Plan 9 From Outer Space: A Reappraisal

Plan 9 From Outer Space is NOT the Worst Movie of All Time and Ed Wood is NOT the worst director.

Greetings my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. But my friends, just for a moment I think it’s time we paused to take a fresh look back at Edward D. Wood’s notorious 1959 cult legend Plan 9 From Outer Space.       

Yes, yes, yes, my friends, we’ve heard all the stories both about Ed Wood and about Plan 9. His name has come to be synonymous with inept filmmaking, the worst of the worst. He was a deluded, cross dressing nut. Plan 9 was haphazardly constructed around a few, short minutes of test footage Wood shot of Bela Lugosi shortly before Lugosi died. Oh, there’s Criswell and the stock footage and the burning paper plate and Tor Johnson’s acting and Tor Johnson’s house and the wobbly cardboard headstones and the re-used props and sets and Dolores’ chiropractor who was taller than Lugosi and Vampira’s crazy eyes and the disjointed dialogue and what all hell.

We’ve heard it so often we can reduce the film to a string of code words. It’s “campy.” It’s “cheesy.” It’s “schlock.” It’s “ironic.” Bar none and hands down, it’s the worst movie ever made by man or beast. 

You want to say you don’t get it or don’t like it and move on along, that’s fine and I can respect that. Most smug MST3K fans aren’t satisfied to leave it at that, though. They feel compelled to keep repeating the same tired stories and phrases as if we haven’t heard them all so many times before. People who’ve never even seen the film know what they’re supposed to say about it. It’s reached the point at which people have started making up stories about the production, complete fabrications, which then go on to become an established part of the legend and are repeated ad nauseum like everything else. Example: Wood did not use pie tins, hub caps, paper plates or pizza pans to create the flying saucers, though I can show you films that did. Wood used model kits he bought off toy store shelves.       

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But repeating the same dusty appraisal everyone else is using is the easy hipster way out, bullshit spouted by the lazy and ignorant incapable of accepting a film on its own terms without first piling some “ironic” crap on top to feed their desperate desire to feel superior. My friends, can your heart stand the Shocking Fact that maybe Ed Wood wasn’t the worst director who ever lived or Plan 9 the worst film?     

For the record, my shelves are lined with the work of the great directors: Welles, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Herzog, Kurosawa, Fellini and in technical terms no, I might not rank Wood among them, but I do have the greatest respect for his twisted vision and love his films the same way I love the films of Tod Browning. At the same time I could point to a hundred directors working today whose films aren’t nearly as inventive, original, heartfelt, driven or simply damned entertaining as Wood’s. 

In fact in comparison and without hesitation I’d take a Wood film over slick, dull, derivative, crap like, I dunno, Silver Linings Playbook or The Dark Knight Rises or any other box office smash with a $90 million budget made by another cynical director who just wants to dazzle audiences into a stupor and collect a check. I always ask myself, fifty years from now will names like Ang Lee, Jerry Bruckheimer, or Michael Bay be synonymous with anything? Will they even be remembered? I’m starting to have my doubts, the way things have been going lately, that we’ll even remember Tim Burton, even after his fine and honorific Wood biopic.        

Between roughly 1953 and 1978, Wood produced, directed and wrote crime dramas, short subjects, social issue films, horror, sci fi and sexploitation pictures. He even tried to get a Western TV series off the ground. Of all his films, none is better known for whatever reason than Plan 9.        

[related article: Ed Wood – Not Actually The Worst Director in History]

It was a singular, fast-paced, (intentionally) funny, crazy-assed sci fi/horror/conspiracy film driven by an eccentric and visionary man who wasn’t in it for the money, but simply because he loved making films. Once you accept that and appreciate the film as a simple fun entertainment, then the back story, the oddball cast, even the assorted, yes, gaffes, exist as an extra bit of interest and colorful history, not the sole reason for pretending to like a film because so many of your friends point their unoriginally ironic fingers at it.       

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(Take a note from Dudley Manlove’s Eros: “It’s impossible to work through these earth creatures; their soul is too controlled.”) 

Given what he had to work with, from those few scraps of silent Lugosi test footage to a tiny budget supplied by a local Baptist Church, Wood was still able to round up an intriguing cast, including former wrestler and Wood regular Tor Johnson, TV personalities Criswell and Vampira, the great Lyle Talbot, radio announcer Dudley Manlove and busy character actor Gregory Walcott. He wrangled a few sets, a few costumes and given the nature of that Lugosi footage, even constructed a plausible story around it. I’m loathe to recap the plot of a film we’ve all seen a dozen times, but I’m guessing most viewers have been so desperate in their search to find cheap things to laugh at they may not have been paying attention.        

Okay, so in the years after WWII, aliens have been anxiously trying to contact the leaders of Earth. They make no attempt to hide their flying saucers, even though they are often met with military resistance. In spite of their obvious presence, government and military officials refuse to respond to their message of peace and publicly deny the saucers exist. In frustration the aliens implement Plan 9 in a small Southern California cemetery. Plan 9, see, involves the resurrection of the newly dead. 

They intend to march an army of zombies on Washington in order to force the government to acknowledge their existence so the aliens can finally deliver a message. If the arms race continues unchecked, scientists will soon develop a weapon (the Solarnite bomb) that will literally explode the photons that make up light itself. When such a bomb is exploded, it will mean the end of the universe. Apart from that whole “killer zombie” business, the aliens are quite reasonable (if a little shrill and bumbling) but are only met with violence. By film’s end we can only assume that the development of the new bomb is still on track.        

Now, as plots go is that so incoherent and dumb? It actually fit in quite nicely with all the other sci fi Cold War films of the era and was a hell of a lot more entertaining than most of them. 

Say what you want about the acting and sets, but Wood loved the medium. He was a man with a vision and a unique personal style who did whatever he needed to do (including getting half the cast and crew baptized) in order to get the film made and distributed. It may not have been Ben-Hur, the sets not as fancy as you’d find in an MGM extravaganza and he might not be David Lean, but he got the story out there.        

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When the hipsters crack wise about Ed Wood, they forget that in his lifetime he was loved and revered among indie filmmakers. He was a legend as much as Sam Arkoff, Corman or Sam Fuller, if a little more unbalanced. According to director Del Tenney, in the ‘60s especially as Wood’s body of work came to be known more collectively, he was considered a real inspiration, someone who was willing to go to some crazy lengths to make a film. It wasn’t until after his death and that asshole Michael Medved’s book that he became a cultural punch line.  He was a man with problems, yes, but one who utterly believed in what he was doing. I don’t know if we could say that about too many people anymore.

After Plan 9, Wood moved away from directing to concentrate more on writing. He also moved more into sexploitation with the likes of the strange and surreal Orgy of the Dead. He was working to the end, though, until his death in ‘78 shortly after the completion of Hot Ice.      

The final joke in all of this is that Wood’s films (the worst films ever made by the worst director who ever lived) are still around. They’re still distributed and watched and discussed and even if audiences are chuckling their smug, superior chortles it’s Wood who wins. And that, my friends, over half a century after its initial release, is the real irony of Plan 9. 

You see? You see? You and your stupid minds! You’re stupid! Stupid!

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4.5 out of 5