Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958) -****½
Something that occurred to me recently: four and a half years and nearly 600 reviews, and how many Ed Wood movies have I written up? Not a one. It’s kind of strange, seeing as Wood has become very nearly the poster boy for the cinematic stratum in which I mostly operate, but honestly I think that may be precisely the reason why I’ve shied away from him for so long. Ever since the Medveds crowned him as the worst director of all time in their Golden Turkey Awards, Wood’s profile has been so high that he’s seemed almost too obvious to bother with when there were so many others less well known than him to whom I could devote my energies. I had, however, come to the conclusion a short while ago that it really was well past time I spilled some ink on the man. I figured I’d begin, as is my wont, at the beginning, and tackle Glen or Glenda first, but that’s not how it turned out. Before I got around to Wood’s neurotic airing of his own unbecomingly dainty dirty laundry, I found myself at B-Fest 2004, partaking of the annual ritual of Plan 9 from Outer Space. And truth be told, this movie is just as good a place to start as Glen or Glenda. For as Johnny Depp’s final line in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood puts it, this is the one we remember him for.
We begin with an introduction from the shyster psychic Criswell, which is so stunningly ridiculous that I feel I’ve no choice but to quote it in its entirety:
Notice that this speech is preceded by a title card reading, “Criswell Predicts.” Notice further that Criswell has not, in fact, predicted a goddamned thing.
After a credits sequence that almost makes Plan 9 from Outer Space look like a halfway respectable film, we cut to the scene of a tiny funeral, and if it weren’t for Criswell’s continued narration, you’d again be tempted to believe that you were watching something with a bit of class to it. The principal mourner is an extremely aged Bela Lugosi, filmed here just days before his death, and with no dialogue to fuck things up, you really can believe him as a heartbroken old man just barely up to the challenge of burying the much younger woman to whom he was utterly devoted, and whom he fully expected to outlive him by several decades. Meanwhile, the pitifully small group of extras that were all Wood’s minute budget would pay for actually adds to the impact of the scene by playing up the lonely, isolated existence which now looms up to face the old man. It’s easily the most moving scene Ed Wood ever shot, and it will bear not the slightest resemblance to the rest of the movie. In fact, no sooner has it ended than we join a pair of comic relief gravediggers who are frightened out of their wits by one of the decade’s more pathetic flying saucers, and who are killed shortly thereafter by the risen corpse of the old man’s wife (Maila Nurmi, better known as the late-night TV horror hostess Vampira).
The old man himself dies only a few days later, run down in front of his house by a speeding car, and he is no more cooperative about staying put in his hysterically shitty crypt than his wife. What’s more, Lugosi’s mourners (and he has even fewer than Vampira did) stumble upon the bodies of the dead sextons on their way to their cars while leaving the funeral, bringing the matter to official attention. The police— represented here by Inspector Daniel Clay (Tor Johnson, from The Black Sleep and The Beast of Yucca Flats), Detective Lieutenant John Harper (Duke Moore, of The Sinister Urge and Night of the Ghouls), and uniformed cops Kelton (Paul Marco, also of Night of the Ghouls, who was in its predecessor, Bride of the Monster, too) and Donaldson (Mark Anthony, from Raw Force and The Sinister Urge— are we seeing a pattern here?)— are predictably baffled.
Meanwhile, all of Los Angeles is seized by a wave of UFO sightings. Among the first to see the flying saucers is US Airlines pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott, who believe it or not had something of a real acting career in the Hollywood mainstream), who spots one from his cockpit on the approach to Burbank. The military men who debrief him upon his landing let him know in no uncertain terms that they expect him to keep his mouth shut about the incident. He does tell his wife, Paula (Mona McKinnon, from Jail Bait and Mesa of Lost Women), though, and just moments later, another saucer buzzes their house at such a low altitude that the exhaust from its engines knocks both Jeff and Paula down. The alien craft then passes over the nearby cemetery, where Clay’s investigation is proceeding fruitlessly, and again the dead rise as if beckoned by something inside the strange vehicle. The old man and his wife (and notice that the former is now most definitely not played by Bela Lugosi, who really was dead by the time Wood got around to shooting this part of the film) catch Clay while he’s separated from his fellow officers, and kill him just as brutally as the woman had the two gravediggers. Clay, too, will be rising from the grave before all is said and done.
Finally, when another fleet of flying saucers puts in an appearance over Washington, the military gets involved. A rocket artillery unit under the command of Colonel Tom Edwards (prolific B-western star Tom Keene, who also played small parts in Jungle Woman and Red Planet Mars) opens fire on the invaders, but their weapons do no visible damage. The aliens do, however, withdraw— and at right about the time when the colonel’s men would have run out of ammunition. Colonel Edwards has often been the top man in the field when such situations developed, and it is for that reason that his commanding officer calls him in to discuss the subject of UFOs later that day. Evidently our visitors from space haven’t just been flying around scaring people and occasionally landing to cause the odd bit of trouble. As the general now explains, they have also contacted the US government by radio on a dozen separate occasions. And now that the army’s scientists have perfected a “language computer” capable of translating the aliens’ speech, we still have no fucking idea what they’re trying to say. This is because Ed Wood wrote their dialogue. After playing Edwards a tape of the aliens’ last rambling, incoherent transmission, the general sends him off to Los Angeles, which seems to have become a hotbed of extraterrestrial activity of late.
Yes, but just what in the hell is all of that activity about? We start putting the pieces together when a squadron of three flying saucers put in for refueling and repairs at a space station even cheesier than themselves. The commander of this squadron is Eros (Dudley Manlove, from The Creation of the Humanoids), the chief of all alien operations on Earth; he and his first officer, Tanna (Joanna Lee, of The Brain Eaters), have come to make their report to the ruler of their world (John Breckinridge). Evidently the conquest of Earth really isn’t the aliens’ goal, but rather the establishment of communications between themselves and the leaders of humanity. Eros and his team have thus far been foiled in their efforts because of the stubborn refusal of all Earth’s governments even to acknowledge their existence. Consequently, Eros has decided to get tough, and implement Plan 9: resurrecting Earth’s dead for a show of force that can’t possibly be ignored! (Sadly, we never will learn what Plans 1-8 had been.) That Eros takes such pride in his accomplishment of raising a measly three zombie agents would seem to suggest that he’s hardly the right man for the job, but if the Ruler takes any notice of that, he lets it go unremarked. Indeed, the Ruler is quite pleased with the results when Eros shows him the undead Inspector Clay, but he is concerned about all the attention Eros has been attracting lately at the Hollywood cemetery that serves as his current center of operations. Even though the entire fucking point of Eros’s mission is to get the people of Earth to believe in the aliens, the Ruler thinks it necessary to divert attention elsewhere. So with that in mind, he orders Eros to return to Earth and do something that could have no possible effect other than to draw the terrestrial authorities straight to him.
You remember Paula Trent, right? Well, she already had one brush with the alien undead when the old man broke into her house one night, and chased her all the way to the graveyard, where she was rescued by Kelton and Donaldson. Now she’s about to meet the old zombie again, and she’s going to have company this time. One of the first local people Colonel Edwards meets with when he arrives in Los Angeles is Lieutenant Harper, who brings him along to see Paula and Jeff— presumably because of their recent encounters with UFOs and walking corpses. While the lot of them are talking out on the Trents’ porch, Eros (on orders from the Ruler himself, mind you) sends the old man to crash the party, and then hits him with the “decomposure ray.” The old man instantly shrivels away to a skeleton just moments after shrugging off a dozen bullets from Kelton’s and Harper’s sidearms. This, remember, was supposed to make the authorities stop paying attention to the strange goings-on at the cemetery. Instead, that’s the very first place Edwards, Harper, Jeff, Paula, and Kelton go. We could have told the Ruler that, right?
Once in the graveyard, it doesn’t take our heroes long to find Eros’s ship (in fact, you have to wonder how the cops failed to spot it up ‘til now), and Edwards, Trent, and Harper are soon inside, waving pistols at the alien commander. And now, at last, we will hear from Eros himself just what his purpose on our planet really is. He has come, he tells his uninvited human guests, “Because all you of Earth are idiots!” Truly it is one of the most glorious moments in the annals of cinema. The specific form of human idiocy of which Eros speaks is our species’s marked propensity for seeking out ways to produce ever bigger and more powerful explosions. From the firecracker to the hydrogen bomb— “in which you actually explode the air itself!” (umm… no— but let’s not get into that just now)— humanity has puzzled out the secret of one explosive reaction after another, and used them mostly for destructive purposes. Now our science has progressed to the point at which we might unlock the secret of the deadliest explosive reaction of them all— the solarmanite reaction. This reaction does for the photon what fission does for the atomic nucleus, but it is infinitely more powerful. And more to the point, unlike nuclear fission, the solarmanite reaction is uncontrollable; it will spread inevitably to everything touched by the light of the star from which it was triggered— eventually, that is, to the entire universe. For obvious reasons, Eros’s people don’t trust us with that knowledge, and if they can’t reason with us, then they will destroy us for the good of all life everywhere. It seems like a reasonable enough position to take, when you put it like that, but apparently our heroes don’t see it that way. Instead of sending Edwards back to Washington to talk to the president in person about this urgent matter in whose balance hangs the very survival of the human race, they slap Eros around, wreck the electrode device that animates and controls his zombie slaves, and blow up his flying saucer. The End. I think Eros said it best: “You see?! Your stupid minds— stupid! Stupid!!!!”
Obviously this is a far cry from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Whereas that movie used its inconclusive ending as part of a deliberate strategy for making the audience think seriously about its similar anti-war theme, it looks as though Ed Wood honestly didn’t notice that the conclusion of Plan 9 from Outer Space not only leaves its central conflict unresolved, but actually fails to address it at all. Eros, Tanna, and their spaceship may be just another cloud of aerosolized ash in the smoggy sky above LA as the credits roll, but surely the alien Ruler will be even more determined to stamp out the intergalactic menace of Homo sapiens now that Eros’s relatively peaceful mission has failed amid an outburst of typically terrestrial violence? Surely the effort to keep knowledge of the solarmanite reaction out of human hands must now be ratcheted up to a potentially genocidal pitch? But it seems all Wood has to say in response is, “We sure showed those aliens, didn’t we?”
If that had been the main failing of Plan 9 from Outer Space, no one would care much about it almost 50 years later; it would be just another crummy old sci-fi movie with a sloppy, indifferently written script. But as we all know, this film is far from being “just another” of anything. Rather, Plan 9 from Outer Space has justly earned its reputation as an absolute triumph of failure. By now, you’ve surely heard all about its pie-tin UFOs, its cardboard tombstones which are forever being jostled and dislodged by careless cast members, its Buchananesque toggling between night and day in the “outdoor” scenes. You’ve heard all about the shamefully low standard to which its spacecraft and airliner cockpit sets were constructed, with judiciously hung shower curtains and war-surplus vacuum-tube electronics struggling to look like the state of some sort of art. You’ve heard how “special guest star” Bela Lugosi dropped dead after filming only a few minutes of footage, how the man Wood hired to complete his scenes— who was a full head taller than Lugosi, and half his age— was chosen primarily because his hairline was similar to the deceased star’s, and how Wood tried to get around the lack of resemblance otherwise by having Non-Bela play the entire movie with his Dracula cape held up in front of his face. You’ve read representative snippets of the film’s consistently mind-bending dialogue, and wondered how Wood could have fooled himself into thinking it sounded anything like normal speech. Well it’s all true— all that and more. In Plan 9 from Outer Space, you’ll see the hash Tor Johnson makes of a speaking part. You’ll see an uncommonly pathetic excuse for comic relief. You’ll see an extended sequence in which it becomes hilariously apparent that none of Wood’s actors had any real idea how they were supposed to pronounce “solarmanite.” Conventional and ritualistic though the identification has become, there is a reason why Ed Wood is the poster boy for us B-People. And there’s a reason why Plan 9 from Outer Space is the one we remember him for.