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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998)
1 Stars

Directed by Aris Illiopulous
Cast: Billy Zane, Sandra Bernhard, John Ritter, Tippi Hedren, David Ward, Nicollette Sheridan, Christina Ricci, Steven Weber, Will Patton, Karen Black, Tara Reid, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Eartha Kitt, Rick Schroder, Michael Greene, Kathleen Robertson, Taylor Negron, Abraham Benrubi, Conrad Brooks, Ann Magnuson, Andrew McCarthy, Ron Perlman, Max Perlich, Summer Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, Carel Struycken, Vampira, Kathleen Wood.
1998 – 91 minutes
Rated: [NR] (equivalent of a PG-13 or R for partial nudity and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 14, 1999.

Well, here's an odd little number with an interesting history. Written by the late, not-great Edward D. Wood (director of two of the worst films ever made, "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda"), "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died" was one of his long-lost screenplays that was recovered years ago, but his widow, Kathleen Wood, would not agree for anyone to produce it until a director was found that would stay very close to the written page. The person for the job happened to be Aris Illiopulous, and in translation to the screen, the director has made a movie without a line of spoken dialogue, and with an all-star cast who constantly ham it up in pure Ed Wood fashion. Aside from Billy Zane, every actor appears only for a brief cameo, each of which are so unsatisfying that the fresh stars (Christina Ricci, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Rick Schroder, Tara Reid), veteran performers (Tippi Hedren, John Ritter, Will Patton), and camp divas (Eartha Kitt, Karen Black, Nicollette Sheridan) come off as mere distractions that hurt, rather than help, the film as a whole.

The picture begins as a mental hospital inmate, billed as The Thief (Billy Zane), dresses in a nurse's uniform and escapes. Looking for money, he shoots and kills a loan shark at a bank and instantly becomes a wanted man. While at what he thinks is the funeral of the loan shark, The Thief spies on the four mourners (Sandra Bernhard, Tippi Hedren, Michael Greene, John Ritter) whom he later suspects stole the money he hid in one of the graves, and stalks each one, hoping to find his money. Or something like that.

"I Woke Up Early the Day I Died" goes off in all sorts of directions after this basic set-up, as we also briefly (and I mean very briefly) meet cops (Andrew McCarthy, Steven Weber, Rick Shroder), a preacher (Will Patton), a teenage hooker (Christina Ricci), an undertaker (Carel Struyken) and his assistant (Max Perlich), a boy and girl at a beach (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Summer Phoenix) who find a dead body after it plunges off a cliff, a singer (Eartha Kitt), a bar waitress (Tara Reid), and a ballroom woman (Nicollette Sheridan). I couldn't really explain too much more of the story in fear that it would simply get far too confusing, but suffice to say, the film concludes on the day The Thief gets up early before he dies.

Empty would be the perfect word to describe this obviously extremely low-budget picture (which Zane also produced). Although it is questionable if the film really is exactly like the Ed Wood script, it certainly has the look and feel of one of his godawful, but lovingly-made features from the '50s and '60s, which is actually a negative thing. As much as Wood loved the art of film, the truth was that he had no real talent, and this latest incarnation only proves such a thing, as the story and plot developments are inept, hollow, and vacant of any human emotions. Never do we identify with The Thief, or even understand who he really is, and everyone else is a famous person who made the film for no sane reason, since the movie never gives them a chance to do anything but camp up the proceedings (as if they already weren't camped-up enough).

Writing this approximately four days since I saw the film, it has already become foggy in my memory, so don't count on having it stick in your mind for more than the 90-minute running time. If anything, "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died" is an interesting failure. Choosing not to include any words (aside from the lyrics on the soundtrack which, by the way, are pretty memorable songs, more so than the movie) was a fairly courageous move on Illiopulous's part, and I also liked the idea of having portions of the script occasionally superimpose over a scene, so as to fill us in on what exactly is going on. It's just too bad that the talented array of actors assembled for this production have nothing to do but walk on and walk off; with a good script, they could have brought us a, no doubt, showstopper. As is, "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died" comes off as a gimmicky experiment that does not pay off, and is unable to rise above the thin material. Like all of the films Ed Wood directed, this new movie is a pure and simple dud.

©1998 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman