Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
by Steve Habrat
In 1956, cheeseball writer/producer/director Edward D. Wood Jr. began work on a small science fiction horror film that would become famous among horror fans and cinema buffs for being absolutely terrible. That film would be Plan 9 from Outer Space, which would go on to be released in 1959 and become the most famous film of Wood’s outlandish career. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a glob of bumbling acting, some of the worst dialogue your ears may ever hear, felt costumes that look like they were made in a twelve-year-old boy’s garage, generous amounts of stock footage, flying saucers made of spray painted plates, and sets made from construction paper, glitter, and super glue. It’s hilariously awful. It’s also probably one of the most enthusiastically made motion pictures you may ever see. Plan 9 from Outer Space is the work of a goofball, that I will not deny, yet there is something to be said about this sloppy B-movie that burst forth from the Atomic Age. It’s not particularly smart or skilled and it is made by a bunch of amateurs, but Plan 9 from Outer Space actually works in a so-bad-it’s-sort-of-good kind of way. It also works its way into your heart because Wood stands tall by his picture from beginning to end, telling this absurd story about saucer men, UFOs, and the living dead without ever cracking a smile, even if we are in tears the entire time. You really have to hand it to this guy. Plus, to be honest, he does deliver a resurrection scene that is just way too cool to be in a movie like this.
Plan 9 from Outer Space begins with an unnamed old man (played by Bela Lugosi) grieving the death of his wife (played by Vampira). After the funeral, two gravediggers begin working on filling in the woman’s grave but are spooked after they hear several strange noises. Just as they are about to flee the graveyard, the gravediggers are attacked and killed by the resurrected corpse of the woman. A few days after the attack, the grief-stricken old man is killed in a freak automobile accident. While burying the old man, the mourners stumble upon the bodies of the two gravediggers. A team of police officers led by Inspector Dan Clay (played by Tor Johnson) show up at the graveyard to investigate the bodies, but soon after their arrival, Inspector Clay is attacked and killed by the resurrected woman. Meanwhile, airplane pilot Jeff Trent (played by Gregory Walcott) and his co-pilot are in midflight when they suddenly spot what they believe is a flying saucer. The two men report their sightings but the government swears them to secrecy. One evening while sitting on their back porch, Jeff breaks down and tells his wife, Paula (played by Mona McKinnon), what he witnessed in the skies, but his story is interrupted by strange lights and a strong wind that knocks them both to the ground. As the days pass, more and more reports come in about strange sightings in the sky and eerie activity in the local graveyard, which forces the government to begin an investigation. As the investigation deepens, the government realizes that the events in the cemetery and the UFO sightings may be linked.
Honestly, it is extremely difficult to try to summarize Plan 9 from Outer Space for someone. The plot is extremely convoluted and disjointed to the point where it isn’t even worth trying to really pay much attention to it. Basically, aliens are raising the dead to get the attention of the humans so that the aliens can warn the humans not to develop a weapon that would destroy the entire universe (go ahead, you can giggle). Plot aside, the real reason to watch Plan 9 from Outer Space is to catch all the goofs that Wood makes along the way. Every shot in the entire film is static, with actors shuffling and bumping their way through cramped sets that look like they were filmed in someone’s basement. To make the film seem bigger, Wood cuts the wooden scenes he filmed with about twenty minutes of stock footage of soldiers firing rockets, airplanes flying through the air, traffic in Los Angeles, and unused footage of star Bela Lugosi, who had passed before Wood decided to make Plan 9 from Outer Space. Then we have Wood’s makeshift graveyard, complete with crumbling cardboard headstones and black tarps doubling for crusty ground. He pumps in some fog, drops a black backdrop down, and single handed manages to construct a few semi-atmospheric shots of Johnson, Vampira, and Tom Mason, a chiropractor who stands in for Lugosi with a Dracula cape over his face, wandering around looking for victims. The graveyard scenes really make this movie, but that isn’t saying much.
When you’re not cringing over the DIY set design, you’ll be doubled over laughing at some of the absolute worst acting you will ever see. If the acting isn’t getting you (believe me, folks, it will), wait until you hear some of the dialogue that Wood hands them. The stock footage of Lugosi is pretty breathtaking, that I must admit, and Vampira is campy fun as she shuffles stiffly around the graveyard with wild eyes and outstretched arms, but nearly everyone else is absolutely horrible. Walcott is trying so hard to be believable as the brave hero who stands up to the martians, but you will just laugh him off rather than root for him. Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler, is asked to play the no-nonsense Inspector Clay and he fails miserably. You won’t be surprised that he excels at playing a mouth-breath ghoul though. McKinnon is simply asked to shriek in horror at Mason, who only reveals his eyes to his victims. Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee shows up as Eros and Tanna, the two aliens who shout classic lines of dialogue like “you see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” Also on board here is Criswell, the narrator who first tells us that the events we are about to see are set in the future and then completely contradicts himself by saying that this story took place in the past. Riiiiiight…
Even at a brief seventy-nine minutes, you could honestly fill a book with everything that is wrong with Plan 9 from Outer Space. Nearly every single scene has some sort of flub, yet that is precisely why the film is so much fun. You’re watching it to make fun of it and laugh your head off right in its face. Given that the film was created out of the radioactive paranoia of nuclear war, Wood certainly doesn’t shy away from slipping in a few comments of his own about the bomb, even if they do get tangled up in a unintentionally hilarious showdown between aliens and humans. They don’t particularly stand out from the countless other Cold War science fiction drive-in movies but they certainly are here, if you can believe it. The film is also worth checking out for Tor Johnson’s resurrection sequence, which is dramatically lit and, shockingly, shot with some sort of artistic vision. It is a brief moment of brilliance and it certainly is cool. Overall, if you’re even slightly interested in science fiction and horror, then Plan 9 from Outer Space is certainly worth checking out on a hot summer night with a cold beer in your hand. It may be the furthest thing from high art, but this is the work of a determined man who completely believed in his own ridiculous vision. Our hats are off to you, Wood.
Plan 9 from Outer Space is available on Blu-ray and DVD.