In the world of movies, until The Room came along, one stood out as the most universally derided but at the same time loved – Edward D. Wood Jr’s 1959 magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space.
After watching Tim Burton’s Ed Wood recently I had to go back and re-watch Wood’s ‘classic’ as my memory of it had faded and been muddled by parody and Burton’s version over the years and, despite it obviously not being ‘a good film,’ I’m glad I did.
Let’s not beat around the bush whatever the stories and legends that have grown up around the film are and however genuinely fascinating they may be, Plan 9 From Outer Space is technically terrible.
From the clunky narration by TV ‘psychic’ Criswell, that makes you never quite sure if it’s meant to be a shaggy dog story or a gripping sci-fi horror, to the script that feels, at best, like a first draft and a range of acting that spans the awful to the ridiculous (with a couple of surprising exceptions) it could easily be hard to work out why the film was in anyway elevated beyond the level of hundreds, if not thousands, of other forgotten features.
Rather like the aforementioned The Room though it has been elevated and the reason seems to come from a similar place. For all the wobbly spaceships, cardboard tombstones and footage of Bela Lugosi clearly shot with no real idea what it would or could eventually be used for, the film has an energy and vitality, particularly in its first half, that is captivating.
With a story that spans the continental United States from Hollywood to Washington DC and even finds time to visit an alien space station, it comes across as if Wood really did have some kind of grand vision for the film with a terrific scope and scale on a par with something like Independence Day.
Yes, the story is about grave robbing aliens trying (in a round about sort of way) to destroy humanity, but as it goes on it feels like Wood is, in a very haphazard manner, trying to make a point about man’s inhumanity toward man and our apparent constant need for bigger weapons that will eventually lead to mutually assured destruction.
Maybe I’m over egging it and maybe Wood was simply taking a theme common to the time and exploiting it for his story, but in the way it’s rendered it feels at least slightly more than that.
Along with Wood’s enthusiasm it’s clear that some of the cast are with him for the ride, from the hapless bit parters who play the unfortunate pair of lowly cops (Carl Anthony and Paul Marco) to Tom Keene as Colonel Edwards and even, in their brief appearances, Lugosi and Vampira. These actors all seem to be giving it their all despite the clearly ludicrous script they are working with.
Another stand out is wrestler turned actor and Wood regular Tor Johnson who pre-dates Rowdy Roddy Piper and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in being surprisingly successful in his given role, even if it is pretty basic.
At the other end of the spectrum and fitting in far more with the shaky sets and dodgy dialogue are the likes of Dudley Manlove (alien commander Eros), Joanna Lee (his apparent second in command) and, stealing the film for bad performances, John ‘Bunny’ Breckinridge as The Ruler, the leader of the invasion force who seems to struggle with walking and talking at the same time let alone actually acting or even remembering his lines.
The second half of the film does loose the energy somewhat, especially when we go onboard the alien flying saucer and are stuck with a lengthy monologue about a made up weapon that could destroy the universe and any remaining sense goes right out the window, but it still just about holds together enough to be an enjoyably silly and infectiously energetic affair.
While many films get tagged with the ‘so bad they’re good’ accolade or the ‘cult cinema’ description, rather like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room what makes this stand out from the likes of much of Troma or The Asylum’s output and, I think, has given it such longevity, is that it does seem to be made with a genuinely innocent spirit to want to make a great movie.
It just so happens that the person pushing for that is woefully inept without, it seems, even a basic understanding of the medium they are so enthusiastically trying to use.
Plan 9 From Outer Space then, even more than sixty years on from its original release, still manages to be a captivatingly strange film that despite its many and evident flaws deserves its memorable place in the history of film — though t’s probably no surprise that it’s 2015 remake instantly sunk without trace and that Wood’s career spiralled down hill fairly rapidly after its release (and it was hardly climbing any mountains to begin with).