Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 85: Thoughts on the 8mm version of 'Plan 9'

Grainy images from the 8mm version of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Dracula figurines on Ed Wood's TV.
What is essential to you? Irreplaceable? If you're at home right now, look around you. In the event of an emergency, what (besides the people and pets) would you save?

When Ed Wood and his wife Kathy were evicted from their downtrodden apartment on Yucca St. in Los Angeles in December 1978, they had to abandon most of Eddie's meager possessions, including the book he'd been writing about actor Bela Lugosi. "They allowed us one suitcase," Kathy sadly told Rudolph Grey in an interview from his 1992 book Nightmare of Ecstasy. "It broke Eddie's heart to leave [Lugosi: Post Mortem] behind. Eddie's files, papers, scrapbooks, it was all lost." Among the few items that survived the eviction were Eddie's screenplay for I Woke Up Early the Day I Died and his manuscript for Hollywood Rat Race.

Florence Dolder, a neighbor of the Woods, agreed that Lugosi: Post Mortem was crucial to Eddie during his final years. She told Grey: "Eddie used to say that if there was a fire that was what he was going to grab—the Lugosi book and his typewriter. And we used to kid him, what are you going to do with Kathy? 'She can follow me.'"

Clearly, Ed Wood did not need Marie Kondo to help him declutter. Life did that for him, again and again. He and Kathy never could hold onto a place for too long. I believe Eddie would have been the pack rat type, had it not been for his peripatetic lifestyle. He was a devoted fan of Westerns and classic horror films, and people like that tend to be collectors, too. They want to be surrounded by trinkets of their devotion. We know that Eddie read Famous Monsters of Filmland and sent away for an album he saw advertised there. A 1959 photo of Ed's living room reprinted in Filmfax #9 (February/March 1988) shows little ceramic statues of Lugosi as Dracula perched on the TV set.

Bob Blackburn, a close friend of Kathy Wood in her later years, had this to say via Facebook:
I do think that Ed and Kathy were kind of pack rats, but as you said with their constant moving, and them having to place items in storage, they really couldn't save anything. Kathy showed me the suitcase a couple years after I befriended her, and it did have a few things, most importantly the manuscript for Hollywood Rat Race, and I was the first person outside of anyone I know of who read it, I don't think she loaned it to Rudy [Grey] nor the script for I Woke Up Early, which she also allowed me to read. And much of what was in the "trunk" which [Paul Marco's nephew] Jason Insalaco won at auction, was originally from their Bekins storage unit on Lankershim up in North Hollywood, and had/has Eddie's scrapbooks, which he showed to Kathy on the first night they met, as well as some cowboy memorabilia as you surmised.

This "collector/hoarder" instinct extended to Ed's own career, too. In the bibliography section of Nightmare of Ecstasy, Grey notes: "While nearly all of [Ed Wood's] possessions were lost or sold through the years, Wood carefully saved his novels, including the date of issue and [the handwritten inscription] 'from the personal collection of Edw. D. Wood, Jr.' in each book." His obsessively updated resum├ęs are, in a sense, another form of collecting. Ed was proud of his films and his writing, and he wanted to make sure his career was properly documented.

The 8mm "home movie" edition of Plan 9.
All of this is my roundabout way of introducing the 8mm version of Ed's magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). That legendary film, previewed in 1957 but not released for two more years, recently marked its 60th anniversary, an occasion that merited a smattering of press coverage and even a tribute from James Rolfe's Cinemassacre channel on YouTube.

After decades as an offering on late night television and sporadic showings at drive-ins and grindhouses, Plan 9 was finally released on VHS in the 1980s. Many other releases followed, including DVD, laserdisc, Betamax, and Blu-ray editions. Today, the film is readily available for streaming online. Nearly four decades after The Golden Turkey Awards made Plan 9 famous to the general public, the movie has never been easier to track down for home viewing.

This was not true in the 1950s and 1960s. VHS and VCRs were still far in the future, and "home video" wasn't a market yet, let alone a revolution. Generally, if fans wanted to revisit a film they loved after it left theaters, their options were limited to tie-in items like soundtrack albums and paperback books. Or they could wait for it to be shown on television.

During those primitive pre-VHS years, however, there was a niche collector market for 8mm reels containing footage from feature films. People could show these reels in their own homes if they owned projectors and screens, which many did because that's how you watched your own home movies back in the day. Due to the bulkiness of these 8mm reels and their prohibitive cost, however, these early "home" releases had to be brief. Short subjects and cartoons could be kept intact, but full-length feature films were heavily condensed.

Such was the fate of Plan 9 from Outer Space. The complete feature is roughly 80 minutes long, but the single-reel 8mm edition from a UK company called Heritage Films clocks in at only about eight minutes. That means 90% of the movie is missing from this version. So if you had to condense Plan 9, a notoriously convoluted and dense story, down to just eight minutes of silent, unsubtitled screen time, what do you keep? Just like deciding what items to rescue in an emergency, it's a matter of determining what is essential. Let's watch the Heritage 8mm reel together and see how they handled it.  Along the way, we'll try to answer this question: What would a newcomer, someone totally unfamiliar with Ed Wood, glean from watching this iteration of Plan 9 from Outer Space?
NOTE BEFORE YOU COMPLAIN: The plot description I'm about to give is entirely inaccurate, as are the character names. I know that. I'm merely trying to illustrate what information can be gleaned solely from watching this 8mm film reel without any additional context.

Well, the opening credits only tell us one bit of information: the movie's name. That's it. No actors, no crew members, and no mention whatsoever of Ed Wood. From there, we get a few seconds of a flying saucer dangling in front of a cloudy sky backdrop. It zips off the screen and is followed by two more identical saucers. Cut to footage of cars driving down the highway. Nearby, the three saucers are seeing hovering over some urban area. The occupants of one car point at the saucers in utter amazement. The Heritage 8mm reel is so grainy and blown out, by the way, that the UFOs are barely visible, if at all.

Okay, so this is a story about aliens coming to Earth in flying saucers and being spotted by humans. The film then cuts to stock footage of newspapers coming off a printing press. A man (reputedly Ed Wood himself) opens a folded newspaper to reveal the headline: "FLYING SAUCERS OVER HOLLYWOOD." Actually, due to the picture quality, it's more like "[something] [something] —ER HOLLYWOOD." But at least we know where the story is taking place. Our alien visitors must have showbiz aspirations.

Another wobbly flying saucer zooms past a building. A sign outside, scarcely readable, says CBS. A woman in a telephone booth watches all this, then makes a call. Cut to another newspaper, this one resting on the table at a diner. The banner headline declares: "SAUCERS SEEN OVER HOLLYWOOD." This alien invasion has been widely reported, and the saucers have been spotted by multiple witnesses. To illustrate this point, another saucer straggles across the screen.

A blurry Vampira makes her entrance.
The film now drastically changes course. We are in some unknown woman's bedroom, and she is being menaced by Dracula, who wears a black cape that he holds in front of his face. The woman, a brunette in a long, frilly nightgown, runs out of the room and out of sight of the camera. Dracula follows, but he goes at his own pace. From a lifetime of movie-watching, we know that Drac must have some connection to the saucers we saw earlier, but we don't as yet know what that could be.

Our damsel in distress runs through a cemetery in a total panic. Dracula follows, calmly walking out of the woman's house into the night. He no longer covers his face, so we can clearly see that it is Bela Lugosi himself. Meanwhile, in the graveyard, the brunette trips and falls. She is observed by a second vampire, this one a Morticia Addams type with long black hair and a low-cut black dress. The brunette in the nightgown manages to stand up again and then runs offscreen.

Dracula emerges from the woods into a cemetery. It seems to be daytime. Is it the next morning perhaps? No, it is still night, as seen in the next shot. We see an absurdly small grave marker that's sort of shaped like a PEZ candy. The dirt next to it pulses, as if whoever's in that grave wants out. Elsewhere, the Morticia type walks past the camera into the fog and glances coyly over her shoulder. And who's back there? Why, it's Dracula, now covering his face again. They must be in cahoots.

Another shot of the brunette in the nightgown running. Another shot of the ground pulsing by the grave marker. More running. More pulsing, though this time the ground also starts crumbling. Our Morticia Addams lookalike wanders slowly through the graveyard as if in a trance, her arms held out in front of her. Back at the tiny grave marker, the ground now completely caves in, leaving a smallish ditch. Our nightgown lady, no longer running, seems a little lost as she makes her way through the tombstones and gnarled branches.

Tor Johnson adds some drama.
We now arrive at the most dramatic shot so far, enhanced with theatrical lighting and fog. An enormous bald man in an ill-fitting suit emerges from a hole in the ground. There's a tombstone in the background. This must be the same grave marker we saw earlier, though the two monuments look nothing alike. The bald man reaches up to the surface and struggles to pull his hefty frame out of the ground. One edit later, and he is upright, fully emerged from the tomb. From his slackjawed expression and pale skin, we take him to be a zombie. That means we have flying saucers, vampires, and at least one zombie, all in the same film. How could these be connected?

Our poor brunette, the one in the froufrou nightgown, runs through yet another stretch of the cemetery. The large, bald man surveys his surroundings. Dracula approaches. Big Baldy looks around some more, then walks very slowly out of sight. The PEZ-shaped marker falls into the hole in the dirt. The Morticia lookalike observes from afar with an expression of studied indifference.  Nightgown Nancy runs through the cemetery again. The poor dear must be getting tired. Baldo the Great staggers around some more. Then Dracula slinks into frame, treading the same bit of ground we just saw a few seconds ago when the brunette ran past. He's hot on her heels.

We seem to have four characters in play here, but they're never shown in the same frame at the same time, so it's difficult to judge their spatial relationships. And now, even more characters are thrown into the mix: two uniformed patrolmen and a detective in a trench coat and fedora. They're wandering around the graveyard, looking for clues. Has a crime been committed here? It's possible the nightgown lady reported Dracula to the cops.

For the first time, two of the monsters are seen together. The bald zombie and the lady vampire are walking side by side in the darkness. It's another memorable shot, though it fades out too quickly.

The film drastically shifts gears yet again. Now we are in what looks like a science lab or a radio station. There's certainly a lot of technical-looking equipment arranged on various tables. The room is occupied by two adults, a Caucasian man and woman. Their outfits are sort of queer—loose-fitting blouses made of shiny fabric, worn with oversized belts and black leggings. These must be our aliens, though there's nothing to indicate they are inside a ship or vehicle of any kind.

As the scene begins, these two are looking through little square-shaped windows on one side of the room. We don't know what they see. The man says something to the woman, so she walks across the room and turns a dial on the wall, which opens the door. And guess who walks in? It's Chromedome and Morticia, still walking forward as if in a trance. The lady alien seems upset, so she turns to her male coworker. He gives her some instruction, and she walks over to a table and turns a dial on a machine. That stops the two monsters. They just stand stock-still in the middle of the room now, expressionless and inert.

Now it's Dracula's turn. He walks up to a square-shaped shed or workshop in the woods. The foliage looks similar to what we saw at the cemetery, so we assume it's nearby. It's hard to tell what this place is. There's a ladder stuck to the wall outside, maybe so you can climb to the roof if you need to. The door has rounded corners, just like the door we saw in the science lab, so it must be the same place. We're just seeing it from the outside now. The door slides open, and Dracula walks inside. The door closes, and the two uniformed cops now walk into the frame and examine the shed. Their guns are drawn. So the monsters and aliens were all in cahoots, and now the cops are closing in on their headquarters. Okay.

But the situation inside has changed considerably. Somehow, there are now two additional human characters in the ship. One is the trench coat-wearing detective from earlier. His trenchcoat is gone, but he still has the fedora. Another is a tall man in a sport jacket. We've never seen him before. Who is he? How'd he get here? Anyway, the detective seems to be arresting the male alien as the female alien and Mr. Sport Jacket look on. One of the uniformed cops outside knocks on the door. No dice.

Inside, all hell is breaking loose. Johnny Sportcoat takes a swing at Mr. Alien while Ms. Alien tackles Fedora Guy. And there's yet another human character in the room, some kind of high-ranking military official. He's not doing anything. Ms. Alien manages to push Detective Fedora across the room, and she starts frantically tinkering with some machine on a desk. Our military friend, let's call him General Halftrack, throws himself across the desk to stop her from whatever she's doing.

A barroom brawl on a UFO.
Meanwhile, there's a barroom-style brawl going on between Sportcoat Guy and Mr. Alien. A table gets knocked over, and the male alien does manage to land one good punch, sending his opponent to the ground. But the tall man gets up pretty quickly, and he and the alien start grappling. On the other side of the room, General Halftrack has apparently subdued Ms. Alien, so now he walks to the other side of the room and turns some big dial on the wall. Detective Fedora is still in the mix, too, standing back with his gun drawn.

The barroom brawl continues, with both combatants getting in their licks. Ms. Alien, apparently not as subdued as we thought, is still tinkering with the machines. She's talking a lot, but to whom? The fight now seems to be going Mr. Sport Jacket's way, though Mr. Alien counters by picking up a piece of equipment and trying to use it as a blunt instrument. At this same time, another piece of equipment on that same table explodes and starts belching smoke all over the place.

General Halftrack is still fiddling with the big dial on the wall as the room starts to cloud up. The alien and the tall man are still grappling. Ms. Alien is still tinkering. Fedora Guy is still just standing there with his gun drawn. The room is really getting smoky now, so General Halftrack gives up on one dial and tries his luck with another one. That does the trick. The door slides open. Detective Fedora immediately exits, seemingly abandoning General Halftrack and Sportcoat Guy, the latter of whom is still in the thick of it with Mr. Alien. General Halftrack then also decides to skedaddle, yelling something to his tall companion before dashing out into the night.

After quite a struggle, Johnny Sportcoat finally manages to defeat Mr. Alien, socking him in the gut and then punching him in the back while the alien is doubled over in pain. This coincides with another major explosion in the room. Outside the shed, Fedora Man and General Halftrack are just now emerging. It looked before like the door led immediately outside, but apparently it doesn't. Sportcoat Guy looks around the room. It's a mess. Everything's either exploding or on fire, and Mr. Alien is passed out cold. The tall man bravely dashes out the door. Ms. Alien has finally, finally finished whatever she was doing at that table, and she goes to help Mr Alien. He is not to be revived, so she looks out the window.

Outside the shed, Mr. Sport Jacket emerges into the open air. Inside, Ms. Alien makes another attempt at rousing her companion, then fiddles with the few machines that aren't currently on fire. Things are getting even more smoky in there, and Ms. Alien is clearly starting to panic.

The film now cuts to a group shot. General Halftrack, Fedora Guy, the brunette, Johnny Sportcoat, and one of the uniformed cops are all standing around, looking at something in the sky. A flying saucer, completely engulfed in flames, emerges from the cemetery. This is the first clue that the square-shaped shed was actually the interior of one of the flying saucers we'd seen at the beginning of the movie, before the Dracula part started. As the five humans continue to gawk, the burning UFO flies over Hollywood at night. Inside the craft, Ms. Alien is still trying to wake up Mr. Alien, but the room is getting so smoky, you can hardly see your hand in front of your face.

The five humans are still gathered around, watching this spectacle unfold, but the patrolman is distracted by something on the ground. It's a skeleton, hidden inside some crumpled-up clothes. The humans talk among themselves about this, and General Halftrack points at something or other. There's another shot of the skeleton.

The UFO is still on fire from the outside, and it's oppressively smoky on the inside, so much so that we can't see Mr. or Ms. Alien anymore. In the final seconds of action, we get to see the flying saucer explode spectacularly. But now, the smoke dissipates almost instantly, leaving only the sight of Los Angeles at night. We cut to a title card reading "THE END. Filmed in Hollywood U.S.A." We can barely discern the silhouette of a man in the background, but there's no indication of who this might be.

And that, my friends, is the 8mm version of Plan 9 from Outer Space. What could you get from watching this version of the film? Well, you'd know that the story involves UFOs, aliens, a graveyard, some monsters (possibly vampires, possibly zombies), and a group of humans including police and military officials.

Some flying saucers hover over Hollywood, attracting ample press attention along the way, and then one of them lands in a cemetery somewhere in the L.A. area. There are two aliens on board, one female and one male. They never leave their ship. Instead, they seem to remotely control three monsters: Dracula, a sexy vampire lady, and a large bald zombie. Dracula harasses but does not catch or harm a brunette lady who lives near the graveyard. This attracts the attention of the cops, who close in on the alien ship. While two uniformed cops stay outside, a detective enters the ship, along with two other men. A fight breaks out between the humans and the aliens, and the equipment on the ship catches fire in the process. The three human men rapidly leave the ship, which tries to take off but only explodes in midair. The alien threat has been quelled, and one of the monsters has been reduced to a harmless skeleton.

What gets sacrificed here? Criswell, for one. There's no sound on the version I watched, so his narration is absent. His opening and closing monologues have also been removed. The only hint of his participation in the film is his silhouette at the end. Lyle Talbot and Bunny Breckinridge are entirely absent as well, as are Norma McCarty and David De Mering. Most of the other main characters do appear in this shortened version, though there is no apparent connection between Gregory Walcott and Mona McKinnon here. She's just some woman being harassed by a monster, and he's just some guy who punches an alien in the stomach.

We get no indication of the aliens' motivation or strategy, so we just assume they're here to conquer humanity and use their power over the monsters to terrorize us. The monsters, disappointingly, just vanish from the 8mm film without explanation. The closest thing we get to a wrap-up on them is the shot of the skeleton near the end, though you'd have to be quite the detective to figure out that these are the remains of the bald zombie. And even though the film's cover art seems to promise planes firing on the spaceships, the military aspect of Plan 9 has been almost entirely removed from this version of the film, save for the appearance of Tom Keene as Col. Edwards.

Despite these narrative shortcomings, the Heritage 8mm Plan 9 from Outer Space does have a mysterious mojo to it. Without the dialogue, we can concentrate on the visuals, and there's a lot to appreciate here. The shots of Vampira and Tor Johnson are genuinely eerie and compelling, and the fact that the footage is grainy and blurry actually covers up the shoddiness of the graveyard set. And we even get a few fleeting glimpses of Bela Lugosi along the way, even though his character's tragic backstory is jettisoned.

Some versions of the Heritage Plan 9 cover feature a sticker that says "SOUND," and Ed Wood archivist Philip R. Frey says, "I have received reports that some versions have subtitles." But, really, all this 8mm film needs is some appropriate mood music. That can be easily located. Have fun!