Budding filmmakers looking for a guide on how not to make a movie are often advised to seek out Edward Davis Wood Jr.’s unintentionally hilarious sci-fi, Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s got everything: gaping plot holes, shoddy sets, makeshift special effects, wooden acting… When I re-watched it for this blogathon, I started writing down the worst lines of dialogue. I stopped once I realised I was essentially reproducing the entire script. But despite all this, the film has an enduring charm and is testament to one man’s belief in filmmaking, no matter the challenges. Some might see Ed Wood as a failure, but that’s oversimplification: he wasn’t inept, simply very unlucky. He truly loved cinema and was passionate about every script and every character; too often he lacked the funding to fully realise his ambition.
In fact, funding was one of the first stumbling blocks for Plan 9 From Outer Space. The Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, keen to make inroads into the movie business, agreed to back Wood’s venture, but only if he agreed to change the original title: Grave Robbers From Outer Space. They objected to the headline mention although not, it would seem, to the actual act of grave robbing, which occurs during the movie. Wood, never one to say no to funding, acquiesced. The church also insisted that the entire cast be baptised. Again, Wood acquiesced.
He started filming in 1956 with $800. The script and ‘plot’ had been constructed around four minutes of silent footage Wood had shot of Bela Lugosi, just before he died in August 1956. The footage, not really anything more than test scenes, had been shot for The Vampire’s Tomb, a planned comeback project. When Wood secured funding from the Baptists, he decided to incorporate his long-term collaborator form beyond the grave. The fact that the footage in no way related to grave robbers or outer space was of little relevance. A body double (in fact Wood’s wife’s chiropractor) was tasked with completing Lugosi’s role. But no fancy special effects for Wood, the man just held a cape in front of his face to hide his identity. For Ed, it was all about the characterisation.
The plot could only have been invented by Wood, a man who defied logic and common sense or anything that resembled them. After an opening preface from Criswell, a prescient physic who predicts that grave robbers from outer space are waiting for us in the future, Legosi is introduced. Grieving the loss of his wife Vampira, he too dies. But all is not lost, as a flying saucer lands in the graveyard where both are buried. It’s sole purpose? To resurrect both Vampira and Legosi, who both turn killers, swiftly disposing of two gravediggers and two police officers. At the same time, Hollywood is being terrorised by some inauthentic-looking flying saucers, who attract the attention of airline pilot Jeff (Gregory Walcott). These objects from outer space congregate, only to be fired on by the army. The pilots of one saucer, Eros and Tanna, return to space station seven and report the incident to their Ruler, who, fearing that the humans’ nuclear weapons will result in the destruction of the whole universe, sets Plan Nine into action.
Compounding the confusing plot are a rag-tag bunch of actors, headed up by Tor Johnson, a Swedish wrestler with incomprehensible delivery and Vampira, who doesn’t do much apart from stare menacingly, and some shocking continuity errors. Wood cuts between day and night shots, from scene to character. The look is decidedly amateur but the homemade, rickety sets (watch out for that leaning gravestone! Beware of the cardboard cutout mausoleum!) lend a forgiving charm. Of course, film is meant to be about suspension of belief. Surely it’s not too much to ask the audience to overlook a few gravestones? Wood’s problem is that he asked the audience to forgive too much.
So far, so terrible. This is something that could only have come from Wood’s mind; surely he was the only director who could have executed these ideas (such as they are) with such confidence and conviction. And it seems redundant to argue that it’s a misunderstood classic, or a pioneering sci-fi movie – because it’s not. It is, however, a bizarre mix of genres with elements of Wood’s fears and frustrations woven into it. Cult wasn’t a word that existed when Wood was making films, and perhaps it’s lucky it didn’t as putting a name on something so different would only have encouraged mass adoption and diluted the power of the director’s vision. He fought to make his film, his way and was never deterred by financial insecurity or practical matters. A unique artist vision does not negate the existence of one.
And if none of that convinces, just consider that Wood single-handedly invented the ‘so bad it’s good’ genre. After it topped the Medved brothers’ Golden Turkey Awards list as the worst film of all time, audiences sought Plan 9 out to see if it lived up to the ‘hype’. Of course, it does. On the surface, it’s easy to laugh at Wood, his endeavours and his ideas about filmmaking, but it’s also easy to find a grudging respect for him. He didn’t set out to make a bad film, and he wasn’t trying to mock the audience, he was trying to make a film that he believed in. Ironically, it turns out that there is money to be made in bad movies, it’s just a shame Wood didn’t discover it in his lifetime.