Plan 9 from Outer Space is a 1959 American independent science-fiction horror film written, produced, directed, and edited by Ed Wood; starring Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Tor Johnson, and “Vampira” (Maila Nurmi); and narrated by Criswell.
It was followed by a remake, Plan 9, in 2015.
Mourners are gathered around an old man at his wife’s grave. Overhead, an airliner heads toward Burbank, California. The pilot, Jeff Trent, and his co-pilot Danny are blinded by a bright light and loud noise. They look outside and see a flying saucer. They follow the saucer’s flight until it lands at the graveyard, where the funeral’s gravediggers are killed by a female zombie.
At home, lost in his grief, the old man goes outside and (offscreen) steps in front of an oncoming car and is killed. Mourners at the old man’s funeral discover the dead gravediggers. Inspector Daniel Clay and other police officers arrive, but Clay goes off alone to continue his investigation.
Trent and his wife Paula, who live near the graveyard, hear the sirens and Jeff tells Paula about his flying-saucer encounter, stating that the army has since sworn him to secrecy. A powerful swooshing noise then knocks everyone at the Tanner residence and the nearby graveyard to the ground as a saucer lands. Police Inspector Clay encounters the female zombie and the old man’s reanimated corpse, and they kill him. Investigating Clay’s disappearance, Lt. Harper states: “But one thing’s sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible”.
Newspaper headlines continue to report flying-saucer sightings over Hollywood Boulevard, while a trio of saucers flies over Los Angeles. In Washington, D.C., the military fires missiles at more saucers, while the Chief of Saucer Operations, Col. Thomas Edwards, reveals that the government has been covering up saucer attacks. He mentions that one small town was annihilated, hinting at a secret history of other encounters.
The aliens return to their Space Station 7. Commander Eros informs their ruler that he has been unsuccessful in contacting Earth’s governments. To force their acknowledgment, Eros recommends implementing “Plan 9”, which will resurrect recently-dead humans by stimulating their pituitary and pineal glands. Meanwhile, Trent prepares for another flight; concerned for his wife’s safety he urges her to stay with her mother, but she insists on staying home. That night, the zombified old man rises from his grave and breaks into the house. He pursues Paula outside, where his zombie wife and zombie Inspector Clay join him. Paula manages to escape, then collapses from her ordeal while the three zombies return to Eros’ saucer.
At the Pentagon, Gen. Roberts informs Edwards that the government has been receiving alien messages. They explain that the aliens are trying to prevent humanity from eventually destroying the universe. The general dispatches Edwards to San Fernando, California, where most of the alien activity has occurred.
Though the undead are under alien control, zombie Clay suddenly attacks and nearly strangles Eros. The ruler closely examines zombie Clay, then orders the zombie old man destroyed to further frighten humanity. He then approves Eros’s Plan 9 to raise undead armies and orders that they march on the capitals of Earth.
In California, the police and Edwards interview the Trents, not knowing that the flying saucer has returned to the graveyard. Officer Kelton encounters the zombie old man, who chases him into the Trents’ yard where Eros’ ray hits him and his body rapidly decomposes. Stunned, Edwards, the Trents, and the police drive to the cemetery.
John Harper insists on leaving Paula in the car, but Paula refuses to stay alone, so Kelton stays with her. Eros and fellow alien Tanna send zombie Clay to kidnap Paula and lure the other three to their saucer. Seeing the saucer’s glow off in the distance, Trent and the police head toward it. At the car, zombie Clay knocks out Kelton; when he awakens, Kelton calls for help and Patrolman Larry responds.
Eros lets Trent and the police enter his saucer with their guns drawn. He then tells them human weapons development will inevitably lead to the discovery of “Solaronite,” a substance that has the effect of exploding “sunlight molecules.” Such an explosion would set off an uncontrollable chain reaction, destroying the entire universe. Eros now believes humans are too immature and stupid (“You see? You see? Your stupid minds. Stupid! Stupid!”), so he intends to destroy mankind. He threatens to kill Paula if Trent and the police try to force him to go with them. Officers Kelton and Larry arrive and see zombie Clay holding the unconscious Paula near the saucer. Realising that their weapons are useless, they sneak up behind Clay and club him with a length of wood, knocking him out. Eros sees this and says Clay’s controlling ray has been shut off, which released Paula. A fight breaks out between Eros and Jeff, but the saucer’s equipment is damaged during the struggle, starting a fire aboard. The humans quickly escape, and Tanna and the unconscious Eros fly away in their burning saucer, which finally explodes, killing them both; their zombies quickly decompose to skeletal remains inside their clothing.
- Gregory Walcott as Jeff Trent.
- Mona McKinnon as Paula Trent.
- Duke Moore as Lieutenant John Harper.
- Tom Keene as Colonel Tom Edwards.
- Carl Anthony as Patrolman Larry.
- Paul Marco as Patrolman Kelton.
- Tor Johnson as Inspector Daniel Clay.
- Dudley Manlove as Eros.
- Joanna Lee as Tanna.
- John Breckinridge as The Ruler.
- Lyle Talbot as General Roberts.
- David De Mering as Danny.
- Norma McCarty as Edith.
- Bill Ash as Captain.
- Rev. Lynn Lemon as Minister at Clay’s funeral.
- Ben Frommer and Gloria Dea as Mourners.
- Conrad Brooks as Patrolman Jamie
- Maila Nurmi (Vampira) as Vampire Girl.
- Bela Lugosi as the Old Man/Ghoul Man.
- Tom Mason as Old Man/Ghoul Man stand-in, Lugosi’s fake Shemp (uncredited).
- Criswell as Himself/Narrator.
- Karl Johnson as Farmer Calder (uncredited).
- Ed Wood as Man Holding Newspaper (uncredited).
- Hugh Thomas, Jr. as Gravedigger (also associate producer).
Background and Genre
The film combines elements of science fiction, Atompunk, and gothic horror. Science fiction remained popular throughout the 1950s, though the genre had experienced significant changes in the post-war period. The Atomic Age, heralded by the development of nuclear weapons and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had inspired science fiction films to deal with the dangers of unrestricted science, while space flight and the existence of extraterrestrial life and civilizations (more “traditional” elements of the genre), seemed to hold new fascination for audiences at the beginning of the Space Race. On the other hand, Gothic fiction had enjoyed the height of its film popularity during the 1930s and 1940s. It was in decline by the 1950s and was viewed as old-fashioned. By 1950s standards, the combination of dated and modern elements gives the film a rather anachronistic quality.
Plan 9’s script seems to aim at being an epic film, a genre typically requiring a big budget from a major film studio. That Ed Wood made it with minimal financial resources underscores one of the qualities of his work: His ideas tended to be too expensive to film, yet he tried to film them anyway. As Rob Craig argues, Wood’s failed efforts give the film a peculiar charm. Craig finds that Plan 9 has much in common with both epic theatre (“grand melodrama on a minuscule budget”) and the Theatre of the Absurd (characters acting as buffoons, nonsense, and verbosity in dialogue, dream-like and fantasy imagery, hints of allegory, and a narrative structure where continuity is consistently undermined).
The Introduction and its Origins
The film opens with an introduction by Wood’s friend, psychic Criswell: “Greetings my friends! We are all interested in the future, For that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”. (This line appears in the narration for the General Motors’ “Futurama” ride and its accompanying film, To New Horizons, that were part of the 1939 New York World’s Fair—years before Criswell’s own television programme). At the time of filming, Criswell was the star of the KLAC Channel 13 (now KCOP-13) television series Criswell Predicts. The introduction could be an allusion to the opening lines of his show (a Criswell Predicts title card appears at the start of the scene), but since no episodes of the television show are known to survive, a comparison is impossible. Craig suggests that Criswell’s public persona was based on the style of a charismatic preacher, perhaps influenced by early televangelists. Criswell addresses the viewers repeatedly as “my friends,” as if attempting to establish a bond between the speaker and the audience. The line likely derives from his show, and would not be out of place in a segment where a televangelist addresses his congregation. Another phrase of the introduction, “Future events such as these will affect you in the future”, served as a signature line for Criswell. He used it repeatedly in his newspaper and magazine columns, and probably his show as well.
Another line asserts that the audience is interested in “the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable,” probably assuming that the film’s audience will have a fascination with the paranormal. The narrator starts claiming that “we” (the filmmakers) are bringing to light the full story and evidence of fateful events, based on the “secret testimony” of the survivors. The narration seems to emulate the style of sensational headlines in tabloid newspapers, and promises audiences access to “lurid secrets” as if following the example of True Confessions and similar scandal magazines. The notion that a film or show could be based on true incidents and testimony would be familiar to a 1950s audience, because it was used in contemporary police procedurals such as Dragnet.
Changing the tone, Criswell delivers the sermon-like lines: “Let us punish the guilty! Let us reward the innocent!” which again sounds like a preacher addressing his congregation. The introduction concludes with the dramatic question: “Can your heart stand the shocking facts about graverobbers from outer space”? The latter phrase was simply the original title of the film, but the rest of the line again seems to emulate the sensationalist press.
The film’s afterword, also narrated by Criswell and delivered in an identical tone to the film’s introduction, provides the audience with a challenge (“…you have seen this incident based on sworn testimony. Can you prove it didn’t happen”?), a warning (“Many scientists believe that another world is watching us this moment”), and concluding wish (“God help us…in the future”.).
Through Trent’s initial conversation with his wife, the film introduces the notion of a government and military conspiracy to cover up information on documented UFO sightings. This notion was clearly influenced by the emergence and increased popularity of a UFO conspiracy theory.
The implications concerning the public’s distrust of the government were however atypical for a 1950s American film. Anti-statist ideas were to become more popular in the 1960s, which is when the subject became “safe” for mainstream cinema. In this area and perhaps others, the film was actually ahead of its time.
Message from the Aliens
The film contains a cautionary message from the aliens. The earliest use of this concept in film was probably in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and it had since seen frequent use in science-fiction films. The idea was that humanity’s self-destructive behaviour was the real threat, not any external source of danger.
Miscellaneous Production Details and Special Effects
The “iconic” flying saucer of the film has been variously identified as a paper plate or a hubcap. According to the documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood, The Plan 9 Companion (1991) it was actually a recognisable model kit produced in 1956 by toy manufacturer Paul Lindberg. Lindberg Line model kits had introduced a flying saucer kit, roughly matching the popular image of UFOs of the time: “a silver disc-shaped craft with a clear dome on top.” Inside the plastic dome was a little green man. Both a regular version of the assembled model and a modified version appear in the film.
Footage of Los Angeles is used to ground the otherworldly events to a realistic setting. As a resident, Wood was probably familiar with the locations. The scene where the military fires at the flying saucers is actual military stock footage.
The Reverend Lynn Lemon, who plays an unnamed minister, was one of the Baptists variously involved in the production of the film. J. Edward Reynolds was a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention in Beverly Hills, California, and Hugh Thomas was one of his associates from the church; both play gravediggers, while Reynolds was also the executive producer of the film. At the time of the film’s creation, David De Mering was the personal secretary and alleged lover of fellow cast member Bunny Breckinridge; his inclusion in the cast was probably a result of this association.
According to Maila Nurmi (Vampira), she was recruited by Paul Marco to act as a vampire in the film, for $200. She recalled insisting that her part be silent, as she did not like the dialogue that Wood had written for her. This recollection might be inaccurate, since the undead of this film are generally mute. She contributed to the film a “regal presence” and theatrical mannerisms. Her performance is reminiscent of a silent film actress; she credited Theda Bara as her main influence.
The male alien Eros is apparently named after Eros, Greek god of love. Craig suggests that the female alien’s name, Tanna, invokes the name of another Greek deity: Thanatos, god of death.
The Pentagon office depicted includes a map of the United States with the sign of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The same map appears in Baghdad After Midnight (1954), which was also filmed at Quality Studios; it was probably a standard Quality Studios prop.
Bela Lugosi’s Last Film
Shortly before Lugosi’s death in August 1956, he had been working with Wood on numerous half-realized projects, variously titled The Vampire’s Tomb or The Ghoul Goes West. Scenes unconnected to Plan 9, featuring Lugosi weeping at a funeral, walking in front of Tor Johnson’s house at daytime, walking in and out of the Johnson home’s side door at nighttime and a daylight scene on a patch of highway showing Lugosi stalking towards the camera and dramatically spreading his Dracula cape before furling it around himself and walking back the way he came, had been shot. According to the documentary Flying Saucers : The ‘Plan 9’ Companion, these shots were improvised. Only the first two sequences had reached any level of completion. When Lugosi died, Wood shelved these projects.
Shortly after Lugosi’s death the story and screenplay for Grave Robbers from Outer Space were written and finalised, with Wood planning to use the unconnected, unrelated footage of Lugosi as a means of putting a credit for him on the picture. Wood used the Lugosi footage as a means of attracting actors to the picture, gaining the interest of Gregory Walcott and Maila Nurmi, among others, by telling them he was making “Bela Lugosi’s last movie.” Though Wood’s actions were driven in part by the desire to give his film a “star name” and attract horror fans, he meant the Lugosi cameo as a loving farewell and tribute to the actor, who had become a close friend. Wood hired his wife’s chiropractor Tom Mason as a stand-in for Lugosi, although Mason was taller than Lugosi and bore no resemblance to him, making him one of the earliest “fake Shemps”. Narration from Criswell was also employed in an attempt to better link Lugosi’s footage with the rest of Plan 9. The theatrical cut of the film utilised every last scrap of material Wood had of Lugosi, including minor sprocket discolorations, film trims that would in a normal film be discarded as unusable. Cuts of the film on VHS during the ’80s and ’90s, the vast majority of which were unauthorised bootleg dupes, varied drastically in quality and the amount of Lugosi material retained.
Coincidentally, further Lugosi footage Wood had shot at an unspecified pre-1956 date was to have been the basis of a second posthumous movie for the horror legend, Ghouls of the Moon, but the footage had been shot on volatile acetate stock and dissolved into toxic-smelling sludge by the time Wood’s thoughts turned to the new venture in the summer of 1959. Ghouls of the Moon was abandoned entirely as a result. Mystery surrounds the content and nature of the lost material, described only as ‘wild’ by a friend of Wood’s who had seen the raw footage shortly after it was shot.
The music for Plan 9 from Outer Space was compiled by Gordon Zahler. Zahler used stock recordings of works by about a dozen composers, which was a fairly common procedure in the 1950s for scoring low-budget films and television programmes. However, Zahler apparently never provided a reliable accounting for the score. In 1996, Paul Mandell produced a CD that recreated the film’s score by tracking down the stock recordings and the composers; Mandell subsequently wrote an article about the film’s music for Film Score Monthly. Some websites give proper credit to these composers.
Grave Robbers from Outer Space was shot in November 1956 and had a private preview 15 March 1957 screening at the Carlton Theatre in Los Angeles (the onscreen title at this time was Grave Robbers from Outer Space). Another year elapsed before Distributors Corporation of America (DCA) picked up the film and copyrighted it, intending to distribute it during the spring of 1958. The company folded, however, and it was not released until 22 July 1959, through DCA’s receiver, Valiant Pictures. By then it had been re-titled Plan 9 from Outer Space. The film’s name had concerned its backers, two local Baptist ministers, who objected to the “Grave Robbers” part of the title.
They reportedly considered the direct reference to grave robbing to be sacrilegious, so Wood changed the title to “Plan 9”. The original title is mentioned at the end of Criswell’s opening narration when he asks the audience, “Can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?” It is also possible Wood changed the title because he did not want his backers to know that the film was finally being distributed (by 1959, they may have completely given up all hope of seeing a return on their investment). The new title, however, was less indicative of the film’s content and may have contributed to its distribution problems. Like many independent films of the period, Plan 9 was distributed under a states’ rights basis.
Plan 9 was screened as part of a double feature at various times. In Chicago, it was first seen alongside the British thriller Time Lock (1957), a film which is mostly remembered as an early film credit for Sean Connery. Later that year, it was used as a “co-feature” (B movie) for double-feature screenings of The Trap (1959), a film noir starring Richard Widmark. In Texas, it was seen alongside Devil Girl From Mars (1954), a five-year-old British science fiction film. Not long after, the picture was sold to television and was shown on Chiller Theatre and similar venues for years.
Plan 9 from Outer Space gained notoriety through the Medveds’ book because of its multiple continuity problems.
Viewers who have seen Plan 9 in theaters or on television have often laughed at the random mistakes viewed in the film, blaming it on Ed Wood’s careless staging. These include visible microphones, ordinary chairs doubling for aircraft equipment, and plumbing hardware visible aboard the aliens’ flying saucer. However, Wood had framed his shots for theatrical widescreen viewing, expecting that the ephemera at the top and bottom of the frame would be cropped when projected. Only when the film is viewed in its original widescreen aspect ratio is it apparent that he did compose his scenes correctly. The various objects intruding on the picture were never meant to be seen by the audience. Recent Plan 9 DVD releases restore the viewed images to their proper ratios, in a manner consistent with Wood’s original intentions.
In 2006 Legend Films released a colorized version of Plan 9 from Outer Space on DVD. Though the colourisation process was largely done straight, unlike the campy bright colors used in the studio’s release of Reefer Madness, there were a few alterations. Legend had auctioned off the opportunity to insert new material into the film through two auctions on eBay. The first allowed the auction winner to provide a photograph that is digitally inserted into part of the scene between the Ghoul Man and Paula Trent. The second allowed the winner to have his or her name placed on a gravestone during a scene with Wood regular Tor Johnson. The third alteration is at a point where Eros gets punched and his skin briefly turns green.
The Legend Films colorized release was screened in Atlanta, Georgia at the Plaza Theatre on 09 September 2006, and was hosted live by Elvira impersonator Patterson Lundquist with a live running commentary. As a part of the promotion sets of the autographed Michael J. Nelson DVD were given away as prizes. The event was featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and served as the grand re-opening of the theater, which had fallen on hard times under previous ownership.
Autographed pre-release copies of the DVD were made available in 2005, and the colourised version was also given special theatrical screenings at various theaters throughout the US, including the Castro Theatre. The DVD featured an audio commentary track by comedian Michael J. Nelson of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fame, in which he heckles, or “riffs” the film in a style similar to an episode of the series, a restored black-and-white version of Plan 9, a home video of Wood in drag performing a striptease (Wood, in real life, was a transvestite), a subtitled information track and a comedic feature narrated by Nelson detailing the “lost” Plans 1-8. The autographed edition also came with a limited edition air freshener. Nelson’s commentary is also available through his company RiffTrax, where it can be downloaded as either an MP3 audio file or a DivX video file with the commentary embedded into the colorized version of the film.
In 2011 PassmoreLab, a San Diego-based 3D production/conversion studio, produced a 3D version of Legend’s colourised version, which received limited theatrical release.
To date there have been only a handful of good quality or restored DVDs and Blu-rays. A good quality 35mm print from the Wade Williams Collection was released on DVD in the US (Image Entertainment, 2000), UK (MPIC Video, 2009), Germany (Winkler Film/Alive AG, 2009) and Australia (Force Video, 2001). All feature the Flying Saucers Over Hollywood documentary and the original theatrical trailer. Legend Films’ restored colourised and original black-and-white versions have been released on both DVD and Blu-ray in the US, and DVD in various other territories.
No home video release has featured the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio. Plan 9 was composed and shot for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio theatrical projection, the predominant widescreen format. As unskilled a filmmaker as he was, Ed Wood never intended for his film to be seen in a 1.33:1 open matte aspect ratio. This has led to various boom mics and edges of props, etc., being seen at the top and bottom of the image, which have since come to be intrinsically associated with the viewing of this film. Further complicating the matter, Wood incorporated stock footage framed in 1.33:1 (including his own footage of Bela Lugosi), which becomes overly cropped when shown in widescreen.
In 1992 Plan 9 from Outer Space was the subject of a documentary called Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion, which is included on Image Entertainment’s DVD edition of Plan 9. The documentary visits several locations related to the film, including the building with Ed Wood’s former office (at 4477 Hollywood Blvd), and what was left of the small sound stage used for the film’s interiors, which is down a small alley next to the Harvey Apartments located at 5640 Santa Monica Boulevard. That same year, Rudolph Grey’s book, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., was published and contained anecdotes regarding the making of this film. Grey notes that participants in the original events sometimes contradict one another, but he relates each person’s recollections for posterity, regardless.
In 2006 another documentary by Kevin Sean Michaels, titled Vampira: The Movie, chronicled Maila Nurmi’s work with Wood and her role as television’s first horror host.
Filmmaker Ernie Fosselius (of Hardware Wars fame) created the 2009 short film Plan 9.1 from Outer Space, which featured hand-carved wooden puppets of the characters from the film. The puppets acted out the scenes along with the edited soundtrack of the original film.
As of September 2009, there was an additional proposed remake: Grave Robbers from Outer Space was written and directed by Christopher Kahler for Drunkenflesh Films.
Another remake was released by Darkstone Entertainment, written and directed by John Johnson. The teaser trailer was released on the film’s official website on 09 September 2009. Horror host Mr. Lobo, Brian Krause and Internet celebrities Matt Sloan, Aaron Yonda, James Rolfe and Monique Dupree performed in the film, which was released through Video On Demand beginning 16 February 2016, and then released on physical media in stores on 05 January 2017.
- It posthumously bills Bela Lugosi as a guest-star (silent footage of the actor had actually been shot by Wood for another, unfinished film just prior to Lugosi’s death in August 1956).
- Other guest-stars are Hollywood veterans Lyle Talbot, who claimed that he never refused any acting job, and former cowboy star Tom Keene.
- Plan 9 from Outer Space was released theatrically in 1959 by Distributors Corporation of America, which was credited as Valiant Pictures at the time.
- The film was originally developed under the title Grave Robbers from Outer Space, but its financial backers objected to this title, considering it sacrilegious, and it was retitled Plan 9 from Outer Space prior to production.
- Plan 9 from Outer Space played on television in relative obscurity until 1980, when authors Harry Medved and Michael Medved dubbed it the “worst film ever made” in their book The Golden Turkey Awards.
- Wood and his film were posthumously given two Golden Turkey Awards for Worst Director Ever and Worst Film.
- It has since been retrospectively described as “The epitome of so-bad-it’s-good cinema” and has gained a cult following.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Ed Wood.
- Producer(s): Ed Wood.
- Writer(s): Ed Wood.
- Cinematography: William C. Thompson.
- Editor(s): Ed Wood.
- Production: Reynolds Pictures Inc.
- Distributor(s): Valiant Pictures.
- Release Date: 22 July 1959.
- Running Time: 79 minutes.
- Rating: PG.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.