The Black Box Files: Plan 9 From Outer Space
One of the Worst Movies Ever Made Turned 53 Last Weekend, Hugo Didn’t Last 10 Minutes
In any major airline disaster a black box is recovered to determine how the crash occurred. Typically it is never found to be one cause, but rather a cascade of events. This is also how shitty movies are made. It is usually never one thing, but a series of events that culminate in an unwatchable cinematic disaster.
Today we’re recovering information from Plan 9 and hopefully by seeing the cascade of terrible events that led to its disastrous fate, we will better understand how it happened.
Most bad movies have a “terminal point”. That is, a moment in which no hope can be further salvaged. No matter what else happens in the film it is considered a failure. In truly terrible films this occurs within 30 minutes. Let’s examine the timeline for Plan 9 from its beginning to its terminal point.
Film opens on a man named Criswell, predicting what we are about to see. The sequence sets the tone, prepares the viewer, and creates a sense of anticipation for what is to come. The fact we do not know who Criswell is does not deter us from watching further. It also has a clever line: “We are all interested in the future for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”
So far the future looks very exciting.
After a fairly long monologue that could have been re-written to be much shorter, we move onto the opening titles. We see everybody’s name on a tombstone, indicating they are no longer alive. Again, Ed Wood Jr. understands the genre he is playing in and we feel confident about his ability to deliver what is sure to be a riveting movie about grave robbers from outer space.
As I watch the opening titles I realize it is virtually impossible to screw up this part of the movie.
Story begins with a group huddled around a grave. This seems consistent with what we’ve been told the movie will be about. Criswell’s voice-over narration here is vague.
Mis-en-scene is troubling. A priest is in the middle of the frame; to his left is a mournful Bela Lugosi. And to his right, there is absolutely nothing. The word “cinematography” means to record movement. A more accurate word for what I am seeing would be the Greek root for “doodling”.
Screenwriting alarms sound. “Sundown of the day, yet also the sundown of the old man’s heart for the shadows of grief clouded his very reason.” The voice over reads like it was written by a paranoid schizophrenic. The disaster is coming faster than I thought.
The camera mercilessly cuts away to two gravediggers waiting for the sermon to finish. This was obviously shot somewhere else. We can see the seams of the movie, and we know it isn’t real. The whole point of movies is to trick our brains into thinking it is real. What is Ed Wood Jr. doing?
The priest is silent during the entire sermon. Is the voice-over in his head? The scene is dramatically inert. It’s as if we are waiting for something. Our patience is rapidly being tested but we still hold out, hoping something will happen.
The priest closes his bible, and pulls Legosi’s character away. Something finally happens.
“It was when the gravediggers started their task that strange things began to take place.” From the two gravediggers the movie cuts to a huge WW2 bomber in the air.
The image of a giant bomber is jolting. Almost as jolting as when Stanley Kubrick cut from a bone to a spaceship in 2001. Except this carries no thematic significance, and no emotional heft whatsoever.
Examining the overall plot thus far, we have grave diggers and we know something bad will happen. We’re interested to know more, but our confidence has been severely undercut by the incomprehensible voice-over.
We are inside the cockpit of the bomber. This set design does not accurately reflect what a cockpit of a bomber would look like. Behind the pilots is a curtain, and a clipboard dangling from the wall. Both pilots give wooden performances, presumably because Ed Wood Jr’s direction was something like, “Just act like pilots. Pilots usually sound boring and droll.” On the surface that would seem like good direction but movies are supposed to be entertaining.
The pilots realize they are in Burbank and look out the window for confirmation. Is this the first time they’ve flown?
Pilot on the left says to pilot on the right: “Wouldn’t surprise me any if he [air traffic controller] was asleep at this time of the morning.” This quip fails to land with the desired impact. It hardly seems like the kind of joke a pilot would ever need to say. If an ATC ever falls asleep on the job they are typically relieved of their duties never to be heard from by a pilot again.
A light hits the cockpit and the set shakes. The pilots try to act surprised but it’s clear they aren’t that surprised. So far Ed Wood Jr. has not convinced us we are even in a bomber. We know this is a set. How can the pilots possibly deliver a convincing performance in these conditions?
The pilots look out their window and see the cause of the light: A flying saucer dangling from a string.
Ordinarily this would be a terminal point for just about any movie. But since the string is so obvious, audiences may decide that in place of a good craftsman, they are in the hands of a playful filmmaker who may still warrant their further attention.
There is a word for it: charm. We continue to watch having not yet reached the terminal point.
The stewardess sees the saucer and says, “what in the world?” to set up the pilot to say “that’s nothing from this world.” There is a strange dynamic happening here. No one seems that surprised to see something from out of this world, while also registering confidence that the saucer is in fact, nothing from this world.
The pilot casually begins uttering “Mayday! Mayday!” to the ATC. According to Wikipedia, Making a false distress call in the United States is a federal crime carrying sanctions of up to six years imprisonment, and a fine of $250,000. This pilot would be out of a job.
5:45 – 5:57
The saucer flies past hand painted backgrounds, and presumably lands near the grave diggers. This entire flying sequence is unnecessary because it doesn’t convey the true size of the saucer. It floats from one generic looking background to the next. The saucer could be five inches long or five meters long — we don’t know for sure.
The gravediggers decide to leave and are about to become victims to one of the space-grave robbers. The difference between cuts is startling. The gravediggers are shot on location, sometime at about 6pm in the evening. Vampira is filmed on a sound stage in front of a completely black background, which indicates it could be midnight.
She raises her arms and they scream. We fade out.
That, my readers, is the Terminal Point.
As patient viewers we have begun to see the full ineptitude of Ed Wood Jr’s vision. Perhaps we see a small, atomic sized hint of his storytelling prowess, but with it comes an absolutely agonizing display of performances, set design, costumes, editing, and mis-en-scene. By this point it is a full blown disaster. Nothing that happens beyond this point of the movie could ever redeem it, and in just 7 minutes it goes down as one of the biggest pieces of shit in filmmaking history.