Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Plan 9 from Outer Space

Super Bowl? Naw, we watched Plan 9. I am not anti-sport. I find the SB oppressive, however, and am against the tawdry idea of looking forward to commercials. That’s playing into their hands far too easily.

So Plan 9, which I’ve seen a number of times. I used to own it, but I guess it went out on permanent loan. Every time I watch it I feel compelled to defend it against the charge of worst movie ever. The worst movie ever cannot be this entertaining and this fascinating.

I will not say that Ed Wood was especially sound technically, but neither did he have money to throw at his problems. James Cameron had the GNP of I don’t know which country to throw at Avatar and came up with a derivative pile of hokum saved—barely—by the tra la of 3-D. He took the path of least resistance. You watch Plan 9 for the first time, you don’t know where it’s going, but it is always portentous.

The movie begins ominously with the prophetic flakiness of Criswell. His professional snake oil took some interesting turns I hear but I haven’t bothered to study his place in loony history. Suffice to say that once he starts talking, I am hooked. What the hell is he talking about?

Okay, he does explain that the story concerns—cue the music—GRAVEROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE. I do not how I would have reacted if this movie crawled onto the tv screen when I was a kid. I would not have regarded the movie ironically, that’s for sure.

The prose style of the voiceover explaining the plot bears a dreamlike disjointedness, plus flowery language. We see poor Bela Lugosi taking his job seriously. He was always a stage actor, never fit his acting to the little camera. He displays what his character is supposed to be feeling. This produces an odd dissonance in the movie. He creates a booming vortex of concern that the movie never intends to enter. And then his character dies. So does he, it turns out.

Next comes the encounter by our hero (of sorts), the pilot of an airliner, with a UFO. Then we meet the aliens themselves, as they go over the next few plot points. We have clearly landed in something primordially baffling. The three aliens enjoy a superb incongruity together. The leader of the aliens—called the Ruler at one point—is this tired looking guy who can no doubt boast that he never took an acting lesson. His flourish and demeanour reminds me of Truman Capote, perhaps with the addition of ‘ludes. At one point, and I am not sure why, he rolls his eyes. NOT because of disdain for the act in which he’s engaged, but for some subtler manifestation that I cannot identify. It is a rewarding moment in the movie.

The other two are shipmates on the UFO. They are, we learn, hard at work putting Plan 9 into motion. The Ruler had to check a piece of paper to see the exact nature of Plan 9. Oh yes, bringing the dead of earth to life so that they can, um, convince earthlings to, um… you know. Apparently Plans 1-8 lacked the scope and power to accomplish what Plan 9 could. The final aim, then, of Plan 9 may be too subtle for my earthling mind, but at least I understand that the aliens want to raise the dead. That, my friends, is some scary plan.

The two aliens are male and female, at least they look so. The male, whose name I think is Eros (God help us!), possesses the poise and firmness of a gameshow host. The female is a sort of Vanna White (you young uns check Wikipedia, I’m sure Vanna’s out to pasture by now, replaced by some willowy freshet of femininity). I do not remember the female alien’s name but at least she gets a speaking part, subservient tho she be. The two assure the Ruler that they will continue with Plan 9.

I guess I missed explaining the part where the two gravediggers for Bela’s grave were killed by a stoned looking woman in black with claw like nails and an extremely scant waist. We are not witness to how she manages to slaughter the two victims, nor given a clue why they could not outrun this stutter stepping lady in the too tight dress (a stoned Morticia).

Investigating this heinous crime is Inspector Clay, a large cup of police work. He too falls prey to the lady in black. And I haven’t even mentioned the pilot at home with his lovely wife, steaming that he is enjoined against telling anyone about the airliner’s encounter with the unknown. Holy Gosh!

I fear I give too much plot away. Let me just explain that the hotsy totsy woman in black is the wife of Bela Lugosi, brought to life by the fell aliens. Maybe you were expecting someone in a flower print dress and sensible shoes. She and Inspector Clay are now minions of Plan 9. Oh yes, we see Clay emerging from his freshly dug grave, a vision that will return to me every time I pass a graveyard at midnight, with an owl hooting chillingly nearby.

I have not even mentioned the lineup of cops, who are sort of comic relief, whether they know it or not. The lieutenant, fairly level headed, looks like Howard Hughes. Thru out the movie he uses his pistol to scratch his head or gesture. Whoa, hey, watch it!

Okay so Lugosi dies during the 7 or so hours of filming, but his character is still needed. Yes, Ed Wood’s chiropractor fills in. It has already been established that the old man wears a cape. The chiropractor, a head taller than Lugosi, keeps the cape pulled over his face. This is called making do. I do not hold it against Wood: art as creative problem solving. I know that there was a Spanish movie in which two actresses with little physically in common are randomly exchanged in scenes. Tres avant garde.

The old man (of the Undead) attempts to kidnap the pilot’s wife, but fails. Inspector Clay of the Undead does not. The cops and the pilot stumble onto the spaceship and confront the aliens. This allows Eros to explain what the hell. It seems that these advanced aliens harbour a righteous concern that humanity will discover the mega ultimate power of I forget the six syllables worth of awesome power that the alien said. Igniting this bomb, which we are in the process of discovering, in an evolution of self-destruction, would result in the sun igniting. Something about the sun’s light sort of catching fire and, like flames to gasoline, the destructive power would follow the light all the way to the sun. Oppenheimer had a similar vision, as it happens, before the atom bomb was detonated.

So we learn that the movie carries a nuclear warning. Some ill-advised words by Eros concerning the stupidity of earthlings riles the pilot, who launches a haymaker at Eros, and the two set to. The alien looks like no match for the beefy pilot but they battle evenly for a while, breaking a lot of what looks like expensive alien electronics. A fire starts, the cops and the pilot’s wife skedaddle, and the female alien frets about the fire as she attempts to launch the saucer. In the end, a good old fashioned right hook, American style, deposits the alien guy to the mat, and the pilot hustles away. Meanwhile the female, in a tizzy, gets the saucer into the air. Alas, it explodes. Criswell intones some prophetic sounds and the movie ends.

Yes, you can see strings attached to saucers, yes the the crypt that implausibly holds 5 or more people looks like the box for a washing machine, yes when someone brushes against a gravestone, it flops around like cardboard. This sort of thing is normal on the stage. Those are not real cops, real flying saucers, real rayguns in the movie, btw. The imagination gets to do a little work, you know.

In sum, no point in the movie drags. The exposition occurs briskly and unobtrusively. Wood sincerely wanted to entertain you. He held to some disjointed metronome broke freely from the familiar. Any declarations of intent that one might discover in the movie seems incomplete. This is art, my friends. Surprise is not here manufactured, it is inherent. Wood did not allow overthinking to cloud over the energy of his making. This is art, my friends.

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