"Plan 9 From Outer Space"

Those near and dear to infamous schlock director Ed Wood reveal his greatest legacies -- including how not to wield a camera.

Published October 5, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Plan 9 From Outer Space"
Directed by Edward D. Wood Jr.
Starring Gregory Walcott, Tom Keene, Tor Johnson, Bela Lugosi, Vampira
Passport Video; full screen (1.33:1)
Extras: Interviews, trailers

The "Citizen Kane" of bad movies, "Plan 9 From Outer Space" routinely tops most people's lists of the worst films ever made. And for good reason. Writer, director, producer and editor Edward D. Wood Jr., generally regarded as one of the least competent auteurs in cinema history, botched just about every element of this, his masterpiece. From the goofy dialogue and terrible acting to the ridiculous story and cheesy effects, this is the film for which the phrase "So bad it's good" was invented. As TV psychic Criswell warns at the outset, "Future events such as these will affect you in the future."

The ineptness of "Plan 9" is legendary: You see wobbly tombstones, day and night alternating from shot to shot and flying saucers hanging from pieces of string. The picture also features ludicrous use of stock footage and, best of all, a chiropractor friend of the director's who subs for Bela Lugosi throughout the film because of Lugosi's untimely demise during shooting. (The replacement is clearly taller, thinner and younger than Lugosi, but he attempts to hide these disparities by holding a cape in front of his face.) The story involves "advanced" aliens visiting our planet to prevent earthlings from harming the universe with their increasingly bigger bombs. To convince the earthlings that they mean business, the aliens raise several people from the dead (Plan 9 -- the other eight plans remain unexplained).

What's most striking is the sincerity that Wood brings to his work. The man doubtlessly thought himself to be a capable filmmaker and believed he had something of value to tell audiences. The result is a strange and endearing sweetness that radiates from every frame of "Plan 9." It's sort of like watching the Special Olympics -- Wood may not be the most fleet-footed guy on the track, but you're pulling for him anyway.

The DVD includes half a dozen interviews with people who knew or worked with Wood or starred in Tim Burton's uneven 1994 biopic, "Ed Wood." Johnny Depp, who played Wood in the Burton film, disputes that Wood is the world's worst-ever director. "He was a guy who was driven to realize his artistic vision," Depp says with more than a little charity. Closer to the mark is Dolores Fuller, who worked with Wood in some of his films and was married to the guy for a while (and shared his fondness for Angora sweaters). Wood's chief contribution to cinema, she says, was his empowering of other filmmakers. "People say, 'If he could do it, I can do it,'" Fuller observes.

The disc also features trailers for Wood's other movies -- "Glen or Glenda," "Bride of the Monster," "The Sinister Urge" and "The Bride and the Beast." They indeed may have inspired others to take up cameras, but more likely these movies taught a generation of filmmakers how not to practice their craft. For that, we owe Wood a debt of gratitude.

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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