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Plan 9 From Outer Space

Year: 1959
Production Co: Reynolds Pictures, Inc
Director: Edward D Wood Jr
Producer: Edward D Wood Jr
Writer: Edward D Wood Jr
Cast: Tor Johnson, John Breckinridge, Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Tom Keene, Dudley Manlove, Joanna Lee
Picture it; aliens have been trying to contact Earth authorities for years and warn us of our impending doom at our own hands, watching as we've gone from firecrackers to the Hydrogen Bomb, determined to intervene before we stumble on the ultimate weapon, the Solarinite. They see no choice but to move on to Plan 9; reanimating the corpses of the recently dead to rise up and stop us.

It could have been any class of science fiction film. Imagine the cemetery UFO landing in the hands of Steven Spielberg and ILM, the horror make-up of Inspector Clay or the Old Man under the directorial eye of George A Romero, the police dialogue penned by Martin Scorsese or the soundtrack by Quentin Tarantino.

Like Edmund Halley, Vincent van Gogh and H P Lovecraft, Edward D Wood Jr left this life without ever seeing the impact of his work on human culture. But his accomplishment – being the worst film director in history – may not be as accurate as two decades of cult fandom have led you to believe.

Wood's real barrier to greatness might have been little more than the lack of funds. Some of the best directors in the world began in the same place he did – Peter Jackson made King Kong crawling around his kitchen with his parents' Super 8 camera, and he ended up getting $200 million of Universal's money to try it a second time.

Following the same basic premise as The Day the Earth Stood Still (aliens warning us about our child-like ignorance of our own destructiveness), The story of Plan 9 From Outer Space was solid enough. In fact it's no worse than much of the dross that comes out of Hollywood even today.

All Jackson, Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola have ever really done is hatched the vision, surrounding themselves with the best writers, production designers, cinematographers, stunt performers, costumers and software engineers to carry it out. All Wood was missing from the equation was the money. He went through his career unable to secure decent funding to such an extent that his last film Night of the Ghouls sat in the processing lab for 24 years (until long after his death) waiting for him to pay the bill.

Plan 9 is said to be the film that kicked off the cult movie craze, long before a certain huge-chinned Venice Beach video store clerk got the credit for it. In fact it changed movie marketing as much as any Jaws or The Blair Witch Project.

Once upon a time there were good movies and bad movies. Suddenly there was a whole subculture of audiences proud to love movies that were so bad they were good. Rights holders and distributors have picked up on it, repackaging unintentionally bad movies as camp classics at midnight cult screenings along with the daddy of them all, Plan 9 From Outer Space. As director Mark Patrick Carducci says in the 1992 documentary Flying Saucers over Hollywood; 'No matter what time it is when you watch Plan 9 From Outer Space, it always feels like 3 o'clock in the morning.'

Wood's friend and landlord Ed Reynolds had raised some money through his local Baptist church and wanted to make a movie. Objecting to the original title of Graverobbers From Outer Space (which Wood changed on the titles but didn't bother changing in narrator Criswell's shambolic introduction), the backers paid for the movie in exchange for Wood and most of the cast and crew being baptised.

Reynolds was left holding the bag while Wood moved on to try and develop other projects, spending the next several months trying to find a distributor until he ran out of money in New York, his hotel confiscating his luggage and refusing to give it back until he paid.

The low-rent Distributors Corporation of America bought it after everyone else passed and it sank like a stone in a handful of theatres, all-but doomed for the dusty annals of unremembered film history until the 60s saw an insatiable thirst for old horror movies on TV. Lines like 'This is because some of your big guns that have destroyed some of our representatives', 'This is Eros, a space soldier from a planet of your galaxy', 'Your stupid minds, stupid, stupid!' and 'Inspector Clay's dead... murdered... and somebody's responsible' were immortalised forever.

Listing its technical faults in every single filmmaking discipline is frankly pointless as they're not only well-known film lore, they'd fill a review that could go on forever. It's as if a clumsy director with no subtlety made a movie for a film class as an example of what not to do when making a movie.

Every aspect – from the dialogue to the framing, the lighting to the set design, the editing to the plotting and the logic to the continuity – is a car crash, from the opening frame as Criswell's eyes flick back and forth between you and his cue cards.

For all the overt laughs to be had at Plan 9 , there are subtle gems as well. Less noticeable than the polythene gravestone that moves when the actors fall over is the hero's wife Paula describing how she needs to hold his pillow while he's away. It's supposed to sound lovable, but actress Mona McKinnon says her line so salaciously you half expect her to tell Jim about the 12' pearl-headed dildo she needs while he's away as well.

Try it for yourself. Choose any two-minute stretch and have a pen and paper ready to mark down the laughs. Everyone has their favourite – I recommend the sequence where the UFO docks with the giant tit in space. The aliens arrive in their satin nighties and greet each other by doing part of the Macarena before the commander asks them for their report, the actor playing him (John Breckinridge) apparently quite pissed.

Forget the data mashing of the Internet age, Wood was pulping genres together in a cinematic blender by bloody-minded force long ago. Need UFOs and zombies in your script? No problem, just have the aliens create the zombies... you know, to stop mankind inventing the solarinite... bomb... or something.

Ironically for a film with such poor execution, plenty of the cultural beats in Plan 9 are quite visionary, crystallising some of the hokiest horror movie clichés we all know. Just listen for the dramatic first blast of 'horror movie' horns and strings as the distributor logo fades in – a piece of music that's been parodied so much you can't use it anymore unless it's for comic effect.

Then there are old chestnuts such as the monster who manages to keep up with its terrified, sprinting quarry despite shuffling around at a snail's pace. Or the leading lady who – when the Old Man comes into her bedroom (slowly) – screams and runs out of the house into a dark cemetery in the middle of the night... before fainting, no less!

In truth, Wood was the poster boy for every kid of today who picks up a DV camcorder and starts shooting. Some of them will be directing the midyear blockbusters of tomorrow, studios throwing hundred million dollar cheques at them. But in an era where the cost of film stock, stock footage, equipment hire and the copying of prints was crippling, Wood did it. For a director to be remembered half a century after making a film with the production quality of a bad high school play is truly a triumph of will over talent.

So remember Criswell's profound words, my friends; 'future events such as these will affect you in the future.'

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