Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Plan 9 From Outer Space -- A Film so Bad, it Deconstructs Itself

If cult films are the cinematic equivalent of mind altering drugs, Plan 9 from Outer Space (completed 1956, released 1959), is the vodka shot, not just because its creator, Edward D. Wood jr. was a chronic alcoholic, but because, while other cult movies tend offer unique takes on cinematic narrative, Plan 9 rewards us with the sensation of feeling very, very drunk.

"There comes a time in each man's life
when he can't even believe his own eyes!"

Opening on famed TV psychic Criswell, who addresses the camera whilst ranting about "Grave robbers from outer space" (the film's original title before the baptist producers objected), the story details a series of unusual events in and around a cemetery that's apparently so large, a flying saucer can quite happily take off and land in it without being seen. The occupants of this saucer intend to march an army of reanimated dead (comprising of three people; Bela Lugosi as "The Dead Old Man," who was described in the screenplay as "The Dracula Character;" his on-screen wife Vampira--a goth couple if ever there was one--and Tor "I'm a big boy now, Johnny!" Johnson ) upon the capitals of the world whilst the military--roused into action by an off-screen attack upon a small town--and the comedy relief police department, attempt to intervene. Mixed up in all of this is a confused airline pilot who has not only spied one of the UFOs whilst flying an airliner to Albuquerque, but who also just happens to live next to the cemetery in question.
Plan 9 possess a quality unique to truly terribly movies. It distinguishes itself by being so bad that it actually deconstructs itself, and, by extension, 1950s B-movies in general. When one thinks of what a '50s sci-fi film should look like, the wobbling flying saucers, terrible acting and nonsensical narrative flow of Plan 9 come to mind. It's almost as if Wood was deliberately trying to have the last word on '50s B-movies, in the same way that Airplane! (1980) would kill the '70s disaster movie cycle.

The beauty of Plan 9 is that one can make claims like this with a straight(ish) face because they are actually true. It doesn't matter that Wood did it all by accident, or that the film sank without trace until it started playing, years later, on late night TV; Death of the Author--in this case at the tragically young age of 53--allows us to overlook that, and view the film from a post-modern perspective, without having to worry about it being one of those deliberatly post-modern, manufactured "cult" movies such as Sharktopuss (2010).

With all its earnestness, even pomposity, Plan 9 goes about deconstructing itself even before the opening credits. In his introduction, Criswell spouts dialogue so incompetently written, it actually deconstructs the notion of tenses; "Future events such as these may effect YOU... in the future," he claims, but then rants about, "What happened on that fateful day," which either suggests Wood meant that the events in the film are supposed to be futuristic, but that this futuristic danger threatens us in the present (or did at one time in the past), or he failed to pay attention to his own screenplay.

Criswell may be from the 1950s, but when...
where... is his hair from???
An ice cream factory???

Indeed, the whole film has an atmosphere of "Oh, it'll do" about it. We are expected to believe, for example, that a piece of bent Masonite and a shower curtain is the cockpit of transcontinental passenger plane. The pilot of this plane, incidentally, is the film's hero, Jeff Trent, played by Gregory Walcott, who had just come off a 10-week shoot at Warner Bros. Principle photography on Plan 9 would last 4 days. He goes through the film seemingly wondering if his career will survive it. Walcott did the film as a favour to one of the Baptist producers because he happened to attend the same church; the expression on his face throughout the whole ordeal makes the viewer wonder if the actor is questioning his faith.

"Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?"

At other times, it's as if the film is mocking the artifice of its own medium. The Brechtian graveyard set, with its cardboard headstones that are forever wobbling or falling over, is contrasted with the fairly realistic backyard set in which Trent discusses his UFO close encounter with his wife. It's as though Wood was trying to draw our attention to the artifice of everything because he wanted us to get back into the habit of using our imaginations. Similarly, grainy stock footage of the army firing rockets is intercut with shots of paper plate flying saucers dangling against a painted sky that could do with an ironing, while Tom Keene in an army uniform observes the battle whilst standing in front of a sheet. As Johnny Depp, in the title role of Tim Burton's biopic, Ed Wood (1994) snaps, "Haven't you ever heard of suspension of disbelief?!"

There's suspension of disbelief and then
there's just plain crap.

Except, all this really is accidental. The film's make-up artist, Harry Thomas, declined to put his name on the credits because Wood refused to allow him the 15 minutes it would have taken to make up the actors playing the aliens, as aliens. Duke Moore, as Lieutenant Harper, scratches his head with his own gun because he wanted to see if Wood was paying attention and call take two. Evidently, he wasn't. 

He evidently gave so little of a shit
that he didn't even bother to point it out himself.

Former TV horror hostess Vampira (aka Maila Nurmi) wore an old dress with the crotch missing because she figured no one would ever see the film. The flying saucers are literally on strings (though, in fairness, they are off-the-shelf model kits, rather than paper plates). In one scene, the flying saucers are matted in over shots of Hollywood, only they're slightly transparent because Wood insisted that they be painted reflective silver rather than matt-green, which would have looked silver in black-and-white anyway. Still, at least it proves Wood had an uncompromising vision. It may have been the wrong vision, but it was uncompromised nonetheless.

At one point, as our hero is leaving for a flight, Mrs Trent goes into a bizarre monologue about being in bed alone with his pillow; "Sometimes I reach over and touch it, then it doesn't seem so lonely anymore." This being a film made in the 1950s, and one financed by Baptists to boot, Wood couldn't have just had here say, "Gee, honey, I wish you'd bought me that industrial strength vibrator we saw in Vegas," but why include a speech that conjures up suspicions of pillow humping at all?

In very real terms, Wood certainly qualifies as an auteur. He usually had total artistic control over his productions--the exception being Bride of the Monster (1956), ironically the only one of his non-porn films to turn a profit (well, it would have done had he not accidentally sold over 150% of the the shares to various backers)--and, counter to what Burton's fine biopic might claim, he never aspired to work within the studio system. He'd actually defected from it; in reality, he'd quit a pretty good job at Universal as a night shoot co-ordinator to go off and make films on his own. And he was certainly a brilliant producer, because he seemed to be able to talk money out of anyone. But it's the anti-goodness, rather than badness, of his artistic style that makes him endearing. His impatience translates into boyish enthusiasm, as if he were a kid making a film in his backyard with his friends, and rushes it through because what matters is seeing the finished product, rather than getting it right. Plan 9 is a film made in innocence. It's what happens when someone with more can-do attitude than actual talent attempts to create a monumental work of cinema. It's flaws are legion; huge Tor Johnson gets visibly stuck as he attempts to crawl out of his own grave and instead of going for a retake, Wood (who edited) just jump cuts to the actor/wrestler standing up.

You had one job, Tor. ONE JOB!

 Oh yeah, and Tor's headstone has no name on it, even though the name on the headstone is a major plot point; the d├ęcor in camp alien ruler Bunny Breckinbridge's mothership consists of drapes, an antique desk and army surplus radio equipment; the chiropractor Wood hired to stand in for the deceased Bella Lugosi (who appears in less than two minutes worth of actual footage) looks nothing like the film's purported star; Eros (Dudley Manlove), ace space-soldier, spends ten minutes giving a speech about how superior his race are to humanity only to sum it up with, "Your stupid minds! Stupid! STUPID!."

In short, Plan 9 doesn't get a single thing right, which is what qualifies it for greatness. Any idiot can make a bad movie, but it takes Ed Wood to achieve such pure anti-perfection.