Plan 9 From Outer Space
at National Pastime Theater
By Jack Helbig
Others have attempted stage versions of Ed Wood’s famously awful films. The late, not-so-great Interplay fumbled an adaptation of Glen or Glenda several years ago. And just last fall psychotronic man-about-town Michael Flores adapted, directed, and manned the overpriced lobby concession stand for a stillborn version of The Bride and the Beast that left audiences begging for less. Both productions were dogged by indifferent direction and poor comic performances. But what really did them in was the obvious contempt of all concerned for Ed Wood and his brilliantly flawed creations.
One of the great paradoxes of parody is that parodists must have at least some affection for the thing they’re lampooning. Otherwise they don’t take the material seriously enough to understand how it works. (Or, in the case of Ed Wood, why it doesn’t work.) The same rule applies to biographers. Ted Newsom’s uneven documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora is best when he revels in Wood’s foibles: his awful ear for dialogue, his poor eye for talent, his inability to tell a coherent story. It’s weakest when Newsom gets snotty and reveals a sense of his own superiority in choices that telegraph that we’re supposed to look down on Ed Wood (like using Laugh-In veteran Gary Owens to narrate the film).
The folks at Sweetback Productions suffer no such ambivalence. Their charming, energetic send-up of the god-awful Plan 9 From Outer Space–dubbed “the most entertaining bad [film] you’ll find” by Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film–has been created in the spirit of Tim Burton’s loving biopic of a couple years ago, Ed Wood. Kelly Anchors and Mike McKune, who codirected, have actually improved on Wood’s film. They’ve cast actors who are good enough to impersonate the rank amateurs who stumbled and mumbled their way through his work and, at the same time, comment on those performances. Anchors and McKune have also tightened up his bizarre story–about an alien takeover of the earth that involves the revival of the dead–so that even though they’ve added scenes from other Wood classics (Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Orgy of the Dead ), their Plan 9 is still a good 30 minutes shorter than the original film.
Anchors and McKune’s version contains none of Wood’s long, aimless, dead-on-the-screen domestic scenes meant, I suppose, to give a second dimension to his cardboard characters. (These scenes never fail to put me to sleep whenever I try to watch the film on video.) Still, the eccentric essence of Plan 9 remains. The ensemble’s delivery is arch, their gestures are awkward (Vampira’s stiff-armed shuffle, Tor Johnson’s zombie stare, Criswell’s puffed-up, empty talk about the future, “where we will all spend the rest of our lives”). Anchors’s costumes are cheap-looking: the aliens wear tunics made from raincoat liners turned inside out. And, most important, Avril O’Brien’s set design and bargain-basement props reproduce in loving detail Wood’s trademark cheap, illusion-shattering look. When the invading alien ships come to earth, they’re obviously two wok lids dancing on the ends of ropes. And when Bela Lugosi, about to bear down on the heroine, is attacked by a giant octopus (in a local freshwater pond!), it looks no more real than the rubbery thing Lugosi’s double wrestled in the original.
The result is a wonderfully entertaining late-night show that manages to be both homage and parody, preserving what is most odd and endearing in Wood’s original work even as it lampoons his lapses in taste and craft. It’s a difficult trick, accomplished precisely because Sweetback Productions never for a microsecond reveal real contempt for Wood, his unsound artistry, or his funny, flawed film.