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Plan 9 From Outer Space

Two years after Bride of the Monster came Wood’s crown jewel, and the film by which he’s best known: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958). The "ninth plan" of the title is "resurrection of recent dead," according to drag-queen-from-space Bunny Breckenridge, who needed no more than his usual makeup to play the head alien. Most of the scenes occur in a dime-store graveyard, with inept cops being chased by easily eluded reanimated corpses. The arrival of the aliens is heralded by hubcaps on wires being yanked in front of a painted backdrop, with a loud voice booming: "Flying Saucers Over Hollywood!" Critic Danny Peary called this film subversive, and it’s true that Wood’s script attacks backward thinking: "Stupid, stupid!" alien Eros (Dudley Manlove) screams about parochial earthlings who are "playing God." (The aliens come to Earth to intervene because our scientists are about to explode our own sun, though what that has to do with "plan 9" is unclear. And what were the first eight plans, by the way?)

Subversion is the film’s driving force, and Wood does it with style. Nothing here is what we expect, or what narrative demands. The graveyards have plastic headstones, paper mausoleums, and sticks for crosses. A simple sequence of driving from a police station to the cemetery becomes an existential nightmare as the sky shifts willy-nilly between day, dusk, and darkest night over the course of the drive. Two old gravediggers are "attacked" by the "ghoul woman" played by Vampira; but typical of Wood, there’s no tangible connection between the two. The gravediggers are standing in daylight; the ghoul woman (allegedly a few feet away) is in a pitch-black cemetery. She holds her hands up and shakes her fingers suggestively, which is apparently enough to send the gravediggers screaming to their doom. Wood excels at this unique manipulation of space, having characters talk to each other -- or do violence to each other -- from seemingly unrelated spaces, an effect that’s both comic and disturbing.

Wood's stock company is at its peak here: the inimitable Criswell lends a wraparound narration (reprising in lesser form the "science god" of Glen or Glenda); Vampira, in a wordless part, shocks and thrills as the sexy ghoul woman; Bunny (John) Breckenridge rolls his eyes and reads his lines from cue cards on the floor; and the great Dudley Manlove gets many of the film's best lines, some of which have a low-rent Shakespeare tinge: "I, a fiend? ... I a fiend?" or the immortal "You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!" Wood's avatar Bela Lugosi completes this happy group, but he's more a spiritual presence than a physical one - no doubt because he died before the film was shot. We do get a little footage of him picking flowers outside his tract house, mooning over his dead wife (Vampira), and meandering through a graveyard. The unsinkable Wood didn't let a little thing like death get in his way -- he substituted his drinking buddy and chiropractor Tom Mason, who looks nothing like Lugosi, for the dead star. One of the treasures of the film is Wood's unbelievable strategy of having Mason walk through his scenes with his cape over his face to prevent the audience from making a comparison. When I first saw the film, I (and others I talked to) thought these were two different characters! Adios, narrative.

The pleasures of Plan 9 and all Wood's films can be best appreciated with a large, rowdy audience. If that large audience is unavailable, the DVDs make a good substitute (no doubt better than Tom Mason substituting for Bela). The transfers on these four films are clean and crisp, clearly taken from the best sources. This doesn't preclude occasional artifacts, but overall they look quite good. Three of the discs have only a theatrical trailer as extras, but the Plan 9 disc has both a trailer and a wonderful two-hour documentary by Mark Carducci that explores in great depth the film's production, its players, and Wood's career, with loads of interviews, commentary, and even a rare clip of Wood directing one of his early westerns.

Wood died in 1978, destitute after he and his wife were evicted from their last apartment in the dregs of Hollywood. It’s ironic that 22 years later he stands poised — radiant in sausage curls, electric angora, and stiletto heels — for the world’s embrace.


Go to:
Glen or Glenda?
Jail Bait
Bride of the Monster
Plan 9 From Outer Space