After the publication of 1978’s The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time, 393 readers tore out a suggestion page provided in the back of the book and mailed it to authors Harry and Michael Medved to inform them of an egregious oversight: Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space.
“People really took us to task for it,” Harry Medved said in an interview conducted for this piece. He was only 15 when he co-wrote the compendium with his brother and co-author Randy Dreyfuss. “We were shocked by the flood of fan mail—or, in this case, hate mail—saying, ‘We agree Robot Monster is one of the worst of all time, but how could you write a book called The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time and not include Plan 9 From Outer Space? What were you thinking?!’” In 1980, the snail-mail equivalent of a comments section was vindicated. The Medved brothers published a second tome, The Golden Turkey Awards. Based on the reader votes, they declared, damned, and exalted Wood’s chump-change science-fiction flick as “The Worst Film Of All Time.” The label stuck.
Bad movies aren’t made, they’re defined. Before Plan 9 nestled into the cultural consciousness as a notorious shlockfest—mainstream enough for Jerry, Elaine, and George to attempt to catch a midnight screening in the second season of Seinfeld—it was just another science-fiction B-movie filling the second slot of theatrical double bills. (The film unceremoniously premièred in January 1959 accompanied by Time Lock, the thrilling tale of a boy locked in a bank safe, known for costarring a young Sean Connery.) Today, broadband-enabled pop conversation races to new releases with scorching superlatives: “Flop! Disaster! The worst movie of the year/decade/century!” Adam Sandler movies arrive with one hand pre-nailed to the crucifix. But back in 1980, Plan 9 was dredged up from cult obscurity and thrust into the spotlight. It was still awful, but people reveled in its awfulness.
The Golden Turkey Awards galvanized a bad-movie culture scattered across America. Acknowledging Hollywood’s objectively calamitous productions was nothing new in 1980: Back in 1939, The Harvard Lampoon handed out its first “Worst of…” awards, naming Norma Shearer “Worst Actress,” Tyrone Power “Worst Actor,” and The Wizard Of Oz “Worst Movie.” In 1966, when the Lampoon bestowed the honor on Natalie Wood, she made headlines for being the first performer to accept the award in person.
But the Lampoon’s low-impact lampoonery aimed squarely at blockbusters, leaving room for consideration, evaluation, and absorption of the swarm of dingy genre movies that filled out the bad-movie pantheon. A breadth of cheap science-fiction and horror pictures produced in the 1950s, which, like Plan 9, sporadically came and went from theaters, found new life courtesy of TV syndication packages. Throughout the late ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, local movie shows like Philadelphia’s Shock Theater, New York’s Chiller Theatre, and Los Angeles’ Fright Night series unearthed dusty monster movies for bedtime-protesting youngsters and geek elite alike. The B-movie renaissance provoked the now-legendary science-fiction historian Forrest J. Ackerman to start a fan magazine in 1958: Famous Monsters Of Filmland.
Famous Monsters was a celebration of everything underappreciated genres got right, but its pages weren’t pure hagiography. There were bad science-fiction movies, and budding genre historians were happy to share their thoughts on the matter.
“When FM came out, it united a world of geekdom whose members were surprised and reassured that there were others like themselves—and lots of them,” says Gremlins director Joe Dante. “The badge of honor was to somehow get your name printed in the magazine—a validation of your existence! This 13-year-old sent in list after list, letter after letter, and no soap. I’d already sent a list of the 50 best horror movies—why not a list of the worst ones? I was floored when editor Forry Ackerman sent me a special delivery package with FM #14, featuring my letter, expanded into a several-page article.”
The article, “Dante’s Inferno,” published in Famous Monsters’ July 1962 issue, ran down the 50 worst horror movies of all time. Plan 9 came in at number 39. Dante says he caught the movie during its constant rotation on New York’s WPIX 11, where it quickly gained “legendary” status. He slammed it in the pages of Famous Monsters, calling out the film’s laughable special effects, cheap production values, and wasted use of Vampira, Tor Johnson, and Lyle Talbot. Today, he’s a little gentler: “Its incomparably Woodian dialog and impoverished art direction combined with stiff acting made it a uniquely amusing (and frequently revisited) curio to us kids.”
Like Dante, Harry Medved was another kid glued to the TV during the wee hours of the night, rabid for whatever “Attack Of” movie Larry Vincent’s “Seymour” might serve up on Monster Rally. The night Harry and his brother Michael conceived Fifty Worst Films, Harry was at home watching 1964’s The Horror Of Party Beach. Michael stopped by to introduce his brother to a new girlfriend. Harry spared a second to say hello, then immediately returned to the half-human, half-fish antics. How, Michael wondered, could someone be so entertained by something so awful?
He learned the answer by translating his adolescent brother’s binge-watching research into their first book. “It’s nostalgic and it’s a form of comedy,” the elder Medved explains. “Slapstick involves people reenacting humiliating, clumsy, and disastrous experiences. Pratfalls. Looking at these extraordinarily bad movies is a very sincere form of slapstick.”
Despite the heavy rotation of kitsch classics, midnight-movie attractions, and Famous Monsters Of Filmland copycats, the Medveds hit wall after wall trying to sell their Fifty Worst Films concept. “The overruling wisdom was, ‘Who’s going to pay good money for a book on bad movies?’” Harry says. “Life was too short.” Eventually, publisher Popular Library threw the brothers a few hundred dollars to pen the book. Harry’s fervor over the subject gave Michael faith that there was something to the topic.
To ensure some level of success for the book, the Medveds curated their list with a mix of accurate and controversial picks. They trolled. 1953’s Robot Monster sat side-by-side with Last Year At Marienbad and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II. One last-minute choice Harry regrets including: The Omen. “The movie had just come out and it was playing in the Village Theater in Westwood. It was 1976. We had to finish the book. So we said, ‘Let’s go for it, let’s pick something really notable and with not-so-great reviews.’ It’s a stupid choice.”
In the wake of The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time’s success, with piles of letters insisting that the Medveds consider the public access-staple Plan 9 for their next book, Harry fell down the Edward D. Wood rabbit hole. Bruce Akiyama, a constant source of wisdom for the Medveds’ bad-movie research, first exposed Harry to Plan 9 by passing along Joe Dante’s Famous Monsters feature. When another movie buff, Bennett Yellin (future screenwriter of Dumb & Dumber), invited Harry over to take in a taped copy of Glen Or Glenda, Harry’s mind was officially blown. He had a new plan: conclude The Golden Turkey Awards with not just a critical dissection of Plan 9, but a full-blown making-of tale.
Wood died in 1978, but the Los Angeles Yellow Pages made it easy for Harry to unearth the low-profile cast and crew of Plan 9. Interviews revealed even more lunacy than the film itself could offer. It turned out, working on an Ed Wood movie was as much of a circus as an Ed Wood film appeared to be from the outside. It was “The Worst Movie of All Time” to its core.
“We tend to see the people who make movies as demigods,” Michael writes in the intro to The Golden Turkey Awards. Mainstream audiences went wild for the schadenfreude of Plan 9, from its dingy special effects to the downward spiral of Bela Lugosi, who died while filming Wood’s Tomb Of The Vampire, then appeared posthumously, thanks to leftover footage and a body double. The mythologizing of Plan 9 combined with the Medveds’ playfully antagonistic reduction of cinema big and small made The Golden Turkey Awards go viral. Harry appeared on the CBS Evening News and The Today Show with clips of Plan 9 in tow. In April 1980, the Medveds kicked off the “World’s Worst Film Festival” series, pairing Plan 9 with films like The Terror Of Tiny Town and They Saved Hitler’s Brain. A number of Harry’s interviews later appeared in Rudolph Grey’s Ed Wood biography, adapted for the screen in 1994 by Tim Burton.
In her defining 1964 essay “Notes On ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag writes, “To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.” She leaves a loophole: edification. The Golden Turkey Awards mainstreamed bad-movie culture, pouring cement over stones laid by Dante, Ackerman, and Russ Meyer devotees, but it avoided diluting “Camp” by framing the “Worst Movie of All Time” as an ironic achievement. The book educated audiences and industry alike. When the horror spoof Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes premièred in 1978, it went directly to third-run theaters before fading into obscurity. After the Medveds included it in The Golden Turkey Awards and programmed it in the World’s Worst Film Festival, Killer Tomatoes recouped its money from revival screenings and spawned three sequels and a cartoon series.
The Golden Turkey Awards had subtler effects on the future of bad-movie culture. “When I was in college, one of my roommates had the Golden Turkey Awards book,” says Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000. “It was sitting in our dorm. And I thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone making a show with these?’” There were attempts to bring The Golden Turkey Awards to TV, but Hodgson’s show filled the void when it jumped to Comedy Central in 1989. The Golden Turkey Awards spoke to his plight as a stand-up comedian living and dying in Los Angeles. As the Medveds took pleasure in accidental comedy, Hodgson took solace in riffing on the downbeats.
“It’s like talking back in church,” he says. “Going to the movies was like going to church. Everyone treated them so respectfully. The idea that you have to sit through the credits of all these strangers you’ll never meet, and you have to be quiet. So my church was movies. It’s like the Reformation is happening, and people are able to talk about it, poke holes in movies.”
Mystery Science Theater 3000 never touched Plan 9. (By the late 1980s, Hodgson found it too popular and too obvious, though the program did feature Wood’s lesser-known Bride Of The Monster.) Everything else was on the table, though, and the show took advantage of cheap TV syndication packages just like its ’70s forefathers. Hodgson’s comedy had more bite than The Golden Turkey Awards, but in the end, he was still exposing an audience to movies they’d never find otherwise. Considering the business side of bad movies, the former MST3K host feels comfortable joking at a film’s expense. “They were ultimately the products of rich white men. Whether they were good or bad, it’s rich white men calculating what nice, normal people are going to want. I’m kind of fine with it.”
As Sontag predicted, cherishing the wonders of bad movies was a slippery slope. In 1982, Paramount released It Came From Hollywood, a film composed of B-movie clips and commentary from John Candy, Cheech And Chong, and others, which featured a healthy serving of Plan 9 as well more questionable entries like 1953’s The War Of The Worlds and 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. When VHS exploded in popularity and every movie under the sun was reissued, distribution companies approached the Medveds about using the Golden Turkey logo on boxes. (The stamp wound up on one video release: 1964’s The Creeping Terror.) As the brothers cooled on the bad-movie business (they published two more tomes: 1984’s The Hollywood Hall Of Shame, dedicated to financial failures, and 1986’s Son Of Golden Turkey Awards), Harry slowly passed the torch to his colleague and former movie-theater manager John J.B. Wilson, who expanded his “Golden Raspberry Award” Oscar-night potlucks into a full-fledged ceremony, worthy of CNN coverage in 1984.
Razzie history is noticeably devoid of scrappy, Plan 9-like bad movies. The $37 million flop Howard The Duck took home top honors in 1987. By 1997, Sylvester Stallone had garnered 22 Razzie nominations, with eight wins. The 1990s had its own blissfully unaware shlock cinema—Mystery Science Theater 3000 skewered a select few, like The Final Sacrifice and Future War—but they were video-store filler for a new era of genre-fanzine readers to discover. The Razzies chased a different kind of schadenfreude, one where movies bombed and stars lost luster. Low-budget camp-fests fell through the cracks, relying on violence and sex to attract the late night SCI FI Channel crowd. A demand for movies as product redefined bad movies. Plan 9 From Outer Space isn’t on the IMDB Bottom 100. Instead, there’s Paris Hilton’s The Hottie & the Nottie, Disaster Movie, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2—movies no one wants to watch.
Today, the hunger to discover films as reckless as Plan 9 has turned champions into imitators. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino shepherded a new era of “grindhouse” movies. Direct-to-DVD major The Asylum xeroxes studio tentpoles, adds Woodian CGI, and sells it as camp. SyFy took it a step further by seeing the meme potential of Sharknado, a movie that set out to be as dumb and shoddy as possible. And then there are the few instances of incognizant, idiosyncratic filmmakers warped by the public’s ironic reception. Maybe Uwe Boll deserved the “next Ed Wood” label after Alone In The Dark, but Postal is a director wearing the moniker like a medal. When Tommy Wiseau makes The Room Q&A appearances with James Franco, who plans to turn the making of the cult melodrama into its own movie, how far has the audience betrayed its camp value?
Lights may creep into frame, shot continuity may be ferociously mismatched, or one performance may exist in a tonal universe far, far away, but great failures are earnest. Nearly 400 people wrote to the Medveds demanding the inclusion of Plan 9 in The Golden Turkey Awards because there’d never been a movie with so much passion glowing behind its dilapidated exterior. There’s no damage control protecting it, no post-production reshoots to try and salvage its botched production. It’s just bad—falling so hard, it circles the planet to find a semblance of quality. Neither $100 million star vehicles nor tiny independent films have that luxury. They look shiny, they command talent, they’re made by serious people with serious intentions, and they should be taken seriously. (Disagree, and you may be in for a Twitter battle.)
Ed Wood had the luxury of living in his own universe. The Golden Turkey Awards ends with a quote from one of Wood’s intimate associates: “He was running the thing almost like a one-man show. He was writing the thing; he was directing it; he was in essence the producer, even though somebody else got credit for that role just because that person was putting up the money… and I can tell you one thing for sure: he loved every minute of it.”
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Plan 9 From Outer Space began Tuesday with Matt Singer’s Keynote on the film’s awful, wonderful integrity, and continued with yesterday’s forum on the film’s redeeming qualities, including the specific things Ed Wood did well. And come back tomorrow for a special bonus feature looking at a mysterious Vegas-based filmmaker who’s caught the attention of those who love bad movies.