Day 397: Reeling The Rotten – Worst Films, Part 4

originally published January 31, 2013

“Can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?”

When I set about implementing a regular feature in which I examine some of the worst films/television/music/games ever made, I knew I would eventually have to turn my reluctant gaze to the most infamous bad movie ever made. No, I’m not talking about Battlefield Earth, nor is this about Showgirls. This one reaches further into the past, into the murky swamp gas of 50’s sci-fi B-filmery. This is Plan 9 From Outer Space.

For what it’s worth, I don’t consider this to be the worst film of all time. I sat through Manos: The Hands Of Fate last year, and found it to be far more dreadful. I would also rather watch either movie over having to sit through White Chicks again. Plan 9’s reputation started when authors Michael and Harry Medved declared it to be the worst of the worst in 1980. By that time, the film had spent over twenty years lulling audiences into debates over the true tragedy of time wasted, and its director and several stars were dead. In 1994, Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp (surprise) in an award-winning bio-pic of fast-talking, cross-dressing, clueless director Ed Wood, covering the film’s creation. It even got a mention on Seinfeld. Two, actually.

So what qualities earn a film that dubious title in our almighty popular culture of being “the worst”? A rotten story? Bad acting? Clunky directing? Technical blunders? A shoddy attempt to cover up a gaping hole in continuity?

Plan 9 From Outer Space soars through all five. Let’s start with the story.

I’m not going to run through the entire plot here; I’ll simply offer a sprinkling of the highlights. Aliens are trying to warn the governments of Earth that their continued development of weaponry will eventually lead to the discovery of a weapon that can “explode sunlight molecules” and wipe out the universe. Failing to deliver their message peacefully (and, I suppose, not thinking to pick up a damn phone), they decide to bring the dead back to life on Earth. Three dead people, that’s it. Somehow that will stop humanity from building weapons.

Also, the only people who are involved in foiling this plot are an Army pilot, his wife, a colonel and a couple cops. We get the suggestion that other battles with aliens took place around the globe, but when Plan 9 is hatched, it’s a pretty small-scale operation. Even aliens have to save a few bucks, I guess.

That’s Tor Johnson, Swedish professional wrestler, as one of the cops/zombies. The extent of his acting chops is that particular expression. Carl Anthony (another cop) was a stunt pilot who used to fly planes blindfolded. Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, the first horror host on American television, played another zombie. The narrator (pictured below) was portrayed by Criswell, a popular American psychic who once predicted Denver would be struck by an alien ray that would convert all steel to rubber.

Wood didn’t spend a lot of time on casting. He mostly employed his friends, and most of these friends wound up with little else on their IMDb resumes other than Ed Wood movies. Those with some notable talent – like Plan 9 leading man Gregory Walcott, who had a long Hollywood career and even snagged a cameo role in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood – didn’t work with Wood very often. The thing is, Ed Wood simply wasn’t a great director.

Criswell’s narration (and it’s really worth the fifty-five seconds in that link, just to see how terrible a movie can be) is one symptom of Wood’s rickety grasp on the art of storytelling. He shows up at the beginning of the film, telling viewers of the importance of the ‘future events’ in the film, which he refers to (only a few seconds later) as having taken place in the past, “on that fateful day.” He addresses the audience as “my friends” four times in less than a minute.

Also, the narration contains the plea for the guilty to be punished – who “the guilty” is, we never really learn since the bad guys blow up in the end of the film. And Wood achieves such a delicate mastery of wordsmithery when he advises us that “future events such as these will affect you in the future.” Heavy stuff indeed.

See that shadow at the top of the frame? That’s the boom microphone’s shadow. You see that thing twice in this movie. At one point, Jeff (the hero) describes the flying saucer he saw as “cigar-shaped”, yet we all clearly saw that they were saucer-shaped. He refers to his wife by the actress’s first name (which I’ll forgive, since Han Solo made that same mistake with Carrie Fisher).

The cops scratch their heads with the barrels of their guns, with their fingers on the trigger. Patio furniture magically relocates from the patio to the bedroom. Because they combined soundstage shooting with night-for-night stock footage inside the same scene, we watch it go from day to night to day again. Several times. This movie is more full of holes than the Albert Hall.

There was one more little hiccup that made Plan 9 From Outer Space such a fantastic flop. That hiccup is veteran horror movie superstar, Bela Lugosi.

Bela played Dracula in the original (well, the original American post-silent film hit) Dracula. In the later years of his life, he befriended Ed Wood, and began shooting a handful of scenes to be used in a movie called Tomb Of The Vampire. Then Bela died.

As a tribute to his fallen friend (and because, let’s face it, Vampira and the Swedish wrestler weren’t going to bring enough splash to the poster), Ed Wood decided Bela needed to be in his new sci-fi movie. He’d shoehorn the footage of Bela he’d already shot into the story, then hire a double – in this case, his wife’s chiropractor, Tom Mason – to stand in where necessary, holding a cape up over his face. That’s some top-notch pre-CGI trickery right there. Who cares if Mason was taller than Lugosi, and looked nothing like him? It was movie magic!

It took three years before Plan 9 was released at last, in 1959. It catapulted from a smattering of theatrical showings into the B-movie junk-pile for late-night television.

As dismal as that sounds, it also wound up making Ed Wood famous, albeit long after the fact (and after his death) and for an unpleasant distinction.

But hey, that’s showbiz.

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