Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Monsterthon 2012: Plan 9 From Outer Space
Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space would be a tricky film to evaluate even without the iconic status it has attained. Ignored in its initial release, Plan 9 was dubbed "The Worst Movie Of All Time" by Michael and Harry Medved (based on the results of a poll) in the early 80s, but has since come to be regarded as not nearly that bad, but rather one of the Great Bad Movies, so laughable as to be entertaining. That's partly true, but it doesn't fully explain the film's enduring appeal. Many other just as technically inept movies exist, but are too dull or unpleasant to earn such honors. Plan 9 From Outer Space has something unique to it- it's a film that fails on almost every technical level (I say almost because the cinematography isn't bad), but maintains an effervescent energy and a vaguely subversive thrill. Part of it may just be that it's one of the few B sci-fi efforts to deliver what it promises, as ineptly as it does so, and part of it just may be that its crude imagery gets to the core of what we want from movies like this.
As introduced by TV psychic Criswell, the film is the story of a group of aliens out to attack the Earth, who have decided to experiment with re-animating dead humans and using them as soldiers. When an old man (Bela Lugosi in some shots) loses his wife (Vampira), she becomes the first ghoul- after he dies in an offscreen traffic accident, he joins her (and, because Lugosi died before the movie was shot, is doubled by Dr. Tom Mason with a cape over his face.) When a police inspector (Tor Johnson) falls prey to the ghouls in the cemetery, he's eventually brought out to join them. Meanwhile, airline pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) starts to get curious when a UFO buzzes his plane, and he and his wife (Mona McKinnon) happen to live next to the cemetery where the aliens (Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee) are doing their dirty work. Eventually they, an inquisitive colonel (Tom Keene), and a police inspector with no sense of trigger discipline (Duke Moore) meet, as the aliens reveal their motive for attacking Earth- they believe the humans are on the verge of developing the solaronite bomb, a light-exploding bomb which has the potential to destroy the entire universe.
Never let it be said that this movie isn't high concept. One of the things that contributes to the good times is just how crazily inspired Wood's story is; he happily throws together old-time horror and Atomic Age sci-fi, as he did in Bride of the Monster, and takes the anti-nuclear subtext of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still one step further, having his villains be misunderstood crusaders out to stop Earth from destroying everything in existence. The movie has mindless zombies reanimated by super science, it has our armed forces duking it out with flying saucers, it has spaceships in cemeteries and Swedish wrestlers rising from the grave. None of this is at all convincing, but it happens, which puts it quite a few levels above many of its contemporaries which promised epic threats to mankind and delivered mostly people talking in small rooms. Plan 9 has its fair share of conversation scenes, to be sure, but Wood demonstrates an odd grasp of pacing, using stock footage and Criswell's breathless narration to keep the story moving forward no matter what.
The film's technical incompetence is at turns off-putting and charming- there are continuity mismatches galore, cardboard sets, and several scenes of normal dialogue dubbed over footage that was clearly undercranked. Pretty much nobody is a seasoned actor, or for that matter terribly used to the concept of speaking and moving in front of a camera, and of course Wood's dialogue has its own rhythms and cadences that have nothing to do with normal human speech. And yet while basic failures like this may make movies like Birdemic or Manos: the Hands of Fate into material for seasoned masochists, for Plan 9 they just add to the charm.
And this is where things get tricky. "So bad it's good" implies that there's a level of ineptitude beyond which a movie must circle back around to be entertaining, but there are films that are both worse than Plan 9 and not as enjoyable as bad films. Some attribute this to Wood's enthusiasm, and there may be a little more validity to this; it doesn't condescend to its audience, and Truffaut had a line about wanting to see either the joy of filmmaking or the agony of filmmaking expressed in every film. There's definitely something of the former here, but how do we really define that? How does this film express that joy where others don't?
It may be that the film holds together based on what virtues it does manage to cobble up. Wood spins a good yarn, and one that's almost daring by contemporary standards. American sci-fi films in the 50s tended to bring up the dangers of the nuclear age, but always qualified that with an understanding of how wonderful and vital our friend the atom was. Plan 9 not only presents its A-Bomb analogue as a wholly negative and destructive force that will inevitably kill us all, it suggests in the hamfisted aggression of its "heroes" that mankind may just be stupid enough to create it, in the name of patriotism and military might. The film has quite a few striking images; the gleaming silver hubcaps that represent the flying saucers may clearly be dangling on strings, but they sort of look like how 50s flying saucers should look. The soundtrack also has its interesting odd moments as well, with an appropriately melodramatic score and strange machine noises.
Could it be that this movie is actually, in a way, good? Well, it feels a little odd to say so, so perhaps it's best to say that this film exists on the fringe where objective notions of good and bad don't seem to apply. It's fun, it's a pleasure to look at and to follow, and none of Wood's many technical blind spots obscures what is an engaging story. It's one of the most fun movies of its kind, and the charm it exerts will always be singular.
Written and Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr