September 17, 2011

The Horror and Hilarity of "Plan 9 From Outer Space."

At Confederate Yankee we don't do a great deal of literary or cinema criticism, but occasionally, something piques our interest like today's offering. There are some works in a given genre of artistic expression so outstanding that one can't be considered truly educated if they have not experienced and appreciated them. These works such as "The Creation" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome, or Penny Marshall's "Awakenings" that are examples of the best mankind can produce. They feed the intellect and elevate the soul. Then there are some works so unintentionally wretched that one can't be considered truly amused and entertained unless they have been exposed—in the broadest sense of the word—to them. "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is such a work.

If it's so wretched, why should you see "Plan 9?" It is unintentionally hilarious. Made with the best intentions and with the hope of commercial and artistic success, "Plan 9" is a delightful example of everything that can be incorrectly done in the making of a movie from casting to editing and everything in between.

At the beginning of each school year, I introduce my students to the idea that there is such a thing as good art, as opposed to mere entertainment. Some things are simply so much better than others that they should be appreciated as the best mankind can do. The rest may be well made, technically accomplished, even enormously entertaining, but simply cannot measure up to good art. In many educational and artistic circles, merely making this suggestion is akin to heresy and immediately labels those making it as artistic barbarians. Relativism, you see, trumps all for such elite connoisseurs of the arts. Equally shocking to the elite is the idea that one might understand what is good art and what is mere entertainment by considering and analyzing easily understood criteria such as the screenplay, casting, acting, production values (props, sets, costumes, lighting, sound, makeup, etc.), music, continuity errors and others.

By seeing such obviously bad examples of all of these criteria, my students are able to identify them in good films where the criteria are more subtle and refined. After writing their first critique, they uniformly tell me that they are far better consumers of movies and are immediately aware of bad editing, continuity errors, poor casting, poor direction and all of the other factors that go into making a movie.

With that in mind allow me, gentle readers, to introduce you to the wonders—and horrors—of "Plan 9 From Outer Space."

“Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)” was written, produced and directed by Ed Wood Jr. It stars Bela Lugosi as the old man, Vampira as his dead wife, Tor Johnson as the Inspector and Gregory Walcott as the pilot. Ed Wood Jr. tried to combine science fiction and horror plots in a single film and shopped the result around Hollywood, but none of the studios would touch it.

Wood was an interesting character, and his life is chronicled in Tim Burton's delightful 1994 film "Ed Wood." Johnny Dep played Wood and Martin Landau, playing Bela Lugosi, won a well-deserved Academy Award for his role in that film. Among Wood's other accomplishments was the film (his first) "Glen Or Glenda?" which is the touching tale of a man who likes to wear women's clothing. Wood was obviously ahead of his time.

Desperate to make "Plan 9," Wood was able to convince a local church to put up money for the production, but there was a catch: The youth pastor—Walcott--would be cast as the pilot/hero.

“Plan 9” is about a race of aliens worried that Earth is about to discover an ultimate weapon—the Solarbonite--that will explode the very particles of sunlight and destroy the universe. The aliens plan (Plan 9) to stop the Earthlings by raising the dead, which they think will force humanity to acknowledge their existence.

The screenplay is ridiculous. The dialogue is silly and Wood is enamored of some words, like "there," often using them three of more times in a single sentence. At times when there should be dialogue there is none, such as when several policemen are knocked down by the exhaust of a passing flying saucer. They stand up and say nothing at all. During the climax of the film, several Earthlings confront two aliens in their flying saucer. The alien’s explanation for their actions—supposedly hi-tech science--makes no sense, and he tells the Earthlings they have “...stupid minds, stupid, stupid!”

The casting is a large part of the deranged charm of the film. Tor Johnson was a Swedish professional wrestler, but his accent made him very hard to understand. The only real actor in the cast was Bela Lugosi who originally played Dracula. But he died shortly after filming began, so Wood replaced him with a younger, taller actor who had more and lighter hair, who unsuccessfully tried to conceal his identity by holding his cape-covered arm in front of his face. Wood couldn't afford to reshoot Bela's footage, so for the rest of the film, the two Belas pop in and out of scenes in random order. The actor who played an Army Colonel had only one facial expression, particularly in the final, climactic scene. Vampira, a local late night TV horror movie hostess played Bela's dead wife. Wood also seems fond of drunks, showing two—one picking up a newspaper, and one swearing off booze—to no particular effect.

Ironically, the only two real actors in the film—Lugosi and Vampira—have not a single line between them. Vampira's entire role consisted of walking around zombie-like and shaking her fingers at people, somehow killing them. And even as Lugosi actually died shortly after filming began, his character is killed in the first 10 minutes of the film, but if the viewer isn't paying attention, it's entirely possible to miss it.

Perhaps the most eccentric performance in the film is the alien leader who seems perpetually about to fall asleep and moves and speaks in slow motion. But the best part of his performance is his obvious reading of his script from a desktop. At one point, he actually picks it up and reads from it.

The film’s production values are endlessly cheesy. The cockpit of the pilot’s airliner had a clock painted on a paper plate, cardboard steering yokes and a $1.98 plastic shower curtain separating the cockpit from the passengers. The graveyard, where much of the action takes place, is always dark and foggy, and the tombstones and single crypt are obviously made of cardboard. The graveyard set is so small actors have to walk at a snail's pace to avoid walking off the set entirely, and when running, are shown running through the same few feet of the set over and over again. The lighting is very poor because of the low budget; there are always heavy, dark shadows behind every actor. The aliens use wooden desks, 1950's radio equipment, office chairs, and even cardboard boxes.
The special effects are probably the funniest part of the film. The flying saucers are obviously made of pie plates, which constantly wobble when flying. The fishing lines that suspend them are often visible and they are always out of proportion to the setting and background. At the end of the movie, a flying saucer catches on fire and looks just like what it probably is: two pie plates doused in lighter fluid.

Wood's direction is a textbook example of movie mistakes. Most of the actors have no expressions on their faces, or only one expression no matter what is happening. Often, the camera switches, for no apparent reason, from a speaking actor to another stony faced, silent actor. The film is full of jump cuts, and there are so many continuity errors the film is essentially one large continuity error. A police Lieutenant is not exactly a poster boy for gun safety, scratching himself with the barrel of his revolver and pointing it at himself and everyone in sight at every opportunity.

Continuity errors occur primarily because movies aren't filmed in chronological sequence. An actor might forget to replace a washed off tattoo after lunch, which suddenly appears on his arm before the viewer's eyes, or a woman who falls in to a lake is dry seconds later. Good directors have people to watch for and eliminate these mistakes; Wood obviously didn't, no doubt due to his tiny budget (supposedly about $60,000).

In one scene, an all black police car departs for a crime scene in the dark. In the next few frames, it speeds to the scene of the crime in daylight and the car suddenly has two lights on the roof and is an entirely different model. A few frames later, when it arrives—again in the dark—it's an entirely different model with white doors and two lights and a siren on the roof. Only once in the film does a police car leave and arrive with the same emergency equipment. The movie flips from day to night and back throughout the film, yet every funeral save one takes place at night in a graveyard where all the vegetation is dead. Airborne, the flying saucers appear to be smoothly rounded, circular and shiny. But landed they are square, have sharp right angles, are dull gray, and have ladders that appear to go nowhere affixed to walls.

The music is of the loud, horn-intense kind common in 1950s horror movies. It's generally dark and dramatic, and the same music plays over and over throughout the film, even when nothing dark and dramatic is happening. At one point, a skeleton is revealed and there is a loud, momentary blast of dramatic music, but it wasn’t scary or dramatic at all. At another, the music dramatically blasts, and in the silence immediately following, a cardboard tombstone topples into an open grave only six inches deep.

In the climactic final scene, during a confrontation in a flying saucer, the saucer catches on fire, takes off and explodes. The aliens have mastered interstellar travel, but can't put out a fire. The explosion--which looks like a firecracker going off in a bundle of talcum powder--doesn’t solve anything. One flying saucer blew up, but the film showed many more and even a space station (which resembles a Dairy Queen sign), so nothing is resolved. The aliens are still around and can return whenever they want.

"Plan 9 From Outer Space" is a cult classic because it's an enormously campy, unintentionally funny film made by a man who did his best. It's not "The Creation," but it's an inexpensive and funny way to spend a bit of leisure time. In a way, Wood found the cinematic immortality he sought, just not as he intended. Life is funny that way.

Posted by MikeM at September 17, 2011 10:56 PM

Twilight Zone moment!: This very evening, I was speaking with a friend about Ed Wood, both the film and the director, Glen or Glenda, and Plan 9!

Posted by: guffaw at September 18, 2011 12:26 AM

Dear Guffaw:

Great minds obviously think alike!

Posted by: Mike Mc at September 18, 2011 12:40 AM


This is great. I recall seeing it - or parts of it 40 years ago. I'll have to dig it up. Thanks for the larfs!

Funny - I just saw Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds' and thought "Ed Wood!" It's a big-budget remake of the timeless... flop. The casting mostly SUCKED, the FX comical - Hell, even "the only thing truly wooden on the set" was Cruise.

Wood managed a sort of quaint unity, after all. On the other hand Spielberg produced pure, expensive kitsch - right down to the point where the alien barfs. The very last scene - a dreamy view of Old Boston - seems ripped straight from the classic story by H.P. Lovecraft. It was just awful. Might make a good contrast/compare exercise.

Posted by: Ran at September 18, 2011 11:36 AM