Scott: It’s probably not a good sign for a movie when being asked to write about “style/storytelling” immediately sends me into a laughing fit. Plan 9 From Outer Space’s gloriously needless framing device begins with Criswell’s famous line, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives,” and encourages the audience to “punish the guilty” and “reward the innocent,” without really identifying who those parties might be. (My theory: The “guilty” are those who have covered up this shocking alien invasion, the “innocent” are those who were victimized by it. But maybe I’m missing something obvious.) Without Criswell’s florid narration, with its sublimely clumsy metaphors (“The ever-beautiful flowers she had planted with her own hands became nothing more than the lost roses of her cheeks”), I wonder if Plan 9 From Outer Space would have lost its worst-ever reputation to some other cheap science-fiction calamity.
Then again, the film’s style is remarkably amateurish: the incongruous mix of real locations and sound stages, the cutting between day-for-night and night, the flying saucers dangling by a glistening thread, the actors’ ungainly entrances and exits, the repeated violations of basic film language. Plan 9 has it all, attached to an alien-invasion plot so slow to develop and nonsensical that it’s easy to believe eight other plans were standing in line ahead of it. Watching it again, I was going to point out that Plan 9’s story of enlightened aliens seeking to halt the planet’s nuclear proliferation predated the more respected The Day The Earth Stood Still, but in fact, the opposite is true. Ed Wood released his movie in 1959, eight years later, though in look and form, it seems a full two decades behind.
Noel: We’ll get into this more later when we talk about what Ed Wood actually does fairly well, but it’s impossible to talk about the “style” of Plan 9 without acknowledging that, by God, Wood did his damnedest to turn a bunch of disconnected ideas and footage into something that resembles a movie. You’re right, Scott, that the narration and dialogue is the key to both whatever unity Plan 9 possesses, and its reputation as something lovably awful. The writing in this film reminds me of the student papers I used to grade when I taught the occasional college course. Plan 9 has that feel of a kid trying to impress his elders by making every line more elevated than it has to be. (“First his wife, then he.” “Tragic.”)
Nathan: Wood’s economical use of stock footage to make the film look like a movie that wasn’t made for 99 cents by ebullient amateurs lends Plan 9 an unexpected, and sometimes quite compelling, avant-garde air. Much of the movie’s charm lies in its homemade, organic feel; Wood was desperately attempting to make something out of nothing, and the fact that so many of the elements were flat-out stolen from other movies just adds to the film’s ramshackle charm. Wood was going to make his masterpiece by any means necessary, even if it meant many of the shots in his movie weren’t his own, but rather the work of uncredited, unknown craftsman with much more talent, but less personality.
Matt: I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call Plan 9’s aesthetic “avant-garde”—“avant-garbage,” maybe—but while the film looks terrible, it does look distinctively terrible. The mad swirl of stock footage, mismatched day and night shots, wildly florid dialogue, and parts that are just flat-out batshit crazy (so seventysomething Bela Lugosi was married to thirtysomething Vampira?) could only belong to one director. Though it’s hard to argue any of Wood’s mistakes were born of creativity rather than necessity, there are moments in Plan 9 so insane that they do transcend the normal boundaries of “good” and “bad.”
Keith: To fully appreciate the incompetence on display in Plan 9 From Outer Space, it helps to spend time with other examples of 1950s schlock. Even next to something like The Killer Shrews—whose titular shrews are brought to life in part by costumed dogs—it looks bad. But unlike The Killer Shrews, it’s also an achingly personal film in its own awful way, full of overwrought emotion, noble intentions, and as Noel pointed out, overreaching dialogue. “Sundown of the day, yet also the sundown of the old man’s heart.” It’s awful. It’s poignant. It’s unmistakable.
FAVORITE SILLY MOMENTS
Matt: A complete accounting of the best worst parts of Plan 9 would basically just be a transcript of Wood’s original screenplay—the film’s “Goofs” page on the IMDB runs well over 3,000 words—but in the interest of concision, we’ll try to winnow it down to just a few highlights. My personal favorite: the cast’s inability to agree upon a single pronunciation of the word “Solaranite,” the mythic weapon Earth is on the verge of discovering that will supposedly destroy the entire universe. Square-jawed Gregory Walcott, who plays airline pilot Jeff Trent, drops the second “a” and makes it “solar-nite,” while Dudley Manlove, who plays the pompous alien Eros, adds a phantom “b” and arrives at “so-lorb-uh-mite.” Wood wasn’t exactly what you would call a detail-oriented filmmaker—when you shoot an entire movie in four days, how can you be?—but given that his entire plot hinged on a McGuffin he invented, he should at least have settled on a single, correct way to say it.
Gentlemen, what are your favorite silly Plan 9 moments? Bear in mind, if I don’t like your choices, I may interject and insult your stupid minds.
Noel: I like that no matter how any of us look when we’re buried, when we’re reanimated by the aliens, we’re going to look like vampires. I also like that the airplanes in Plan 9’s reality have really high ceilings, so there’s a place for the pilots to store their boom-mics.
Nathan: I love everything Criswell does in Plan 9 From Outer Space. His opening monologue is a thing of warped, insane, poetic beauty. There is a wonderfully misguided joy in language throughout Plan 9 that finds its purest expression in that wonderful opening, as Criswell, looking incongruously dapper and even professional in this bizarre mess, recites Wood’s words with gloriously misguided conviction. His narration follows suit; it’s almost as if he’s heckling his own movie, MST3K-style, while attempting to tie together the convoluted madness of Wood’s plot through verbiage alone. If Plan 9 From Outer Space has an MVP other than Wood, I nominate Criswell for that dubious honor.
Keith: Thanks to a love of bad movies cultivated at a young age in part by the Medved brothers’ The Golden Turkey Awards, which declared Plan 9 the worst film ever made (more on this tomorrow), this was one of the first movies I rented when I got my first video-store card. I hadn’t seen it in years, though, so it was some of the less-famous moments that really got to me this time, particularly a policeman who, instead of putting his gun away after he no longer needs it, uses it to gesture, with little regard for the safety of others. Even the flattest stock characters are a little bit off here.
Scott: Too many great silly moments to mention, though like Nathan, I probably get the biggest laughs out of Criswell’s bookending pronouncements and purple narration. But this movie had me at “hello”: Wood’s poor grasp of basic film language had me guffawing at the jarring cutaways to the two gravediggers sitting, vulture-like, about 10 feet away from Bela Lugosi’s wife’s grave during the funeral ceremony. Wood has them there because they’re the first victims, but as soon as the ceremony is over, they’re comically eager to start shoveling dirt on the coffin. It’s their time to shine!
THINGS ED WOOD ACTUALLY DOES WELL
Keith: For some reason, I volunteered to a lead a topic called “Things Ed Wood actually does well.” I’m so tempted just to start with “Pass.” Nonetheless, I’ll offer this: No one else would have dared to put this cast together. They’re all footnotes now, but in 1959, Vampira, Tor Johnson, and the Amazing Criswell all enjoyed varying degrees of Z-level celebrity. Criswell made appearances on The Jack Paar Show and published books and a newspaper column. Vampira was a pioneering horror host on Los Angeles television who inspired Elvira, whom she later sued. (She also, new evidence suggests, served as a live-action model for Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent.) Tor Johnson was a wrestler with a fairly extensive filmography and a gift for frightening Groucho Marx. What were they doing in the same movie with Lyle Talbot and Bela Lugosi? Who else would put them there? Only someone with a genius for strange casting choices. Or who just didn’t know any better. Either way, Plan 9 wouldn’t be the same without those insane decisions.
Nathan: One of the strange quirks of Plan 9 is that the slickest, most professional elements tend to also be the least memorable or entertaining. I’m thinking specifically of Walcott, who plays the pilot and delivers a performance that can charitably be deemed halfway professional; he looks like an actor and talks like one as well, which sets him apart from the rest of the cast, but also makes his appearance much less interesting than, say, that of the marble-mouthed, Godzilla-sized Johnson, whose casting as a detective would feel like a hilarious joke, if Wood hadn’t been so doggedly sincere about every aspect of the film.
Matt: Walcott, a contract player who made lots of Westerns and sitcoms, is definitely the “best” actor of the bunch—and also one the least fun to watch.
I know you guys have already mentioned (and dismissed) Wood’s over-the-top dialogue, but I think there are times where his awkward fumbling for poetry actually yields some interesting results. Rewatching the movie alone (and thus not making jokes the entire time), I was actually surprised by a few moments’ snappiness. The cockpit banter in the first scene with Walcott and his crew is kind of great: “Hey, Edie, how about you and me balling it up in Albuquerque?” “We land in Albuquerque at 4 a.m. That’s strictly a 9 o’clock town!” Take that, Albuquerque! The famous “Stupid! Stupid!” outbursts and rambling Criswell monologues aren’t good, but they’re singular and memorable. And quotable too—especially if you hate Albuquerque.
Scott: In a movie filled with clumsy staging and technical miscues, there’s one terrific shot of the revivified Tor Johnson emerging from the grave. That’s where the dark graveyard set—which in other instances is too dark and too set-like—pays off, in the stark shot of the undead Johnson coming into the light. Call it a happy accident. Otherwise, I’m with Keith in thinking the casting of this ensemble is part of what gives it cachet, though I’d have liked more of the incongruous spectacle of Johnson as a gumshoe. He doesn’t do “human” convincingly.
Noel: As I mentioned earlier, I admire the hell out of Wood’s ability to stitch together all of these unrelated ideas, confident that if he has enough footage to reach feature-length, then by golly, he’s got a movie. All those big-time filmmakers who complain about how they can’t make the movies they want to make because no one will give them the money? Pikers. (And I’m not saying that facetiously.)
IRONIC APPRECIATION AND PLAN 9’S IMPACT
Nathan: When we go to the Dissolve screening room to watch films for Movie Of The Week, we tend not to talk, for understandable reasons. But while watching Plan 9 From Outer Space, Scott and I quipped our way through the film, delighting in its ridiculousness, pointing out the never-ending parade of plot holes and absurdities, and generally sharing our sustained disbelief that a film this wonderfully preposterous exists. With any other film, this might seem disrespectful, or even unprofessional, but for Plan 9 From Outer Space, it felt natural. It’s hard to overstate the role Plan 9 has played in popularizing the ironic appreciation of incompetently made movies. The film’s notoriety spiked when the Medveds named it the worst film of all time in The Golden Turkey Awards, and audiences who sought the film out to see whether it could possibly live up to its title discovered just how enjoyable bad movies could be.
Ironic appreciation often has a cruel or even mocking edge, but for some reason, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Plan 9 From Outer Space, perhaps because it’s possible to laugh at the film while admiring its audacity, personality, and wonderfully incongruous sincerity. (Ed Wood means what he says, God bless him.) Plan 9, not surprisingly, quickly fell into the public domain, so the film’s legend spread via afternoon screenings on UHF channels looking for cheap product to fill air time. And though Glen And Glenda is a more personal, and in many ways more interesting film, Plan 9 From Outer Space plays a central role in the legend of Ed Wood, who went from being deemed the worst filmmaker of all time (by the Medveds and others) to inspiring an Oscar-winning movie, Tim Burton’s loving Ed Wood, which cemented Wood’s curious place in the show-business firmament. So what do you think, folks: Is it possible to laugh at Plan 9 while still respecting its loopy genius, or am I deluding myself?
Keith: I think the laughter comes first and probably second, but when you realize what an odd, idiosyncratic film Plan 9 From Outer Space is, respect eventually follows. It’s the cinematic equivalent of The Shags: awful, but also unique, compelling, and with a backstory that only enriches the experience.
Scott: As I say often, when words like “worst” or “worst ever” are applied to a work of art, it’s almost a certainty that that work of art has some quality that makes it special. Plan 9 From Outer Space is a bad, bad, bad movie—but its estrangements are notable enough that we pay attention to them.
Noel: I’ve never been a huge fan of the “so bad it’s good” genre, because more often than not (especially nowadays), either the movie is being made intentionally bad to court that audience, or the audience is trying way too hard to turn every crummy Z-movie into The Room. Either way, the whole phenomenon leaves a bad aftertaste. That’s why I treasure the genuine curiosities like Plan 9; there’s a purity about their putrescence.
Noel: I know my impression of Wood’s work is influenced by what I know about his private life, but still, there are some weird little twists and turns to this movie when it comes to matters of sex and gender. We’ve already talked about sexy Vampira, but did anyone else think Space Station 7 resembles a giant floating sky-boob?
And then there’s this exchange:
Mrs. Trent you’d better stay with the car.
Stay here alone? Not on your life.
Yeah, they been that way all down through the ages.
Methinks Mr. Wood had some issues to work through when it came to the ladies.
Matt: Not only does the station look like a sky-boob, at one point a character inaccurately describes the other flying saucers as “cigar-shaped.” But as the old saying goes, sometimes a cigar-shaped UFO is just a cigar-shaped UFO.
Nathan: I agree that Wood had his issues with women, but one of my favorite elements of Plan 9 From Outer Space is John “Bunny” Breckenridge’s wonderfully bitchy performance as “The Ruler.” I love how Breckenridge plays every setback in the stupidest plan in the history of stupid plans like one more headache he doesn’t need. There’s a certain warped genius in playing the ruler of a planet as a perpetually peeved queen, and Breckinridge’s wonderfully daft performance (he’s right up there with Criswell in my book) also made me appreciate the subtlety and understatement of Bill Murray’s portrayal of him in Ed Wood. It would have been easy to go big and sassy with the character, but Murray aims for something quieter and more melancholy.
Speaking of Ed Wood, did anyone else see the film through the prism of what I still think is one of Tim Burton’s top three films? If nothing else, I was impressed by how much the actors look like the real-life figures they’re playing, and Burton was certainly fortunate to be dating a woman (Lisa Marie) who looks an awful lot like Vampira, and nails her pissed-off, “Why am I even bothering with this horseshit?” vibe.
Keith: It’s hard not to see this film through the lens of Burton’s Ed Wood, isn’t it? I doubt the real-life Wood was quite the excitable, lovable visionary of Johnny Depp’s characterization, but who knows? Part of the genius of that film is that Depp’s character absolutely makes sense as the guy who could make a movie as cracked and strangely compelling as Plan 9. It isn’t the work of an ordinary man.
Matt: The real Wood may not have been as perpetually upbeat and cheerful as Depp’s, but rewatching Ed Wood and rereading the biography it’s based on (Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare Of Ecstasy) this week, I was struck by how many of the outlandish anecdotes in Burton’s film come straight out of Grey’s book. The Baptist backers who gave Wood money to make a “commercial” hit to finance their religious film (and baptized the entire cast and crew in a Beverly Hills swimming pool), Vampira taking a public-transit bus to the set (in full costume and makeup!): It’s all true, based on the sworn testimony of those who lived it. Can you prove it didn’t happen?!?
Scott: The Burton Ed Wood is exceedingly generous in its assessment of the real Ed Wood, painting him as a misunderstood outsider artist like Edward Scissorhands or, well, Tim Burton. But Wood was definitely capable of thoughtless, cynical exploitation, as I discovered as a teenager when I rented the stultifying Orgy Of The Dead from Blockbuster’s assortment of unrated videos with nudity in them. But after Wood was beat up by the Medveds and permanently labelled the worst director of all time, perhaps it’s only fair that his virtues get a little overstated. He was a true auteur, which is something scores of more conventional filmmakers can’t claim.
Matt Singer kicked off our Plan 9 From Outer Space discussion yesterday with his Keynote on the film’s strange integrity. And tomorrow, Matt Patches looks back on the dubious history of the title “The Worst Movie Ever Made.”