It’s that time of the year again. The month of October is upon us. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together another curated, month-long series with Screen Screams. This year, we will be checking our clocks as we wait in anticipation for the forbidden delight we call “the midnight movie”. And with midnight movies comes a variety of projects that are perhaps too niche for the masses. Today, it’s time to cover what some consider the quintessential “so bad it’s good” movie: Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Has there been a more tragic romance than the one between filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. and cinema as a whole? Take a look at his history and you will see someone who adores the act of moviemaking. Not only did he spend much of his time writing and directing, but he also self-funded the majority of his projects. Top that off with his collaborations with legendary actor Bela Lugosi and you get a filmmaker who wants to pay respects to cinema’s past. One little problem, though: Wood does not have the ability to execute his vision in a satisfying or proficient way. And with Plan 9 from Outer Space, everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
It’s unfortunate because the story promises an interesting blend of science-fiction and horror. Given the “outer space” in the title, it’s no surprise that aliens play a major role in the proceedings. In the first act, we see their invasion of Earth from the perspective of average citizens. This includes people like Colonel Edwards (Tom Keene), Lieutenant Harper (Duke Moore), and commercial pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott). But there’s far more to their invasion than just a simple conquest. They have a plan to resurrect the dead to help them stop mankind from putting the universe in jeopardy. Because as it turns out, the humans are developing a bomb made of solaronite, which has the power to destroy all life.
To list every reason why Plan 9‘s execution of this story is mightily bad would take an eternity. So to keep it simple, let’s start with the fact that it lacks a central focus. One might think this would be entirely from the viewpoint of people like Colonel Edwards or Lieutenant Harper. That way, the audience could latch onto someone who is most like them. However, Wood commits so much to making it an ensemble that not a single person becomes the emotional anchor. Even the aliens, who have clear motivations, don’t get a lot of material. Because it wants to give the humans equal treatment, there are stretches where all we see of the aliens are the flying saucers they maneuver.
Wood also gives special attention to the perspective of the undead. It’s here that he tries to showcase his appreciation of the horror genre. This is most apparent in the casting of the undead folks, as he gives screentime to horror icons like Lugosi and Maila Nurmi. But like the narrative, this attempt at paying respects has no impact. Instead of letting Lugosi and Nurmi be unsettling zombies, the film essentially forces them to “play the hits”. In the case of Lugosi, he gets to sneak around in a caped outfit that isn’t too detached from what he did as Dracula. In the case of Nurmi, she gets to stand around in her usual Vampira persona.
However, there lies a much bigger problem: the casting is the most that Plan 9 ever does to qualify as a horror movie. Just when you think you get to see Nurmi’s character attack someone, Wood cuts away from the action. Even the quick yells from officers towards her are enough for the movie to transition into a new scene. So it’s not like we have a decent glimpse of the resurrected at work. In all fairness, one could argue that these bursts of violence were beyond the film’s schedule and budget. And given that Wood financed it himself, this easily could have been the case. But if that is true, then all that does is expose Wood as someone who cuts the exact wrong corners.
Fittingly enough, cutting the exact wrong corners is part of Wood’s entire personality. From the barely designed sets to the dollar-store costumes, this is a movie that flaunts its low budget to a distracting degree. There are conversations that take place in busy interiors, but you could hardly tell since the backgrounds are often blank walls. On top of that, Wood cannot grasp the idea that bad lighting can accidentally expose things that are not meant to be seen. During a scene inside a cockpit, a bright light beams on the characters, revealing the shadows of boom mics. Sure, this is not an uncommon mistake. But at least a competent director would prompt for a retooled set – or even a reframed shot. Not so with an auteur like Wood…
The only aspect in which the shoddy filmmaking works to Plan 9‘s favor involves the aliens themselves. This is not to say that characters like Eros (Dudley Manlove) and Tanna (Joanna Lee) are by any means layered. Also, like the other cast members, Manlove and Lee have some of the most stilted line deliveries ever put on film. But since the aliens are not meant to replicate human emotion perfectly, they instead feel natural. You would think that a scene in which Eros childishly berates humans about their trigger-happy mentality would have nothing of value. And given that Manlove repeatedly says the word “stupid” like it has three syllables, you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that. Yet for a brief moment, Wood’s intentions translate to the screen seamlessly.
Plan 9 has become quite the cult classic over the years, with many embracing it because of its shortcomings. However, while I admire any attempt to celebrate a part of film history, I’m at a loss as to why this of all movies earned a preservation. Not only is it flat-footed as a sci-fi tale, it’s also just embarrassing as a horror piece. And for the final blow, it’s helmed by someone who should have honed his craft tenfold before even thinking to tell a story this ambitious. It might only be 79 minutes long, but Wood tries hard to make that runtime feel like absolute sludge. To the misfortune of everyone outside of the Plan 9 fanbase, he succeeded. – Mark Tan
Plan 9 from Outer Space is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.