Plan 9 From Outer Space
Written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.
When it comes to bad movies – bad sci fi movies – there are plenty to choose from: Star Crash, a crappy Italian Star Wars knock-off; Future War, a crappy movie with a fourth rate Jean Claude van Damme knock-off; Battlefield Earth – just a crappy movie; a lot of sci fi movies of varying degrees of competency are out there.
The granddaddy of them all, though – a movie that’s almost as much fun to learn about the making of as it is to watch it – is Plan 9 From Outer Space. Sure, there are far worse movies out there (I maintain that, despite what some have said, this is nowhere NEAR being the worst movie ever made), but none are quite as charming and endearing as Plan 9.
Before getting into Plan 9, however, I think it would be a good idea to define what, exactly, makes for a true Bad Movie, as opposed to simply a bad movie. “B-Movie” initially had nothing to do with the quality of the movie – kind of; the term referred to, back in the 30s and 40s, a second movie that usually was played with the main movie of a double feature and was referred to as the b-movie. Typically, these were either public awareness movies about some scourge currently afflicting society (those being the days before the MPAA, the “filmmakers” could get away with copious amounts of nudity, as they were doing a public service, exposing the seedy underbelly of the country – and making a nickel off pervy old guys ogling strippers) or a poorly made movie cranked out for a minimal amount of money that existed simply to fill in the running time of the double feature. A few of these movies were based not on an original story or idea but, rather on a movie poster or title (I Was A Teenage Werewolf was conceived in this manner). In the ’50s, with the advent of the car culture and teenagers with a bit of extra spending money, these “quality” movies were churned out in droves in an attempt to cash in on bored teens who wanted somewhere to go to get away from their parents and make out for a couple hours. With that, what modern schlock movie lovers refer to as a “B-Movie” was born.
A real, honest to goodness, grade Z modern Bad Movie is a movie where the creator, be it due to A) technical ineptitude (Manos: The Hands of Fate); B) budget limitations (pretty much anything cranked out by Roger Corman and/or AIP [American International Pictures]); or C) the creator’s overinflated sense of self (vanity projects like Battlefield Earth, Star Trek V, and Glitter), failed spectacularly and inadvertently, made a movie that has become endearing to the viewer. Simple, run-of-the-mill bad movies are, usually, movies that are just bad and not in a fun way; they’re sub-par or heavy handed with their message or, perhaps worst of all, purposely trying to be a true Bad Movie.
Case in point: when the producers of Birdemic: Shock and Terror (which is a true B-Movie) saw how much of a cult hit they had on their hands, they tried to replicate, intentionally and slavishly, everything that made the first movie such a pleasant train wreck of a flick, resulting in the boringly awful sequel Birdemic 2: The Resurrection; deliberately horrible acting, sets and locations blatantly recycled over and over again with no attempt to conceal the fact, a mind-blowingly stupid story resulting in actions by the characters that no human (real or fictional) would ever take, purposefully terrible special effects, and, probably most egregious of all, an attitude of contempt toward the audience. That last piece alone is probably the worst thing a movie maker can have for their intended audience. That is not the case, though, with Plan 9.
(I think it’s safe to say that most everyone, if they haven’t seen the movie at least know the basic premise; that being said …
***POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT FOR A 55+ YEAR OLD MOVIE***)
Plan 9 From Outer Space is a perfect blending of the ingredients that make a perfect bad movie; although, I’d argue that there was less of an overblown ego involved and more of a sincere desire to be a movie maker. Springing partly from the mind of its writer/director/notorious schlockmeister Edward D. Wood and partly from whatever stock footage and actors’ homes he could make use of, Plan 9 is about aliens reanimating the recently deceased in order to get our attention and stop us from exploding the sun, which apparently would cause the rest of the universe to go “ka-boom!” The alien-brothers-coming-down-to-save-us-from-ourselves-by-threatening-to-destroy-us trope had been used a few times in movies from the 1950s, most famously in The Day the Earth Stood Still and in the UFO believer community of the time, where many “contactees” claimed that Venusians were communicating with them, telling these people that humanity was on its way to its doom if it didn’t stop playing chicken with nukes.
I’m not kidding ….
Starting off a movie that will pretty much include any and every idea that ever ran through Wood’s head is a rambling preamble called “Criswell Predicts,” hosted by Criswell, a celebrity psychic of the time; he seemingly tries to see how many references to the future he can cram into a paragraph without really making any kind of predictions. The movie then goes full-bore into Crazyland. We see the first of three funerals that will provide the extraterrestrials with the ingredients to implement Plan 9, the aforementioned reanimation of the recently dead.
Before resurrecting freshly deceased corpses and unleashing them on the populace (although, how they expected to accomplish this with three zombies, I have no idea) the aliens tried contacting the US government, sending several communications which, unfortunately, were translated too late (namely, after the US Military’s Stock Footage Artillery Unit attacked one of the pie tins …er, saucers, to no avail; this resulted in the frying of an American town by the aliens). Despite the military’s stance that the aliens don’t exist (I guess it was swamp gas that took out the town), newspaper reports of flying saucers abound, mostly because the aliens insist upon buzzing downtown Hollywood in plain sight of the good citizens (and one drunk one) of greater Los Angeles. Our hero, Biff Rockjaw … I mean, Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott), a pilot for American Stock Footage Airlines, is buzzed by one of the supposedly non-existent saucers while he’s piloting an airliner, but, is “muzzled by Army brass” and unable to tell the world about what he witnessed.
Perhaps the reason the military wants the alien topic kept quiet is because we’d be laughed off the world stage if it got out that we couldn’t take down these particular ETs. Looking like they got their uniforms from the wardrobe of a junior high drama club, they are anything but intimidating: doughy, narcissistic Eros (Dudley Manlove); his longsuffering second Tanna (Joanna Lee) (there had to be a lot of suffering working for that twit); and The Ruler (John Breckinridge), who manages to look both profoundly bored and supremely annoyed at the same time – all the time. These three, flying around in their intergalactic spaceboob (seriously – that’s what it looks like), are an apparent threat to us.
I’m so not kidding about that ….
Hijinks ensue when Jeff teams up with Detective John Harper (Duke Moore) and two beat cops investigating the murder of one of their own, Inspector Daniel Clay (played and English mutilated by Swedish wrestler/alleged actor Tor Johnson). Colonel Tom Edwards (Tom Keene), who was sent to LA to investigate the recent spate of UFO sightings, also joins the group. Together, the five of them set out to rescue Jeff’s wife, Paula (Mona McKinnon), who was abducted by the reanimated Inspector Clay and taken to the alien’s ship. Somehow, the ship has managed to land and stay hidden in the same cemetery The Ghoul (Bela Lugosi), his several decade’s younger wife (local TV schlock hostess Vampira aka Maila Nurmi) and Clay were all buried, despite the local police traipsing all over. After Paula is rescued, Jeff, Detective Harper, and Colonel Edwards find the ship (finally!) and confront Eros and Tanna.
This leads to one of cinema’s greatest instances of hammy overacting ever as Eros lays a verbal smackdown on the humans. Before that, though, we get an explanation as to why the aliens have been trying to get our attention; it seems that Earth’s scientists are close to discovering Solarmanite, which has the ability to explode sunlight. Basically, anything that the light from the exploding star touches will be annihilated, up to and including the universe. (Slight sidebar: is it me or do moviemakers not seem to have a grasp as to just how big the universe is?) So, since we wouldn’t be nice and talk to the ETs, it seems that they’re left with no choice but to destroy us in order to keep us from taking out everyone else.
When the Earthlings tell Eros he can shove it, Eros goes off on them, telling them just what he thinks of humanity in general (“… [A]ll of you of Earth are idiots!”). Having had enough tongue lashing from Eros, Jeff hauls off and slugs him. A fire is started during the scuffle, causing the spaceship to go up like a torch (apparently, The Ruler had his landing crafts painted with lighter fluid); the humans bail out, but Eros and Tanna are not so lucky – or smart enough to do the same, this after Eros admonished the humans with another classic line: “You see?!? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!!!” (Who’s so stupid now, Eros?) Exit Eros and Tanna; it’s assumed that The Ruler simply rolled his eyes and sighed heavily before flying away, probably to go formulate Plan 10. The end.
While the story itself was pretty standard for the time, the creation of the movie was anything but. The big name draw of the movie, Bela Lugosi, had inconveniently died before filming began. Well, that’s not entirely correct; footage of Lugosi hamming it up in his Dracula get-up and in a couple of other scenarios was filmed by Wood before Plan 9 was even an idea. Not being one to waste good film (if not necessarily good footage), Wood wove this material into what would become Plan 9. Wood’s wife’s chiropractor filled in for Lugosi when additional scenes required Lugosi’s character’s presence. The fact that he was taller and had a much different build and hairline than Lugosi didn’t seem to matter.
I’m not kidding about that, either ….
Scenes were filmed outdoors and on a sound stage, resulting in a lot of jarring day-night-day scenes (i.e., a car drives up to a location in broad daylight and, upon parking, it’s dark and foggy). The airliner cockpit is two kitchen chairs seated in front of a doorway with nothing but a shower curtain between the pilots and the rest of the “plane” – a plane whose steering yokes are two other kitchen chairs, turned around. Headstones in a cemetery are routinely knocked askew. The alien’s high tech equipment consists of random radio/electronic equipment and a flashing yellow light that one would find on a city roadblock sign. It becomes a bit of a game (after a few viewings) to identify the sets when they’re reused (the door leading out of the alien’s saucer is the same doorway that leads out of the aforementioned airliner’s cockpit, for example) and name what the various props are made of.
Again, while some have bestowed the “Worst Movie Ever Made” title upon Plan 9, I think it’s wholly undeserved (believe me, there’s a whoooole lot worse out there). Is it a perfect movie? No. Is it competently made? Most assuredly not! Is it sweet, endearing, and entertaining? Oh, my, yes!
If you’ve never seen this movie (and can handle watching a real Bad Movie), do yourself a favor and track down a copy; being in the public domain, it should be pretty easy to come by. If you have seen it before, pop it in again and have fun playing “Where have I seen this background before?” Either way, just enjoy a movie that wants nothing more than to be loved.