If first impressions were enough, "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died" would have a lock on the Midnight Movie Hall of Fame. Said to be based on schlockmeister Ed Wood's final unproduced script, pic boasts a John Waters dream ensemble of such indie darlings as Tippi Hedren, Eartha Kitt, Christina Ricci, Karen Black, Ron Perlman, Carel (Lurch) Struycken and, as a tassel-twirling stripper, Sandra Bernhard.

If first impressions were enough, “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” would have a lock on the Midnight Movie Hall of Fame. Said to be based on schlockmeister Ed Wood’s final unproduced script, pic boasts a John Waters dream ensemble of such indie darlings as Tippi Hedren, Eartha Kitt, Christina Ricci, Karen Black, Ron Perlman, Carel (Lurch) Struycken and, as a tassel-twirling stripper, Sandra Bernhard. Too bad left-field casting and many outre elements aren’t enough to goose the episodic script to life. Curiosity (Is this another “Ed Wood”?) and camp factor will take this one only so far on the fest/specialized circuit, then to the discount vid bin.

Shot on the run as a virtually silent feature, indie stars Billy Zane as — what else? — a cross-dressing wacko who escapes from Casa de la Loco Sanitarium, scores some loot but winds up losing it at a funeral attended by Addams Family–type eccentrics. Final third is devoted to Zane tracking down mourners and, one by one, dispatching them. Hedren dies appropriately in a hail of Hitchcockian cliches.

Helmer Aris Iliopulos and co-producer Zane, who would seem to have collaborated on adapting the script, attempt to parody Wood’s signature blend of tawdriness and sloppy sentiment. Someone forgot to tell them that Wood’s own “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” can’t be improved upon: They’re their own best parodies. Still, pic occasionally scores on the tech level, frequently cutting, a la Wood, to vintage hygiene films and heavily scratched stock footage. Purposely inept continuity and stupid sound effects (often of jungle critters) abound.

Script instructions (Int. Sanitarium, etc.) are used as titles to lead off each new episode, and usually don’t jibe with what we see. Juxtaposition of what was called for and what poverty-row budget allowed is supposed to leave the viewer doubled over. It doesn’t.

Zane, in full drag in the opening sequence, is easily the best thing about this venture. He obviously did his homework, studying pratfalls and exaggerated reaction shots in the silent classics. Making the most of his arched eyebrows, Zane proves quite the nimble farceur. Essentially what he’s done here is push his “Titanic” heavy to its mustache-twirling, curses-foiled-again extreme.

But Ricci steals pic as a flophouse temptress. Her wonderfully bizarre seduction dance is straight out of “Twin Peaks.” An uncredited Bud Cort is hilariously sleazy as a clothes vendor with a foot fetish, and John Ritter adds to his offbeat career choices with the role of circus sharpshooter. Max Perlich teams with the imposing Struycken as Mutt-and-Jeff undertakers; for the Wood cognoscenti, Maila Nurmi (Vampira in “Plan 9″) and Kathy Wood (the filmmaker’s daughter) have walk-ons.

Tech credits are hard to gauge, as bad equals good in this instance. Lenser Michael F. Barrow has fun with film’s lurid hues, and cutter Dody Dorn attempts the ’90s equivalent of Wood’s addled, stream-of-consciousness thought process. Punk rock score, alternating with standards by Nat King Cole and others, is by Larry Groupe.

I Woke Up Early the Day I Died

Production

A Muse Prods./Cinequanon Pictures Intl. production. (International sales: Cinequanon Pictures Intl., L.A.) Produced by Chris Hanley, Billy Zane. Executive producers, Jordan Gertner, Bradford L. Schlei. Co-executive producer, Dan Sales. Directed by Aris Iliopulos. Screenplay, Edward D. Wood Jr.

Crew

Camera (color), Michael F. Barrrow; editor, Dody Dorn; music, Larry Groupe; production designer, Maia Javan; sound, Bryan Franklin. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 11, 1998. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

The Thief - Billy Zane
Sandy Sands - Sandra Bernhard
Cemetary Caretaker - Ron Perlman
Maylinda - Tippi Hedren
Cop - Andrew McCarthy
Preacher - Will Patton
Undertaker - Carel Struycken
Ass't Undertaker - Max Perlich
Robert Forrest - John Ritter
Cult Leader - Eartha Kitt
Loan Secretary - Ann Magnuson
Vampira - Maila Nurmi

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