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Plan 9 From Outer Space

In any discussion of enjoyably bad movies, where better to start than with the godfather of them all?

It would be an understatement to say that Edward D. Wood Jr. lived a very eccentric life. His father worked for the U.S. Postal Service, so his family was constantly moving all over the country. His mother had a habit of dressing him up as a girl, apparently because she wanted a daughter that badly. Wood himself was a paid musician, and then a Marine corporal in WWII. After his discharge in 1946, he went on to act in a carnival freakshow, aided greatly by his war injuries and his proclivity for crossdressing.

Through it all, Ed Wood had a deep love of movies. In his younger days, Wood was known for looting the trash of his local theater, collecting film strips that had been tossed out. Wood shot his first strip of film at the tender age of 12, when he pointed his camera at the Hindenburg as it flew over his home in Poughkeepsie, NY. And yes, Wood filmed the Hindenburg passing by on May 6th of 1937. He should’ve known to end his film career right then, quite frankly.

Instead, Ed Wood made his feature debut with Glen or Glenda, an incomprehensible train wreck of a movie based around the concept of sex changes. Not surprisingly, Wood himself played the title roles. After that came Bride of the Monster and Jail Bait, both of which were of course humiliating flops. But then Ed Wood had somehow convinced a couple of Baptist ministers to invest in a film called “Grave Robbers From Outer Space.” Considering the title sacrilegious, the ministers convinced Wood to change the title, and so Plan 9 From Outer Space was born.

The film was picked up in 1957 by the Distributors Corp. of America, which went bankrupt before it could even get the movie out the door. Plan 9 wouldn’t see release until the summer of 1959, after DCA had been bought out by Valiant Pictures. The movie was then completely forgotten about and eventually lapsed into the public domain. It was only ever mentioned by biographers of Bela Lugosi (more on him later) until a peculiar thing happened in 1980.

Film critic Michael Medved had previously written a book called “The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time,” alongside brother Harry Medved. At the end of that book, the Medveds solicited their readers for votes on what they considered to be the worst film ever made. More than 3,000 ballots were cast, and the results were announced in a follow-up book titled “The Golden Turkey Awards.”

The resounding winner for Worst Film and Worst Director: Plan 9 From Outer Space.

No one seems to have any idea how such an obscure little flop could’ve swept this contest by such a margin, but the damage was done. This lip service — no matter how negative — was enough to spread the word of Plan 9 and its reputation. Of course, I’m sure that its public domain status helped the word spread even further. Things kept snowballing until 1994, when Tim Burton and Johnny Depp made an admittedly loose biopic about Ed Wood, up to and including production on Plan 9. The movie won a few Oscars and the rest is history.

With all of that backstory out of the way, is Plan 9 From Outer Space really the worst movie ever made? No way. Not by a long shot. It may, however, be the most pathetic movie ever made.

The thing that sets Plan 9 apart from most bad films is that it isn’t offensively bad. It isn’t so technically awful as to be completely unwatchable, and it doesn’t actively punish the viewer for watching it. In fact, aside from a few brief moments of tongue-in-cheek misogyny, this movie doesn’t suffer from any outdated moments that modern viewers might find uncomfortable (see: The blackface number in The Jazz Singer).

No, this film is sort of like a greeting card that was made by a pre-schooler. It was very clearly made with the best of intentions, the kid thinks that the card looks like a grand piece of art, and the gesture is so sweet that you feel obligated to smile and say how nice it is. That it’s a hopeless and incoherent mash-up of crayon lines is of course beside the point.

I realize that no film production is going to go perfectly. Even if a filmmaker is given unlimited resources, with the greatest cast and crew that money can buy, the project will still have to deal with changes in weather, technical difficulties, actor injuries, and other setbacks. A good filmmaker, however, can adapt to such shortfalls and make the end product look no worse for them. This, however, is where Ed Wood proves that he is not a good filmmaker.

Bela Lugosi’s involvement (or lack thereof) is a great example. Accounts differ on whether the two were legitimately friends or if Ed Wood simply latched onto Bela Lugosi to give his own films some shred of credibility. It’s also worth remembering that Lugosi’s morphine addiction and declining health would have left him desperate for work of any kind by this point. In any case, Lugosi featured prominently in all of Wood’s projects until his passing in 1956.

Wood, who was prepping Plan 9 at the time, inexplicably decided that a little thing like death wouldn’t rob him of his leading man. By and by, Wood wrote a character for Lugosi around some unrelated test footage that the two had shot previously. No filmmaker in his right mind would have done this, for reasons that are painfully obvious in the final product.

To start with, it should go without saying that scraps of test footage wouldn’t feature much noteworthy dialogue, much less any that pertain to the story at hand. As a result, the segments could only convey their necessary plot information and unnecessary thematic ruminations by way of pathetically hokey voice-overs. Seriously, “Just at sundown, a small group gathered in silent prayer, around the newly-opened grave of the beloved wife of an elderly man.” That awkward crap doesn’t even look good on paper, and it sure as hell doesn’t sound good when spoken.

Perhaps more importantly, the footage wasn’t enough to provide a full storyline. As such, where additional footage of Lugosi’s character was needed, Wood brought in his wife’s chiropractor (Dr. Tom Mason) with a cape to hide the fact that he didn’t look a goddamned thing like Bela Lugosi. It’s a glaring continuity error, especially when shots of Lugosi and Mason are shown in the same scene.

Really, the film as a whole was edited as if “continuity” was considered a four-letter word. It seems like half the time, Wood can’t decide if a scene is taking place in day or night. That’s most likely due to the cheap cemetery he had built on a soundstage, with black curtains making up the entirety of the background. Hell, that cemetery alone is worth tremendous comedic value, with gravestones and mausoleums that are obviously made of cardboard. There’s one notorious shot in which we can see one of the gravestones wobbling over, for God’s sake. We’ve also got an airplane cockpit set that isn’t much better.

As for the aliens, don’t even get me started. It’s like their production design began and ended with some ridiculous silk costumes. It’s downright sad to think that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (released only five years later) had waaay better aliens and production design than this picture. Granted, Santa Claus‘ shoestring budget was a fair bit higher than Plan 9‘s shoestring budget, but still.

This same lack of talent was applied to the zombies, and that simply baffles me. How is it possible to screw up making a zombie? Even on a minimal budget, with $15 worth of makeup, anyone could make a halfway decent zombie. But apparently, Ed Wood couldn’t. It seems that he just told Tor Johnson, Tom Mason, and Vampira to act like brainless automatons and call it good.

This brings me to one of the film’s main problems: The horror aspect. The film tried to be scary, but it’s really damned hard to create suspense when the aliens, the zombies, and even the sets all look so half-assed. It also doesn’t help that the “action” doesn’t deserve to be called as such. When the zombies attack, they either do it offscreen or they lightly tap the other characters and that’s it.

Moreover, this premise is about aliens trying to attack the Earth by raising our dead. Not only is that a ridiculously awesome premise, but it’s one that demands an epic scope. Alas, the best that Ed Wood can deliver are some laughably cheap sets of international locations, some military stock footage, some hubcap UFOs superimposed over foreign skylines, and action focused entirely around one San Fernando “cemetery.” It speaks volumes that the premise demands a whole army of horrifying zombies, yet the film only has the means to wrangle three impossibly cheap-looking ones.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say Ed Wood had all the money and talent he needed. Let’s say that he was able to shoot on an actual cemetery, with his whole cast alive and well, with legitimately fearsome aliens and monsters ready for the big screen, and he didn’t have to butcher continuity to make ends meet. Everything else being equal, would this be a decent movie?

…Not really, no. As evidence, I submit the infamous opening monologue:

Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you, the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony, of the miserable souls, who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?

That one monologue perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film. The writing is so awful and repetitive that no director could hope to make it sound good. The actor (an actual radio psychic named The Amazing Criswell) delivers his lines in such an over-the-top manner that it’s impossible to take anything he says seriously. The whole speech is equal parts laughable nonsense and useless filler, such that the pacing is about as consistent as rush hour traffic. All of these, by the way, are complaints that could be levelled against the film as a whole.

Actually, I take that back: Not all of the actors in this film are completely irredeemable. Gregory Walcott, for example, is a prolific character actor with 110 credits on IMDB as of this writing. After this movie, he eventually spent several years working in “Murder, She Wrote,” “Dallas,” and “Bonanza.” He also worked with Clint Eastwood on “Rawhide” for several episodes, and went on to take prominent roles in many of Eastwood’s films. Most recently, Walcott stopped by Ed Wood for a cameo appearance, so good on him for that.

Walcott is a genuinely talented actor, and you can see it in this movie. The guy puts so much effort into his “leading man” performance that he almost — almost — redeems the godawful dialogue. He takes a crappy stock role and elevates it to the status of “adequate,” which is a Herculean feat in such an inept picture.

The other standout is Dudley Manlove. Yes, that was his real name. Though he only has ten listed screen credits, they include some prominent appearances on “Dragnet” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” More importantly, Manlove’s impeccable voice was heard over a long and prosperous career in radio programs until his death in 1996.

Where this film is concerned, the main irony is that a guy named Manlove played a character inexplicably named for the Greek god of love. Eros, in this case, is the alien who takes charge of carrying out Plan 9. He’s the villain of the piece, but he’s also the movie’s throbbing heart. After all, Eros is singlehandedly responsible for pretty much everything of consequence that happens in this picture.

More importantly, it’s Eros who gets a grand climactic monologue to detail the film’s commentary on atomic weaponry. That’s certainly a heady topic to comment on, especially given the context. Remember, Ed Wood personally fought against the Japanese in WWII, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been turned to radioactive dust only fifteen years prior, and the Cold War was just becoming a thing.

Wood deserves no small amount of credit for trying to comment on humanity’s endless potential for destruction in such a politically charged time. It also helps a great deal that he cast *ahem* Dudley Manlove to voice these opinions. It doesn’t even matter that Manlove was stuck in a hopelessly tacky outfit and his dialogue was laughably horrible.

Manlove fucking commits to this role. He plays Eros as a condescending prick who knows full well that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Manlove may not look like the most intimidating guy in the world, it’s almost like knows that appearances are deceiving, and that makes him all the more smug. Even better, he’s got that voice. Listening to Manlove speak his lines, watching as he treats every word with solemn respect, you almost forget that every word out of his mouth is dumb enough for any grade-schooler to call shenanigans.

See, Eros and his people are trying to prevent the human race from inventing something called “solarbonite” (note that I’ve never seen this word spelled the same way twice), a substance that’s allegedly capable of igniting sunlight. As such, if it was ever used, solarbonite would cause an explosion that would be conveyed along sunlight back to its source. The sun would then blow up, spreading more solarbonite explosions to everywhere that its sunlight reaches, including other stars. In this way, humanity could potentially use solarbonite to cause a chain reaction that would annihilate the entire universe.

Oh, how this concept is stupid, let me try and count the ways.

First of all, this speech marks the first and only time when solarbonite plays any part in the narrative. Never, at any point in the movie before or after this, is solarbonite ever seen or heard of or hinted at. That’s a huge problem when the entire premise of the movie — not to mention the motivation of an entire alien species — hinges on its imminent discovery and use. It’s an even bigger problem when this crucial first mention doesn’t happen until halfway through the third goddamned act.

Secondly, the movie brings up the fact that all throughout history, it hasn’t been uncommon for one civilization to protect itself by destroying another. All well and good. But then it leaps straight from there to “is it so hard to believe that we’d wipe out the entire universe just to save ourselves?” Well, yeah. It kind of is. Because destroying the entire universe would also mean destroying ourselves, which is kinda the opposite of self-defense. Seriously, a third-grader could spot that hole in the movie’s worthless logic.

In fact, how do these aliens know that we’re so close to inventing the stuff in the first place? Yes, Eros claims that Earth’s scientists are working on it, but that’s a textbook case of “show, don’t tell.” If the movie had taken the time to include one scene — just one frakking scene! — of military scientists in some top-secret cardboard laboratory, this whole problem could have been fixed. Just show some guys in secondhand lab coats saying “There are reports of flying saucers! Our weapons are useless against them!” “We’re going to need some better weaponry. Is the solarbonite ready yet?” and that’s it. That’s all we need. God knows there’s so much filler in this movie that might have been cut to make some room for that one pivotal scene, but nooo. Wood just had to show us more of the useless police officers who know frightfully little about gun safety.

On a related note, the aliens’ plan doesn’t make any lick of sense. I get the part about destroying humanity with zombies, but the rest of it confuses me. On the one hand, Eros and his kind say that they only come in peace, and they show intense frustration over humanity’s stubborn refusal to listen to their demands or even acknowledge their existence. On the other hand, and often in the same scene, they resort to homicidal measures in making sure that their actions remain secret. So, do the aliens want everyone to know about them, or don’t they? Which is it? In fact, how does one even begin to hide a giant UFO that’s set down in the middle of a SoCal cemetery?

I maintain that Plan 9 From Outer Space isn’t the worst movie ever made (we’ll be getting to that one tomorrow). Even so, Plan 9 is a fascinating specimen of so many countless things going wrong at once. Ed Wood clearly had some interesting things to say about the nuclear arms race, but he didn’t have the brains to hone his observations into a focused and coherent theme. His premise of aliens taking over the world by way of a zombie invasion was truly inspired, but way ahead of his time. Then again, even if Wood’s pathetic lack of resources didn’t gut the premise entirely, his sheer incompetence behind the camera would have.

Nonetheless, the film’s sincere intentions shine through. Everyone involved with this picture was clearly doing their damnedest to make this into something watchable, none more so than Ed Wood, Gregory Walcott, and Dudley Manlove. In the end, the film isn’t really a comedy, a horror, or even a very good sci-fi movie. It’s just a movie that goes so far beyond inept that it circles back around to being adorable.

After this movie, it would have taken a thermodynamic miracle to bring Ed Wood any mainstream success as a filmmaker. Instead, he went on to try his luck in the exploitation genre, with such films as The Violent Years (originally titled “Teenage Girl Gang,” starring Playboy model Jean Moorhead), The Sinister Urge, and — I hope you’re sitting down for this one — Orgy of the Dead. Wood was also responsible for a great deal of smut in prose. He wrote at least 80 pornographic crime and sex novels, in addition to hundreds of short stories for various magazines. Ed Wood eventually died of a heart attack in 1978, though his rampant alcoholism assuredly didn’t help.

As for the film itself, Plan 9 is still the bad movie by which all other bad movies are judged, though it has a very healthy cult following. The film has been adapted various times into live stage shows, and a few unofficial sequels have been released in comic book form. Perhaps the most bizarre tribute was the Amiga game made by Konami in 1992, in which the film itself has been stolen by Tom Mason and the player has to go recover it. I’ve also found a card game about B-movies, titled “Grave Robbers From Outer Space.”

A colorized version of Plan 9 was released on DVD in 2006, though the whole concept of colorizing black-and-white films is one I don’t think I’ll ever understand. I’ve also heard rumblings of a 3D post-conversion, but nothing more recent than 2010.

Last but not least, some enterprising auteurs (independents, natch) have stepped up to try and do justice to the awesome premise that Ed Wood botched so badly. First among them are the people of Drunkenflesh Films, who attempted to produce a film called Grave Robbers From Outer Space. I use “attempted” in the past tense because, aside from a Kickstarter project that secured funding in 2010, I can’t find any sign that the film is still in production. On the other hand, Darkstone Entertainment has been chugging right along on their own “Plan 9.” The film was reportedly locked some time ago and the finished product should be ready for its debut later this year. Just a few days ago, an advance clip was shown on the movie’s website, and I personally think that it looks promising.

Say what you will about the movie and the man who created it, but not everyone can make something that inspires more creativity in its turn. Somewhere, I’ve no doubt that Edward D. Wood Jr. is smiling.

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