Plan 9 From Outer Space: The Original Bad Movie We Love Turns 50
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Edward D. Wood Jr.'s legendary turkey in which alien humanoids in model-kit flying saucers resurrect Earth's recently deceased... in a peaceful bid to convince humanity not to develop a weapon that'll destroy the universe... by exploding sunlight. That famous plot, while an oddball cross between The Day The Earth Stood Still and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, is the least schlocky element of Wood's opus, which, among its litany of cinematic sins, features a cemetery of toppling cardboard gravestones, blinking dead people, boom mic shadows so frequent they ought to credited as supporting players, stitched-in footage of by-then-dead Bela Lugosi and lines like, "A flying saucer? You mean the kind from up there?"
Wood wrote and directed his sci-fi schlocker in 1956, but it didn't limp into cinemas for almost three years, and then only about 20 prints were struck. And it would take another two decades hence before a new generation (and later, of course, Tim Burton) enshrined it in the cult canon once and for all. So take a minute or two in this anniversary year to reflect on the Bad Movie We Love that, more than any other, taught us to love bad movies.
Plan 9 From Outer Space's reputation as "the worst movie ever made" made Ed Wood a household name. But -- and this is part of the fascination -- it didn't do so until he was no longer around to enjoy the notoriety. It was the 1980 publication of Michael and Harry Medved's book The Golden Turkey Awards that finally bestowed the fame that had eluded him in life. Given that "worst movie" lists are now a staple of pop culture, it's interesting to consider that up until then, there were few if any such proclamations. The "worst" appellation seems rather to have been dispensed pretty much at random by critics or filmmakers. In 1961 The Village Voice's Jonas Mekas declared of Lee Strasberg protégé Jack Garfein's Something Wild, "If we would judge it by our usual standards, we could safely say that [this] is the worst film ever made. What confuses our judgment is the fact that the film is bad in a very original way, not like any other bad film." In 1967, meanwhile, Woody Allen nominated 1966's bloated The Oscar as "conceivably the worst movie ever made: It's so rich in aesthetic incorrectness."
And even in 1980 it was the public who rescued Ed Wood and Plan 9 from obscurity. The predecessor to The Golden Turkey Awards, the 1978 tome The 50 Worst Films Of All Time, written by Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfus, hadn't mentioned the filmmaker or his opus, even in passing. Which is really weird, given that they'd supposedly trawled through 2,000 movies in researching their book -- itself a major achievement for Harry, then just 17 and a teenager in the days before widespread video releases. Even odder was that Harry was aware of Ed Wood. "My friends were asking how I could include Robot Monster and leave out Plan 9 From Outer Space," he told the L.A. Times on November 13, 1978, without explaining its curious omission. "I mean, I was really getting a lot of flak."
The oversight's a pity because Wood would die of a heart attack less than a month later, on December 10, at age 54. The filmmaker was so forgotten that his passing didn't make the trades and rated only a tiny obituary in the pages of his hometown rag The Poughkeepsie Journal.
In any case, Harry and Randy did democratically include a clip-and-send poll asking readers what they thought the worst movie ever made was. When the results were tallied as the basis for The Golden Turkey Awards, Plan 9 -- which had been replayed endlessly on regional TV stations since the mid-1960s -- took the crappy crown, beating out The Exorcist II: The Heretic by 393 votes to 384. The authors also unilaterally declared Wood the worst director ever, with his transvestism and oddball ensemble very much part of the story.
In the wake of The Golden Turkey Awards, repertory cinemas across the world started playing not just Plan 9 but also the auteur's other films, particularly 1953's amazing Glen Or Glenda (which had been revived at New York's Thalia in 1978, where Wood biographer Rudolph Grey first encountered Wood's work). The so-bad-it's-good notion took hold, with the Golden Raspberry Awards - aka the Razzies - established in 1981. In the ensuing decades, as camp appreciation of bad movies exploded, Woodmania wasn't diluted but went from strength to strength. There would be established the officially recognized Church Of Ed Wood, numerous film festivals dedicated to or inspired by the man, the re-discovery of the film he'd never been able to afford to process and of his late-career porn, re-releases of his movies (including a colorized version of Plan 9), and the live-to-cinemas RiffTrax commentary of the film from the wags from Mystery Science Theater 3000. (An encore performance is scheduled for October 8).
Chief among these tributes was 1994's Ed Wood, which won two Oscars and provided Johnny Depp with his best role of that decade. Tim Burton's affectionate biopic -- which, perhaps fittingly, failed at the box office only to become a cult favorite -- offered a charming portrait of the man, omitting the latter years of alcoholic decline, flophouse degradation and cinematic squalor of Necromania and The Love Feast. It also invented a premiere for Plan 9, which, sadly, never happened, however nice it'd be to think that Ed, Vampira, Criswell and Co. enjoyed the spotlight on 9/9/59.
Instead, Movieline's digging reveals that the film unspooled without ceremony, playing here and there throughout that year. In January you could catch it in Chicago, playing with 1957 British thriller Time Lock, which starred a young chap called Sean Connery making an early screen appearance as "Welder #2". A few months later, Plan 9 was relegated to "Co-feature" to The Trap, starring Richard Widmark, and the double bill ad placed beside a reminder to watch the Oscars -- probably the only time Wood's movie shared any space with the statuette until Martin Landau accepted his Best Supporting Academy Award for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Later that year, Texans could give themselves an early Christmas present by checking out Plan 9 with another British import, 1956's Devil Girl From Mars. From there Plan 9 petered out, only to resurrect itself on TV where it gradually commanded a legion of fans who'd help it rise from the grave, just like Tor Johnson's zombie police officer.
For all that, is Plan 9 From Outer Space "the worst movie ever made"? Of course not. A quick glance at the IMDb's ever-changing Bottom 100 reveals that there are scores of movies considered far worse. But Plan 9 remains the Citizen Kane of bad movies, in that anyone with even a passing interest in cinema owes it to themselves to see at least once. Like Orson Welles' masterpiece, forensic attention to the specifics of the film (The cockpit set! The Bela Lugosi stand in! That narration!) hasn't diminished the fascination it exerts, the entertainment it provides.
Wood's renowned anti-achievement should experience even more renewed interest this week thanks to an outfit called Darkstone Entertainment, which will unveil the teaser trailer to its remake -- simply called Plan 9 -- on the commemorative date of 09/09/09. The reboot was originally to be completed in time for the big day, but writer-director John Johnston announced in a press release last week that he'd delayed filming so the new movie can shoot on 35mm film. Fair enough, but in any format, doing a straight remake of a hallowed howler is an odd, er, plan.
Still, with everybody remaking everything, why not the best-loved so-bad-it's-good-movie of all time? Good luck to the Plan 9 reboot; I sense it might need it. After all, just how do you improve on a classic -- or, in this case, its opposite?
Michael Adams is the author of the upcoming comic memoir Showgirls, Teen Wolves, And Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest To Find And Watch The Worst Movie Ever Made (HarperCollins)