Before modern contenders like The Room and Troll 2, 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space was considered to be the greatest bad movie of all time. Ironic love for it began in 1980, right when America would forget all about irony. How does it stack up against current anticlassics? Pretty damn well.
Tagline: Unspeakable Horrors from Outer Space Paralyze the Living and Resurrect the Dead!
More Accurate Tagline: Who Did What To the Who Now?
Guilty Party: The Hollywood Baptist Church that funded the film. I don’t normally blame the financiers of noted hacks (of which Wood is the high priest), but in this case I feel I have to. I mean, they had to know what they were getting into. Wood was a gifted flimflam man, even having number of the cast and crew baptized, but there was no way this would be a quality film. You’d think they would have known.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the San Fernando Valley (just north of Los Angeles proper to you non-natives) an old man’s wife dies, something about which the narrator seems oddly gleeful. At the same time, a plane passes overhead. The pilot, Jeff Trent, catches sight of a flying saucer landing in the cemetery where the old man is burying his wife. The old man’s wife comes out of her grave, and… well let’s just say the old guy was a bit of a pimp. She’s easily thirty years his junior, and is played by proto-Elvira Vampira. Anyway, she’s a zombie now, and kills both gravediggers.
Shortly thereafter, the old man (Bela Lugosi) gets hit by a car and buried in a cardboard crypt (that he’s in a crypt while his wife was in a normal plot is the one logic gap the film sees fit to address). Mourners discover the bodies of the gravediggers, calling in the cops, who are led by the marble-mouthed and disoriented Inspector Daniel Clay (Tor Johnson). Vampira ambushes and kills him.
Next door where Jeff Trent and his wife Paula live apparently, Jeff tells Paula all about the UFO and his subsequent debriefing by the military. There’s a short and bizarre montage of flying saucers in Hollywood and Washington, DC, and literally nowhere else, because if you’re aliens, where the hell else are you going?
Anyway, the aliens return to base to talk to the Ruler of the Galaxy. Commander Eros says he was unsuccessful in his attempts to communicate with the governments of earth, and is going to implement Plan 9 to get their attention. This involves turning people into zombies, because people are never so reasonable after a fucking zombie outbreak.
The zombies (now including the old man and Inspector Clay) continue to bother the Trents. The military dispatches Colonel Edwards to the Valley to sort shit out. He fetches Lt. Harper (in charge now that Clay is a zombie) and they all go talk to the Trents. The old man shows up to bother everyone some more, but then gets turned into a skeleton, which was the aliens’ plan for some reason.
Leaving the timid Officer Kelton with Paula, the three he-men find the flying saucer and get on board. There, Eros and his assistant Tanna berate them for being an incredible danger to the galaxy. Eros is worried that humans will develop a “solarbonite bomb” which, if used, would cause a chain reaction and destroy the universe. Jeff Trent isn’t having this hippie peacenik malarkey, so he beats up Eros, damages the ship, and gets out. He finds the other zombies have turned into bones. The ship flies off and explodes.
Life-Changing Subtext: When diplomacy fails, zombies are the next logical step.
Defining Quote: This is a tough one to choose because so much of Wood’s “genius” lies in his peculiar dialogue. My favorite might be the Air Force Captain’s timeless line: “Visits? That would indicate visitors.” It’s this keen ability to define words to anyone within earshot that advanced him so far in the military.
Standout Performance: In a name rescued from a ‘90s-era gaybar, Dudley Manlove shines as the peevish Commander Eros, the alien in charge of implementing Plan 9. With snotty contempt for everyone around him (save the Ruler), Eros doesn’t see much hope in communicating with his assistant Tanna, let alone the people of earth. His shining moment comes in the delivery of his classic line to Jeff Trent, “Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” That’s the kind of tact you want in a diplomat/zombie master.
What’s Wrong: Low budget filmmaking is an art. It involves hiding the financial shortcomings in creative ways and highlighting the best parts of the production, usually the writing and acting. Unfortunately, Wood’s infamous obliviousness to the details sabotages the first: we see the fishing lines supporting the UFOs, the cardboard headstones wobble and fall over, scenes move from day to night and back again without logic or warning, and the scar on Tor Johnson’s face moves in every scene. On the upside, Wood’s terrible writing and habit of casting oddballs rather than actors makes certain there’s no good writing or acting to be seen. So… win?
Flash of Competence: Wood, for all his faults, was not a bad editor.
Best Scenes: Perhaps the most famous element of this film’s production is the fact that, despite dying before shooting began, Bela Lugosi is the star. This is accomplished by using footage Wood had already shot, sticking some narration over it. When a double was needed, Wood brought in his wife’s chiropractor (who looked nothing like Lugosi) to prance around with a cape over his face.
Wood’s obliviousness was well known even to his actors. The man playing Lt. Harper decided to test his director. In his scenes as a hardened police lieutenant, Harper uses the barrel of his loaded gun to gesture at his men, poke the brim of his hat, and scratch his face. This is not recommended gun safety procedure.
Not quite a scene, but I had no idea where else it would go. Eros tells the Ruler that it’s time to implement Plan 9, and the Ruler’s like, “Oh yeah, the resurrection of the dead.” Which begs the question: what the fuck were the other plans? It took them eight before going for zombies, so I can’t help but think they were in order of escalating insanity. And once Plan 9 fails, are they going to send other aliens for Plans 10 and up? And what kind of batshittery do they have planned for those?
The Inspector Clay zombie needs to incapacitate Officer Kelton. You’d think a blow to the head would be the best way to accomplish this. You’d be wrong. The Clay zombie executes a double-handed chop to Kelton’s shoulder like Sloth Fratelli attempting a hug.
Transcendent Moment: You know Plan 9 from Outer Space is special from the opening narration. Criswell, a television psychic by trade, summons all of his unearned gravitas to deliver a monologue that makes zero fucking sense. Let’s break it down point by point, shall we?
“Greetings my friend.”
So, what, there’s only one of us watching this movie at a time?
“We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”
That level of stupidity makes my brain hurt.
“And remember, my friend, future events such as these will effect you in the future.”
We have to stop Skynet!
“You are interested in the unknown… the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing you the full story of what happened on that fateful day.”
Hang on, I thought we were talking about the future.
“We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep the secret any longer.”
Please stop calling me “my friend.” It’s making me uncomfortable.
“Let us punish the guilty.”
The aliens? Don’t they get blown up?
“Let us reward the innocent.”
I’m not sleeping with anyone on your say-so, Criswell.
“My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?”
On second thought, no. It can’t. I’m out.
Plan 9 from Outer Space remains the best kind of bad movie, whose manifold errors produce a gem of unintentional comedy. It’s not the legacy Wood wanted, but it’s the one he earned.