Essays · Movies

The Everlasting Power of ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’

Some critics want you to think Ed Wood’s film is the worst ever made. But there are actually plenty of things to admire about the schlock classic.
Plan From Outer Space Flying Saucer
By  · Published on July 22nd, 2020

Thanks to Harry and Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is hailed as the “worst movie ever made.” Of course, that description is wrong. The real worst movies ever made are soulless, joyless, and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. While there’s an argument to be made for all of Wood’s movies being technically incompetent, Plan 9 from Outer Space is too charming to be considered a failure.

This notorious 1957 sci-fi feature is a product of a filmmaker who had a real vision and a compulsive need to create. Wood was an outsider artist in the truest sense. He was shunned by Hollywood, his movies were always lambasted, and he struggled to make a living in the business. After helming B-movies for a few years, he directed pornographic films until his alcohol-related death in 1978. He didn’t have the most glamorous career, but he was a fighter.

Wood’s boundless passion, determination, enthusiasm, and drive allowed him to bring his wacky visions to life in a system that ostracized him. After convincing studio heads to let him churn out cheap schlock for them, he used the opportunities to make movies that were deeply personal and littered with his own ideas.

Glen or Glenda is a perfect example of Wood’s sensibilities. The movie was originally conceived to capitalize on Christine Jorgensen’s widely-reported sex-reassignment operation at the time. George Weiss wanted to exploit the story, and Wood convinced the producer to let him direct the movie due to his own experiences as a cross-dresser. After getting the job, the director made a semi-autographical picture that called for more understanding and tolerance.

Like Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 from Outer Space is another movie about wanting people to be more considerate. In this case, world leaders are put on blast for their ignorance. It’s also pure Woodian insanity with ideas in abundance. The plot involves aliens who invade Earth and raise the dead in order to stop humanity from destroying the universe. The extraterrestrial beings just want our race to listen and be better, but the governments consist of idiots and ignore their messages. By sending the undead ghouls to Washington, the powers-that-be will be forced to listen. Or will they?

The plot of Plan 9 from Outer Space fit in with the hundreds of other nuclear panic horror and sci-fi movies being produced at the time. The movie was released at the height of the Cold War and the burgeoning arms race. The world had already experienced man-made nuclear atrocities, and Plan 9 from Outer Space was out to warn people that the governments could lead the world’s populations toward atomic doom. He wasn’t wrong. Some of us worry about it happening to this day.

At the same time, Plan 9 from Outer Space is unlike anything else produced at the time. Wood’s vision called for an epic, but his lack of resources resulted in a micro-budget mess that’s utterly fascinating. The film’s ambitious and incoherent story is enough to warrant its legacy as a warped classic, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is arguably more renowned for other factors.

The film was built around stock footage of Bela Lugosi, who was recently deceased when Plan 9 from Outer Space was made. The legendary Dracula actor was also replaced with a chiropractor who looked nothing like him, but Wood hoped that viewers wouldn’t notice. But he had to do this because he needed Lugosi’s star power to get the movie made in the first place. And there weren’t exactly any performers out there at the time who could effectively stand-in for the departed actor.

Then there are the cheesy cardboard headstones and the scenes that take place during daylight when it’s supposed to be night time. There are numerous technical misdemeanors in the movie, but the naysayers want you to believe they’re more amateur than they actually are. Some of the stories about Plan 9 from Outer Space were fabricated and accepted as truth. For example, it’s believed that the spaceships were made out of pizza pans or pie tins. But they’re actually flying saucer models that Wood bought from a hobby shop.

The movie was funded by a Baptist Church, and in order to get it made, several cast and crew members had to be baptized before the funds were given to the production. This was because the film’s original title, Grave Robbers from Outer Space, was deemed sacrilegious and offended the organization’s religious and conservative sensibilities. But as was the case with Wood, he was willing to do anything to get his film made.

These stories are part of the colorful history of Plan 9 from Outer Space, and there’s no denying that the film’s misfires are part of its appeal and entertainment value. At the same time, the filmmaking incompetencies are no worse than countless other cheap sci-fi pictures being produced in the 1950s. Plan 9 from Outer Space soars above its counterparts because it’s fueled by passion and a desire to create something special.

These tales only further bolster how artistically driven Wood was. Plan 9 from Outer Space exists because an eccentric filmmaker never gave up on his dream, even though he was never going to gain acceptance. Jim Morton wrote it best in Incredibly Strange Films: “Edward D. Wood Jr. was a man born to film. Lesser men, if forced to make movies under the conditions Wood faced, would have thrown up their hands in defeat.”

Wood loved the filmmaking process. He loved telling his stories. This exuberance is tangible in every frame of Plan 9 from Outer Space, and that’s what gives the movie its soul. There are Best Picture winners that don’t come close to rivaling the film in terms of passion for the craft. Maybe Wood lacked finesse and some modicum of talent, but the fact that a movie like Plan 9 from Outer Space exists proves that anyone with a singular vision and a stubborn desire to make it happen can establish an everlasting legacy.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.