If I may paraphrase a respected Movie Scientist: Ed Wood is a warning. A warning to all of us. When mankind falls into conflict with reality, monstrous films are born. Shambling, pitiful things that beg to be put down harder than Seth Brundle. Wood is also one of the strangest celebrities of the twentieth century. Ignored in his own time, he became famous for the worst reasons two years after his death. In 1980, the right-wing fellow traveler and PBS movie critic Michael Medved named him the Worst Director of All Time, and awarded tonight’s picture the undeserved title of Worst Film Ever Made.
Wood’s generation was one of the first to grow up with the movies. An encounter with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula at age seven permanently warped the Poughkeepsie store clerk’s son, who had a movie camera in hand by the time he left high school. The War put Eddy’s dreams of being the next Orson Welles on hold for four years, but by the end of his life he’d amassed the kind of resume that would shame other, better directors. Even now, at the height of his fame, only a bare handful of his films command any kind of notoriety. Plan 9 has managed the hat trick of surpassing even its siblings and achieving a twisted sort of popularity, something Wood might even enjoy today, wherever he is. With Bela, surely.
The earnestness and idealism that shine through all of Wood’s work hits us right out of the gate in our opening segment: Criswell Predicts. The cocktail fortuneteller’s contention that, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives,” has perhaps become the most-quoted line in all of bad movie-dom. As Our Narrator, Criswell’s compelled to ask, “Can your heart stand the shocking facts about…Grave Robbers From Outer Space?” Perhaps. After watching this a few times, the “facts” are no longer quite so shocking. It’s the presentation of those facts that shocks you into wakefulness.
For example: Criswell’s narration leads straight into a distraught Bela Lugosi, grieving at his wife’s graveside. “It was when the gravediggers started their task that strange things began to take place.” Like stock footage of an airplane, which leads us straight into the “cockpit” (an obvious set with cardboard wheels for controls). We meet the pilot, Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott), who will be Our Hero for the remainder of the picture. As Jeff guides ‘er into Burbank, a flying saucer flies by their craft. As Jeff later tells his wife, Paula (Mona McKinnon), “Last night I saw a flying object that couldn’t have possibly come from this planet. And I can’t say a word! I’m muzzled by army brass.” Not that we see such muzzling.
Unfortunately, Jeff and Paula happen to be the unluckiest couple in southern California. For whatever reason (probably Jeff’s miniscule airline pilot’s salary) the Trents bought their home a jump cut away from the local graveyard…where flying saucers are constantly buzzing about reanimating the dead. Bela Lugosi’s dead wife (Vampira) is the first to crawl out of her grave and, after an off-screen car accident nets Bela his own crypt, the old man joins his wife in stiff-limbed un-death. Together, the two overwhelm the local grave diggers and police inspector (Tor Johnson) sent to investigate their deaths.
Eighteen minutes in, we switch tracks and watch some stock footage. Saucers appear over L.A. and Washington. The Army quickly deploys its emergency cache of anti-alien stock footage, headed by Colonel Tom Edwards (Tom Keene). Conventional weapons (from the Korean War) prove predictably useless against the dangling hubcaps meant to represent flying saucers. “What will their next move be?” Colonel Edwards wonders. And since Ed Wood would never leave a question up in the air, we cut right out into space for our answer.
It seems the aliens are robbing graves as part of an elaborate scheme to halt mankind’s scientific progress. According to the leader of the alien duo charged with carrying out Plan 9, “your scientists” will soon perfect the deadliest of all bombs: the solargranite. Setting off such a bomb (“a way to explode the very particles of sunlight”) would provoke a chain reaction, eventually annihilating the universe. How will three zombies stumbling around a suburban graveyard possibly prevent that? Why would the Pentagon consider Colonel (nee Major) Tom “the best man for the job of attempting to contacting” the aliens?
Without a doubt, this is Ed Wood’s all-star picture, the height of his career and the ultimate expression of his dubious abilities. By their own admission, even the actors choked on Wood’s dialogue, which is often absurd enough to qualify as Beat poetry. “It’s been absolutely impossible to work with these earth creatures. Their souls are too controlled.” Dig it. It’s enough to render even the most professional performance into incoherent sausage. Exposition comes in ponderous chunks, and don’t get me started on the pompous soliloquies. We can only thank God and Vampira the three zombies are mute. Their screen time is a welcome chance to relax, recuperate, and enjoy Gordon Zahler’s exceptionally-bad score…which, compared to the crap FM’s broadcasting, isn’t all that bad.
Shot in three days with money bilked from the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, Plan 9’s actors had no opportunity to improve roles that make brick seem expressive. Only the ghouls achieve a measure of dignity, and only Wood-regular Paul Marco has an excuse. As he’s the Odious Comic Relief cop Kelton, Marco is supposed to be an over the top ham. In his role as the alien commander Eros, Dudley Manlove makes the world’s pork producers envious. His scene-chewing was a decidedly porcine, as is his radio voice…but he’s got nothing on John “Bunny” Breckinridge’s performance as the alien Ruler. Walcott, McKinnon and Keene all survive with a straight face, but they are all equally hopeless in face of their Ed Wood’s ineptitude.
The sheer amount of mistakes on display here is so large it’s been well-tallied by internet pages far and wide. Even Forrest Gump could spot them. One gets the feeling that Wood left them in not merely for lack of time and budget (he had neither, but still…), but because he genuinely did not see them. Wood loved his craft to blindness. Blind to the limitations set by silly little things like money, continuity, or coherency, Wood soldiered on for years, alienating the very industry he’d dreamed of working in all his life. Blind to his own lack of skill, he chased his dream with a manic energy bounded only by his terminal alcoholism. We dearly love him for this foolhardiness, a quality Wood himself idolized in Orson Welles. That is why he’ll be forever known as Orson’s doppelganger, and Plan 9 the Citizen Kane of Bad Film. This is the Anti-movie: something so rare and terrible we can only thank God that Ed Wood, harmless hack, discovered it. Had Wood achieved the kind of international celebrity he enjoys today, he would’ve probably destroyed the world. Or become the next Michael Bay.