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Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

            Of all of the terrible directors that have ever come and gone, Edward D. Wood Jr. is the grand-daddy of them all.  I am by no means an Ed Wood aficionado.  I have seen “Bride of the Monster,” “Glen or Glenda,” and “The Sinister Urge,” but I am not a historian of his personal life.  The bulk of my knowledge about Ed Wood comes from his Wikipedia article, and the fantastic Tim Burton biopic starring Johnny Depp, simply titled “Ed Wood.”  In that movie, Ed is a romantic, hopelessly longing for Gothic horror in the Atomic age.  He idolizes Orson Wells, and tries to advance the genre of horror, as Wells advanced the art of the dramatic picture.  The difference between Wells and Wood is that Wood seems to be totally incapable of discriminating between quality and crap.  To Wood, everything, no matter how bad or idiosyncratic, is the greatest thing he has ever done.  This absence of a discerning eye is exemplified perfectly in “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” a movie so inept and lacking in coherence, that it is considered by many to be the worst movie ever made.

            Hollywood is thrown into a panic when citizens begin spotting flying saucers supported by fishing line in the night sky.  It seems that the pilots of these flying saucers have discovered that human scientists are about to invent a weapon that could accidentally destroy the entire universe.  In order to stop the foolish humans, the aliens raise an army of the dead, comprised of former television movie hostess, Vampira, and Ed Wood’s girlfriend’s chiropractor.  It seems that the human race is ill equipped to deal with the alien menace, because humanity’s hope comes in the form of bumbling police detectives who like to use their revolvers to scratch themselves and point at stuff.  The foolish gumshoes say things like, “one thing’s for sure; Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible.”  With deductive reasoning like that on our side, the aliens better get out of Dodge while they still can.  But, of course, the ornery extraterrestrials stick around, and the audience is given a glimpse inside the mother ship.  The aliens dress like extras from a Robin Hood movie and live in an environment laden with 50’s office furniture, Tesla Coils, and ham radio equipment, proof of their intellectual superiority.  The aliens operate on the constant assumption that the human race is so stupid, that it can’t possibly understand the advanced weapons that it is developing.  Huh?  Through radio messages, the aliens remind us of our inferiority without ever using a single contraction.  This command of the English language is dwarfed only by the poor execution of the movie itself.

            It is beyond my understanding why Ed Wood decided to shoot the majority of the grave yard scenes on a sound stage.  The cemetery set takes the movie down many notches.  It is comprised of a large black back drop, a fabric flooring covered in straw, and head stones constructed from flimsy Styrofoam.  A constant haze of bee keeper smoke masks the black back drop, but the haze can’t cover up the head stones that are constantly jostled and knocked over by the actors.  Not only is the set unconvincing, but it is too small.  Wood tried to film chase sequences on this set, and ended up having to repeat shots to make the scenes long enough.  This creates the illusion that the actors are running past the same head stones over and over again (which they are).  Also, as bad guys go, the reanimated dead in Plan 9 are totally preposterous.  Their power lies in their ability to select victims who simply don’t run away.  The poor souls just stand there screaming as the monsters slowly walk up to them, and strike them dead with a firm whack on the shoulder.  Brutal.

            I think that ultimately, the story of “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is a tragic one.  Ed Wood shot a short reel of footage with long time friend, and recovering drug addict, Bela Lugosi, of Dracula fame.  This footage was to be part of a vampire film that Wood was developing.  The project was scraped however, after Lugosi passed in 1956.  Before Plan 9 was finished, Wood stubbornly included the footage in his movie, even though the footage was silent and made no sense within the context of the film.  Wood’s girlfriend’s chiropractor served as Lugosi’s stand-in throughout the remainder of the film with the bottom of his face covered by a cape.  I am sure Wood had no intention of dishonoring the memory of his dear, late friend, but the inappropriate inclusion of this mismatched footage exemplifies the carelessness of Wood’s films.  Instead of simply casting an actor that would be there throughout the shooting of the picture, Wood decided to jeopardize the film’s continuity by casting a second actor just so he could include the Lugosi shots.  Wood himself continued to direct schlock for the rest of his career, never attaining the success of his hero, Orson Wells.  Still, Wood occupies his own place in the film canon as ‘One of the Greatest,’ even if the second part of that title reads, ‘Bad Directors of All Time.’       

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The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

February 20, 2010 Leave a comment

            Oh, boy.  As “Hot Mess Cinema” goes, this one needs to be handled with oven mitts.  “The Beast of Yucca Flats” is a nightmarish mess of shots clustered together loosely.  There is no reason, no purpose to the shambling thing.  It simply is, and that is unfortunate.  It almost seems that the movie is like some kind of mathematical impossibility; the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  This kind of reverse-productivity became absolutely astonishing to me as the movie stumbled along.   

            “The Beast of Yucca Flats” begins in media res, with a kind of “Psycho” shower killing that was miraculously executed without evoking an ounce of suspense.  Even though the scene kicks off the movie, it is never mentioned again.  The scene just vanishes.  Then the audience gets to meet the great protagonist, turned antagonist whose missteps couldn’t emotionally matter any less.  Swedish pro wrestler turned Ed Wood regular, Tor Johnson, plays a brilliant (snicker) scientist named Joseph Javorsky.  He becomes irradiated after a nuke goes off, and spends the rest of the movie aimlessly wondering around the desert killing people, sweating like only a four-hundred pound man can.  He is brought down with gunfire from the local dimwit sheriff and the movie ends.  Poof, it just ends.  Watching “The Beast of Yucca Flats” felt like waiting for a bus, because it is just dead time.  Nothing is gained here, but the nice thing is that nothing is lost, either. 

            Piece for piece, this movie is technically awful.  As I watched it, I noticed the obvious; the plot is disjointed to the point of non-existence, the continuity is screwy, and the acting sucks.  Then I started to ask myself why the acting sucks, and I realized that I never got to see any of the actors talking.  That is to say, every time there is dialogue, the camera is too far away to see mouths moving, or the characters are shot from behind, or their mouths are covered, and then it hit me; they didn’t have any sound equipment on location.  This was shot as a silent movie!  That was the icing on the cake for me because I wondered why every spoken line in the movie sounded like it was recorded inside a cardboard box.  Every amateur screen writer should watch this movie, because I feel it is a classic example of the “Shitty First Draft,” except it was never revised.  I’m sure the writer had lots of great things to say about the Atomic Age, the crushing wheels of progress, and how man becomes a casualty of his own ambition, but that movie was never made.  Instead, we are left with a movie full of emptiness; intangible, like the ether.      

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King of the Zombies (1941)

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

                If anybody ever needs to remind themselves of how much racial progress had been made in this country during the last century, they only need watch “King of the Zombies.”  On top of being holistically boneheaded, the movie operates on the constant assumption the scared, jittery Negro needs only to be comforted on a constant basis by whitey.  This kind of analysis could be instantly dismissed as misplaced presentism. Somebody could read my article and say, “of course the black guy is a walking stereotype; the movie came out in ’41.”  The ironic thing about this assumption is that the ridiculously stereotypical black guy in this movie is the one with the most sense.

            Before “Night of the Living Dead” completely burned the voodoo zombie bible, the walking dead could be dismissed as a Caribbean thing and “King of the Zombies” is no exception.  Two navy sailors piloting a bad model plane crash on a tropical island in the Gulf of Mexico while looking for a missing admiral.  For some reason, these pilots have a black manservant accompanying them on the trip.  Jefferson, as he is called, is responsible for 99.99% of every second of entertainment in this zombie flick.  The three stumble across an eerie old house inhabited by a creepy ‘European Agent’ (the guy is a Nazi, even though the movie never comes out and says it).  The Nazi’s house is infested with zombies that only come out at night and blah, blah, blah, back to Jefferson.  Delivering lines written by a white guy trying to sound like a black guy, Jefferson jumps at shadows, pulls the covers over his head, and generally reacts to everything with the same terrified expression on his face.  Thank god for him, there are white people there to calm him down and tell him that everything will be alright.  Poor, logical white people.

            I know what you’re thinking.  The black guy is just being depicted as a coward by the filmmakers, while the white pilots are brave for investigating the zombie nuisance.  This could be true; until you consider that the pilots wouldn’t have even known or cared about the zombies unless Jefferson said something.  Jefferson is the accidental hero of this film through sheer ‘Spider Sense.’  Every effort by the filmmakers to make him look like a codependent coward only highlights how much he calls everybody’s attention to the zombie problem.  The movie fails because it wants you laugh at Jefferson while taking the stoic white cast seriously.  The fact of the matter is that the entire cast would have been killed off without Jefferson.  Other than being utterly laborious and not scary at all, “King of the Zombies” refuses to settle for the fact that the black guy is the hero, and that is a fatal flaw.        

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Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

            At their best, science fiction movies of the 1950’s expressed a distrust of the outsider manifesting from a ubiquitous fear of Communism.  Aliens equal dirty reds.  Writers and movie producers know that timely fears can mean big ticket sales, and they used those fears to churn out some serious science fiction during the Eisenhower administration.  Those are the good idea men, though.  Then there are dopy writers.  These guys sit around and think up stuff that would just be cool to see; this is still done today.  One time out of a million, these guys hit pay dirt and make something like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” but mostly they just ‘think’ up man-sized versions of animals we already have.  It seems that somebody thought it would be cool to see giant leeches, so…they made a movie about big, stupid leeches.

            Local grocery store owner and food fanatic, Dave, is having problems with his sex pot, firecracker wife, Liz.  This Christina Ricci look-alike holds Dave in the lowest regard imaginable (why the two ever conceivably got married makes absolutely no sense), and she demonstrates this by cheating on him with the town D-bag, Cal.  Dave catches wind of his wife’s cheating and confronts her and Cal one night down by the bayou.  To scare them, he forces them into the water at with the business end of a shot gun.  Now, at this point, it should be fairly obvious to anybody who knows how lazy screenwriters work, that the giant leeches are going to get Cal and Liz, and they do.  Dave is accused to the murder and hangs himself in jail.  From here the movie shifts into auto pilot.  Hunky (and frequently shirtless) wild life ranger, Steve, begins to suspect there is more to the murders than first thought.  Through a series of wild jumps to conclusions, which always happen to be right, chiseled Steve finds out that giant leeches are keeping the victims alive in an underground cave.  The leeches are killed by dropping dynamite into the water and Liz is recovered alive, sopping wet blouse and all.  In a not so unpredictable manor, the movie ends by questioning whether or not all of the leeches are all dead.  Personally, I’m fine either way.

            The point of this movie might seem to be that really nasty people get punished for their sins, but that isn’t consistent here.  Liz and Cal are punished, but so are some of the gnome looking, ‘shine swilling hick inhabitants of the town.  The lesson could then be modified to say that leeches don’t discriminate when choosing their pray, but where’s the message there?  I finished the movie and felt betrayed because I didn’t know what the movie was trying to say about retribution, which struck me as a motif here, and then it hit me; the film makers just wanted to see giant leeches.  All the plot points were a mandate to get giant leeches on screen.  If the film makers had budget, they would have just made a situational comedy about the leeches and their mad-cap adventures.  Instead, the audience is given a watered down episode of Tales from the Crypt with really bad leech costumes.  If there is any lesson to be learned here, it has to be that the leeches aren’t reminiscent enough of Communism, and that is why the movie sucks. 

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