Thursday 28 January 2010

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Director: Edward D Wood Jr
Stars: Tor Johnson, Vampira, Tom Keene and Gregory Walcott
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

I couldn't resist watching Plan 9 from Outer Space after Manos: The Hands of Fate. It's the film most usually regarded as the worst ever made, but there's really no comparison. Harold P Warren didn't know how to make a movie in the slightest, but Ed Wood did. Sure, he chose to do so in his own very outsider way but he was capable nonetheless, hardly the no talent hack movie history tries to make him out to be. Outsider art is an acquired taste that surely isn't for everyone, and Wood can only be fairly contextualised as an outsider, especially given that his films, which like Tarantino's movies are patchwork quilts of everything he had seen and thought was awesomely cool, are undeniably his. You simply can't mistake an Ed Wood movie for anything else, just as you can't mistake a Russ Meyer movie for anything else.

What made Ed Wood happy isn't what would make most people happy. His taste is so different to that of the mainstream audience that they often couldn't help but laugh at him, but what really matters is that he knew how to make movies and he made some really fun ones, however inept they often are. Along with its legendary wobbly flying saucers, Plan 9 from Outer Space has cardboard sets, redundant dialogue and terrible acting, make no mistake about it, and it plays out like a textbook of things not to do when making a movie. It breaks all the rules and doesn't even attempt to make excuses for doing so. To a film school professor this is Cinematic Hell.

However there's a flip side that really can't be ignored. It also has crisp visuals, synchronised sound and capable tracking shots. There are some decent special effects along with the bad ones, professional make up work and an appropriate soundtrack. It even has opening credits, cool ones with names carved into tombstones to boot, and not one of these things could Warren even dream about. Then again Wood had three times the budget to work with, even a decade earlier and working as cheaply as he possibly could. That meant $60,000 to ensure that he had real film to shoot with, real sound stages to shoot on and real studio lights so that whatever happens in the film, at least we're able to see it. Bill Thompson, the cameraman, even knew how to put them to decent effect.

In many ways, while Manos is an utter failure, successful only at winning a bet, Plan 9 is a true American success story. It's a real film, made like one, released like one and one that found its audience. Manos was rescued from obscurity by Mystery Science Theater 3000, Plan 9 was never obscure in the first place because of the magic of television and a growing cult audience even in those first few years after release. And at the end of the day, it's a film that rightly carries those magic words, 'Made in Hollywood'. It's a success, it merely isn't the success that most people would want. Just so long as you can tune into Wood's wavelength they don't get any more fun than this but, as Manos proved, they get a hell of a lot more inept.

Wood also had a whole smorgasbord of cult actors that would have made this film famous even if there were no other reason. There's Vampira, the original TV horror host with her delightful cleavage and her tiny waist, and Tor Johnson, the wrestler with a thick Swedish accent who became The Beast of Yucca Flats. There's the Amazing Criswell, a phony psychic famed for his stunningly inaccurate predictions, and the flamboyantly gay but rich and influential drag queen Bunny Breckinridge. Most famously of all, Ed Wood cast legendary horror icon Bela Lugosi, even though he was already dead before shooting began. That's certainly some sort of genius, even if he padded out Lugosi's scenes by casting his wife's chiropractor with a cape held over his face to attempt to hide that he looked nothing like him.

The story is laughable but it's a real story at least. There are flying saucers over Hollywood, wobbly flying saucers that the stock footage army can't shoot down. They're here because mankind has developed explosive technology far too quickly for its own good and we're apparently on the verge of destroying the universe. We know this because we watched The Day the Earth Stood Still too, the characters in the film know it because they've secretly managed to build a language computer that can translate every language into American, except perhaps English. What's more the aliens know that we've done it, so broadcast their plea to us in an attempt to get us to pay attention. They actually speak fluent American anyway but we're not supposed to notice that. We're not supposed to notice a lot in this film. As we apparently ignore the aliens' message like every other attempt to communicate with us, presumably the much discussed plans one to eight, they promptly mount plan nine. They're persevering souls, these aliens.
What's plan nine, you ask? Bunny lets us in on the secret: 'Ah, yes. Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead. Long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary glands of the recently dead.' In other words they want to scare us by having zombies march on the nations' capitals, just like Ozymandias wanted to scare us in Watchmen by materialising aliens into those capitals. And I thought Night of the Living Dead was really about communism! Apparently it was a wake up call from aliens to stop building bombs. How naive I was! At least I'm not naive enough to know that plan nine will succeed where the others failed, because if anything's been drummed into us by these old movies it's that pesky aliens with electrode guns and nifty space age costumes never win out in the end over superior human intellect.

Fortunately they have a good try at it first, shooting their long distance electrodes into the pineal and pituitary glands of our cult cast and turning them into the coolest zombies that cinema ever saw. The first is Vampira, playing an unnamed character who was fortunately buried in a glorious gown, stylishly ripped so as to expose a tantalising amount of cleavage. She's the wife of the old man, the character Bela Lugosi is playing, even though Vampira was 35 and Lugosi over 73 and dead to boot, and even though his few minutes here are really from a movie Ed Wood never finished called Tomb of the Vampire.

I should add that Wood doesn't attempt to explain why these two characters would be married or even why Lugosi is playing a vampire when he's supposed to just be an old man. He does explain the old man's death at least, screening footage of Lugosi walking out of Tor Johnson's house and down his path, apparently tortured by the death of his wife. We can believe it, given that Vampira never looked better than here, even though her character spends the entire film dead. So he walks off screen to be mowed down by a car, one that is courteous enough to leave his shadow untouched. Of course Eros and Tanna, who comprise the entire army that alien ruler Bunny Breckinridge sends to save the universe, resurrect him too. They had taste, you have to give them that, even if they wear bejewelled corsets or tunics with medieval axes on them.

The victim in between the old man and his wife is Tor Johnson, who plays Inspector Daniel Clay with a vitality that doesn't even hint at what terrible shape he would be in five years later for The Beast of Yucca Flats. He joins the film because Vampira rises so quickly from the grave that she can even kill the gravediggers that are throwing earth on her coffin, even though she's magically somewhere else and interacting with them through some bizarre bending of the laws of physics given that they're in daylight and she's surrounded by darkness. Anyway Clay comes to investigate the murders of the gravediggers, only to become another zombie with cool make up, be promptly buried and then rise from the grave in a truly great resurrection scene that could only have been improved if Tor Johnson could stand up without making it seem like he had broken legs.

There are subplots that we're supposed to pay attention to but really don't care about. There's an airline pilot called Jeff Trent who gets hassled by a flying saucer, hanging outside his plane's window on a string, and he conveniently lives right next to the graveyard that it decides to park in and glow at us from. There's a general at the Pentagon, played by Lyle Talbot, who is investigating the aliens and he sends a colonel to California to investigate. There are cops everywhere, almost as many as there are Baptists, who all got bit parts because they financed the movie, but none of them are any use whatsoever. These aren't Keystone Kops but still if they'd stayed around about thirty years until Rodney King's day, given that it's precisely the same neighbourhood, he'd have kicked their collective asses and consequently saved Los Angeles from '53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damages to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses.' Let's hear it for idiot Hollywood cops.

What we really do is sit back and watch our favourite zombies lurch around the cardboard graveyard, obviously not the one that the real Bela Lugosi wanders around, and pick out all the best continuity errors. This sort of thing is really why Plan 9 became such a classic cult film and it's one good reason why it's so often regarded as the worst film of all time, being voted as such by the Golden Turkey Awards. Even if you don't pay attention you'll find mistakes because they'll leap out of the screen and slap you silly. Day becomes night and night becomes day, often during the same scene. Tombstones fall over. Flying saucers are described as cigar shaped but are really shaped like saucers. If you do pay attention, you'll have trouble keeping up with them. Flying saucers leave shadows on the space station they visit, just as soldiers leave shadows on backdrops that are supposed to be sky. Pilots have to fly their planes without controls. Zombies walk back and forth through the same graveyard because that's all Wood had built.

Yet this isn't about the ineptness of the filmmaking, it's the fact that Ed Wood just didn't care about such things. Sure, he wrote redundant dialogue, he ignored flagrant continuity errors and he built sets that would only really pass muster in a school play. He cast friends and financiers because it was the only way he could get the movie made, even going so far as to get baptised to secure that funding. It takes some mental gymnastics to really see what Ed Wood saw when he made this, but that's what turns this film into an immersive and interactive experience. That's why Fox Mulder on The X-Files watches it whenever he has to focus because it shuts down the logic centres of his brain and allows him to make the sort of intuitive leaps of logic that he needs. It's why people love it so much. As Wood once said, 'If you want to know me, see Glen or Glenda, that's me, that's my story, no question. But Plan 9 is my pride and joy.' And as Criswell asks us at the end, 'Can you prove that it didn't happen?'


James R said...

Excellently said. I've maintained for years that people who call Plan 9 the worst film of all time are either just parroting the Golden Turkeys book or someone else who's been parroting it, or they actually believe thee hype in which case they've never seen a genuinely bad film (if they've really never seen a worse film than this, I can only assume their cinematic experience has been blessed but limited).

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thank you!

It drives me nuts too. I really hate it when people say anything is the somethingest when they know nothing whatsoever about it.

Plan 9 is not a good film but it's great fun. That would make it a pretty fair comparison to Avatar. How much is that making again? : )