Friday, December 19, 2014

Monster Serial: PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)


Yeah, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. I know, I know … it’s a wretched piece of film by anyone’s standards, and this is supposed to be a book dedicated to beloved horror and science fiction movies. I’m not here to sway you into believing it’s a better movie than it is, and I’ve got no authoritative insight into the movie’s troubled history, either.

Instead, this is a confession.

Despite my better instincts, I love PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. There are few films I’ve seen more than Edward D. Wood’s magnum opus, even though logic demands the hours I’ve wasted with this movie were probably better spent doing anything else. My love for PLAN 9 is my least malignant character flaw, so there’s been no sense of urgency to be rid of it. If we were talking about a methamphetamine addiction, there would be physical and social pressures on me to change my ways. A meth habit might even be preferable, because junkies are sometimes forced into social interaction with people of similar interests. For better or worse, a drug habit is a very real, very physical experience, while my love for PLAN 9 usually leaves me naval gazing in a darkened room.

But that’s not to discount the transcendental nature of watching a terrible movie. And by “terrible movie,” I don’t mean the slick, expensive commercial products made by guys like Michael Bay. Those kinds of films get put through so many corporate filters that it’s impossible for them to hit theaters without some semblance of competent storytelling, and it’s hard to think of them as “film” as much as feature-length commercials for tie-in products. They might suck, but the competence and craftsmanship on display are undeniably impressive.

The same can’t be said for an Ed Wood film. As much as I love the Tim Burton’s film about “the world’s worst filmmaker,” it’s almost entirely a work of fiction. Wood might have wanted to make movies, but he wasn’t some wide-eyed “Andy Hardy” character innocently pursuing his dream. Wood was a hustler that naturally gravitated to a level of filmmaking that tolerated his misguided sense of aesthetics. His distributors didn’t care about the quality of his films as long as they came in on budget and were edited to a manageable running time. They were B-movie filler and existed only to fool ticket buyers into thinking they were getting more for their money.

Because he was left more-or-less unattended, Wood’s movies feel like Id run wild (at least, as wild as budgets and prudish standards of the times would allow.) Wood’s movies are the children of his juvenile imagination, but this imagination charges his stories with the kind of energy that makes up for the nonsense he tried to pass off as “scripts.” Say what you want about Wood’s movies, but they’re not boring.

More to the point, his movies are terrible in a way that’s impossible to replicate. Any filmmaker is capable of making a great movie. The people who directed POINT BREAK, NATURAL BORN KILLERS and EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE have all made legitimately great movies at some point in their careers, and have even won Academy awards for their work. Making movies is hard, but talent will occasionally prevail.
But nobody can fake the kind of anti-genius of Ed Wood, though.  It’s a natural gift that is probably inversely aggravated by how much talent and money you throw at it. Give Ed Wood $100 million budget and you’ll still get something that feels like PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. The on-set chemistry that produces gloriously bad movies simply can’t be faked. When filmmakers have tried (DEATH PROOF, THE LOST SKELETON OF CADABRA, etc.) the final products have had a saccharine flavor to them.
All of this would be harmless fun if not for PLAN 9’s disgraceful pedigree. I think most of us would laugh comfortably at the film if not for the presence of Bela Lugosi.  Wood’s decision to exploit Lugosi’s corpse one final time is a cautionary tale of Hollywood’s unforgiving nature. Lugosi began his film career with DRACULA, a movie so popular that it’s still being discussed almost a century later. His career ended, though, with a 79-minute bit of celluloid filler with all the artistic merit of bubble wrap.

This column is among those featured in
 BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of 
horror essays written by contributors to 
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Even though Wood’s films were made for no other reason than to pad out a double bill, there’s still something innocent about them. Bubbling under the surface of Wood’s movies is a very distinct imagination that tries to pair horror and science fiction in a way reminiscent of James Whale, but the ideas are half baked (to be generous.) The actors seem like they give a shit, and the whole product feels more like an actual movie to me than something like TRANSFORMERS 2 or Burton’s own DARK SHADOWS.

That’s why I frequently return to PLAN 9. For better or worse, it’s a genuine movie experience.

(Wallace McBride is the editor of THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.)

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