Classic is TCM’s middle name, and so it would be understandable if the more discriminating cinephiles among you might pulled a James Finlayson-worthy double-take when you perused the TCM Classic Film Festival schedule only to find a night devoted to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Ed Wood, the hapless director of Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1958) and Take It Out in Trade (1970)? Plan 9? The ultra-low budget sci-fi horror film widely labeled the worst film ever made?
TCM knows what you’re thinking. It probably goes something like this: “Your stupid minds! Stupid!! STUPID!!!” That, for the uninitiated, is just one of Plan 9’s endlessly quotable lines. It ranks up there with the Bartletts-worthy, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” A quick synopsis of the film hardly does it justice: Aliens enact their eponymous plan to take over the world by reanimating the dead. So yeah, TCM gets it.
But Plan 9 has undergone a critical re-evaluation over the decades, or at the very least, an attitude adjustment. Make no mistake: it’s every bit as, for want of a better word, “bad” as you’ve heard. But as Michael Weldon observes in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, “It’s not actually the worst film ever made. But it’s the most entertaining bad one you’ll find.”
Prior to airing the film, TCM will air the SF Sketchfest presentation of a table read of Plan 9 featuring comedian Dana Gould, who also adapted the screenplay for the event, and a dream-team of character actors and comedians, including Laraine Newman, Bob Odenkirk, Maria Bamford, David Koechner, Oscar Nunez and Bobcat Goldthwait.
In a 2019 Daily Dead interview, Gould recalled seeing Plan 9 for the first time on VHS when he was in his late teens or early 20s. “It was the perfect time,” he said, “and I saw it with Tom Kenny and Bobcat Goldthwait. I'd never seen it, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, you've got to see it.’ It was like seeing the Beatles for the first time. My life changed. Everything I love is right in this movie.”
Plan 9 came and went when it was released in 1959 as part of a double bill with a British thriller, TIME LOCK (one of Sean Connery’s first films). That the general public knows Plan 9 as the official “Worst. Film. Ever.” can be laid at the doorstep of Harry and Michael Medved. To be more accurate, Michael Medved told TCM, credit goes to the readers of the brothers’ 1978 book collaboration, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. That book featured not a word about Ed Wood nor Plan 9. Harry and Michael had never heard of it.
Medved, host of the nationally-syndicated The Michael Medved Show, said, “At the end of that first book, we provided an address and we asked people to nominate their own choices for worst film. A bunch of people did, including some film critics. Roger Ebert wrote to us. And that’s how we heard about Plan 9. They said that we really blew it: ‘How could you write about the 50 worst films and not include Plan 9?’” When the brothers finally caught up with the film, they had to agree. “Without question, our correspondents were correct,” Medved said with a laugh.” It was a gigantic oversight, insufficient research.”
But not their fault, really. It was the late 1970s B.C. (Before Cable). There was no home video. “The desire to see weird, strange, forgotten and embarrassing films like Plan 9 had not been fully awakened, partially because the means of doing that didn’t exist,” Medved explained. “The only way we could actually screen these films was to rent the films and watch them on16mm projectors or to scan TV Guide to see what was playing at two in the morning on Channel 13 in L.A. My mom used to drive Harry to skid row theaters that would occasionally offer three movies for $1 on weekends.”
The Medveds rectified their mistake by including it in their follow-up book, The Golden Turkey Awards, which was published in 1980. A reader poll voted Plan 9 the worst film and the Medveds named Ed Wood the worst director. The book was a bestseller and Plan 9’s infamy spread. It became a staple of Worst Film Festivals and midnight screenings.
Medved contends that Plan 9 “would not be remembered the way it is were it not for its use of top-billed Bela Lugosi.” Ed Wood had about five minutes of footage he shot with the legendary actor just before Lugosi’s death in 1956. He incorporated these wholly unrelated scenes into Plan 9, not letting something as trivial as the actor’s demise deter him. Wood hired Tom Mason, his wife’s chiropractor, as Lugosi’s “double,” this despite the fact that Dr. Mason looked nothing like Legosi and was considerably taller. Again, no problem. Wood had Dr. Mason skulk through his scenes with a cape covering his face. “They were still able to bill it as a Bela Lugosi film years after he was dead,” Medved said.
The film made cult icons out of costars Vampira, the TV psychic Criswell and Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, and the Medveds’ book plucked Plan 9 from cult obscurity that was a geekdom dog whistle for aficionados of post-midnight TV viewing. When he was 13-years-old, Joe Dante, director of Gremlins (1984), included it on his own list of the worst sci-fi and horror films and fulfilled his dream of being published in the Fang Mail section of Forest J. Ackerman’s cherished magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. It was No. 39 on the list.
“It was 39 only because the list was in alphabetical order,” Dante told TCM in an email.
“Plan 9 was a legendary movie to a generation of monster kids who saw it on local tv stations because of what has come to be defined as ‘The Ed Wood Aesthetic.’ As if the threadbare sets, the eye-rolling dialog, Criswell's narration and mismatched editing weren't enough, there were the gonzo performances from Tor Johnson, Vampira and Ed Wood's wife's chiropodist playing Bela Lugosi. We never thought anyone else would catch on to ‘our’ movie, only to have it exposed by the Medveds in their scurrilous book which certainly gave me second thoughts about my ‘worst’ list, especially after I discovered first-hand how hard it is to make even a bad movie.”
Plan 9’s reputation as the so-called worst film ever made still lives. But thanks to Tim Burton’s bio-pic Ed Wood (1994), written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Wood has been recast as an outsider auteur. In 2014, the now-defunct website The Dissolve did a week-long deep dive on Plan 9 and Wood and made a convincing case that the director’s only crime was being “one of cinema’s least fortunate trailblazers.” Matt Singer, who contributed one of the essays, contended, “Had Wood been born a few years later, he might have become a John Waters-like cult careerist.”
Medved shares this charitable revisionist view. Wood, he said, “is an artist, no doubt. What makes the film so funny is its painfully earnest approach to all the material. He’s really trying to make something new, different and important.” Medved still reviews films for his Medved’s Entertainment Minute radio segment. The Golden Turkey Awards begat bad movie culture and inspired the annual Razzie Awards.
Plan 9 from Outer Space, Medved said, still works, still defies comprehension. Fun fact: As a gimmick worthy of producer William Castle, the Medveds included in The Golden Turkey Awards one fake movie and challenged readers to guess which one it was. The made-up movie was (spoiler alert) Dog of Norway, “starring” the Medveds’ own Norwegian elkhound. “But a ton of people guessed Plan 9 was the phony film,” he said.