Turkeys Over Hollywood: Ed Wood and PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE
By John C. Alsedek:
I was fifteen in 1980 when The Golden Turkey Awards were first published. The Golden Turkey Awards, written by Michael and Harry Medved, was a celebration of the absolute worst films ever made by Hollywood. Having spent my childhood watching Grade Z movies such as The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy and The Giant Gila Monster, I was of course enthralled. In particular, one film the Medveds discussed fired my imagination: Plan 9 from Outer Space, winner of the award for Worst Film of All Time, and its director, Golden Turkey Worst Director of All Time Edward D. Wood, Jr.
It would be two more years before I finally got to see Plan 9 from Outer Space (I think it was on WPIX, Channel 11 NYC, for New Year’s Eve of all things), but was it ever worth the wait! Plan 9 was more hilariously inept than I could have ever hoped for. It was filmed on a total budget of about $10,000, and yet somehow managed to look like it cost maybe fifty bucks. The flying saucers resembled spray-painted paper plates on strings. The airliner cockpit set consisted of a shower curtain, two folding chairs, and a slide rule on the wall. The prominently featured "cemetery" was so cheaply made (including cardboard tombstones and a children’s playhouse–sized mausoleum) that it wouldn’t have passed muster for a grade-school production of "A Christmas Carol." The day-to-night processing effect apparently never got done, because shots within seconds of each other varied from midday to dusk to midday to dusk. The alien headquarters was a small curtained-off room containing only a child’s wooden desk overflowing with electronic doohickeys. The alien spaceship is a flying saucer, yet somehow manages to be square on the inside; and the controls are the same ones as from the alien headquarters, only on a wooden table instead of the tiny desk.
The dimestore look was more than matched by the bombastic, nonsensical script and the dreadful acting, which varied from impossibly hammy (hellooo, John "Bunny" Breckenridge!) to unintelligible (hellooo, Tor Johnson!) to nonexistent (hellooo, Baptist investors J. Edgar Reynolds and Hugh Thomas!). And then there is the film’s "star," Bela Lugosi . . . who had already died when production began on Plan 9 from Outer Space. Desirous of having one of Hollywood’s all-time horror greats as the lead, Wood refused to let Lugosi’s death deter him. Wood used test footage he’d shot of Lugosi for other projects and wrote the script around that, substituting his wife’s chiropractor (who looked nothing like Lugosi) for Bela in a handful of scenes. The overall effect simply has to be seen to be believed.
Clearly, the Medved brothers were right: Edward D. Wood, Jr. was the worst director of all time. That opinion was reinforced in the 1990s when Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood came out. With Johnny Depp devouring the screen as the cross-dressing title character, it sparked interest in Wood's other films, such as Bride of the Monster and Glen or Glenda; there was even an Ed Wood box set, encased in imitation pink cashmere! Glorious schlock, and my mom and I would watch them over and over again to the point where we could reenact entire scenes from memory—“Future events like these will affect you in the future!” indeed!
But rewatching Ed Wood in recent years and reading more about the man's sad life made me begin to look at him differently, a feeling that has grown over the past decade. Maybe my own life experience of producing seven seasons of a radio anthology series has given me some insight into the struggles that Wood went through. The reason I got into radio drama was that I had a lot of script ideas I wanted to bring to life but lacked the financial resources to film them. But what I did have was a couple hours a week at a public access TV studio, so I started doing on-camera readings of scripts . . . which turned into a full-blown radio anthology a year later when I moved from Orange County to Los Angeles.
So you know what? I think I get Ed Wood, at least at some level. More than anything else, he had stories he wanted to share with the world, and he wasn’t going to let something as mundane as a lack of money keep him from doing it. Working for one of the big studios wasn’t an option, so Wood scrambled up money from wherever he could—and if it required him to make a few compromises, oh well. A perfect example is Bride of the Monster. After an aborted attempt to go into production, Wood convinced the owner of several meatpacking plants to provide enough money to finish the film; said owner agreed on the condition that his son play the heroic lead. DONE. And that’s how Wood did things. He’d scrape up enough production capital to get a week at a Poverty Row location like the ironically named Quality Studios, then call up his "regulars"—like Duke Moore, Paul Marco, Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, and Lugosi—and make the picture. Was it high art? Nope. But he got it done, and that counts for something in a business where mega-budgeted projects just disappear (I’m looking at you, Universal’s Dark Universe!).
As for the Medved brothers’ claim that Plan 9 from Outer Space was the worst movie ever made . . . honestly, I completely disagree. Is it bad? Oh, absolutely. But is it the worst movie I’ve ever seen? Nah, not even close. Because for me, the absolutely worst thing a film can be is boring; and whatever its other faults, Plan 9 is not boring! On the contrary, it’s extremely watchable, even if it’s not necessarily for the reasons Ed Wood would have liked. So kudos to you, Ed!
Well, that’s going to do it for 2020. I’ll be back in January with a brand-new column about a pair of Wood’s collaborators. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.