Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #5 (of 200) :: As Long as They Can Think, We'll Have Our Problems: Edward D. Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958)

Criswell! Bela! Not Bela! Flying Saucers! Over Hollywood! Tor! Idiot! I mean, Kelton! Vampira! Day! Night! Murdered! Dead! Somebody's Responsible! Up There! Out There! In There! Bela! Again! Not Bela! Again! Bunny! Your lights! Spook detail! Solarmanite! Earth! Idiots! You see! Stupid! Stupid! You Jerk! All must be destroyed! Prove that it didn't happen! Can you?! Beware of future events in your future!

Lets get something straight right off the bat. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is definitely not the worst movie ever made. Hell -- it isn't even the worst movie Edward D. Wood Jr. made. What it is, is an anti-nuke, peacenik-fueled think-piece disguised as an alien invasion flick. True, it's pretty terrible. And most of the film's message is lost in the micro-budget compromises, the jack-knifed execution, and the rabid zeal of its creator not sweating the small stuff like sets, the cast, props, the script, continuity, the F/X, and a star who was dead and buried before filming commenced.

Like Wood's previous sci-fi film, Bride of the Monster (1955), Plan 9 is a bit of anachronism; an Atomic Age creature feature with its feet still firmly planted in the Gothic horrors of the 1930s and 40s. (The interior of Eros and Tanna's ship is less of a cockpit and more of a mad scientist's lab. And the line between radio-controlled zombie and vampire is definitely blurred.) The tale of it's production is the stuff of myth, but the actual truth of Wood and his merry band of wonderful weirdos is even more amazing than the legend:

The conned and fleeced Baptists; the required baptism; the cars, props and costumes loaned out by Karl Johnson, Tor's son, who worked for the San Bernadino police; the recycled footage of the late Bela Lugosi emerging from the woods; or doddering around outside of Johnson's house, meant for another picture; Lugosi's hilariously mismatched stunt-double (his wife's chiropractor AND her licensed hypnotherapist), and never, ever, being sure if we were the ball or the gas-can in the whole Solarmanite scenario -- perhaps the apex example of Wood's constant and persistent tell don't show methodology.

Shot in 1956 under the title Grave Robbers from Outer Space, after an uncredited editing assist from Phil Tucker (Robot Monster, Cape Caneveral Monsters), another overly maligned gonzo filmmaker, the film premiered in March, 1957, but it was over a year before it was picked up for distribution by DCA, which immediately went bankrupt (not this film's fault, mind you), leaving it to Valiant Pictures, who finally released it in 1959 under the Plan 9 from Outer Space banner, bringing into doubt some of the oft told tales on the title change.

By 1961, the film was already showing up in syndication packages, where, like the resurrected ghouls it purports, it kept resurfacing enough times on the Late Late Show to garner Michael and Harry Medved's attention, who put it and Wood at the top of the worst of the worst list in their book, The Golden Turkey Awards, first published in 1980. And whether you agree or disagree with their assessment, which I do not, I will be eternally grateful to the (misguided) Medveds for shining a spotlight on these fractured flicks, officially launching the birth of a B-Picture renaissance via home video; a golden age of prosperity in spite of the hipster element that has glommed onto it this past decade or so.

Plan 9 also holds the ignominious distinction of being the film I've seen the most times in a theater; fifteen (and counting), finally nudging ahead of Ghostbusters (1984) and The Avengers (2012) thanks to its annual midnight screening at B-Fest. So I know this film, inside and out, backwards and forwards, like my doctor's index finger. And every time, as my eyes glazed over while the film once more tried to explain the Horrors of Solarmanite, I swore I was going to abandon the theater and never look back. And yet there I sat, enthralled -- at first by the idiocy, but later for what Wood was trying but ultimately failed to convey.

However, noodle this for a bit the next time you watch this thing: While everyone else in the 1950s went all paranoid, screaming about the Reds under your beds, Wood was a rare voice pleading for tolerance. And no matter how incompetently this was executed, the message still comes through loud and clear -- if you'd stop laughing hard enough to listen.

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"Plan 9 is a delirious movie, but perhaps we are missing the point. Could it be that putting up a crazy facade is the only way that Wood can get away with making a subversive movie? The really peculiar thing, which film historians have overlooked completely is that, when Eros confronts the earthlings only the fact that he has a diabolical laugh and a lot of conceit covers up that what he says to them makes sense ... Eros is Wood's spokesman -- the film's one voice of reason / logic -- and Jeff and Edwards, whom we mistakenly accept as heroes, turn out to be the brutish jerks who rely on the fist and the gun. Don't let the fact that Eros is a maniac throw you off -- at rare moments, he's as sound a visionary as Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Wood just had to make Eros crazy to camourlage his political message so that he wouldn't have trouble with censors. I believe that in this one scene (in the spaceship), in this one godawful, terribly made, poor excuse for a picture, Edward D. Wood is more critical of America's goverment and military strategy than any other director dared to be. Plan 9, as it is, is something far more significant, and therefore better than the "worst film of all time" could possibly be." 

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The Fine Print: Plan 9 from Outer Space was watched via the Image Entertainment DVD. Sources: Rudolp Grey's Nightmare of Ecstacy (1991). What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's five down, with 195 to go.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958) Reynolds Pictures :: Distributors Corporation of America (DCA) / EP: J. Edward Reynolds / P: Edward D. Wood Jr. / AP: Charles Burg, Hugh Thomas Jr. / D: Edward D. Wood Jr. / W: Edward D. Wood Jr. / C: William C. Thompson / E: Edward D. Wood Jr., Phil Tucker / M: Gordon Zahler / S: Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Tom Keene, Duke Moore, Paul Marco, Joanna Lee, Dudley Manlove, Vampira, Tor Johnson, Bela Lugosi


Anonymous said...

As one who grew up in the pre-internet days, pouring over books about classic genre films, it puts a big wide grin on my face to see references to Danny Peary's trilogy of essential "Cult Movies" books.

W.B. Kelso said...

I'm right there with ya!

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