Saturday, 13 June 2009

Plan 9 From Outer Space (USA, 1959)

Muhammad Ali has not been called the greatest boxer of all time; nor Citizen Kane the best of all films; nor Shakespeare the world’s greatest playwright anything like as often as Plan 9 From Outer Space has been called the worst movie ever made. Ed Wood’s infamous Z-movie ‘about grave robbers from outer space’ is beyond abysmal and beneath abominable. It features the least ‘special’ effects ever committed to celluloid; the most stuttering, inarticulate script ever put into production; and acting – much of it by performers who struggle to speak English – so awful you pray for certain characters to be killed just so their screen time can be taken by someone who is at least audible.

Stephen Fry wrote, ‘What can we say about Wodehouse? He exhausts superlatives.’ What can we say about Wood? He exhausts insults. To detail even Plan 9’s most superficial faults would require one to write a book as big as the Bible, Infinite Jest and Proust combined. But it would be an impossible exercise: the English language, the greatest instrument of expression yet devised, falls impotent when tasked with conveying just how diabolical this film is. If aliens arrived on Earth to sit in judgement over human achievement, Plan 9 From Outer Space is, without qualification, absolutely the last exhibit we should ever want them to see.

And yet it is not the worst film ever made. What’s more, it deserves a place in this collection of ‘movies most worth watching’ as much as many a masterpiece or rhapsodically-praised cult classic. Unless your taste is so superb that the cliché ‘so bad it’s good’ has never found echo in your experience, then Plan 9 is likely to afford you as much amusement as just about any movie you’ll ever see. No calamity-prone pre-school play or scandal-stricken politician’s apology was ever as unintentionally entertaining as even the film’s dullest moments, and very few of the great screen comedies generate anything like as many laughs.

The ineptitude is instant and incessant: the film’s second sentence (spoken by nationally-syndicated psychic The Amazing Criswell, with his tongue steadfastly out of his cheek) is, ‘Future events such as these will affect you – in the future.’ And from here the film limps into an inconceivably idiotic plot involving aliens, angered by the US government’s refusal to acknowledge their existence, undertaking to conquer the Earth – for our own good – by re-animating the recently deceased and directing them to stagger arthritically around graveyards. (This is, apparently, the ninth plan they have for taking over the world; what the first eight are we sadly never learn.) Endeavouring to stop them are an airline pilot, an army colonel and various members of the LAPD, whose best idea for combating an invading race of super-intelligent extra-terrestrials and their invulnerable un-dead strongmen is to try to start fist fights – an approach that proves markedly successful and even manages to set one flying saucer ablaze as it hovers over Hollywood.

There are dozens of stories that suggest something of the appeal and incompetency of Plan 9, and the most famous is always worth recounting. According to its credits, the film ‘guest stars’ Hollywood horror legend Bela Lugosi. There would be nothing remarkable in this – the iconic Dracula star, who spent the last years of his life in obscurity, had worked for Wood before in order to fund the insatiable drug habit that helped push him into penury – but, when the movie was made, Bela Lugosi was dead.

Ed Wood had a few minutes of unseen footage of the actor shot for a different (and incomplete) film, and so decided to edit it into Plan 9, over and over again, to make it appear that Lugosi was involved. Whenever the oft-repeated footage of his world-famous ‘guest star’ couldn’t be shoehorned in, Wood used a ‘double’: his wife’s chiropractor, a Dr. Tom Mason. In every shot in which he appears, Mason – who resembles Lugosi as strongly as Samuel L. Jackson resembles a young Shirley Temple – holds up a black cape to hide his face, a feat he maintains even whilst his character is being repeatedly shot in the stomach. The chance to witness so absurd a spectacle should be enough to induce anyone to give 79 minutes of their time to Plan 9.

They would not be 79 minutes wasted. For all its faults, we never leave a screening of the film feeling resentful we have watched it, and that sets it ahead of hundreds of other films that are, by virtually every other measure, infinitely superior to it. There are many movies that are, because of their vapid commercialism, prejudicial politics or sustained tediousness, far worse than Plan 9 From Outer Space – which is, ultimately, one of the world’s most enjoyable movies.

What’s most wonderful about it is that, whilst many legitimately brilliant films grow less effective with age, its appeal will only increase. As filmmaking technology improves, Plan 9’s pitiful production values, un-countable continuity errors and special needs effects will seem increasingly atrocious – and thus watching them will become increasingly hilarious. 200 years from now, Plan 9 From Outer Space may be more entertaining than Some Like It Hot.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Scum (Great Britain, 1979)

In 1977, having been commissioned by the BBC, leading television director Alan Clarke took Roy Minton’s merciless and tirelessly researched script about survival in a youth offenders’ institution, and a cast comprised mainly of unknown adolescents, and delivered Scum, a stark and often terrifying drama that remains one of Britain’s most effective pieces of TV. Realising they had been presented with a minor masterpiece that was sure to prove socially incendiary – by exposing the brutalities of the borstal system and spotlighting a criminalised underclass that was all but ignored on TV – the powers-that-were at the BBC decided not to screen it. And, to make sure it couldn’t be screened in the future, they also decided to ban it.

In 1979, the rights to Scum’s script had reverted its author, and Minton and Clarke were able – because of the quality of the un-broadcast original and a guarantee that Ray Winstone would reprise the central role – to secure funding to re-film it for cinematic release. The result was just as powerful, but far more polished, than the television version and, though often eye-wateringly uncomfortable to watch, was one of the few British films of the 1970s and 80s to achieve any kind of greatness.

With the exception of Mike Tyson and Norman Whiteside, Ray Winstone was the most intimidating teenager in the history of humankind – and so he is ideally cast as Carlin, a ‘light-fingered guttersnipe’ transferred to one borstal because he assaulted an officer at another. Alongside him in his new nick is Mick Ford’s Archer, an eccentric intellectual keen ‘to get through [his] time in his own little way, causing as much… trouble to the screws as possible’, by pretending to be vegetarian and refusing to wear standard issue leather boots; telling the fanatically Christian governor he is considering converting to Islam; and cheerfully undermining authority in any peaceful way he can devise. (He is, for example, punished for painting ‘I AM HAPPY’ on a wall.)

Around them are John Blundell’s Pongo, ‘the daddy’; Julian Firth’s Davis, a pathetic erstwhile escapee who is, by comparison with Carlin and co., underdeveloped and oversensitive, and therefore destined for disaster; and a hoard of other ‘trainees’, sane and disturbed, weak and barbaric, most of whom are abusers and all of whom are abused. Though only youths, they exist inside a de-humanising system imported from adult prisons and follow the clichéd criminals’ code under which no one informs on anyone else. Subsequently, ABH, GBH and eventually even a brutal gang rape are all explained by the victims with the darkly comic refrain, ‘Nothing [happened], sir. I fell, sir’. Meanwhile, the guards, in an attempt to preserve order, condone and even orchestrate the vicious exploitation of the vulnerable.

Much of the plot concerns Carlin’s efforts to become the dominant inmate, and the centrepiece sequence – in which, with the assistance of two snooker balls in a sock, he makes the savage and irrefutable statement, ‘I’m the daddy now!’ – is one of the best in British films. Its quality is such that it recalls two sequences in the first two Godfather films: the moments when Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone decides to move from civilian to mafioso by murdering the men who ordered an attempt on his father’s life; and those when Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone decides to supplant Don Fanucci as kingpin of local crime, and stalks him over the rooftops of Little Italy. Of course, it is a very British version of those scenes: utterly unromantic, prominently featuring a communal toilet, and with repeated boots in the bollocks in place of ingeniously concealed handguns.

While Carlin drives the action, Archer voices its implications – and his quiet, dialogue-rich scenes are the perfect counterpoint to Carlin’s eye-catching explosions of aggression. Mick Ford (and Roy Minton)’s biggest moment comes when, calmly and cleverly, Archer explains to a guard the debasing effect the punitive system has had on both of them – and is reported to the governor for insolence. Nothing like the incessant stream of unnecessary violence its detractors imagined, Scum is often as verbally persuasive as it is visually arresting.

In the early 1990s, long after the first television broadcast of the theatrical release of Scum, the BBC finally allowed the premiere of the TV movie. It’s largely unnecessary to weigh the merits of the two versions – those interested enough to watch one are likely to be interested enough to watch the other, and both are available in the same DVD set – but some comparisons have to be made. Because of the cuts the BBC demanded before they would allow the first film to be shown (before, that is, they decided not to show it all), it lacks the escalating sense of anger and desperation among the inmates that gives the plot its impetus. Without being exposed to the first suicide (which was completely removed from the TV film) and to the horrific realities of the second (which was heavily censored), it is difficult for an audience to accept that the inmates – and, in particular, as avowed a survivor as Carlin or as non-violent a person as Archer – would abandon themselves to the (self-)destructive chaos of the climatic riot.

Just as notable is the absence from the cinematic release of a subplot that is vital to the TV movie: Carlin’s homosexual relationship with a gentle and immature trainee. The scene in which the hyper-macho Carlin – fuelled by a need for intimacy and sexual release that he can barely allow himself to express – asks the boy to become his ‘missus’, is the most beautifully acted in either film, and reveals a helplessness and humanity without which Winstone's character is drastically diminished. Had an equivalent scene, and storyline, been included in the remake, it would have greatly improved an already fine film.

But even without the additional depths that sub-plot would have supplied, the cinema release is still immensely powerful, primarily because it is lightened by a glittering vein of gallows humour, and so never becomes too bleak to bear, and yet manages to maintain the unremitting air of menace that many otherwise excellent prison dramas – and horror movies and gangster films and thrillers – aim for but never achieve. Always violent but never artless, Scum is like a great boxing match: involving and revolting in equal measure.