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.