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Monday, May 11, 2009

Plan 9 From Outer Space

The dubious honor of "Worst Film Ever Made" for Plan 9 From Outer Space (Plan 9) originated with the Medved's "Golden Turkey Awards." This distinction doesn't quite fit anymore, however, as so many people have become fans of the film. In the context of its day (the 50s) Plan 9 was an obscure failure of a film when released in 1959. 1960s and 70s television rescued it. Countless late night runnings in local TV "Creature Feature" productions brought Plan 9's fascinating cheapness to new audiences. With such a wide cult following, much has been written about Plan 9, bringing attention to its quirky writer, producer, director, Ed Wood Jr. Plan 9 has a subtle earnestness to it, which the bad acting, cheap sets, and bad special effects cannot squelch. While it would be easy to see Plan 9 as a totally camp parody of 50s sci-fi, Ed was serious.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The show opens with Criswell making a menacing introduction. The movie itself opens with an old man among mourners at his wife's grave. He later dies too and is buried. Flying saucers arrive, seen by an airline pilot, Jeff. The dead wife (Vampira) rises and kills some grave diggers. The police investigate, but zombie wife and zombie old man kill the girthsome detective (Tor Johnson). Tor is buried, and also rises as a huge bald zombie. The Pentagon sends a Colonel to investigate it all. Aboard the saucers' mother ship, the lead saucer commander tells the alien Ruler how Earth's authorities refuse to listen to their warning about weapons proliferation. The alien "Eros" plans to use Plan 9 to get the earthlings' attention. He plans to raise the earth's recently deceased to cause chaos. Then the earthlings can no longer deny the existence of the aliens. Eros tries his plan for awhile, but three zombies don't cause that much chaos. Due to lack of results, the Ruler takes away 2 of Eros' three saucers. The Ruler's plan is to send the old man zombie (Bela)among people, then use the decomposition ray on the body. That should impress the humans into listening. Eros goes down to earth to follow orders. The old man zombie performs as planned, but it only causes the people to go into the cemetery to investigate. They find the ship. Eros lets them in so he can talk smug and monologue about how earth must be destroyed because earth scientists could (pretty soon now) discover Solarbanite which explodes light particles. This would destroy the whole universe, since light is everywhere. A fight breaks out aboard the saucer between Jeff and Eros. This sparks a fire. The Colonel, the Inspector and Jeff all get out just before Tanna makes the saucer take off. The three men watch the burning saucer fly over Hollywood, then explode. Criswell comes back on with an equally menacing epilogue. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
For fans of 50s B movies, especially sci-fi, there is so much to love. Aside from reveling in the really poor quality of almost everything, there is the mystery of just what Ed thought he was doing. Plan 9 is a "perfect storm" of cheapness that attains a sort to pathos all its own.

Cold War Angle
Plan 9 re-uses the familiar plot of advanced aliens warning (and/or threatening) earthlings for their recently developed destructive power. Eros says that earth scientists are on the verge of discovering "Solarbanite." This is a thinly veiled analogy for nuclear weapons. Jeff says,"So what if we develop this Solarbanite bomb, then we'd be an even stronger nation." To this, the alien Eros exasperatedly responds, "...stupid stupid stupid." Thus, Ed Wood delivers his commentary about Cold War logic.

Bela Beyond The Grave -- Ed Wood Jr. befriended the aging star Bela Lugosi -- famous for his Dracula roles in the 1930s. Over 70 years old, and frail as he was, Bela still had some drawing power on the marquee. Wood gave Bela the starring role as his mad scientist in Bride of the Monster ('55) -- Bela's last speaking role. In 1956, Woods shot a few minutes of Bela in his classic vampire tux. These weren't scripted scene segments, just some impromptu clips. Woods had a vague movie idea for a western-vampire hybrid, "The Ghoul Goes West." But, Bela died in August 1956 before any real work had been done. Wood later worked his Bela clips into his script for Plan 9. Thus, Plan 9 was Bela's last movie, released three years after he died.

Secret Martians -- The aliens in Plan 9 never really say where they're from. The script and early production work, however, referred to them as martians. Mars was the popularly presumed home of flying saucers. The only trace of this remaining in the script, comes when Eros refers to the possibility of earthlings blowing up the sun, which he calls "our sun." We must be neighbors then.

Interplanetary Faith -- Adding to the eclectic mix in Plan 9, Woods added a dash of God. In the saucer, Eros chides earthlings for "not using the minds that God gave you". Jeff questions this. "What do you know of God?" Eros adds this to his list of things to deride earthlings for. "You think you are the only ones to think about God?" Given their behavior, especially Eros's, the martians weren't any better at following God than 20th century earthlings had been.

Soap Boxing -- Ed, as writer, seemed to have several things he wanted to say about life or society. Without much delicacy, his characters occasionally launch into little monologues of Woodian messages. Women are headstrong, but weak. The military brass are hypocrites and liars. Flying Saucers and aliens do exist. Nuclear weapons are a bad thing. Policemen are incompetent boobs, etc. None of these messages have much to do with each other. They're just some things Ed wanted to say. Plan 9 was his soap box.

Lost Halo Luster -- In most 50s B movies, the US military is portrayed as the heroic guardian of the land. Recall Them! and Deadly Mantis to name but two. Notice how Wood was counter-culture. In Plan 9, the military weapons are ineffectual. The top brass are liars -- they know UFOs and aliens were real, but maintain a fiction. Even Wood's "benign" aliens are decidedly not Christ-like Klaatus. In some ways they were as dysfunctional as we earthlings. Eros backhands Tanna for being too outspoken, then goes on to chastise the earth men for being belligerent. No Klaatu here.

Constellation of Lesser Stars -- In addition to Wood's fallen star, Bela, Wood had his other regular character actor, Tor Johnson. Tor is once again cast as the big bald brute. Instead of reprising "Lobo" from the prior two movies, he is the zombie of Inspector Clay. Vampira, (Maila Nurmi), played the zombie of the "old man's" wife. Vampira was a local Los Angeles TV celebrity in the mid 50s. Criswell, who provided a lurid intro and epilogue to the movie, was also Los Angeles phenomenon. Minor note: In Criswell's intro, he uses the movie's original title "Grave Robbers from Outer Space." The rest of the cast were almost-nobody actors or just plain folks, like Wood's landlord, his chiropractor, one of the actor's houseguest, etc.

Bottom line? So much has already been written about Plan 9, but it really has to be seen. It is a classic "acme" of low-budget 50s sci-fi movies. It's almost too easy to watch Plan 9 with the condescending ridicule of MST3K. But, one can enjoy the cheapness without arrogance. Instead, watch it with the context of 50s B sci-fi in mind. Ed Wood wasn't making a parody. He was serious. Everyone in it was serious. They were in Hollywood and making a movie!

1 comment:

Darci said...

Re: "The Ghoul Goes West"

Universal tried this blend of genres in Curse of the Undead (also 1959). Embassy Pictures would try it again in Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1966). Taking the "West" less literally, both Son of Dracula (1943) and The Return of Dracula (1958) had the vampire escape Europe to come west to America.