an especially nerdy child on Christmas, even gamely putting on a look of terror in close-up shots to be intercut with that notorious non-functioning octopus - through it all, Lugosi can hardly keep his glee tamped down. While it's not "good acting" - at no point does the actor disappear into the character - it's honestly the most enjoyable experience I've ever had watching him. And that goes a long way towards making Bride of the Monster an honestly rewarding bit of dumb movie fun, no irony necessary. Of course, irony helps, as does a taste for the corny, played-out crap Wood was so lovingly referencing. But any rumors you've heard about this being an all-time disaster fit only to be gawked at are entirely overstated.

Body Count: 5, on top of the ten previous victims of Vornoff's experiments.