Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cinematic Dregs: Plan 9 from Outer Space

(1959) Written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Starring: Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Duke Moore and Criswell

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Rating: ***

“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.” – Ed Wood (from The Ed Wood Story – The Plan 9 Companion)

“I didn’t have a decent costume for Plan 9. I didn’t know where my costumes were; either I had thrown them away or lost them. What I wore was old, worn out. It looks like I had a hole in the crotch of the dress, if you notice. A hole in the crotch and I thought, oh well, nobody’s ever gonna see this movie, it doesn’t matter.” – Maila Nurmi, aka: Vampira (excerpt from Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by Rudolph Grey)

I’m excited to participate in another outstanding blogathon, The Classic Movie Ice Cream Social, hosted by the one and only Fritzi of Movies Silently. Along with other bloggers, I’m taking a moment to pause and reflect on the movies and movie-related experiences that never fail to pick me up. In many ways, ice cream is the perfect metaphor for the so-bad-it’s-good Ed Wood wonder, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Like its frosty counterpart, it takes me back to a simpler time and makes me feel good inside, although my brain warns me a steady diet would likely be detrimental to my health.

Misguided independent maverick Ed Wood, Jr. shot Plan 9 from Outer Space (Originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space) in Hollywood in late 1956 at the ironically named Quality Studios, a tiny soundstage nestled in an alley between a bar and a seedy hotel. In typical Wood fashion, it was a shoestring production, partially funded by Baptists, hoping to make a religious film from the profits (needless to say, it wasn’t the blockbuster Wood or his backers anticipated). Plan 9 demonstrated Wood’s flagrant disregard for competence, with scenes switching from day to night, tombstones that wobble when they’re brushed against, a hastily constructed airliner cockpit,* and a crypt that suspiciously appears to have been constructed from cardboard. The icing on this half-baked cake is the proliferation of not-so-special effects featuring wobbly flying saucers.**

* “For the cockpit scene, the set decorator took a piece of Masonite board, bent it, and hung a shower curtain behind it, and called it a cockpit…” – Gregory Walcott (ibid)

** Fun fact: Over the years, rumors circulated (some of which Wood perpetuated) that the production used everything from paper plates to Cadillac hubcaps for the flying saucers. In fact, the alien spacecraft were nothing more than plastic models purchased from a local hobby store.

The film opens with a deadpan introduction from Criswell (who also provides the unnecessary narration), profoundly observing that “…future events such as these will affect you in the future.” The story that follows, such as it is, concerns the arrival of alien spacecraft, and an extraterrestrial plot to carry out “Plan 9” (What plans 1-8 were is anyone’s guess), involving the raising and reanimation of the dead. The very human-looking aliens* and their efforts to conquer the earth are thwarted by a plucky airline pilot (Gregory Walcott) and some bumbling police. It all builds to a climax in the alien spacecraft with a ham-handed speech that rips off The Day the Earth Stood Still (surprise: they’re here to prevent earthlings from destroying themselves and the rest of the universe). Unlike Robert Wise’s timeless classic, things don’t work out for the satin-garbed invaders (Implying what? Humanity experiences a victory, but is humanity ultimately doomed? Best not to think too much about what Wood was aiming for).

* Wood eschewed any plans to make the aliens appear (ahem!) alien, due to lack of time and money.

Depending on your point of view, it was a blessing or a curse that Bela Lugosi, who appeared in the Wood flicks, Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster, passed away before he could start work on a third film from the writer/director. Of course, this didn’t deter Wood and his waste not, want not ethos. The filmmaker cobbled together snippets of test footage* from unproduced projects The Ghoul Goes West and The Vampire’s Tomb, and employed his chiropractor, Tom Mason, as Lugosi’s stand-in. Instead of using extensive makeup, or employing an actor who actually resembled Lugosi, Mason appears in his scenes with his face shrouded in a cape. Wood figured none would be the wiser.

* Fun fact: The house that Lugosi walks out of belonged to Wood regular Tor Johnson.

Mr. Lugosi
Nailed it!

Plan 9 also starred several personalities (known collectively as the “Wood Spooks”) from Wood’s circle of friends, including ex-pro wrestler Tor Johnson, television psychic Criswell, and grade-Z actor Paul Marco. True to Mr. Wood’s form, the film features a host of dubious casting decisions, notably the 400-lb, Swedish-accented Johnson as Inspector Clay. Youthful Vampira (Maila Nurmi), who did a day’s work with no lines, at her insistence, inexplicably played the old man’s (Lugosi’s nominal character) deceased wife.

Plan 9 from Outer Space presents a philosophical dilemma, along the lines of “If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to hear it…” If an Ed Wood film evokes genuine enjoyment, is it really that bad? I think not. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quote, Plan 9’s reputation as the “worst” movie of all time has been greatly exaggerated. I opine that this movie is far from the worst, because it never commits the cardinal sin of being dull. Sure, it has terrible acting, atrocious set design, continuity errors galore, a juvenile story, and poor blocking (okay, you name it), but it doesn’t really matter. Plan 9 plunges to unprecedented depths of ineptitude, yet it provides more entertainment value than a dozen modern big-budget tentpole flicks. It wasn’t made by committee or the result of focus groups, nor was it a part of a multi-million dollar franchise with lucrative product tie-ins. After its eventual (limited) general release in 1959, it faded away into obscurity, but like the animated corpses depicted in the film, it refused to stay dead. Plan 9 from Outer Space will continue to baffle and amuse movie fans for decades to come.

Sources for this article: The book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by Rudolph Grey; Documentaries: The Ed Wood Story – The Plan 9 Companion (1992) and Look Back in Angora (1994)


  1. Hi Barry. What a great choice for a happy movie. " I opine that this movie is far from the worst, because it never commits the cardinal sin of being dull." You're right. Plan 9 is a lot more fun to watch than Robot Monster or Burn with Marlon Brando, which is the only movie I ever walked out of from a theater.

    1. Thanks, Joe! Plan 9 is one of the guilty pleasures I don't feel so guilty about.

      I haven't seen Burn, but I take it I haven't missed much. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Isn't campy fun? Somehow I managed to find a copy of Plan 9 in 3D, and my experience viewing it was delightful. Great review!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Hi there! Glad you enjoyed it, too. It's terrible, but a good kind of terrible.

      Looking forward to reading your post! :)