Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Plan 9 From Outer Space
While most of the cheesy movies we look at here come from the 1980s and form a general picture of the film industry at large after the seismic shift that was Star Wars, cheesy movies extend back beyond the Blockbuster Age into just about every era of movie making. And as we’ve chronicled in our exploration of more modern sequels, rip-offs and trend-chasing, the demand for pictures and lust for cash created a lucrative market for low-quality films. And no film of the the pre-blockbuster days earned more infamy as the lowest quality picture than Plan 9 from Outer Space.
But it is far from being the worst movie ever made.
The plot concerns a pair of aliens, Eros (Dudley Manlove) and Tanna (Joanna Lee), tasked with delivering a message of nuclear disarmament to the peoples of the Earth. When their early attempts fail, the decided to implement Plan 9 — reanimation of the recently dead by stimulating the pituitary and pineal glands. Their first test subject is the wife of an old man (Vampira and Bela Lugosi, respectively). Her reanimation claims the lives of the gravediggers tending to her. When the old man subsequently dies, he too is reanimated; as is police Inspector Daniel Clay (Tor Johnson). The three zombified corpses menace people in the San Fernando Valley. One of those harassed by the trio includes Paula Trent (Mona McKinnon), the wife of Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott), an airline pilot who saw Eros and Tanna’s UFO as they first approached the region.
When “Chief of Saucer Operations” Colonel Thomas Edwards (Tom Keene) is sent to the Valley to learn more about the recent UFO activity, he, Jeff and Paula encounter the zombified old man, who disintegrates right before their eyes. The group, along with some local law enforcement, head to the graveyard in search of the UFO. There, Paula is kidnapped by the zombified Clay while Eros lures the men to his spacecraft.
Inside the ship, he finally delivers a stern warning about man’s nuclear achievements and the inevitability that they will discover “Solaronite.” The substance will explode “sunlight molecules” and since humans have “stupid, stupid minds,” they will cause a chain reaction which will destroy the entire universe. Jeff slugs Eros and the ensuing fight causes damage to the flying saucer. The men escape, as does Paula. Failing in their mission, Eros and Tanna attempt to flee the Earth, but their ship explodes. The remaining zombies also disintegrate once the alien influence animating their bodies disappears.
And if the whole thing sounds like gibberish, that is part of the charm. Plan 9 was written and directed by legendary trash auteur Edward D. Wood Jr., whose attempts at genre pictures now stand as some of the most absurd examples of outsider art ever released by half-way legitimate film distributors. Looking at Wood as a screenwriter, his limited grasp of the very things which fascinated him makes his movies a pleasure to watch — to say nothing of his glorious tin ear for dialogue, character introductions, rising conflict or any other basic tenets of storytelling. Plan 9, with its mix of zombies, aliens and government cover-ups, suggests he read plenty of pulp magazines and was keyed in to some of the emerging lore about UFOs in the 1950s, but his lack of ability in the writing arts means they emerge as a jumble of half-completed thoughts. The end result is something wonderfully naive as Wood attempts to put his own spin on The Day the Earth Stood Still.
But beyond his relative skills as a writer, Wood also happens to be a gleeful terrible director. Unconcerned with things like continuity, mise-en-scene or performance, every shot of Plan 9 feels improvised on the spot. In fact, a number of scenes are complete inventions because Wood happened to have film in the camera that day. But these are mainly the shots of Lugosi, filmed for an earlier collaboration prior to Lugosi’s death.
The film appeared on the scene and quickly entered into syndicated television packages to fill late night timeslots or feature on local “Creature Feature” type shows. In 1980, critic Michael Medved declared the film the worst movie ever made in the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards. The film’s legend grew as more people learned about Wood. But, as it happens, Plan 9 isn’t really all that terrible despite its numerous and obvious flaws.
For one thing, Wood is a fairly decent editor in this instance. While films like Glen or Glenda? tend to drag, Plan 9 moves at a good clip. It even smartly employs stock footage of Army maneuvers — a rare thing in this sort of Z-grade fair. The naivete of the script gives it a strange can-do energy which gives the shoddy sets and creaking dialogue an appealing context. The film also doesn’t overstay its welcome at a lean 80 minutes. Compare this to cheesy films like Birdemic: Shock and Terror or “Manos”: The Hands of Fate — or legitimately terrible movies like Slipstream or Deck the Halls — and you’ll see it is far from being the worst of all films.
And as others have maintained, the film is the crowning example of Wood’s inadvertent use of dream-logic in his films. Because his scripts have that stream-of-consciousness quality, it is easy to read movies like Plan 9 as more a dream state than the thriller it sets out to be. While this reading is great, it should be noted that Wood set out for his films to be legitimate dramas and thrillers. Which is key to understanding the appeal of Wood or Plan 9. He believed in his projects during this part of his career and hoped to be an important and legitimate voice in cinema.
There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek here, which makes its obvious comedic value all the more astonishing. Wood runs headlong into funny ideas other filmmakers spend their careers trying to achieve. But maybe you need that can-do naivete in order to accomplish something like Plan 9, one of the great cheesy classics.
Plan 9 From Outer Space is available for rent on the usual streaming services. It also appears on disc formats with great frequency, but none worth recommending.