One of his outcast collaborators was Lugosi, the Hungarian-American former star who was, by the 1950s, washed up, depressive, and addicted to methadone and morphine. Even after his death, his involvement helped secure funding for Plan 9 from Outer Space, but the meagre money came from the Southern Baptist Church on the condition that the cast and crew were all baptised. As mythologised in Burton’s Ed Wood, the film wasn’t some cynical hackjob, but a truly eccentric labour of love. Hence, says Sexton, the “romantic appeal” of a writer-director-producer who “has gained the status of a kind of anti-auteur”. Plan 9 from Outer Space might be a failure, but it’s a heroic failure.
And here’s the third key to its strange charm: it isn’t actually a failure in every respect. Don’t get me wrong. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a terrible film. A dreadful film. An atrocious film. But it does have some elements that are halfway decent, and it’s unlikely that it would have a cult following without them. That title packs a punch, for a start; if, as the legend goes, it was changed from Grave Robbers from Outer Space at the insistence of the film’s Baptist backers, then they did Wood a favour. The concept of aliens bringing humans back from the dead is promising, too. And some of the imagery is strong enough – iconic enough, even – to have been put on posters and turned into Halloween costumes. In particular, the wasp-waisted Maila “Vampira” Nurmi was the archetypal gothic screen temptress years before Morticia Addams or Elvira ever squeezed into a slinky black dress; and while the hulking Johnson might have been disastrous as a cop, he makes a formidable gurning zombie. These factors are enough to make the film just about watchable.
There are some scholars who would go further. Ernest Mathijs, co-writer of the BFI’s Guide to 100 Cult Films, contends that Plan 9 from Outer Space “challenges the regimes of taste we make up”. Rodney F Hill, who writes about Wood in Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as Cult Text, believes it to be a “campy, cult masterpiece” with a “minimalist avant-garde aesthetic”. He explains to BBC Culture that the film “pointedly rejects the conventions of logic, verisimilitude, and unity that characterise classical Hollywood cinema, in favour of a looser, more meandering plot structure, a flagrant disregard for the rules of continuity, and arguably a modernist or even Brechtian self-awareness of its own artificiality”.
I’m not sure I’m convinced, but maybe, just maybe, Plan 9 from Outer Space isn’t the worst film of all time, after all. “Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is my own candidate for worst film ever,” says Mathijs, while Sexton opts for Manos: The Hands of Fate, from 1966. “Its director,” he says, “makes Ed Wood seem competent by comparison.”
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