What’s up, weirdos? Welcome to the first installment of a new monthly feature, Awfully Good! We’re here to shine a spotlight on movies that might be low quality, but are still worth your time. To kick things off, we’ll be looking at Ed Wood’s trashterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s the great-granddaddy of goodbad movies, and a natural place to start.
First, though, a few quick disclaimers.
1. When I use terms like “bad” or “trash” or “no artistic value whatsoever,” that’s not a slam. I’d rather watch a rubber monster destroy a city than an Oscarbait film that’s three hours of well-made dialogue.
2. I’m not here to just laugh at a movie’s inadequacies; if a movie’s worth writing about, it’s got to be more than just a trainwreck. To qualify as Awfully Good, movies must also be rad.
3. At the end of the day, these people still put together a movie, and that’s incredible.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the show!
Aliens, Vampires, and Chiropractors
Plan 9 From Outer Space is the defining work of writer, director, and Hollywood eccentric Ed Wood, Jr. It’s a classic tale of aliens raising the dead on Earth to send a message about the dangers of advanced weapon technologies. It’s also one of the most lovably inept movies ever committed to celluloid.
While history has proven that Ed Wood was a competent writer (mostly evidenced by the pulp horror and crime stories he wrote later in his career), he was not a talented director. His fast and loose filmmaking style led to many shots being completed in a single take. To contrast, Kubrick had Shelley Duvall do hundreds of takes of scenes in The Shining. Ed Wood would point the camera at a graveyard full of cardboard tombstones, they’d fall over, and he’d be like “alright everybody, on to the next scene!”
Wood’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s what makes the difference between Plan 9 and the innumerable other cheap cash-in science fiction drive-in movies from the same era. Wood was making movies that he wanted to see, not the movies that would make a lot of money. Coincidentally, his movies did not make a lot of money.
Wood befriended legendary actor Bela Lugosi towards the end of the iconic Dracula’s life, and intended to direct a movie starring his spooky pal. Unfortunately, Lugosi died before shooting was complete, leaving Wood with several of Lugosi’s scenes unfinished. Rather than letting that stop him, though, Wood improvised. He might not have had one of the most iconic horror actors of all time anymore, but his wife had a chiropractor. That man, Tom Mason, would stand in for Bela Lugosi in the remaining scenes.
There was only one problem: Mason looked pretty much nothing like Lugosi.
Wood had a solution: Mason would just hold his cape over his face like Dracula. All the time. Like, not as the first step of a big sweeping gesture, or a dramatic reveal, just all the time. Walking around with his face in his elbow, because that way no one will notice.
In addition to Bela Lugosi and Tom Mason, the rest of the cast included the iconic horror host Maila Nurmi (also known as Vampira), professional wrestler Tor Johnson, television cowboy actor Gregory Walcott, the flamboyant Bunny Breckinridge, and psychic The Amazing Criswell. What a cast! One of my favorite things about Ed Wood is that he gave roles to so many people who weren’t “actors” in the traditional sense. How cool is that? He could have had anyone come in and do rambling, nonsensical wraparound segments for his movie, but he picked the guy that slept in a coffin and claimed that a cosmic ray would make all the metal in Colorado act like rubber! Hell yeah!
So Plan 9 from Outer Space starts with Criswell predicting that “future events such as these will affect you in the future,” before immediately pivoting and talking about how the things you are about to witness actually happened… in the past. Then he asks the audience if their hearts can stand the shocking facts about Graverobbers from Outer Space?! (That’s the original title, by the way. That line would probably be more effective if that’s what the movie ended up being called).
From there, we’re treated to a WHOLE BUNCH of voiceover narration explaining what’s happening. Now, it’s easy to sit in your critic’s chair and bellow “SHOW DON’T TELL,” but it’s important to remember that when this footage was shot, Wood had no idea how it would be used. That doesn’t make a difference on the end product, but I think it’s fun.
“Hey Dracula, you wanna go shoot some footage? Like, just to have? No script.”
“Blah, yes, Ed Vood.”
So we see a somber Lugosi mourning the death of his wife, then two gravediggers that do a pretty half-assed job burying her, then an airplane with a prominent boom mic shadow, then a flying saucer. Whew! Then Bela Lugosi’s wife emerges from her grave, and she’s Vampira! Those wacky spaceships seem to have a plan with Earth’s dearly departed.
The Vampira scenes are surprisingly well-made and effective. They’re cool and atmospheric, and they speak to Maila Nurmi’s onscreen talent. She doesn’t have any dialogue, which is probably part of why her bits work so well. It does beg the question, though, of why she was married to Bela Lugosi’s character. She’s like forty years younger than him.
Then Bela Lugosi’s character gets killed off. Oh, sorry. SPOILER ALERT: Then Bela Lugosi’s character gets killed off. Then it’s back to the boneyard for some more wordy exposition. After an explanation of why Vampira got buried in the ground but Bela Lugosi gets a tomb, we meet some detectives and cops.
The cops in this movie are a riot. They have maybe the worst firearm discipline of any police officers in film history. It’s no big deal for these guys to scratch their temples with a loaded gun, finger on the trigger! When one of the detectives (mountain of a man Tor Johnson) goes off on his own to investigate the graveyard, he encounters Vampira and Tom Mason (who, as you might remember, is not Bela Lugosi)! His bullets have no effect on the reanimated corpses, and he succumbs to the ghoulish duo.
After his funeral, there’s a montage of cheap flying saucer shots, intercut with stock footage of military exercises. The army fires a ton of missiles at the spacecraft, and the aliens retreat to their home base. There, we meet flamboyant space commanders Eros and Tanna, as well as their boss, The Ruler. For some reason, The Ruler is wearing a knight’s costume? Like most of the movie, this is strange and unexplained. The emblem on his chest is clearly a shield with a battleaxe. They discuss some of the science behind their plan to communicate with the people of Earth (Plan 9!) and explain why raising the dead and having them attack people is the best way to get their message across.
I mean, I’ve never been an alien with an important message. For all I know, that is your best bet.
Following all this techno-babble, we’re treated to a mostly useless scene that drags on and on, in which the wife of a pilot can’t think of the word for airplane and assures her husband that she’ll be safe down here while he’s up in his “flying machine.” Also, she’s gonna sleep with his pillow in his place, which is what she does all the time because he’s gone all the time, Jeffrey. She’ll be just fine on her own.
Not long after that, we see some more footage of Bela Lugosi! He walks out of the woods and does some Dracula stuff. I hope you like the clip, because you’re gonna be seeing a lot of it! Then we see some footage of Tom Mason as Bela Lugosi as Dracula as The Old Ghoul Man (they could’ve given the character a name, but where’s the fun in that?) attacking the wife of the pilot, as if to make a point about why she shouldn’t be left alone. She escapes the slow-moving zombie with his face in his arm, and is chased through the cemetery. There, we witness Tor Johnson rising from the grave, bigger and badder than ever! Meanwhile, mismatched shots lead to the scene jumping from night to day over and over again.
I don’t want to spoil the ending of this movie from 1959, so I’ll just say that from this point on, it’s nonstop. The final act of the story features skeletons, a philosophical message about the nature of humankind, some poorly-choreographed fistfighting, and a whole bunch of exploding science equipment. Criswell returns to give us an outro, and credits roll. SPOILER ALERT: Bela Lugosi’s character really doesn’t have a name.
And that’s it! That’s Plan 9 From Outer Space! So now, the real question. Why is this worth watching? Well, I’m glad you asked (and kept reading this far to answer a question posed by the title of this article). Like so many other movies that are written, directed, and produced by the same person, Plan 9 is an obvious labor of love. Ed Wood took his eccentric friends and put together the kind of movie he wanted to see. That’s so awesome! It’s the kind of thing that misfit weirdos will always be able to relate to, and it’s even better that Ed Wood had no discernible filmmaking talent. That didn’t stop him! Incredible! Long story short, if Ed Wood can make a movie out of cardboard, stock footage, and a psychic, and audiences are still watching six decades later, there’s nothing you can’t do. Go out there and make Dracula proud.
If you’d like to watch Plan 9 From Outer Space, and you should, you’re in luck! It’s in the public domain, so you can watch it on the Internet Archive. Check it out, and enjoy one of the best bad movies ever made! For more horror news, ghouls, and reviews, keep your browser locked to Nightmare on Film Street.