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Knock Wood: Forget about Oscar-caliber attractions for one night and see the worst movie ever made

AuthorPhoto_Joe Leydon_head shot_column mug_USE THIS
Plan 9 from Outer Space, Dracula, Bela Lugosi
Wood fancifully stitched together random footage of his idol, Bela Lugosi, in Plan 9 that he shot shortly before the actor’s tragic death in 1956.
Plan 9 from Outer Space, spaceship, UFO
The film is criticized for poor special effects, like this one: A flying saucer hovering over a cemetery.
Plan 9 from Outer Space, movie, cockpit
A visible boom mike in a scene from Plan 9 from Outer Space
Edward D. Wood Jr., director, Plan 9
Edward D. Wood Jr., director
Plan 9 from Outer Space, movie poster
Theatrical release poster designed by Tom Jung Distributors Corporation of America/Wikipedia

Some people are born to be punchlines for bad jokes. Edward D. Wood Jr. —World War II veteran, Hollywood fringe-dweller and uncloseted cross-dresser —wanted to make movies in the worst way. Unfortunately, that is precisely what he did.

Long before the term “high camp” conjured images of anything other than a mountaintop military base, Ed Wood labored indefatigably in the 1950s netherworld of no-budget, fly-by-night film production. Among his most notorious credits:

  • Glen or Glenda, a fervently sincere but dizzyingly incoherent defense of transvestism as a way of life;
  • Jail Bait, a forlornly sleazy crime melodrama notable only for an early, pre-Hercules appearance by a beefcakey Steve Reeves;
  • Bride of the Monster, a stark and stupid cheapie-creepie that climaxes with an irradiated Bela Lugosi battling frantically, albeit unconvincingly, with a rubber octopus.

Each of these Z-movies is of a mind-frying, jaw-dropping awfulness that must be seen to be disbelieved. And yet, at the same time, each clearly is the work of someone who passionately believes in the seriousness of his endeavor, whose intensity of purpose surely is no less than that of the people who made Citizen Kane or The Seventh Seal.

 Edward D. Wood Jr. wanted to make movies in the worst way. Unfortunately, that is precisely what he did.

 Wood may have been one of the most incompetent filmmakers — if not the most incompetent —to ever darken a soundstage, but there's something engaging, even endearing, about the exuberance that informs his ineptitude. By virtue of his threadbare oeuvre, he merits canonization as the patron saint of anyone who has all of the drive and ambition, and none of the talent, to become a true artist.

And like a true artist, Wood actually did achieve a kind of immortality through his work – though not quite the kind he no doubt craved. His awesomely awful Plan 9 from Outer Space, widely acknowledged as the worst movie ever made, is the yardstick by which all cinematic fiascoes are measured, a title that has become shorthand for critics, academics and plain-vanilla movie buffs to demarcate the lowest of the lowest depths. It is, in its uniquely perverse fashion, a genuine classic.

Better still, even after repeated revivals throughout the decades since its understandably limited theatrical release, it continues to live down to its reputation – as you can see yourself, Friday at midnight at the River Oaks 3.

Just about everything you’ve ever heard about Plan 9 from Outer Space is true.

Why it's so bad

Yes, this is the sci-fi extravaganza that Wood fancifully stitched together to utilize random footage of his idol, Bela Lugosi, that he shot shortly before the actor’s tragic death in 1956.

And, yes, in order to give his slapdash narrative some slight semblance of continuity, Wood really did cast his chiropractor — not-so-artfully disguised with a black cloak drawn across his face — as Lugosi’s stand-in for scenes filmed much later with other actors. (Look closely, and you see the same snippets of Lugosi, pathetically resplendent in his trademark Dracula attire, used over and over and over…) The switcheroo is laughably ineffective, and not just because the chiropractor was a foot or so taller than Lugosi.

But, then again, Plan 9 is a movie in which the sun often appears to rise and fall several times during the course of the same scene, in which mismatched shots are conjoined with a logic that usually prevails only in a fever dream. In this context, Wood’s failure to persuasively double a stand-in for a dead “guest star” is a relatively minor gaffe.

 Plan 9 is a movie in which the sun often appears to rise and fall several times during the course of the same scene, in which mismatched shots are conjoined with a logic that usually prevails only in a fever dream.

 There is a plot, of sorts: Campy extraterrestrials invade California’s San Fernando Valley to launch a pilot program of mass destruction, intending to raise the recently deceased to dispose of the troublesome living. Why? Well, the extraterrestrials want to nip a problem in the bud by obliterating Earthlings before they perfect a potentially catastrophic weapon that....

But never mind. Such niceties as logic and motivation have little if anything to do with the movie’s appeal.

Any sane individual who willingly submits himself to Plan 9 from Outer Space doesn’t seek traditional sci-fi thrills and chills. Instead, we peruse Wood’s magnum opus to savor ludicrously melodramatic dialogue, much of which is delivered by Criswell, a phony-baloney oracle, as narrator and master of ceremonies. (“We are all interested in the future, because that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”)

Just as important, we want to gawk in bug-eyed wonderment while bit players inadvertently jostle rubber headstones in graveyard scenes, or while two guys in military mufti stand in front of a bare wall and pretend to oversee the firing of heavy artillery at wobbly flying saucers. (Is it just me, or does one of these faux soldiers resemble a very young Steve Buscemi?)

We want to snicker while actors flub their lines, or clumsily read from cuecards, or distractedly scratch their foreheads with gun barrels, while Wood damns the retakes and moves full speed ahead.

And while we’re doing all of this, we are transfixed — no, mesmerized — by Edward D. Wood Jr.’s singular triumph of will over competence.

Isn't it ironic?

It is, of course, more than a little ironic that one of the worst moviemakers of all time inspired one of the funniest movies ever made about moviemaking: Ed Wood (1994).

Tim Burton’s hugely entertaining and sweetly sympathetic tribute to the notoriously inept auteur (vividly played by Johnny Depp) is something truly unique: A compassionate farce that evolves into a heartfelt celebration of self-delusion. (Co-star Martin Landau received a richly deserved Oscar for playing Wood’s partner in cinematic crimes, a decrepit but intrepid Bela Lugosi.)

But Wood’s most important and enduring legacy may be the film that will forever secure his status as… as… well, the polar opposite of a role model for other directors.

As I often warn students and other would-be auteurs: Never, never, never get too cocky during production. You know how great you might feel on certain days? How you think everything is coming together, falling into place, working perfectly? How every performance is dead-solid perfect, or at least competent enough to be “saved” in the editing room? Well, consider this: Ed Wood doubtless felt the very same way some days on the set of Plan 9 from Outer Space.  

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