Plan 9 occupies such rarified air atop the summit of bad cinema that to analyze it represents an intimidating prospect. It is, in fact, an anomalous presence in movie history—a richly textured masterpiece of aggressive incompetence that somehow manages to be laughable and poignant, lazy yet strangely ambitious. Its auteur, Ed Wood, styled himself as a sci-fi heir apparent to Orson Wells—a man who could write, direct, produce, and occasionally act out his own material. His filmography has the feel of a tone-deaf soprano at the head of a church choir: With each successive movie he tried to hit higher notes, and the results were increasingly disastrous. Yet, this apex of his career—his Citizen Kane—makes it difficult to not reward his work with a kind of shaggy respect. Plan 9 is awful, but it’s not from a lack of love for filmmaking or Wood’s endearingly eccentric personality, both of which imbue themselves on every scene.
The opening sequence is appropriately wondrous: Criswell, a tuxedoed pseudo-psychic, sits Cronkite-style behind a news desk and delivers a strange, nonsensical hunk of narration. It’s a great example of Wood’s hilariously stilted dialogue—an awkward, circular kind of blank verse that serves as the linguistic equivalent of a dog trying fruitlessly to swallow its own tail. (“My friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future!”) This incoherent stretch of Greek chorus gibberish is the perfect set-up to Wood’s magnum opus because of the mystified reaction it provokes in the viewer: “Huh?” We then proceed to the opening titles, which are wracked with thunder and cartoon lightning. This also marks the introduction of the film’s theme–a motif of brass-driven duck quacks that sounds like it’s being played by the Little Rascals Orchestra.
Now, my friends, let’s move on to the gamey meat that constitutes the plot. Or, let’s try, anyway—much of what goes on is so strange and confusing that making sense of it is not unlike trying to smash protons into each other. The good people of California’s beautiful San Fernando Valley are dropping like flies, only to have a group of pompous aliens resurrect them as languid zombies. It’s up to a group of 50s archetypes to get to the bottom of all this: Jeff Trent, a square-jawed airline pilot—whose cockpit resembles somebody’s rumpus room (Full disclosure: I’m not exactly sure what a rumpus room is. I just really wanted to work that word in here somewhere…rumpus. Go on, say it three times fast and try not to smile to yourself. I dare you.), John Harper, a hard-boiled detective who, when in deep thought, makes a habit of scratching his temple with the barrel of a loaded revolver, and Colonel Tom Edwards, an army brass guy who spends much of film engaged in befuddled reaction shots (which, given the dialogue he’s listening to, is understandable). These stock characters trace the alien activity to a graveyard of cardboard headstones.
Which brings us to the aliens. Oh, sweet gurgling baby Jesus in the manger—the aliens. This is where things really start getting good…or bad. Whatever. We’ll start with the glittered alien warlord, as played by an actor with the delightfully agreeable name of Bunny Breckinridge. His performance is a hysterical combination of one-part Liberace, one-part Adlai Stevenson, and one part…fuck, I don’t know what. His command ship, bedecked with wrinkled curtains and visible boom mics, looks like it was filmed at (and possibly by) a middle school talent show. This overseer’s right-hand man is Eros, embodied by (another agreeable name) Dudley Manlove. Wood supplies the Eros character with the supplest monologues in the entire film, and Manlove dutifully responds by running off with them. His delivery is both unhinged and ferociously theatrical—not unlike a jittery man tearing through Henry V’s Agincourt speech after way too much Mountain Dew: “You see? You see?! Your stupid minds!! Stupid! STUPID!!!”
The aliens deploy a trio of zombies to thwart the humans, and they’re all played by actors from Wood’s beloved stable of weirdos: Hulking wrestler Tor Johnson (who, despite his gentle reputation, made an acting career playing villainous mutes), voluptuous, raven-haired Vampira (who would later sue Elvira for allegedly stealing her act), and, of course, Bela Lugosi. The teaming of Wood and Lugosi is now Hollywood lore: Lugosi the fading boogeyman, and Wood, a young director destined to orbit along the distant rings of the filmmaking galaxy. Their kinship was real—two men frustrated and struggling. Wood shot some plotless pickup footage of Lugosi, but unfortunately the actor passed on before a project could pollenate. So, Wood peppers Plan 9 with shots of Lugosi in full Dracula garb, making for a somewhat ghoulish tribute. To complete the part, Wood tapped a much younger and taller man to stand in. This creates bewildering continuity errors that only add to the overall charm of the film itself.
It’s been said that great art will reward multiple viewings (or listenings, or readings). Think of the work by the Beatles, or Dickens or Orson Welles. Every new visit to their classics will yield revelations that alter the aura of their greatness. Ed Wood doesn’t belong—and can’t be, shouldn’tbe—on the same footing as those titans. But damned if he wasn’t a guy who dreamed up something crazy and went out and did it. He aimed to make his masterpiece and that’s exactly what we got—though, not in the way he intended. It’s a film that’s known and quoted by movie fans all over the world and will be dissected and discussed as long as the cinema exists—greatness, of its own special brand. Hollywood history is stocked–no, overflowing–with horrible movies made by talented people who didn’t care enough to try harder. Ed Wood’s ultimate achievement makes for an interesting flip–a horrible movie made by a man of little talent who gave it everything he had. He failed, but he also succeeded. Plan 9 from Outer Space might be the worst movie ever made, but it’s also one of the easiest to love.