Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 10: "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1957-59)

"Spook details"  from the incredible, gorgeous poster for Ed Wood's most famous film, Plan 9 from Outer Space.

"It's terrible to me to hear someone say about someone else's work, 'Ahh, that stinks!' Yet the critic probably couldn't ink his way out of a paper bag. You put it on paper. Good, bad, or indifferent. At least you had the guts to put it there." 
Ed Wood, Jr. (Hollywood Rat Race) 

To laugh or not to laugh?

The book that gave Ed his second career.
That, my friends, is an important question to consider when one writes about the work of Edward D. Wood. Jr. Are we simply dredging up these films and books to ridicule them and belittle their creator, who died a penniless alcoholic over three decades ago? For thirty years, Ed labored tirelessly as a filmmaker and author, earning little money for his work and even less respect from critics and those in the entertainment industry. He could not have possibly imagined the odd, unprecedented second career he would achieve only two years after arteriosclerosis claimed his life at the age of 54.

A book called The Golden Turkey Awards: The Worst Achievements in Hollywood History (Perigree Trade, 1980) by Harry and Michael Medved would grant Ed posthumous infamy by naming him the Worst Director of All Time and his movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), as the Worst Movie of All Time.

Contrary to what you might have believed, the Medveds did not discover or rediscover Ed Wood. Their readers did. Golden Turkey was a sequel to a previous Harry Medved book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (Popular Press, 1978), which contained no reference to Wood or his films. It did, however, include an appeal to readers to send in their suggestions for the worst directors and worst films ever. As fortune would have it, Ed Wood and Plan 9 from Outer Space were the names that kept coming up in these categories, and that's how the once-obscure filmmaker became the inadvertent "star" of the Golden Turkey book and a phenomenon of the cult movie underworld. This suggests that knowledgeable movie fans had seen Ed's films on television for years, particularly Plan 9, and had become morbidly fascinated with this oddball auteur and his outrageously cheap, seemingly unhinged work.

One must remember that this was before the world wide web existed. Films were not so readily available for instantaneous viewing to the public; pop culture was nowhere near as carefully documented as it is now; and information spread much more slowly among fans of the still-disreputable genres of horror and science-fiction. Ed Wood had become a underground or viral success -- paradoxically, a success by failure -- in the days before the word "viral" took on its current meaning.

The Medveds recognized that they had a hot property on their hands and soon mounted a touring show which consisted of Ed's three most famous films: Plan 9, of course, accompanied by Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster. Clearly, the participation of horror legend Bela Lugosi made these three films more salable than, say, Jail Bait or The Sinister Urge. Partly out of necessity and partly because it made for a better story, the Medveds' book and roadshow presented a colorful, semi-fictional version of Ed's life and work patched together from rumors, hearsay, and third-hand information. Naturally, Ed's transvestism became a central theme in his mythology.

Unlike much of what was stated about Wood in those days, the cross-dressing was at least rooted in reality. So beloved are some of the "urban legends" which sprang up around Ed in the early days of his cult following that a few doozies even made it into the screenplay of the 1994 Tim Burton-directed biopic Ed Wood, a loving tribute which was intended in part as a corrective to the Medved book. No, Bela did not actually shoot up with formaldehyde. The flying saucers in Plan 9 were neither hubcaps nor paper plates. And, no, Ed did not typically direct while in drag. But all of these things are either shown or alluded to in Ed Wood.

And not all of these canards were manufactured or exaggerated by the Medveds or their readers. The formaldehyde story, in fact, came from actor Paul Marco, who played bumbling Officer Kelton in three Wood films. In any event, Wood's reputation spread quickly, aided by a vividly-written chapter about Plan 9 in Danny Peary's seminal book Cult Movies (Delta Books, 1981). As early as 1982, it was possible to see Dan Aykroyd and John Candy, two major comedy stars of the day, reenact the infamous "sweater hand-off" from Glen or Glenda? in their mainstream film It Came from Hollywood at your local multiplex.

The original Plan 9 soundtrack album from 1978.
Edward D. Wood. Jr. was not entirely oblivious to his own peculiar brand of "anti-fame," nor was he averse to stretching the truth when it came to his own past. In fact, the last-known piece of writing attributed to Ed  -- penned mere weeks before his death -- was an essay he wrote for the liner notes of the Plan 9 from Outer Space soundtrack LP (Pendulum/Eros, 1978). These notes show that Ed was quite aware of Plan 9's lingering notoriety. "I never dreamed that it would still be playing to millions of loyal fans some twenty years later," he states with pride in the first paragraph. He also discusses the film's odd genesis, specifically the way the script was written around some existing footage of the late Bela Lugosi.

But here, Ed himself cannot resist stretching the truth a little. In reality, Plan 9's budget was something like $60,000, but in these liner notes, Ed insists that he spent less than $800 on the film -- a completely fraudulent figure he uses as an alibi for the cheapness of the sets, costumes, and special effects. At least this story shows that Ed was indeed aware of the perceived shabbiness of his films. ("Some of the reviewers actually made fun of our cheap cardboard sets," he writes. "What did they expect for $786.27... the Paramount backlot?") In these same liner notes, Ed says that he seriously considered the idea of digging up Bela's corpse and propping it up in the lobby for Plan 9's premiere but ultimately decided against it. Could this story possibly be true?

Kathy O'Hara, Ed's long-suffering wife, has affectionately referred to her late husband as "such a bullshitter." One of Ed's favorite stories about Bela was that the English-language-mangling actor had accidentally substituted the word "kitchen" for "kitten" in Bride of the Monster. Of course, Ed said that before people could check on YouTube and disprove the story in about five seconds. (Perhaps Bela flubbed some unused takes?) On some level, Ed Wood took himself and his profession seriously, and he was obviously stung by criticism of his work throughout his career. As early as 1949, he wrote his mother back in Poughkeepsie to complain about a bad review his first produced play, The Casual Company, had received from a copy boy who was filling in for the real newspaper critic. This incident, in fact, serves as our introduction to Ed in the Tim Burton film.

But as the stories above suggest, Ed did see the humor in his films and was certainly not averse to embellishing the truth in the interest of entertainment. In this respect, Ed Wood had something in common with idiosyncratic "brand name" directors like John Waters, David, Lynch, Russ Meyer, Alfred Hitchcock, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and (appropriately) Tim Burton. These exceptional men all made conscious efforts to cultivate and propagate their own myths.

But, still, does any of this make it okay to laugh at Edward D. Wood. Jr.? Since his peculiar fandom is largely rooted in mockery, it is tempting to think that virtually every new Wood-related album, DVD, book, and article is simply another chance to dig up Eddie's corpse (just as Ed had considered doing to Bela) and bat it around a while for fun. When I announced my plan to review Wood's posthumously-published Hollywood Rat Race, my friend and fellow movie blogger Craig J. Clark expressed misgivings:
I remember hearing about Hollywood Rat Race at a sci-fi/fantasy convention in the late '90s and being intrigued by the idea of a "lost" Ed Wood book. When it showed up in stores I flipped through a copy but ultimately never bought it. There was something of the "laughing at him" about it that didn't sit well with me.
Are Harry and Michael Medved villains?
Interestingly, there is nothing even vaguely disrespectful or mocking in the way publisher Four Walls Eight Windows handled Eddie's book. Hollywood Rat Race has no "funny" cover or snarky foreword. Ed's manuscript is presented as-is with no real commentary other than the obligatory "hype type" on the back. But Craig's concerns were not unfounded. Ed is a frequent, easy, and (many would say) deserving target for ridicule. Three of Ed's films (Bride of the Monster, The Violent Years, and The Sinister Urge) wound up on MST3K, while a fourth (Plan 9, naturally) was mocked by MST veterans as part of a live Rifftrax show which was beamed to movie theaters across the country. None of these films were treated gently, I assure you.

Meanwhile, a running gag on several episodes of the massively popular sitcom Seinfeld involved Jerry's attempts to attend a screening of Plan 9, which he wanted to do specifically to make fun of the film. It is likely that many viewers' only knowledge of Ed Wood's work is through Seinfeld. Even Image Entertainment, for several years the main source of Ed's films on DVD, capitalized on the director's infamous reputation, titling their first boxed set of his work The Worst of Ed Wood. S'more Entertainment's more-recent DVD collection, Big Box of Wood, is a bit more respectful than that, but the newly-minted introductions and commentary tracks are far from reverent or worshipful. Need they be?

What made me an Ed Wood fan twenty years ago, no doubt about it, was laughter. When I first saw a marathon of his most famous films, the very ones that the Medveds had toured with in the early '80s, I laughed harder at them than I ever had at any film comedy in my memory. A lot of it was out of sheer surprise and bewilderment. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. I'd like to tell you that there was no smugness or superiority in my reactions back then, but who can say? I was 17, and 17-year-olds tend to think they know everything there is to know. Having studied Ed Wood's life and career somewhat thoroughly now, I don't write about him from a mocking or judgmental viewpoint. And yet I don't feel any real animosity towards those who do.

The Medveds make convenient villains in the Ed Wood saga, and yet without them, it is unlikely that I'd be writing this article now. Complicating matters considerably, of course, is the fact that Michael Medved has gone on to become one of the leading social conservative pundits in Hollywood and has made numerous anti-gay statements. Does it balance things out if I mention that Harry Medved recently took the AV Club on a guided video tour of a location from Blade Runner? Certainly, that should shore up his "movie nerd" credentials a bit.

When I watch Ed's movies these days -- and, believe me, I've now seen the famous ones dozens of times -- I don't necessarily snicker at the shoddy costumes and patently phony sets anymore, nor do I giggle at the transvestism. Twenty years ago, when sanctimonious Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) accused the audience of laughing at a bearded transvestite (played by Conrad Brooks) in Glen or Glenda?, he would have been right. I was laughing! But not now.

Today, what makes me laugh is the sheer audacity in the way Ed Wood constructed his stories: the highly dubious narrative leaps, the tenuous connections between ideas, and the seemingly irrational yet dreamlike way his plots unfold. I'm also consistently amused by Ed's peculiar use of the English language, which is stiff, stilted, and artificial yet somehow poetic. Several times while reading Ed's books while on the way to and from work, I've had to stifle my laughter to avoid disturbing my fellow passengers on the commuter train. But by the same token, while re-re-re-reading Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy, I've gotten choked up during some of the book's more melancholy passages, particularly in the later chapters which deal with Ed's down-and-out, alcohol-drenched final years.

When one seriously considers the ethics of laughing at Ed Wood or mocking his work, one must go straight to the nexus of the director's fame. Which brings me to:

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957-59)

Dudley Manlove, Joanna Lee, and Duke Moore in a lobby card from the film.

Alternate title: Grave Robbers from Outer Space

Availability: Arguably in the public domain, Plan 9 from Outer Space is available in any number of places.

Comparison of B&W and color versions of Plan 9.
  • By far, the sharpest, cleanest transfer of Plan 9 from Outer Space is the one released by Legend Films in 2006. This is also the first and so far only Ed Wood film ever made available on BluRay, and it comes accurately billed as the "most extensive restoration ever." (Legend's version is also available on DVD.) I am enormously grateful to Legend Films for sending me a review copy of this disc. Their edition contains the film in both black-and-white and colorized forms. Extras include a funny, MST-style commentary track by Mike Nelson (I'll admit I laughed quite a bit during this), a "pop-up trivia" subtitle track, the early Ed Wood television commercials I covered earlier in the series, plus a few minutes of absolutely fascinating home movies of Ed Wood, featuring glimpses of both Kathy Wood and Duke Moore. I will not spoil what happens in these movies, but you will want to see them.
  • The "Wade Williams Collection" edition of the movie is available on its own (Image Entertainment, 2000) or as part of The Ed Wood Box (Image, 2004) and The Worst of Ed Wood (Image, 2000). This version boasts a clear transfer, the original theatrical trailer, and the very helpful and informative documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion, which may merit its own entry in this series some day. 
  • Big Box of Wood (S'more Entertainment, 2011) also includes a copy of Plan 9 with an exclusive introduction by filmmaker Ted Newsom (creator of Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora) and an informal, chummy, and somewhat informative commentary track by Newsom and fellow filmmaker David Decoteau. The picture quality of this transfer is barely mediocre, however, something Newsom acknowledges near the end of his discussion with Decoteau. Also included on the disc is a post-rehab interview with Bela Lugosi.

The money man: Plan 9 financier J. Edward Reynolds
The backstory: By now, the seemingly-unbelievable circumstances behind the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space have been chronicled to the point that anyone remotely interested in Ed Wood's career knows the film's basic history. Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) simplifies, exaggerates, and rearranges the facts for entertainment and storytelling purposes, but most of what occurs in that film is corroborated by Plan 9's own cast and crew members, including Wood himself. 

The notorious project originated with some silent footage that Ed shot of Bela Lugosi in April 1955 and June 1956, i.e. before and after the great horror star's stint in drug rehabilitation. Exactly why Ed shot this film of Bela is unknown, but in Hollywood Rat Race, the director claims it was for a project called The Vampire's Tomb. Ed had written that script back in 1954 and had even announced it as his next project to the press, but he made Bride of the Monster (1955) with Bela instead because that was the project for which he could find funding.

When Lugosi died on August 16, 1956, The Vampire's Tomb had to be permanently shelved, though it was filmed by others well after Ed had died. In truth, Ed never totally recovered from the death of his idol and star; the ghost of Bela Lugosi would hover over him for the rest of his life and career. References to Bela pop up in many of Ed's later books, scripts, and articles, and perhaps Ed's greatest professional regret was that he was never able to publish his biography of the man called Lugosi: Post Mortem.

Never one to let precious film go to waste and always willing to cannibalize his own work for other projects, Ed quickly wrote a screenplay around the existing Lugosi footage. The resulting script, Grave Robbers from Outer Space, was a curious and (to my knowledge) unprecedented hybrid of old and new ideas and tropes. Spooky cemeteries, fog-shrouded nights and the reanimation of the dead are among the elements inherited from Universal Studios' gothic horror films of the 1930s. On the other hand, Plan 9 also contains the hallmarks of 1950s science fiction films, i.e. articulate aliens, flying saucers, and a message about the dangers of technology and progress run amok.

Vampira, Los Angeles horror hostess of the '50s.
With funding from his landlord, J. Edward Reynolds (who thus won the role of a gravedigger) and the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, Ed Wood filmed the rest of Grave Robbers over the course of about six days in November 1956, chiefly at Quality Studios in Los Angeles, and the finished motion picture had a preview showing under its original title in March 1957. It would not be until 1959, however, that the film would receive a nationwide release through the Distributors Corporation of America (DCA) under the title Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Many of the cast members were returning Wood veterans: besides Lugosi, there are memorable roles for Tor Johnson (top billed for the only time in a Wood film), Duke Moore, Tom Keene, Paul Marco, Conrad Brooks, Lyle Talbot, and Mona McKinnon. Wood's ex-wife Norma McCarty even appears as stewardess Edith, and as far as I can tell, her scenes were filmed well after the end of her brief and disastrous union with Ed. (Did they stay friends, one wonders?) Other than the workhorses of Wood's repertory company, Plan 9 featured some exciting new guest stars: flamboyantly gay, aristocratic John "Bunny" Breckenridge, the black sheep of a prominent family; ghoulishly alluring Los Angeles TV horror hostess Vampira (aka Maila Nurmi) whose show achieved a faddish popularity in the mid-1950s; and perhaps most significantly, the pompous, highly theatrical, and completely inaccurate "psychic" Criswell (aka Jeron Criswell King).

Well-known in LA for his television series Criswell Predicts (for which Ed directed a few episodes) and nationally recognized for his appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Criswell would also appear in such Wood-related films as Night of the Ghouls (1959) and Orgy of the Dead (1965), always playing some version of his public persona. Even in Orgy, in which he's cast as the Emperor of the Dead, the first words out of his mouth are: "I am Criswell!" The immortal line "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!" became a regular part of Criswell's standard spiel on the talk show and lecture circuit. (Interestingly, Rock Hudson said something similar in the 1953 film Gun Fury.)

Ed and Criswell were friends off the set, too, frequently meeting at the Brown Derby for lunch. On one such visit, according to Ed, they met the Three Stooges there. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall that day. Touchingly, Criswell (who died in 1982, outliving Ed by five years) was one of the mourners at Ed's funeral, as was Paul Marco.

As for Vampira, it's odd that her image should be so closely intertwined with that of Ed Wood, as this is the one and only project on which they worked together, and Vampira's screen time lasts only a few (silent) minutes. Still, her character -- oddly listed as "Vampire Girl" in the credits even though vampirism is not a motif in Plan 9 -- manages to evoke both sex and death, the two main themes of Ed Wood's entire career. This makes Vampira a convenient avatar for the entire Wood canon.

Plan 9 from Outer Space seems to have had some kind of pitiful demi-life as the bottom half of double bills at drive-in theaters in the 1960s, but it found its true home on television, where stations could show it for little or no money and did so over and over for years. Clearly, by 1978, it had acquired a sizable cult following. However, it would take the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980 for that following to go supernova. The gradual accumulation of humorous -- and true! -- anecdotes about the film (Ed and Tor being baptized in a swimming pool at the insistence of the film's Baptist producers, Ed's chiropractor doubling for Lugosi, wobbly gravestones being crudely manufactured out of plywood, etc.) helped the film become a landmark in the annals of paracinema.

The recreation of these events in Ed Wood (1994) had the effect of preserving the Plan 9 legend for posterity, bronzing them like baby shoes. One particular bit of trivia that has not been as well-circulated as it should have been: Ed Wood does actually appear in full drag at one point in this movie, doubling for Mona McKinnon during the scene when her character, Mrs. Paula Trent, staggers out of the forest and flags down a passing motorist (played by Tor's son, Karl Johnson). If you watch that scene carefully, you'll notice that "Paula" never shows her face.

My cinematic tour guide: Danny Peary
The viewing experience: Endlessly fascinating, even after countless viewings, Plan 9 from Outer Space -- its very title a combination of the mundane and the fantastic -- is a riddle I cannot solve. Honestly, I had never heard of or seen the Medveds' book when I was growing up. In those pre-Internet days, however, I did study various movie guides (written by the likes of Leonard Maltin and his many, less-successful imitators), and invariably I would seek out the films which consistently got scathing reviews. I'd take note of the directors whose films tended to drive reviewers crazy and then try and find as much information about them as I could at the local library. (Anyone remember The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature? Damn, that was a frustrating volume!)

By the time I began these informal, unorganized "studies" of mine in the mid-1980s, Ed Wood had gotten enough media attention that video guides were singling out his films for "zero-star" reviews -- definitive proof that bad publicity is better than no publicity. To me, of course, such reviews were catnip. This bizarre, counter-intuitive method of intentionally seeking out the "worst" (or what the critics hated most) led me to the work of many directors I'd now name as my all-time favorites, including John Waters, Russ Meyer, and even David Lynch (who was hardly a critical darling in those days).

Without question, the book that truly introduced me to Plan 9 from Outer Space and the strange underworld of Edward D. Wood. Jr. was Danny Peary's Cult Movies. Peary's essay on the film points out many of its technical and logical shortcomings and quotes some of the script's ripest lines of dialogue, including Reverend Lynn Lymon's graceless pronouncement, spoken in tribute to Tor Johnson's slain policeman: "The bell has rung upon his great career."

Speaking of unintended comedy, my favorite unappreciated little scene in Plan 9 is the one which occurs between Ben Frommer (an Ed Wood regular) and Gloria Dea (one and done with Wood, though she did work for other directors) as two mourners at the funeral for Bela Lugosi's unnamed character. Emerging from a ridiculous plywood crypt, these two engage in a staggeringly artificial and weirdly delivered bit of dialogue. ("First his wife, then he." "Tragic...")

Perhaps the film's funniest performance is by its straightest character: macho airline pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott), who slurs his lines in a Southern drawl which renders him nearly as incomprehensible as Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson. Jeff should be a serious, credible character, yet he sounds nearly as nutty as Criswell when he confesses to his wife Paula (McKinnon) that he's seen a flying saucer but can't admit it in public due to government interference. "I can't say a word," he complains in his typical mush-mouthed voice. "I'm muzzled by Army brass!" A brass muzzle? Such a queer mixed metaphor! Incidentally, Jeff's confession to his wife reminded me a lot of the relationship between Glen and Barbara in Glen or Glenda? That's another story in which the hero has to admit something outlandish to the woman he loves.

Barbershop haircuts and Oxford accents: Plan 9's aliens.
What intrigues me most about Plan 9 from Outer Space in 2013 is that it somehow functions as a compelling narrative even though the viewer has to mentally "assemble" a lot of disparate, mismatched pieces. This motion picture is a crazy quilt consisting of claustrophobic, set-bound studio scenes (cheaply and haphazardly staged but handsomely photographed by the great Bill Thompson), stock footage (of police cars, commercial airplanes, and the military), surreal special effects scenes with models and matte paintings, a smattering of location shots which do not visually match the studio scenes at all, plus that scant silent film of Bela Lugosi.

Ed's plan was to take the Lugosi film and build a movie around it, but he did so in the most circuitous, impractical route imaginable. What he had was footage of an old man (Bela) attending a funeral, smelling roses outside a small suburban house, and walking out of the woods and striking a classic Dracula pose by holding up his cape with outstretched arms.

What he got out of it was a parable about snooty, condescending, misguided aliens (how I love Dudley Manlove as the patronizing, insulting Eros!) who completely bungle an all-important mission to save the universe by wasting time and resources on a silly scheme which involves raising exactly three (3) humans from the dead, all from a single run-down California cemetery. And sometimes, just for emphasis, they destroy small towns.

Did they seriously expect this plan of theirs to work? How? As Danny Peary semi-seriously points out, however, Plan 9 from Outer Space actually does have a valid point to make about how mankind's obsession with weapons will one day lead to the extinction of the entire human race. Only Ed Wood has chosen to put that message into the mouths of unlikable aliens who have, in the words of Ed Wood's resident makeup man Harry Thomas, "barbershop haircuts and Oxford accents." Why? I'll never know. And it's the film's unknowable quality which brings me back to it time and again.

Next week: My original plan had been to include Ed Wood's other 1959 movie, Night of the Ghouls, as part of this article. But I have decided that it merits an article of its own, so join me here next week for that.