The list of world’s worst directors/producers is woefully incomplete without W. Lee Wilder who produced more terrible movies than Ed Wood and Coleman Francis, yet never seems to get the (lack of) credit he deserves.
I’m still blown away that none of his movies ever made it onto classic MST3K, even though most of them are public domain… and terrible. (Though Killers from Space was later done by The Film Crew, and The Mads recently riffed Phantom From Space.)
From the works of his I’ve seen, he’s the forgotten Coleman Francis of grade Z cinema and his entire filmography is prime for riffing. The only thing I can figure is that most of his pictures were so tedious and non-eventful that they made The Beast of Yucca Flats seem action-packed in comparison. (Even his own brother publicly referred to W. Lee as a “boring son of a b*tch.”)
I’ve ended up watching several of his movies over the years because they’re almost all in the public domain and often appear in those “50 sci-fi classics crammed onto 5 DVDs” mega-packs you can get from Mill Creek. I get the impression the lesser talented Wilder sibling mainly kept making crappy movies because it pissed off his famous Academy Award winning brother (who made brilliant films like Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot, and The Seven Year Itch) to no end and was marginally more exciting than his previous occupation… making women’s handbags. It also gave him something to do with his 20 year old son, who wrote most of these turds, but did go on to have an unexpectedly prolific television writing career throughout the 60’s and 70’s which included several episodes of Bonanza, McHale’s Navy, Get Smart , and oddly, the head writer for a good chunk of The Dukes of Hazzard .
While they’re certainly more famous, for what it’s worth, I don’t actually think Killer from Space or Phantom from Space are by any stretch of the imagination Wilder’s worst picture. They’re actually among his most competent. He also made The Snow Creature (1954) which came out the following year at the exact same time as the infinitely superior Nigel Kneale penned Hammer classic The Abominable Snowman .
As you can see in the link above, almost 50% of Wilder’s movie is just people silently trudging back and forth through the snow somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas pretending they’re in Tibet. And the back half of the movie isn’t much better with the captured “creature” (who quite frankly, just looks like a regular guy in a furry onezie and one of those Russian hats with the big ear flaps) being brought back to civilization, where, after a short Buddy Rich drum solo on the inside of his refrigerated cargo container, it promptly escapes and causes front-page headlines and a city-wide manhunt consisting of about 4 guys searching for him around Griffith Park, a meat packing plant, and anywhere else they could film reasonably quickly without a permit.
His next film was one of those “guy marries a woman then tried to kill her off to steal her fortune” movies called The Big Bluff (1955) , which I haven’t seen, but it stars John Bromfield, who MSTies may recognize from Revenge of the Creature .
This was followed up by Fright (1956) , which is another MST3K-worthy classic about a psychologist with Neil Connery like powers of hypnotism (which somehow makes him more of of a target for the paparazzi than Princess Di wearing a Spiderman costume) who get involved with a mysterious woman who just sort of shows up in his car one day insisting he needs to help her with her ill-defined problems, and despite saying he doesn’t date clients or treat friends, immediately asks her out to dinner and starts hypnotizing her where it’s revealed she has a past life split personality time-share thing going on with the ghost of a murdered German princess, as is so often the case in these modern relationships. Also, the police totally allow an escaped murderer to roam free so he can play a role in the doctor’s little parlor game mystery, and get killed in the process, and nobody seems to have the slightest problem with either part of this plan.
After that came Manfish (1956) which sounded wonderfully awful, but it turns out it’s just a plodding retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold-Bug , and sadly not a Roger Corman-eque story about a mutant fish man. This one also stars John Bromfield as well as human sourdough starter Lon Chaney Jr. and Barbara Nichols from The Human Duplicators .
Next up came The Man Without a Body (1957) which I desperately want to see riffed in the coming season, since it’s Wilder’s most insane and arguably fast-paced picture, where a dying industrialist tycoon decides the only cure for his inoperable brain tumor is to have a brain transplant (luckily there’s a doctor in England who specializes in transporting dead monkey brains into the bodies of other slightly less-dead monkeys, who’s got nothing better to do with his time.) But no ordinary replacement brain will do. After a convenient walk through Madam Tusseads for inspiration, he insists upon having the brain of Nostradamus … because he thinks it’ll give him super powers… somehow. So he hires a drunk surgeon to fly to Paris, dig up his 400 year old corpse, and steal it for him. And it just gets crazier from there. Where else are you going to see a tycoon demanding stock tips from a rotting severed head in a petri dish and a third-act monster that looks like the Burger King mascot got his head stuck inside one of those overpriced hotel mini-fridges?
Wilder next made Spy in the Sky (1958) which was a low budget attempt at an espionage/spy thirller, that looks like it contains almost as many nondescript hat-wearing characters as Phantom from Space, followed by Bluebeard’s 10 Honeymoons (1960) , another “guy marries and kills women to get their money” flick, except this time the guy in question is marrying and killing women so he can sell their expensive antique furniture.
His last two pictures (in color, not that that makes a huge difference) were Caxambu (1967) which I can’t seem to find a copy of, but stars the guy who played Miro in Gunslinger as a thief who hijacks a plane full of jewels and crash-lands into the Brazilian rain forest where the survivors are beset by bloodthirsty cannibals, and The Omegans (1968) which I think I saw on TMC a long long time ago.
This was Ingrid Pitt’s first starring role and another bizarre not-quite-a-monster movie that was possibly trying to rip-off some of the early Hammer/Amicus slightly supernatural-tinted B pictures, where a painter decides the best way to get revenge on his unfaithful wife isn’t by shooting or strangling her, but by making her pose for a portrait next to a radioactive river (don’t ask), which slowly makes her turn luminous green and wrinkly. Also, there are some creatures called Omegans living under the water, but they don’t actually have anything significant to do with the plot, and they didn’t have the FX budget to actually show them or make them do anything interesting so the occasional white smudge superimposed over shots of the river will just have to do.