Image Entertainment // 1959 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 10th, 2002
Unspeakable horrors from outer space paralyze the living and resurrect the dead!
Poor Edward D. Wood Jr., long dead, and not around to defend his honor. Here was a guy who wanted nothing more than to express himself: to tell stories and make movies. Like so many others in post-war society, he was sold the American dream of fame, fortune, and respect and tried desperately to achieve it. He heard the siren song of Hollywood, and swam to its shores, blissfully unaware of the jagged critical rocks beneath him. And what does he get for his troubles, his years of barely scraping by and holding onto his simple aspirations? He gets branded the worst of the worst, the big cheese of big cheese, and celebrated as a name synonymous with total and utter incompetence. In the hustle and bustle of Tinseltown, viewing him as a financial, artistic, and cinematic failure may have been understandable. But that 50 years later people are so vehement that his oeuvre is a series of bungling fiascos is simply not justified. Thanks to Randy Dreyfoos and Harry Medved, authors of the long out of print Golden Turkey Awards, the myth of Ed as a charlatan and a pretender to the throne of celluloid creativity has been perpetuated. In truth, he is an arguably capable, and even inspired director. Beginning with Plan 9 from Outer Space, it is time to rehabilitate poor Mr. Wood's reputation, and relegate those who truly deserve the honor of worst director and, conversely, worst picture, to the trivia question card or bar bet where they rightfully belong.
Aliens from beyond our galaxy are concerned that the Earth is dangerously close to discovering the ultimate weapon: the Solaranite bomb. This bomb would actually ignite the rays of the sun like dynamite, and explode every atomic particle of light, causing the mighty star to supernova. This in turn would cause a chain reaction that would destroy the universe. Having formulated several plans to stop the Earth people from discovering and exploiting the Solaranite bomb, the aliens implement Plan 9: the resurrection of the recently dead. They hope that, by creating a race of zombies, which will in turn march on the capitals of the world, the Earth will recognize the technological superiority of the visitors from outer space and listen to what they have to say. They begin their experiments in a California graveyard.
While Plan 9 is being initiated, an old man is struck and killed by a car, having wandered into the streets while grieving over the recent death of his young wife. As the gravediggers begin their ghoulish job, they see the young wife rise from the grave. Soon, the old man is a member of the living dead as well. Flying saucers are seen soaring over the cemetery and over the city of Los Angeles a few miles away. The US government (who is aware of, but disregards, the aliens' threats) resorts to armed confrontation to try and stop the invasion. Meanwhile, at the cemetery, zombies attack a group of mourners. The police are called in. Inspector Clay tries to uncover the mystery, but he is soon killed by the zombies. Through the technology of the visitors, he is made a member of the living dead as well.
Jeff and Paula Trent live near the cemetery, and over the past few days they have seen many strange and unusual things. Jeff, as a pilot for a major airline, had a recent run in with a saucer and is convinced that all the irregular goings-on can be traced to it. When Paula is attacked by the zombified old man, the police and military show up to ask questions. When they themselves are attacked, they watch as the corpse vanishes in front of them, leaving only a skeleton. With no other answers in sight, the group heads to the graveyard, where an eerie light beckons them. There they find the remainder of the zombies and a spacecraft helmed by Commander Eros and his assistant. Will the zombies take over? Will Jeff and the police overpower Eros and his advanced technology? Will the world be saved or destroyed by Plan 9? The thrilling climax offers the startling answers.
All right, let's set some ground rules. Let's assume that Wood's script is not a 100% literary masterpiece. Let's grant that, when it comes to mise en scène, Wood would have a hard time pronouncing it, let alone achieving same. And let's just admit that the sets, effects, and costumes would need to be hugely upgraded just to be considered awful. So, what do you have? Well, one could argue that you have the worst film in the world. But this is, unfortunately, not true. There are literally hundreds of movies, many made with larger budgets and bigger stars than Plan 9, that are so bad, so cinematically atrocious or hideously boring that Ed's opus is marvelous by comparison. Just because Wood has filmmaking "issues" does not make it necessary to dispel him outright. Compared to Zaat, or Night Train to Mundo Fine, or even recent films like The Ladies Man or Car 54 Where Are You?, Plan 9 is innocent fun, a Mr. Wood's wild ride into the sci-fi horror film. True, the plot can get a little convoluted at times, and the performances run the breadth from excellent to "Egad!," but Wood still manages to achieve the primary function of a film. He gets us to watch, to care, and want to know what will happen next. And then, sly devil that he is, he actually starts to entertain us.
Wood has suffered from what is commonly called the mutation of myth, the slow erosion of the truth over time because it is being recounted and remembered via oral, not archival memory. When Plan 9 was first dissected, it was done so from half remembered TV broadcasts and incomplete, first person accounts. Just how "bad" it was became a sort of cinematic one-upsmanship, critic after critic exaggerating defects and expounding, exponentially on the technical demerits of the film. Plan 9 soon became that great lost anomaly -- a movie created by a retarded cinematic savant, so utterly brain dead behind the camera and devoid of anything even remotely resembling talent that viewing this work would disrupt your voluntary and involuntary motor skills. It did not matter that, to some people, Ed did what he could with what he had: limited funds, less than stellar stars, and bottom of the cardboard box effects. Nope. The true story of Plan 9's fall into disgrace can be viewed as a sort of analytical version of that childhood game Telephone. Without a video or DVD to defend him, the minor mistakes that made up Plan 9's essential flaws were repeated and distorted in time into the GREATEST ERRORS EVER FILMED! And this is not true. The reality is much calmer, much simpler.
In many ways, Plan 9 is the ULTIMATE cinematic experience. It requires absolute attention from the audience, and demands complete suspension of disbelief in order for the premise and performances to work. And these are good things. Movies are meant to engage, to stir and involve. If Plan 9 is going to entertain you, you have to meet it halfway. You have to forgive its flaws and its gaffes and simply enjoy. Mind you, Wood and his cast are up to the challenge. They are going to do their damnest to frighten, scare, enthrall, and entertain you. From the very beginning, when the strange human silhouette emerges and the words "Criswell Predicts" appears across the screen, Plan 9 demands you pay attention. Criswell lets us know that this is a true story (umm...it's not, though) and he is so gung ho, so out to reach his audience, that there is a moment of doubt where maybe, just maybe, he is telling the truth. Even in the scenes of (obviously) fake graveyards, or bad day for night continuity, Wood as his actors play everything straight, never once letting the cardboard crosses or model shop saucers spoil their "taking it all very seriously" tone.
Sure, Wood lost his lead (Bela Lugosi died before Wood even CONCEIVED Plan 9), but look at the performance that does exist here. Lugosi was a great actor, and he shows it. He is truly grief stricken in the opening scenes, his face racked with pain and sorrow. Before he leaves the film forever (to be replaced by a, frankly, not so obvious double) he has a final, moving moment outside the house, flower in hand. But the other actors are not some pack of rejects that spew their lines like spittle from their inbred lips. Tor Johnson may be hulking and Swedish, but he makes a menacing presence with his dead eyes and death mask grimace. Vampira is always fetching, and quiet unnerving as the silent stalker. The ancillary characters acquit themselves satisfactorily. About the only person walking through this film is John "Bunny" Breckenridge (Wood's transsexual friend) as the Great Leader of the alien invasion. He is obviously reading his lines from script pages and cue cards, but he does so in such a laconic, hyper-homosexualized style that he transcends his ennui and becomes an intriguingly outlandish character. You want him on the screen again and again just to see another well pitched interstellar hissy fit.
Wood also exonerates himself as a director. While one can clearly see that he is not working with A material, or even Grade Q set design and construction, there are still some moments of brilliance in the buffoonery. For example, the fact that Wood used stock footage to achieve the army battles is well documented (and scorned). However, Ed does a really effective job of attempting to incorporate the grainy, damaged film into his movie. Sure, the Captain is on an indoor set, and he is obviously motioning to nothing, but Ed does such a good job of editing and employing sound effects that you can believe (again, with the requisite amount of disbelief suspension) that this attack was really one cohesive sequence. The elements let Wood down, not the directing or technique. Or what of the also mocked "doubling" for Lugosi after the start of the film. Sure, the person behind the cloak may not 100% resemble our dead Dracula, but he still makes a convincing substitute, and links the existing Bela material into the film in a clever and satisfying fashion. For every major, laughable moment of movie mishap that Wood delivers on the screen, there are long stretches where the actors are filmed, the dialogue is spoken, and nothing remotely dunderheaded occurs. Maybe the material is not your cup of tea, but at least it is, more or less, served in a clean cup.
No matter how condemned, no matter how often mocked, Plan 9 is a very large part of film history. Why are we still talking about it 50-plus years later if it isn't? Sure, the argument can be made that, like the Hindenburg or the advent of J-Lo's singing career, a major disaster like Ed's ET needs to be remember, to be discussed and scrutinized so that we may all learn from it. However, it seems that the real reason it endures is because, well, it's not that bad of a film. Subtract its flaws, grant out its defects, and discount its downsides and you are left with a genial, straightforward little movie that offers its small treasures in easily consumable parcels. Plan 9 does not rely on huge action set pieces, or unbelievably real special effects. What is does offer is entertainment, pure and simple. It exemplifies what can happen when decent ideas are filtered through mediocre writing talent, enacted by semi-skilled summer stock substitutes, and fed through a distorted director's mind's eye. Will you laugh at the numerous misfires and miscreants? Sure. Is it possible to feel affection and perhaps, a small amount of regret for the way the world has treated Wood and his film? Most definitely.
The version of Plan 9 offered here is probably one NEVER seen by any member of the theater going public at the time of its release. Digitally re-mastered and as sharp as a Vampira's nails, there is only a minimal amount of film grain and scratches to deal with, mostly at the beginning. This transfer alone elevates the film several circles in Hell. If you want to see what it looked like in previous VHS manifestations (and in comparison the quality of the DVD), go to the included trailer. But wear a parka and snow pants, 'cause it's a blizzard of defects. Sound wise, Plan 9 sounds great, with the audio pristine and distortion free. If there were any other reason to buy this DVD, it would have to be for the two-hour documentary included as an extra. Since it would have been difficult for a long dead man to comment on the movie, "Flying Saucers Over Hollywood, A Plan 9 Companion" offers something like the next best thing. It is very informative and comprehensive documentary, if not without a couple of drawbacks of its own. First, the host looks and acts like he just stumbled out of bed and before the camera. Second, the "professionals" like Sam Raimi and Joe Dante offer their observations with a wink to the camera, thinking this is all some sort of smarmy in-joke. (Raimi and friend/filmmaker Scott Spiegel do a recreation of a Groucho Marx-Tor Johnson routine that has little or nothing to do with Plan 9.) Still, for someone who wonders just how and why Plan 9 from Outer Space and Ed Wood earned their reputation, it's a very well put together overview.
Look, bad is bad. Sets fall down when hit by a stiff breeze. Actors shout or mumble their lines like they are taking a polygraph test. The flying saucers make interstellar travel look like the top of a crock-pot. Wood's concept of coherence is to couch his story in nuclear terms, and hope that fear of the bomb and the current (1959) public mania for the monster movie would buy him some cinematic saving grace. Well, it does not. When you can't create convincing outdoor sets, and you're using actual graveyards in some cases, there is definitely something defective in the cinematic sensibility. While there are truly other bad films and even worse filmmakers out their (Coleman Francis, are you listening?), this movie deserves nothing less than to be rounded up with all the other sorry excuses for horror, sci-fi, and fantasy that plagued the drive ins and B-movie theaters during the '50s and '60s and cast out, like Lot from Sodom or Suzanne Sommers from Three's Company. Sometimes, enough is enough. Sometime, people get what they deserve. Ed Wood is not a genius or even a competent fool. He is a bad filmmaker, and Plan 9 is a bad movie.
While there are many failings in Plan 9 from Outer Space, they certainly do not come in the amusement category. Ed Wood is, unfortunately, the victim of a 30 year long smear campaign that no amount of Tide or Biz or Fab can ever possibly eradicate. His name will always be associated with mediocrity and malfeasance, when there are indeed other filmmakers and films that deserve the title, and the tirades, more appropriately. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a fair movie made good by the things it gets right and wonderful in its simple innocent desire to entertain. While some can argue and scoff, or even absentmindedly proclaim it to be a lost "masterpiece" (which it is not), they cannot deny one fact. Ed Wood has a recognizable style and vision that instantly marks movies like Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space as his. Few directors of everyday Hollywood Cineplex fodder can claim this. Ed Wood's current place at the bottom of the cinematic food chain should be usurped by the soulless hacks that grind out sub par romantic or SNL based films like moldy haggis. Wood was an optimist, a romantic with visions of Cinemascope in his eyes when all his talent and circumstances could ever achieve was a blooper reel. But what a bag of blunders it is. Plan 9 From Outer Space is Ed Wood's love letter to film. It's just too bad so many people have sent it back return to sender without giving it a chance.
This court hopes to set a precedent with this ruling: Plan 9 from Outer Space is NOT the worst movie ever made and Ed Wood, Jr. is not the worst director in film history. Both are placed on probation, however, acknowledging that there are still many people within society who will feel threatened or otherwise bothered by the flaws in the film.
Review content copyright © 2002 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companions