MY YEAR OF SCARY MOVIES
by Daniel Hutchens
Part 2: Plan 9 From Outer Space(1958) Directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. Starring Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Vampira.
“You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here.”
Leonard Bernstein once said about pop/rock music that, “What I like is maybe five percent of the whole output...itʼs mostly trash...but that good five percent is so exciting and vital, and may I say significant, that it claims the attention of every thinking person.” I would apply this formula across the board to all forms of art and entertainment; music, movies, TV shows, novels, painting, you name it. Youʼve got your 95% thatʼs just soft, safe bullshit, the middle of the road. And what interests me lies on either side of the road, down in the ditches. Either the blazingly brilliant, or the flat-out freak shows...if thereʼs really a difference. And folks, movies just donʼt come any more freakish than those made by Edward D. Wood Jr.
Wood lived on the periphery of the Hollywood system in the 1950s, hustling up money from private investors in order to pursue his bent vision of filmmaking. All of his movies pack a mighty wallop of shock value: Glen Or Glenda stars Wood himself as a transvestite struggling with his secret life, and features Bela Lugosi as a kind of overseeing puppeteer of destiny; these scenes are splattered together alongside random stock footage in typically disorienting Woodsian form...Jail Bait contains a scene where real-life minstrel show entertainer Cotton Watts performs in blackface, a strangely jolting and hard-to-look-away moment of film, utterly disconnected from the rest of the story...but of course the most famous of Woodʼs films, ranking #1 in several “Worst Movie Ever Made” listings, is Plan 9 From Outer Space.
The first time I saw Plan 9, back when I was a kid, I missed the beginning and turned on the TV somewhere in the middle of the movie––didnʼt know the title or anything about the Ed Wood legend until many years later––but I was riveted to my chair by what was unfolding on the screen; the stunningly low-budget quality of the props and acting was just plain irresistible, like tuning into a broadcast from a distant foreign country where all the rules of cinema were slightly different than ours, almost like they were speaking a different language––and the image of Vampira and Tor creeping across the graveyard burned itself into my brain and has remained there all these years. In terms of sheer impact, that image ranks way up there with various forms of art that have altered the course of my life, right alongside the likes of The Beatles, Baudelaire, Modigliani, Flannery OʼConnor, Robert Johnson.
Roger Ebert once wrote that Woodʼs movies contained “Acting so bad that it achieved a kind of grandeur. But badness alone would not have been enough to make him a legend; it was his love of film, sneaking through, that pushes him over the top.” Stories about Woodʼs life confirm this perspective: Wood truly loved movies, and all he wanted to do was make movies, but he wanted to make his movies––which were just too twisted to find a home in the mainstream industry––so Wood worked with the hand he was dealt. Very little money, few professional actors, scripts written on the fly. But Wood was considered by some of his peers to be profoundly talented...just a bit odd. Fellow B-movie creator Anthony Cardoza said, “[Ed] had to do it all...If they knew how he would make his own crosses for the graveyard, and hammer nails, scrap wood...theyʼre laughing at it, but thatʼs a real producer, not a guy sitting on his ass. Thatʼs a guy that did it, man, did it all.” Magazine publisher Bernie Bloom said that, “Ed Wood was a crazy genius. Way ahead of his time. Everybody was afraid to do the things that he would do. He was the most prolific writer Iʼve ever known, and the fastest. He could write better drunk than most people write sober.”
Woodʼs career was certainly hampered by his open cross-dressing, and his descending spiral into alcoholism. He spent his final years in poverty, making a few stray bucks tossing off scripts for sleazy soft core porn flicks. But heʼs achieved a posthumous cult status, and Plan 9 in particular has become embedded in pop culture; it became a staple on the Midnight Movie circuits, and thereʼs even an episode of Seinfeld where the characters are waiting in a restaurant to have dinner, before attending a screening of Plan 9 (the famous “Chinese Restaurant” episode.) The movie is quirky, maybe even unhinged, and no, itʼs certainly not suited to every taste. But for me, the obviously phony graveyard scenery, the looks-nothing-like-him double who replaced Bela Lugosi (who died during filming), the hubcaps on strings representing UFOs, etc., all add up to good fun, a cool old black and white reverie, some laughs and some raw weirdness and some curiously chilling images. And for me thatʼs a far cry from the worst movie ever made.