Resurrecting the dead with extraterrestrial ray guns may not be the best method to end nuclear escalation. Such is the only lesson that can be gleaned from 1959 Plan Nine from Outer Space. Newly colorized by Legend Films, Ed Wood Jr.’s distinctive independent film was celebrated with a re-premiere at San Francisco’s Castro Theater March 11, 2006.
Popularly but incorrectly named as the worst movie ever made, Plan 9 ... has been a punching bag for nearly a half century. This folk-art version of The Day the Earth Stood Still has a daydreamy approach to a science fiction. It concerns a flying saucer attack by fey aliens (one played by an actor who rejoices in the name “Dudley Manlove”) who reanimate three lumbering cadavers: TV host Vampira, whose clutching digits give new meaning to the phrase “spirit fingers”; the massive wrestler Tor Johnson and a decrepit Bela Lugosi, who died during production. Aspects of the film are legend: Wood’s behind-the-scenes transvestitism, for example. Wood is particularly beloved for his desperate attempt to cover up the death of one of his lead actors. His solution: hiring a slumming chiropractor named Dr. Tom Mason to play the part of the late Lugosi, simply by having the actor cover his face with an opera cape.
Just the as easy answer when naming the best movie ever made is Citizen Kane, the easy answer when naming the worst is Plan Nine From Outer Space. The slander began with Harry and Michael Medved’s 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards. The brothers claimed 393 voters elected it “worst film”, when responding to a poll in their earlier book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. In the unrelated if suspiciously similar 2004 documentary, The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made, director Brandon Christopher puts Plan Nine at third worst film. Moreover, the 2004 film’s narrator, Carlos Larkin, snickers at the cardboard steering wheels in the airplane cabin sequence in Plan 9…just as decades ago, in 1982’s It Came from Hollywood (a forgotten cine-manque documentary) John Candy was crowing “Check out that dime-store shower curtain behind the pilots!” Currently, MST3K’s Mike Nelson, doing a narration on the colorized DVD, tries to squeeze a few more laughs out of Plan Nine's failures of art direction.
The Legend Films version demonstrates that technique of colorization are improving; the company, which worked on colorizing some of Howard Hughes films for Scorsese's The Aviator. Actors who once looked shrimp-pink are now the fine old beige of used pantyhose. The color brings out lost details—the poignantly-wrinkled sheets hanging behind the cast as backdrops, for instance. And the vibrant purple of the aliens’ satin tunics (thriftily recycled from some forgotten Robin Hood epic) seem even more outré than ever on a space ship.
It’s not the color that matters, though, it’s the film’s unchanging strangeness that have kept it alive for half a century. Plan Nine… has poetry,especially the elegant gibberish of the Solaranite speech: "Take a can of your gasoline. Say this can of gasoline is the sun. Now, you spread a thin line of it to a ball, representing the earth... The flame will speedily travel around the earth, back along the line of gasoline to the can, or the sun itself...Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, you explode the universe. " Plan Nine is the first movie in which an extraterrestrial upbraids human race in the hysterical, furious terms we bad monkeys deserve.
Jeff Trent: So what if we do develop this Solaranite bomb? We'd be even a stronger nation than now.
Eros the Alien: Stronger? You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!
And Plan Nine… has pathos. The film is the swan song of Lugosi, seen tottering in front of a modest San Fernando Valley ranch house. Playing a geezer just widowed by “Death, the Proud Brother”, Lugosi is exactly what he seems: a ruined and misused actor mourning for his life. (In Robert Stone’s novel Children of Light a character notes that Lugosi was the greatest German language Hamlet ever. “Yes,” retorts his listener, “and when he got to Hollywood, Abbott and Costello were waiting for him.”)
Wood, a World War 2 vet, plotted the film as a conflict between aliens and earthlings, but also as a struggle between the top brass and their subordinants. Eros works for a supercilious Leader (John Breckenridge) who dogs him around. Similarly, the earthling Jeff Trent is under military orders to keep silent about the non-existence of flying saucers. The aliens, the injured party in this little pantomime, have had it with being ignored, and are essentially pushed to the lamentable step of creating zombies.
It’s time to stop calling Plan Nine from Outer Space the worst movie ever made. Better Wood’s ineptitudes than the off-white, antiseptic digital dungeons in every wretched video-game moviezation. Why can’t anyone make a movie like Plan Nine? They certainly try, but deliberate camp has a way of disintegrating on screen. The reason why Plan Nine still has its awkward resonance is plain: in his tongue- tied way, Wood was trying to say something about the Cold War. Nuclear annihilation haunted him, and he tried to make a film about it. His imitators and deriders are just trying to say how clever they are.