Listed as probably the worst film ever, Plan 9 From Outer Space is extremely low-budget film that lives on due to its total incoherence.
Many consider Plan 9 From Outer Space to be the worst film ever, (if you do, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room would like a word with you!) It is obviously a low budget film, that suffered not only from its lead actor dying part way into production, but also from ‘Wood’en dialogue, poor acting and the cheap special effects. Sci-Fi Saturdays continues to look at the trend of horror and sci-fi being mashed up at the end of the 1950s.
Billed as both Plan “9” From Outer Space and Plan “Nine” From Outer Space, you’d think this would be an omen of things to come. The trailer starts with the bizarre prediction that the “grandchildren of some of the people in this theater, will not be born on Earth,” before launching into a description of the return of Bela Lugosi. It then switches gears to describe this new race of walking dead, “from the bowels of hell,” played by Lugosi, Vampira and Tor Johnson. Nothing stops their “death ships” (aka flying saucers). What earthly power can stop them? It ends with the equally ludicrous proposition that “it could be happening, right now!”
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Plan 9 From Outer Space is not a good film. But it tries so darn hard to be! After a brief introduction from Criswell, a psychic – who lets the audience know that the film will be giving you “all the evidence, based only on the secret testimonies of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal” – an old man (Bela Lugosi) buries his wife. A pair of gravediggers fills in the hole, but are menaced by Vampira (Maila Nurmi), who is the old man’s wife, resurrected by a flying saucer passing overhead. The saucer is also noticed by the pilot of a passenger airline, Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott).
The old man, grieved at the loss of his wife, sniffs one final flower and then steps in front of oncoming traffic. He is buried in a crypt, not in a grave like his wife was, as this is part of his family tradition. Two mourners find the bodies of the dead gravediggers (who will dig their graves?) and Inspector Clay (Tor Johnson) is called to the scene. Next door to the cemetery, where Jeff and his wife Paula (Mona McKinnon) live, they discuss what Jeff saw while flying. He’s peeved that he can’t say anything due to the Army brass, when a series of lights and strong wind knocks them both down. The lights also are seen in the cemetery which is right next door.
Clay is attacked by the old man, who is now 12 inches taller wearing a cloak over his entire face, and his wife, Vampira. Lt. Harper (Duke Moore) and two Officers Larry (Carl Anthony) and Kelton (Paul Marco) discover Clay’s body, believing him murdered. And if he was murdered, “somebody’s responsible!” UFO’s continue to be spotted over the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, and Washington DC, where the Army, using some of their finest stock film footage, launch a missile attack. Colonel Edwards (Tom Keene) provides a crash course in conspiracy theories about UFO’s, fires, earthquakes, and other major disasters to a young infantryman.
Meanwhile at Space Station 7, Eros (Dudley Manlove) and Tanna (Joanna Lee) land their ship for regeneration, and meet with The Ruler (John ‘Bunny’ Breckinridge). Eros lets The Ruler know they’ve been unsuccessful in dealing with the Earth governments and will now enact Plan 9, which will use electrodes to control the dead, which they’ve already used on two dead earth people. He muses that the people that can think (the living) are more scared of those that cannot (the dead). Back at the house next to the cemetery, Jeff has to go to work. He would feel safer if his wife Paula would lock herself in the house. She promises him she’ll be in there, while any weird things that happen in the cemetery will be over there, and the saucers will be up there.
The old man, who now looks like Bela Lugosi again heads after Paula. Once he gets into the house, he’s very tall and covers his face for some reason. He moves slowly so she can get a head start, and chases her into the cemetery, which is next door to her house. Both the old man and his Vampira-looking wife chase Paula, who is startles when Detective Clay comes back to life and crawls out of his grave. Paula escapes and the three re-animated dead return to Eros’ saucer that has landed in the cemetery. Eros and Tanna return to the space station to show The Ruler how well their plan is working, but the lose control of Zombie-Clay, and he almost strangles Eros.
Colonel Edwards and Lt Harper visit the Trents to get a statement, when the old man shows up and attacks Officer Kelton, knocking him out. The aliens use a ray to disintegrate the old man, turning him into a pile of bones. That’s when the Earth humans decide to go next door to the cemetery (they drive). Paula stays in the car with Kelton while the others investigate the eerie light, but Kelton is knocked unconscious (again) by Zombie-Clay, who takes Paula. Edwards, Harper and Jeff find the saucer and enter it, threatening Eros and Tanna with guns.
Eros calls the stupid (stupid, he says!) and explains that they are only trying to protect the universe from the stupid humans. One day they may invent ‘solaronite’ which, if ignited, would detonate every atom in every ray of sunlight throughout the universe. That is why they have come to destroy the humans. To save them! Kelton and Officer Larry find a large pole and whack Zombie-Clay over the head saving Mrs. Trent. The two officers discover the saucer and knock on the door, which distracts the aliens enough that a scuffle breaks out. In the fight the saucer is set on fire and Edwards, Harper and Jeff escape, while the saucer takes off like a ball of fire, exploding in the night sky over the San Fernando Valley (or Hollywood). The zombies have all turned into skeletons. Criswell returns to ask the audience, “Can you prove that it didn’t happen?”
“Plan 9? Ah, yes. Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead. Long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary gland of the recently dead.” – The Ruler
History in the Making
You have no doubt heard of Plan 9 From Outer Space in one of two contexts: either in hushed tones as “the worst movie ever,” or because you watched the Tim Burton biopic called Ed Wood (1994). I will also go out on a limb that you have never actually seen the film. And that’s okay! Sci-Fi Saturday’s is here to provide that service, and take one for the collective team!
Edward D. Wood, Jr. is largely regarded as the worst director of all time, but again that could be up for debate. I was first introduced to the concept of Ed Wood’s films in 1982 with the star studded clip-film, It Came From Hollywood (check it out on YouTube!) The film presented comedians such as Dan Aykroyd, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, John Candy, and Gilda Radner introducing clips from really bad B-movies, mostly from the 1950s. The films are grouped by subject matter (i.e. Mad Scientists, Giants & Tiny People, and Gorillas), where the comedians make jokes over the top of footage from these films, like an early version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. One whole section was devoted to Ed Wood, discussing his films such as Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and, of course, Plan 9 From Outer Space.
The film is probably also best known as the last film that Bela Lugosi “starred” in. Wood had developed a friendship with the aging actor, and used him in his previous film, Bride of the Monster. The footage that Wood had shot of Lugosi was actually for an unmade film titled The Ghoul on the Moon. It’s painfully obvious that the majority of the scenes with Lugosi are shoehorned into this film, as they don’t fit contextually or in continuity. The trailer and much of the supporting advertising for the film purports that it stars Bela Lugosi, but he may be in only 10 minutes of the final cut. His death occurred part way into the film, and in order to complete the shots Wood hired Tom Mason, his wife’s chiropractor – who was at least a foot taller than Lugosi, to fill in. These scenes are painfully obvious as well.
Plan 9 doesn’t add anything to the genre of sci-fiction or horror, but it sure borrows a ton from both genres! One of the reasons this series of articles is being written in chronological order is to assess films that are precursors and influencers of later films. Taken at a macro level, Plan 9 From Outer Space is not so different from other films coming out in the late 1950s. It was a mash-up of science-fiction and horror, just as many films recently reviewed on Sci-Fi Saturdays have been. In fact, on paper, the plot was not so dissimilar from other films. There were many scenes that use classic imagery from both genres, such as the flying saucers over a city, or the ghoul (Tor Johnson) with an unconscious girl in his arms. But, then enter Ed Wood!
Ed Wood was a film fan. He loved cinema, and as with many people that enjoy something wholeheartedly, he attempted to make one of his own, in this case, a movie. There are so many elements in Plan 9 that appear to have come from the previous decade of science fiction film, and from the previous three decades of horror films. But ideas, good or not, improperly executed will result in garbage.
It is almost like Wood understood that certain moments equalled genre elements in films, but was naive about their specific usage or context within the film. Like a socially awkward individual that wants to have friends, and goes through the motions of making friends, without really understanding the context, or emotional responsibility of such an act. Plan 9 draws from previous works like Lugosi’s White Zombie (1932) and Dracula (1931) for elements of the undead wandering among mankind. The aliens attempt to communicate with the governments of Earth, but cannot be understood initially due the differences in their technology, much like in Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956). There also seem to be some similarities to The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) as the aliens wish to save the Earth from itself with their bombs and their guns. Plan 9 also uses stock footage to tell part of its tale, just as the films mentioned above, and others had done before it. But somehow in the assembly of all these elements, any narrative flow and story continuity were lost.
Even some of the most low-budget films would take a crack at inserting at least some modest commentary about the human condition. When done properly it can elevate a film far above the cost it took to produce. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a perfect example. The modest $114,000 budget might be evident in the locales or special effects, but the plot, and the story provide solid, coherent storytelling, that talks about class, race, and gender all within the context of a zombie/horror film.
For all the effort Wood may have put into the film, it’s $60,000 budget attempts to make certain commentary on world issues, but fails miserably. That could be due to Wood’s use of dialogue. He definitely had things he wanted his characters to say, but his dialogue appears to be an amalgam of what he thought people spoke like, generalizations of the world at the time and heavy-handed plot exposition. For example, he wanted to have the aliens be a race that was concerned for the people of Earth. Eros recounts the evolution of weapons of war, “First was your firecracker, a harmless explosive. Then your hand grenade.” He continues the list ending with the fact that, “your scientists stumbled upon the atom bomb. Split the atom. Then the hydrogen bomb, where you actually explode the air itself.” This is actually a good progression (save perhaps the delivery by Dudley Manlove), but Wood then moves into absurdity espousing that the next step is solarnite, where the atoms in the rays of sunlight would be detonated killing everything the sun touches throughout the universe. It goes even deeper as Eros uses the allusion of the sun being a gas can, the rays of sun being gasoline, and a ball soaked in gas is the Earth. Light the Earth on fire and chain reaction occurs. Uh, what was the point again?
The Science in The Fiction
The sort of weird scientific voodoo as expressed above really puts this film in another class. Science-fiction films don’t have to be steeped in science, but there’s usually some basis in fact for their decisions. Such as, spaceships can’t fly like airplanes at this time, but in the future, or with a sufficiently advanced race they might jet around like in Buck Rogers or Star Wars.
The fact that the titular plan of the film is described as “the resurrection of the dead [by use of] long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary gland of the recently dead,” makes it seem like a kid that knew some medical sounding words strung together an explanation that would go over everyone’s head, making him sound smarter. Again, Wood knew what he enjoyed in other films, but seemed incapable of actually fusing these elements together into a new story. All elements seemed like a Frankenstein’s monster of a puzzle, attached with bailing wire and bubble gum.
The Final Frontier
One thing this film does provide is the use of the first openly gay actor in a sci-fi film. John Breckinridge, also known as ‘Bunny,’ was an openly gay man in the late 1950s. Something that was often dangerous. He had become a friend of Wood’s and a member of the small troop of character actors used in his films. At one point, he had contemplated travelling to europe to get a sex change, but had to put off the trip due to legal issues. His performance while flawed (he literally reads a page from the script while on camera), provides some camp and variety to the often dry performances of the other actors.
Please don’t get the impression that Plan 9 From Outer Space is some diamond in the rough, worthy of a re-make to clean up the minor imperfections. This movie is a hot mess from start to finish, but it’s also quite endearing. Scenes switch from daylight to night on the edits. While this could be that some of the day footage was supposed to be corrected as ‘day-for-night’ it’s really just a function of the low budget. There was not enough time to shoot multiple takes. This could also be the reason for numerous continuity issues. Strings were seen on the flying saucers. It’s all “one and done”, as they say.
The other thing “they say” is to “show, don’t tell.” This is the adage that it’s better to use the camera to show the elements of the plot and the characters reactions, rather than having the dialogue explain it all. Well, Plan 9 “tells,” and quite often! Not just one character, but most of them! If you’ve never seen this goofy film, I urge you to find a copy online, grab some adult beverages, and gather a few friends around for what will be an awesomely bad time!
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.