Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

It’s impossible to distinguish which version of Ed Wood I think of as a personal hero: the alcoholic crossdresser who lived a tough life as an underappreciated outsider artist or the much sunnier, apocryphal version of him presented in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic.  Either way, Ed Wood is undeniably a great film (despite how some of its casting choices may have aged), second only to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as Burton’s career best.  It was surely my first exposure to Wood’s art & legacy, priming me for a genuine appreciation of the kind of enthusiastic D.I.Y. filmmaking most modern audiences mock as “so bad it’s good” schlock. Before Burton’s loving, reformative biopic polished up Ed Wood’s reputation, his biggest claim to fame was being posthumously burdened with a Golden Turkey “Award” for The Worst Director of All Time in the 1980s – mainly for his career-defining opus Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Personally, I don’t believe Wood was capable of making The Worst Film of All Time.  Wherever his work may have suffered from improper funding or technical ineptitude, Wood vastly overcompensated with a chaotic, personal passion for the artform.  Despite being locked out of proper studio filmmaking channels, Wood’s stream-of-consciousness writing style and delirious sense of self-confidence led to some of the most spectacularly bizarre self-financed genre pictures of his era.  The actual worst movies of all time are dispassionate, impersonal, unmemorable bores – movies Ed Wood was incapable of making.  Whether I only believe that because of his myth-making biopic is something I’ll never be able to fully decipher; I happened to be born late enough in the game that Burton’s hagiographic version of Wood reached me before the dweebs at The Gold Turkey Awards could poison my brain.

Plan 9 from Outer Space was never my personal favorite Ed Wood flick (that meager honorific belongs to Glen or Glenda), but it’s easy enough to understand how it became his most widely known.  If nothing else, its gleeful genre-nerd mashup of Atomic Age sci-fi tropes, celebrity vampires, graveyard-set zombie attacks, and pro wrestling monsters is enough of a pop media overload to distract from what it lacks in financing or technical skill (as if those weren’t also a highlight in their own way).  Whereas Glen or Glenda was a self-portrait of his life as a closeted crossdresser, Plan 9 is a self-portrait of his life as a genre movie fanboy.  Both films were written in a manic, straight-from-the-id haste due to their budget constrictions, exposing the bargain bin auteur’s naked psyche without petty concerns like narrative logic or good taste blocking the view.  Originally titled Graverobbers from Outer Space, the film’s basic concept of space aliens commanding an army of Earth’s undead was always going to be a mash-up of Atomic Age sci-fi & zombie movie tropes.  It’s the way Wood crammed his social circle of Hollywood “weirdies” into that basic genre mash-up that really explodes the film into post-modern delirium.  Without explanation or internal justification, this aliens-and-zombies novelty picture suddenly involves celebrity vampires Bela Lugosi & Vampira, a guest segment of the locally televised astrology program Criswell Predicts, and the gargantuan pro wrestler Tor Johnson – all essentially playing themselves with no real relation to the alien graverobber plot.  The film was pitched to independent investors as a way to cash-in on then-recent newspaper reports of UFO sightings in Hollywood.  Instead, it mutated into a collection of all the assorted pop culture ephemera that made Ed Wood fall in love with Hollywood as an aspiring, underfunded filmmaker; all that was missing was a few cowboys airlifted from a serial Western.

Besides its genre-melding collection of aliens, zombies, vampires, and pro wrestlers on a single graveyard set, I think the main reason Plan 9 is more popular than Glen or Glenda is that it moves at a slower, quieter pace.  It’s perfectly calibrated for MST3k-style live commentary in that way, making it a much likelier candidate for drunken Midnight Movie screenings and “so-bad-it’s-good” mockery.  Glen or Glenda pummels the audience with a scatterbrained editing style & an overbearing narration track that leave little room for any individual image or idea to be scrutinized before it moves on to the next.  By contrast, Plan 9 is in no rush to get anywhere, feeling more like a Halloween-themed hangout film than a proper creature feature.  There’s plenty of time for audiences to point & laugh at the visible strings that hold up its model-kit UFOs, or the cardboard cut-out gravestones that tip over whenever bumped into, or the lighting’s alternation between night-day-night settings within a single scene.  It’s the kind of “bad movie” that invites the audience to feel superior to the material at hand, which is especially attractive to teenage cynics who are first starting to get into low-budget schlock.  I’m getting to the point in my life where that above-it-all MST3k mockery no longer appeals to me.  These types of unskilled, underfunded novelty films read more to me as quirky Outsider Art than they do some kind of subprofessional embarrassment.  By that standard, Ed Wood is truly one of the greats, having made several D.I.Y. messterpieces that were personal to his interests as an artist & as a Hollywood weirdo but still endure as crowd-pleasing party films a half-century later.  The experience of watching Plan 9 from Outer Space is too fun for it to be “the worst” of anything, no matter how clumsy Wood was in his rush to get something on celluloid before his budget ran dry.

I’m grateful to the Tim Burton biopic for introducing me to Ed Wood as a filmmaker and a personality.  I’m even more grateful to Rhino’s mid-90s Deluxe Ed Wood Boxset of the films covered in the Burton version of his story, collecting Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space on three VHS tapes bound in a fuzzy pink angora slip case.  I lost track of my copy of that boxset years ago, as I let go of the tape-eating VCRs that were collecting dust on my TV stand.  It’s been easy enough to buy those films individually on DVD in the decades since, but they’re long overdue for the cleaned-up HD restoration treatment that so many low-budget genre films are lavished with on the niche Blu Ray market these days.  The pink angora slip case is optional, but it gets stranger every year that the unholy trinity of American schlockteurs—Wood, Wishman, and Meyer—are all missing from the vintage media restoration market.  I wonder if my genuine appreciation of Ed Wood’s art is solely a result of growing up in the exact 1990s sweet spot: after Burton rehabilitated his earlier reputation as The Worst Director of All Time and Rhino had released his Greatest Hits as an easily accessible boxset presented in an up-to-date format.  That was almost three decades ago; we’re long overdue for another Ed Wood career refresher, starting with a proper physical media release for the movie that made him infamous.

-Brandon Ledet

The Absurdist Joys of the Villainous Pun Name

I have a running list of absurdly idiotic movie gimmicks that delight me to no end: horror films about internet-dwelling computer ghosts; plot-summarizing rap songs that play over end credits; music video dream sequences, etc. This week I may have discovered a new one: the not-so-secret villain who gives themselves away with an obviously evil pun name. Naming fictional characters is difficult business. It takes incredible skill & patience to find the right name that both says something about the character without being too blatant and feels natural on the tongue. This week I’ve been watching movies that don’t at all burden themselves with either concern, instead using their villains’ names as plain, upfront statements about where they stand in the world and how you should feel about them. It’s a tactic that’s far more often employed in the heightened realities of pro wrestling, drag, and comic books – one that sticks out like a sore thumb when it’s deployed in cinema, hilariously so.

The first of these villainous pun names to jump out at me was from the 1987 supernatural noir Angel Heart. The film joins the ranks of New Orleans-set erotic thrillers like The Big Easy, Zandalee, and Cat People ’82 in depicting our fine city as a sweaty pile of saxophones, street steam, horniness, gumbo, and Voodoo. The plot is, on the surface, a fairly standard noir riff where a young, strapping Micky Rourke ventures to investigate a missing person’s case while getting tangled up with various dangerous dames. Everything changes when a corny sex scene between Rourke & Lisa Bonet (a beautiful combination, considering the times) turns into a nightmare vision of Hell and the movie takes a supernatural turn. Anyone paying attention to the character names should see that directional shift coming from a mile away, however. Not only is Rourke’s professional sleuth named Harold Angel, but the man who hires him to investigate the crime (in “a special appearance” from Robert De Niro) is named Louis Cyphre. Turns out that long-nailed, slick haired trickster Louis Cyphre has a pure-Evil, supernatural role to play in Angel’s downfall. Who would have guessed?

The second villainous pun name I stumbled across was a much more recent, less nostalgically minded-title: Wes Craven’s 2005 airplane thriller Red Eye. A tight, gimmick-heavy thriller from the War on Terror era of Bush’s presidency, the film features Rachel McAdams being held hostage by Cillian Murphy on a late-night flight and subsequently being pressured into participating in a terrorist attack. Red Eye has a Final Destination feel to it, except with Terrorism feeling like the inescapable inevitability instead of Death. That set-up allows for over-the-top skirmishes with flight attendants, missile launches, and assassination attempts to feel at home with the overall tone, but the movie also has a stray concern with gender politics that lands far outside that thematic orbit. Murphy’s abduction & coercion of McAdams begins as extremely gendered flirtation, then erupts into domestic violence exchanges where he explains he has the upper hand because his “male-driven logic” trumps her “female-driven emotion.” That turn in the story is much more jarring than Murphy’s reveal as the villain, but the gendered violence of the film is less surprising when you consider his character name for a half-second: Jack Rippner.

After meeting Louis Cyphre & Jack Rippner by chance, I decided to revisit the most shameless villainous pun name I could recall. It’s an honor held by none other than schlock king Ed Wood Jr., who had the vision & the fortitude to name a character Dr. Acula in 1958’s Night of the Ghouls. Officially unreleased until the 1980s, cobbled together from footage pilfered form Orgy of the Dead & The Sinister Urge, and somewhat posed as a direct sequel to Bride of the Monster (at least in Tor Johnson’s resurrection of the character Lobo), Night of the Ghouls is a total mess even by Wood’s “standards”. It’s a charming mess, though, especially in sequences where Dr. Acula fleeces marks by staging fake seances in his spooky mansion for easy cash. Everything about Acula is a mystery. Actor Kenne Duncan is not at all vampiric in the role, not even vaguely. The character was obviously written for Bela Lugosi before his death, but why wasn’t it given to Criswell instead, who introduces the film while rising of a casket, then continues to operate outside the narrative? If Acula is a total fraud whose seances are staged for grifting, why would have burdened himself with such an obviously suspicious, villainous stage name? Was the character intended as an homage to Lugosi’s very similar conman in the 1940 horror comedy You’ll Find Out? I’m not sure Wood would have answers to these questions even if he were still alive, which I suppose is part of the fun.

Jack Rippner, Dr. Acula, and Louis Cyphre have better company in more well-respected films – characters like Hannibal Lecter, Cruella de Ville, and any number of James Bond or Harry Potter villains you can name. Honestly, though, I find them even more delightful as sore-thumb intruders outside of contexts like comic books or children’s literature that would excuse their over-the-top nomenclatures. Now that my eyes are open to the trope, I fully expect to notice more villainous pun names at the movies. At the very least, I hope to run across a Justin Sane or a B. Zilbub before my time on Earth is through and I fully expect to fall in love with the films that dare to exploit that gimmick. It’s consistently delightful & comfortably at home with this genre film territory.

-Brandon Ledet