Ed Wood's much-maligned Plan 9 from Outer Space is not the worst movie ever made, nor is the cross-dressing director the most incompetent filmmaker ever to stain a Cineplex. Anyone whose sat through Manos: The Hands of Fate, or seen Rick Sloane's repugnant Hobgoblins can attest to that. Sure, Wood does have difficulty with basic cinematic concepts like continuity, narrative structure and dialogue, but there is also a spark of honesty naiveté within his work, a sense that we are actually seeing into a mind that believes whole heartedly in the celluloid sludge he is creating. Add in the fact that Plan 9 bears Bela Lugosi's final filmed "performance", a more than fetching Vampira, a lumbering load known as Tor Johnson, and more mincing aliens than a Wigstock extravaganza, and it's impossible not to love this underachieving atrocity. Now Legend Films is releasing their colorized version of this cult catastrophe, complete with customary comedy commentary by former MST man Mike Nelson. What better way to get reacquainted with this cute car wreck of a film than by seeing it haphazardly tinted and assailed by one of humor's quickest wits.
Aliens from a far-off planet decide to play nuclear deterrent as they arrive on Earth to stop the development of the Solaranite bomb. Having used eight previous plans to no avail, they decide to employ Plan 9: the resurrection of the recently deceased. Apparently, some dead guys walking around will get the attention of authorities. Putting their plot into action, they reanimate a departed old man and his dead wife, both of whom apparently had a vampire fixation. She bears a striking resemblance to Vampira and he looks just like Bela Lugosi—well, sort of, sometimes. When neighbors next to the cemetery contact the cops about the odd goings-on amongst the gravestones, Inspector Dan Clay arrives with his men to check it out. He is immediately killed by the ghoulish couple and brought back from the dead. It requires military intervention, a self-assured airline pilot, and some rather roundabout plotting to keep the extraterrestrials from having their zombified way.
Long a primary part of the public debate over film's most abominable follies, Plan 9 From Outer Space has, perhaps, finally faded from the top of many 100 worst lists, replaced by movies that actually belong there. As much a victim of pre-VHS hype as actual critical drubbing, Ed Wood's beloved exploration of extraterrestrial graverobbers has long been held as the biggest blight against the motion picture paradigm because...well, because someone said so. Michael Medved and his brother Harry once headed something known as the Golden Turkey Awards - a semi-humorous determination of the most horrible of the horrid - and it was they who set the standard for cinema they considered as pointless puke. Sad fact was, unless you caught a glimpse of their maligned movies on The Late, Late, Late Show, there was really no other outlet to judge for yourself. When the brothers determined that Plan 9 was the nadir of novelty items (it was by no means a standard Hollywood offering - Heck, it was barely a drive-in B film) they created a myth that lived on for years. Indeed, for nearly two decades, the Medved boys were the end-all, be-all of bad movie evaluators - and Plan 9 was the pointed subject of their continued criticism.
That all changed when VHS "opened up" the home viewing market. Suddenly people could pick up a copy of Ed's (and others) work and make a decided determination for themselves. And the results more than speak for themselves. Check out the recent Internet Movie Database listing for the 100 Worst Films of All Time. Plan 9 doesn't even breach the register. It is nowhere to be found. Of course, some can claim that the reason for the film's falling profile is the glut of gunk hitting the DVD marketplace, but when looking over the inventory of horrible titles that have taken its place, it's not hard to see why Wood is being given a break. Compared to the mainstream manure of From Justin to Kelly, the 2005 Honeymooners, or the entire Coleman Francis oeuvre, it's hard to champion a kitschy little sci-fi film that's more camp than crap.
Plan 9 is really just a big dumb lark, a clueless bit of speculative speciousness concocted out of the bubbling brain of one of the movie's most manic wannabes. All transvestitism aside, Wood was just a guy who wanted to make films, and when he couldn't get professional backing, he sought funds where he could find them. An opportunist to the end, he used the failing Bela Lugosi as a kind of legitimacy calling card, that is, until the aging icon finally gave in to his myriad of personal and health problems. Even then, Wood continued to trade on his image. When all motion picture prospects dried up, he went on to write trashy adult sex novels. When there was no money in said niche authorship, he tried to actually make porn.
Alcohol finally destroyed him, and all that was left behind were a half-dozen dopey movies and a reputation ruined by forces both within (his films) and outside his control. Still, the fact that we still talk about Plan 9 over 50 years after its release means the movie's internal magic somehow overcomes its inherent flaws. If you've never seen it before, it is well worth a visit. If you have already witnessed its errant beauties, then the question really becomes is a colorized version with optional comedy commentary worth one's time - and better yet, money. The answer, surprisingly, is yes.
Plan 9 from Outer Space is probably one of the few films that benefits slightly from the hue enhancement process. Wood never used monochrome to its best advantage - he was not knowledgeable in the ways of noir and was usually quite artistically challenged - so importing a little color into the mix doesn't hurt matters much. Besides, Legend does a few funny things of their own with the purposeful pigmentation. First and foremost, they give the extraterrestrials the most outlandish lavender outfits, accenting the movie's 'alternative lifestyle' aspects in fa-bu-lous fashion. Secondly, they actually give the living dead drones - Tor, Vampira and a frequently fake Bela - a nice unearthly skin tone. The drab sets suddenly come alive with all manner of interior decorating touches (Yellow walls! Green carpet!) and the usual silly graveyard material has a nice menacing mood with the addition of bleak blues and somber silver. Yes, the human faces still come out a sickly orange and the outdoor scenes are too complex for the computer to correctly calculate (we get a lot of graying shades during those minor moments). Otherwise, unlike other attempts at colorizing,, this one is fairly decent but far from perfect.
As for Mr. Nelson's commentary, it is clear that when left alone, he is just one-third of an otherwise amazing comedy troupe. His jokes are really funny, and he does include a bit of trivia with his talk. But this is not the laugh-a-second sensation that is Mystery Science Theater 3000, and to sell it as such is disingenuous to that classic TV show's fervent fanbase. Mike makes the most of what he has to work with here, and the alternative track is genial and genuinely witty. But if you expect this experience to rival that of the famous cowtown puppet show, you're barking up the wrong buffoonery bonanza. Taken as part of an overall Plan 9 paradigm though, Nelson's sarcastic nods are simply excuses to embrace the film even more. Though it will always be known as the movie with painted pie plates for UFOs, cardboard cutouts for gravestones and the sparsest aircraft cockpit in the history of commercial aviation (and just what are those wooden 'u'-shaped things that the pilots are grabbing onto supposed to be, anyway) Plan 9 is by no means the worst film ever made. It's time to trounce that reputation once and for all, and let Wood's wonder stand as the idiot savant entertainment that it is.
Legend always argues that, before it puts a single shade of color onto a frame of film, it does a full restoration of the original black and white elements. Thankfully, they then give us the option of watching the movie with or without the newfangled feature. Recent releases of Plan 9 (including one offered as part of an impressive Ed Wood box set from Image) actually can't hold a candle to this near pristine revamp. Sure, there are still a few scratches here and there, and the dust and dirt is not completely missing from the print, but the 1.33:1 full screen transfer is terrific. While the colorized cock-up has the aforementioned issues, it is safe to say that 'the film formerly known as the worst of all time' has probably never looked this good.
Dolby Digital Mono - even in two channels - is nothing very exciting, and that's probably the best way to describe Plan 9's aural presentation. The music is so overly melodramatic that you'd swear you were watching The Greatest Story Ever Told instead of some schlocky quasi sci-fi/ horror film. Dialogue - and Ed's is some of the dopiest - is clearly decipherable and all conversations are crisp and clean. As for Mr. Nelson's alternate track, it is mixed a tad too low (you often hear more of the movie than his crackerjack comments) but it is still easily understood and enjoyed.
Perhaps the best technical improvement on the title comes in the bonus features arena. First, we have the MST-type take. Then there are additional comedy bits sprinkled throughout the rest of the supplements. For example, the deleted scenes are "digitally altered" outtakes featuring guns going off by accident and unforeseen accidents happening on set. They are very clever and quite funny. Also really amusing are The Lost Plans: 1 - 8. Here, Nelson narrates a cartoon recreation of the previous attempts by the aliens to sway the leaders of Earth. Not every one is a winner, but there are more treats than trash offered. The true complimentary content is also interesting. We get a few minutes of some Ed Wood home movies (including a nice bit of our director playing 'dress-up') and a couple of his in theater commercials (generic ads for a mostly mercantile clientele). Add in the Plan 9 trailer (giving us our first glimpse of how it looks in color) and you've got a nicely fleshed out release.
When it comes down to it, a rating for this product is based solely on whether or not the world needs another version of Plan 9. There are varying incarnations out on the market, and if you are staunchly anti-colorizing, buying this version will be like a PETA person heading over to Burger King for a Triple Whopper with Extra Cheese. On the other hand, any chance to help a Mystery Science alum earn another paycheck is absolute aces with this critic, and so this package demands a regular recommendation just for that fact alone. But the truth is that Plan 9 From Outer Space is a fun little flub. It is unintentionally hilarious, painfully problematic and unabashedly innocent. As a result, everyone who claims to be a film fan should visit it at least once. Therefore, a score of Highly Recommended is easily ascribed. And the next time someone asks you who the worst director of all time is, give Ed Wood and his ersatz epic a break. After all, Uwe Boll is still making movies, and his offal oeuvre stinks much worse than anything Wood ever offered. Honestly, House of the Dead is far more half-baked and horrendous than this safe and silly crazy cult concoction.
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