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By Phil Hall | June 8, 2007

BOOTLEG FILES 184: “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (Edward D. Wood Jr.’s 1959 anti-classic).

LAST SEEN: The entire film is online at Google Video.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: From numerous labels, either as a PD dupe or an allegedly official version.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Oh, this one is in no danger of disappearing!

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: There is an “official” DVD, not to mention endless bootlegs!

When it comes to naming the best film ever made, a lively and spirited debate will inevitably occur. There will be fanboys who are insistent on “Star Wars,” cinephiles advocating “Citizen Kane,” champions of old Hollywood insisting on “Gone with the Wind” or “Casablanca,” and the cult worshippers pushing anything from Hitchcock, Kurosawa or John Waters.

But when it comes to naming the worst film ever made, there is an almost unanimous candidate that gets pegged for that sorry title: Edward D. Wood Jr.’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” But to be perfectly frank, I could never understand why this weird little movie has generated so much enthusiasm for allegedly being the single worst endeavor in screen history. Even in the realm of legendary bad movies, “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is far removed from the excesses of awfulness.

There is literally an entire genre of literature and non-fiction filmmaking devoted to the making of “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” not to mention Tim Burton’s entertaining (if not entirely accurate) biopic “Ed Wood.” Thus, I’ll spare you from going into details of the film’s loopy history and its numerous on-screen mistakes. What I can offer, however, is a consideration of where “Plan 9 From Outer Space” fits in movie history.

The notion of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” as the worst of the worst can be credited (or blamed) on the Medved Brothers, Harry and Michael (yes, that Michael Medved – before he became a right-wing kook). In 1978, these siblings released a book called “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time,” honoring what they perceived as being the least successful flicks to snake their way through a movie projector. Some of their choices were, admittedly, subjective (“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” “Last Year in Marienbad,” “Zabriskie Point” and Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible” were on the list). Neither Wood nor “Plan 9 From Outer Space” were cited in that book – the low-budget sci-fi genre was represented by “Eegah!”, “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” and “Robot Monster.”

However, the Medveds invited their readers to vote on a list of the worst movies of all time, which would be included in their next book, “The Golden Turkey Awards.” That book parodied the Oscars by offering awards for the least successful achievements in movie history. Again, the Medveds were fairly subjective in their decisions (Richard Burton and Raquel Welch were named Worst Actor and Worst Actress of All Time). But when it came time to tally up the votes on the Worst Film of All Time, there was a major surprise: “Plan 9 From Outer Space” narrowly defeated “Exorcist II: The Heretic” for the prize.

The Medveds, who expressed shock at the outcome, devoted a considerable amount of text to describing “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and relating its production history. They also named Wood as the Worst Director of All Time (his competition was William Beaudine, Phil Tucker and Herschell Gordon Lewis). Wood never knew of these unlikely accolades, having died of a heart attack in 1978, a year before “The Golden Turkey Awards” was published.

But the obvious question arises: how in the world did little “Plan 9 From Outer Space” earn so many votes? Prior to “The Golden Turkey Awards,” the film was barely acknowledged by critics or film scholars. It appears that no review was published during the time of its scant 1959 theatrical release, and the only subsequent pre-Medved acknowledgment came in brief mentions by Bela Lugosi biographers who noted the production as a weird post-script to the Hungarian actor’s odd career. Clearly an under-the-radar cult following took place based on whatever late-night TV broadcasts of 16mm sales the film enjoyed, since home video was still not commonplace prior to 1979.

However, the popularity of “The Golden Turkey Awards” and the Medveds’ ebullient praise for Wood literally put the man and his movie on the cultural map. The Medveds’ book has been out of print for many years, yet its impact regarding “Plan 9 From Outer Space” continues to this day.

But is “Plan 9 From Outer Space” deserving of its reputation? I don’t think so, and there are four clear reasons to explain why.

First, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” falls in the category of “so bad it’s good” – a film whose cluelessness is so overwhelming that you cannot help but laugh at its many mistakes. It is clearly a very entertaining movie, if only for the wrong reasons, and one can easily come away from the film with a hearty (if slightly guilty) smile. Can a film that makes you feel good really be the worst of cinema?

Second, the incompetence of Wood’s screenplay and direction is actually a case of enthusiasm running ahead of talent. Although he clearly could not funnel his grand ideas into a puny budget, Wood was genuinely trying for something grander than Grade-Z sci-fi. Compared to the other directors nominated by the Medveds as the worst of all time, Wood is actually far more imaginative than his competition.

Of course, imagination and ability are not synonymous and it’s obvious that Wood failed in the ability department. Yet a hack like Phil Tucker made crashingly awful and unwatchable films that were even more incompetent than the Wood canon (the lunar gorilla “Robot Monster” and the Lenny Bruce debacle “Dance Hall Racket.” Or for that matter, Larry Buchanan (whom the Medveds barely cited in their book) turned out more bad films than Wood – and Buchanan, unlike Wood, showed no signs of infusing enthusiasm into any of his enervated productions. Those men had no enthusiasm for their work, and I am surprised they could even remember to remove the lens cap from their cameras.

Third, if we are judging the worst movie of all time as a low-budget affair, there are countless other flicks that are less entertaining to endure: “The Creeping Terror,” “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” “The Amazing Colossal Man,” “The Giant Gila Monster” and “Eegah!” come to mind. Ironically, all of these films were mercilessly barbecued on “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ – but “Plan 9 From Outer Space” never made it to the Satellite of Love!

Fourth, the notion of a “worst film of all time” is as elusive as a “best film of all time.” Unless you’ve seen every single film in release, you cannot possibly make a statement of one film being superior to or inferior to all of the other flicks ever made. “Citizen Kane” may be the best film of all time to some people, but there are many people who would vigorously disagree (and I know a few who actively hate that movie!).

Of course, we have bootleg video to thank for the cult of “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” The reputation built for the film by “The Golden Turkey Awards” took off in the 1980s when home video distributors specializing in public domain titles seized on the film’s celebrated incompetence and made it available at bargain prices. Even though most of these cheap video releases were made from well-worn 16mm prints, people were eager to experience the awfulness of the movie.

The rights to “Plan 9 From Outer Space” have been in dispute for some time. A man named Wade Williams claims to be the copyright owner, having renewed the rights in 1986 (he put the film in theatrical re-release in 1982). However, there has been question regarding whether Williams is actually the rights owner, as the film had already been in the public domain before he was involved with it (unless I am mistaken, I believe he has the copyright for the screenplay, not the film itself). Although Williams offers the best quality prints of this title (through Image Entertainment), bootleg dupes are still easy to locate – and you can even see the entire film online at Google Video.

“Plan 9 From Outer Space” will probably never shake its reputation as the worst of the worst. It clearly doesn’t deserve it, but by now it is unlikely it will ever lose that bad rap. Oh well, someone has to be at the bottom of the ladder – it might as well be this film!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the
entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy!

This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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  1. Randy Carter says:

    Who owned the TV rights when it was a regular item on indie Shock Theatres all over the country? Ed Wood lived long enough to see Plan 9 and Bride of the Monster screened endlessly on television. Who got even thes modest rentals?

  2. Phil Hall says:

    The film was properly copyrighted in 1959 – but I believe lost the rights to the film (he was much worse as a businessman than a filmmaker). As I understand it, the original copyright lapsed because no one renewed the copyright.

  3. Jonathan Becker says:

    how did “plan 9” fall into the public domain? was it ever correctly copyrighted in the first place?