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.
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.