Should I Watch..? 'Plan 9 From Outer Space'
What's the big deal?
Plan 9 From Outer Space is an independently produced sci-fi horror film released in 1959 (although it was shot in 1956) and is the most famous film directed by the notorious Ed Wood. Wood considered the film to be his greatest work and it concerns aliens in flying saucers attempting to teach humanity a lesson by resurrecting and controlling the recently deceased. The film stars Gregory Walcott, Vampira, Tor Johnson, Mona McKinnon and also contains silent footage of Wood's good friend - silent film star Bela Lugosi shortly after the shoot - which was shot for another production and edited into this film. For years, the film vanished into obscurity until 1980 when interest in the film was revived after critic Michael Medved declared it the worst film of all time. It has since developed a cult following and has inspired a number of remakes and documentaries about the film as well as Wood himself.
What's the big deal?
After the funeral of an old man's wife and while the mourners leave the graveside, a plane flies overhead towards Burbank, California. Both the pilot Jeff Trent and his co-pilot experience a blinding light caused by a flying saucer, which rushes past the plane and lands at the cemetery. Shortly after, two gravediggers are murdered by a silent female zombie with extremely long fingernails - the body of the old man's wife has come back to life!
After the old man, who cannot cope with his grief, commits suicide by walking into traffic, the police begin their investigation into the murders of the gravediggers. Inspector Daniel Clay wanders off and is himself murdered by the resurrected old man while at the nearby Trent residence, Jeff shares his story with his wife Paula and admits that the military have sworn him to secrecy. Jeff decides that only by working with the police will they attempt to understand what is happening...
Colourized and restored trailer
Lt. John Harper
Col. Tom Edwards
Inspector Daniel Clay
Old Man / Old Ghoul
Edward D. Wood Jr.
Edward D. Wood Jr.
Release Date (USA)
22nd July, 1959
What's to like?
Much like the equally incompetent and legendary clunker The Room, part of the charm and appeal of Plan 9 From Outer Space is the sheer amateurish nature of the production. Crude-looking sets, wooden performances and editing clunkers are numerous and unavoidable but to most viewers, this is exactly what makes this film irresistible. In a sense, it's critic-proof so whatever I say here won't make much difference.
There is a good deal of ironic humour to be found, whether its in the stilted delivery of walking gatepost Walcott or the hilariously awful flying saucers wobbling about on the strings visibly holding them up. My favourite cast member is probably John Breckinridge who delivers possibly the most camp portrayal of an evil alien overlord I think I've ever seen. However, credit must go to Tom Mason who doubled up as Lugosi after the tragic death of the film's one true star - despite looking nothing like him and being noticeably taller and having a different hairstyle. Sure, all he had to do was walk slowly around the place holding his cape in front of his face so no-one knew it was him but considering he was the chiropractor to Wood's wife and had zero acting experience, he should emerge from this steaming wreckage with some dignity intact.
- The film was funded by a Baptist church with several members acting as executive producers or even appearing in the film. In fact, they objected to the film's original name Grave Robbers From Outer Space and successfully forced Wood to change the name.
- Nurmi played the Vampira character as TV's first horror host, appearing in her own show from 1954. She insisted that her character be mute as she disliked all of the lines written by Wood for her.
- Copies of the original 35mm film reel are extremely rare with only twenty copies known to exist. The film itself was colourized in 2006 (and was the version I saw) with only minor modifications. But even this had its moments - at one point, a character's skin turns inexplicably green before turning back again.
What's not to like?
The film opens with a overly-melodramatic narration from then-popular psychic Criswell who pointlessly informs us that "future events such as these will affect you in the future" and from there on, it doesn't get much better. All of the cast deliver lines as though reading them for the first time, the staging is hammy as well as incompetent, the special effects make the use of the work "special" redundant and Wood's editing is spectacularly ham-fisted - take the shot of police cars speeding through the streets in daylight before arriving at their destination supposedly minutes late in pitch darkness. Together with a moronic script and dialogue that contradicts itself, Plan 9 From Outer Space is a remarkably hard film to follow - which is something considering how easy it should have been.
But that is the problem with this film - the very thing that makes it almost unwatchable is the very thing that draws audiences in and has done for many years. It really is The Room of its time, although Wood was oblivious to the film's myriad of faults whereas I suspect Tommy Wiseau (the "genius" behind The Room) knew exactly what sort of infamy he was after. In a sense, this is possibly the one film that defines Wood's career - a film so staggeringly bad that it grants Wood a kind of immortality. I wonder if the cast and crew of Sharknado are hoping for the same in fifty years time?
Should I watch it?
Unless you have no sense of humour, I suggest watching Plan 9 From Outer Space just once and then never again. It will give you a new perspective on cinema and make you reassess just what a truly dreadful movie is. It's not scary, thrilling or even that interesting unless you get your kicks from really bad films but the film has stood as a benchmark for bad movies for years and I suspect it will continue to for many more to come.
Great For: home commentaries, Bad Movie Nights, Wood's unique reputation, sci-fi geeks
Not So Great For: anyone looking for a horror film, the careers of any cast member involved, Tom Mason
What else should I watch?
The Fifties were a boom-time for sci-fi with the space race sparking interest in life beyond our atmosphere. Classics like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Blob and The War Of The Worlds helped establish several genre clichés that continue to this day. But aliens weren't the only thing causing fear and panic as the atomic bomb's shadow fell across Hollywood. Mutant monsters caused by radiation seemed to pop up everywhere from the giant ants in Them! to the grand-daddy of them all, 1954's Godzilla.
These days, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to bad cinema although whether this is a good thing depends on your taste. Personally, I can think of many other things I would rather do than sit and watch the likes of Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever, The Room, Santa With Muscles or anything with anyone called Kardashian in it. People have cottoned on to the fact that bad movies can still generate attention and self-promotion opportunities and frankly, that is all that people like Tommy Wiseau are interested in.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox