Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

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Plan 9 From Outer Space has been hailed as one of the most legendary bad movies of its era, perhaps even of all time. Director Ed Wood’s most famous b-movie has entered the pop culture lexicon in such a way that most everyone has at least heard the title. Personally, I don’t get the hype. Compared to the options available to bad movie lovers today, Plan 9 doesn’t have much to offer, and I was really disappointed by it. The kind of bad movies that find fresh ways to be awful are the ones that are most compelling, but this film is just bland and uninteresting. Maybe it’s a generation issue – kids these days just have so much more bad to choose from. I definitely agree that this movie is terrible, but my issue with it is that it’s just not terrible in a funny way.

Plan 9 tells the story of an alien race invading earth in attempt to prevent the annihilation of the universe at the hand of humanity’s irresponsibility. The best way to do this is, apparently, is by raising corpses from the dead and having them antagonise some local police officers in rural California. This was their ninth plan after the first eight failed, I suppose. The aliens – who look human and speak English – are essentially afraid of mankind’s destructive nature and worry that if human scientists figure out how to harness the power of solar rays to use as a weapon, the entire universe will be destroyed. It’s a deep social commentary on the development of deadlier and deadlier warfare.

If the visitors really did have good intentions, there must have been a more peaceful way to approach the situation. Maybe that was what those other eight plans were for. I just don’t see how reanimating three absent-minded corpses is going to stop scientists from developing a solar bomb.

Untitled1The end is near.

The film’s structure is bizarrely interspersed with narration from Criswell, a famous radio psychic of the time. He introduces the picture with wise words about how the future is important because we will all spend the rest of our lives there. Clever. Criswell’s voice has a heavy presence throughout the opening  act of the film, giving context to silent footage of Bela Lugosi smelling flowers. This footage, of course, was shot by Ed Wood for a different project only to be crudely spliced into Plan 9 so he could attach Lugosi’s name to the picture following his death. As the movie drags on the narration will be there one minute and gone the next. It vanishes completely for the second and third acts, only to return suddenly at the end. The inconsistency of the Criswell voiceover becomes distracting and unwelcome.

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All you need to predict the future is a bow tie and a giant forehead.

The film is fairly slow paced, almost every shot is a flat angle of two or three characters talking. Entire scenes are played out wide, without going into much coverage. At least fifty percent of the film takes place on the same cemetery set. It’s like watching a play. Who sets a movie about aliens primarily in a cemetery, anyway? The performances are bland.  The walking corpses just sort of hobble along, lifeless as they are. There’s just not enough eccentricity from either the cinematography or from the performances for this to be a bad movie worthy of laughing at. The aliens look bored delivering their lines. Everything in this film is just too mundane.

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Everything’s a little too ‘black and white’ for me. I’ll show myself out now.

This is another bad movie without a protagonist. The closest thing we get is plane pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott), who at the end of the movie is at  least fighting for something, since his wife has been taken by the visitors from outer space. Everyone else involved in the investigation are police officers and military men just doing their job. The film shifts focus back and forth from one character to another in much the same way Criswell’s narration comes and goes throughout the story. This stop-and-start line up of characters quickly creates a disjointed narrative.

The budget is made painfully obvious thanks to the shoddy set design. Set pieces like walls or the alien computers appear to be made out of cardboard or styrofoam. The control centre two pilots use to fly a plane isn’t bolted to the floor, shifting in place as the actors lean on it. The alien ships are toys on a string. In fairness though, these effects are pretty much on par with other movies of the time. It doesn’t stand out to be uniquely bad given the restraints of the era.

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The ‘alien ship’ is just a little curtained-off nook off next to the set.

Plan 9 From Outer Space also can’t seem to decide on a genre. It appears to be somewhere between horror and sci-fi, with hints of family drama thrown in for good measure. The presence of screen legends Vampira and Lugosi suggest Ed Wood was going for horror with the casting of his sci-fi script. It’s as if halfway through making the movie, he changed his mind from one genre to the next.

The absurdity of the film’s premise is probably where it gets its reputation as one of the best bad films ever made. The problem is that the premise is played too straight and everything is so plain. There are’t enough quirky artistic flourishes to make it stand out as something worth making fun of for generations. I can see why people enjoy this bad movie, but for whatever reason it just couldn’t get many laughs out of me. Maybe it’s reputation set my expectations too high, who knows. In the end, it’s not a bad movie I would recommend.


 

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