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.


Fisky Jay said...

After reading the first paragraph i wanted to see the film, of course i know of Plan 9, but as yet i've never seen it, i'm not sure however i could bring myself to actually pay for it, I'll catch it on channel 4 i'm sure.

Anonymous said...

As much as I love "Plan 9," I think Wood's film "Glen or Glenda?" deserves the honor of worst film ever made. About male transvestism (Ed Wood's, in particular), it opens with Bela Lugosi looking into a crystal ball at traffic on the LA Freeway ("All those cars...all going SOMEWHERE...") and saying "Bevare! BEVARE!!" It's a steaming pile of excrement, and I love it.

John Seavey said...

It's worth mentioning that according to rumor, it wasn't just a drug habit that made Lugosi work for Ed Wood; supposedly, after he turned down "Frankenstein" and watched the movie become a massive hit, he never turned down a role again.

Given his body of work, I can believe it. :)

And thank you for mentioning that despite its reputation, there actually are movies worse than "Plan Nine". As a connoisseur of bad movies, I know all too well that there are some productions out there that make "Plan Nine" look like "Citizen Kane". Which isn't to say that it's not awesomely terrible, merely that while talent has its limits, incompetence is bottomless. :)

Matt Osborne said...

I've seen Plan 9 and enjoyed it; recently I came across The Howling III: the Marsupials, which falls into the same category. Together with The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, you've got a trilogy of movies so bad they're beautiful.

JohnO said...

Ah, yes. The good local TV station in Toronto screened "Great Movies," and also "Not So Great Movies," where I first saw Plan 9. There is definitely a certain glee seeing burning flying saucers that are so obviously two paper plates attached together, strung on a line (a visible line, if I recall), and set aflame.

Brian R. said...

I definitely agree with this. There are movies so bad they're good - like Plan 9 - and then there are movies which are infinitely worse: movies so bad they're just bad. Case in point: the impossibly terrible but only intermittently entertaining "Howard the Duck," which made me laugh twice but otherwise had me sitting in stone-faced irritation. Give me a Z-movie over a C-movie anyday!

Dan Petitpas said...

Yes, Plan 9 is probably the most watchable "worst" film of all time. There are so many movies where you can't even watch 5 minutes of them before walking out, turning the channel, or ejecting the DVD.

When you see this film with an audience, it is hysterical.

Filmmakers have tried to duplicate its insanity and have failed. It's probably the most influential "bad" film ever made since since there's been so many homages to it.

dkbrklyn said...

... and available now as a Netflix Instant Play ...

Anonymous said...

Fabulous piece! One of my most enjoyable visits to the movies was seeing Plan 9 on the big screen (the colorized version, no less) with running commentary by the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000. People were literally rolling out of their seats with laughter, and how many "comedy" films cause such a reaction these days? I'm pretty sure no one ever lost control of their bodily functions while viewing a Will Ferrell vehicle.

MarianneSp said...

Nice piece, well-written, and oh-so-true. Plan 9 is a delight of dumbness.


Scott Jordan Harris said...

Thank you all for your kind and insightful comments – and a particular ‘thank you’ to Roger Ebert, to whom I’m indebted for just about every reader of this piece who did not give birth to me. If you want to watch Plan 9, there’s a link in my first individual comment below that should work. (But is certain not to now that I’ve written that.)

@ Frisky Jay: Luckily, you shouldn’t have to pay to see Plan 9, or wait to see in on TV. It’s now in the public domain and can, therefore, be legally viewed online for free. It’s been uploaded all over the place (and, as dlbrklyn, says it’s apparently on NetFlix), but here’s one link:

@ Anonymous: Although I’d still pick Plan 9 as the most rewardingly awful of Wood’s works, I totally accept your points about Glen or Glenda? Ultimately, arguing over which is the worst film by Ed Wood is as inconsequential as arguing over which is the best film by, say, Jean Renoir. So much of Wood’s moviemaking is to be revelled in.

@ John Seavey: Yes, you’re right: that rumour is always worth mentioning, so thank you for mentioning it here. It’s a fascinating and frightening idea: a curse Lugosi perhaps imposed upon himself.

@ Matt Osbourne: It’s amazing how refreshing a little cinematic bottom-feeding can be, isn’t it? I know it’s now clichéd to say this: but I’m utterly in love with Troll 2, too.

@ JohnO: Whenever I recall a scene from Plan 9, I always suffer a moment of uncertainty about whether I’ve actually invented whatever example of atrociousness I’m recalling. I assume the film can’t actually be quite that bad. And then I revisit it – and it’s worse. (By which I mean ‘better’.)

@ B.R. You’re right. In fact, we really need a new and less lumbering vocabulary to distinguish between the movies that are life-wastingly awful and those that are beautifully bad.

@ dkbrklyn: Thanks for the information. I hope we’ve caused someone to view the film right now.

@ Sloan: Wow! I am enormously envious of that. That is an experience that certainly cannot be replicated with a television and a DVD player.

@ Me / Marianne: Thank you! ‘A delight of dumbness’ is a wonderful phrase with which to sum up Plan 9.

Nathan Rosen said...

Leave Plan 9 alone.

Seriously, quit it. It's not the worst movie ever made, and to persist in applying that label makes you either a lazy researcher or a bully.

I can't defend Plan 9 on its technical or artistic merits. The special effects, set design and costuming are laughable. The script makes no sense, and much of the acting is sub-wooden. And yet it has heart. Wood had no talent, but he had enthusiasm, and he had a circle of close friends who were willing to band together whenever he said, in effect, "Hey, kids! Let's put on a show!" That's genuine love. You'll find in Wood's movies, but you won't find it in an awful lot of modern Hollywood productions.

How can you justifiably call Plan 9 a worse movie than Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen? Or Valentine? Or, gods help me, White Chicks? Doomed catastrophes from the beginning, each and every one of them, and yet they had millions of dollars for production budgets and promotion. Wood was working on a shoestring, trying to make movies despite having to borrow money from friends to pay his rent.

So knock it off with the "worst movie" jazz, all right? At least Ed Wood meant well.

Scott Jordan Harris said...

@ Nathan: Whilst I sympathise with your sentiments about those who ‘bully’ Plan 9, I’m unsure why you’ve decided to direct them at me. If you read my review you’ll see that I categorically state the opposite to almost everything you accuse me of me of writing.

I never once call Plan 9 ‘the worst movie ever made’ – in fact, I write that it is ‘not the worst film ever made’:

‘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... 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.’

If you’d read my piece – and noticed that this entire blog is about those films I feel to be the most worthwhile viewing experiences available to the cinemagoer – you would have seen that. You would have also seen that, despite a blanket acknowledgement of the film's flaws, almost all those who've commented here share my profound affection for the film.

If one of us is guilty of being ‘a lazy researcher’, I would suggest it is not me.

Nathan Rosen said...

I do apologize. My complaints weren't directed at you so much as towards the world at large, which continues to heap undeserved abuse on this movie. While I thought some of your particular word choices were unnecessarily harsh ("beyond abysmal and beneath abominable," really?), your essay was, indeed, much more generous and even-handed than most. I saw the old "worst movie ever made" canard and saw red. Please forgive me.

Scott Jordan Harris said...

@ Nathan: Don’t worry about it. :-) I’m always glad to learn someone has read a piece of mine from beginning to end, whatever the reason. ;-)