In the post-irony era, the term "guilty pleasure" has become one of the most loaded phrases in our everyday entertainment vernacular. We've experienced the Screams and the Grindhouses, the Joaquin Phoenix meta-meltdowns, and the Banksy art-circuit brainwashings—not to mention the entirety of the reality-television industry. At what point, then, did we collectively admit that shitty things and, by extension, shitty people doing shitty things to one another in front of camera, could be something of an art form unto itself? Without a durational degree of separation we're left to gravitate toward what intrinsically appeals to us, I suppose, but at some point in the last decade it's become ever more rare to find the high- and low-brow arts relegated to their own corners of the critical conversation; it's just as common to see the latest Sacha Baron Cohen character battle it out with the newest Lars von Trier antihero for top-10-list real estate.
Of course, not everything is worthy of such consideration, and if anything our contemporary landscape has produced more objectively irredeemable garbage than any in history, but eventually anyone with even a modicum of stock in pop culture is forced into at least recognizing the unconsciously amateurish work that laid the groundwork for our current state of acceptance. In that sense, Edward D. Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 from Outer Space is something of a sacred text. It's become nothing less than a rite of passage for anyone even remotely interested in science fiction, horror, or B-movie lore. It not only embraced all the questionable tropes that we consistently forgive with regard to genre consideration nowadays, but made an unintentional mockery of every last one of them. It wouldn't have "worked" and certainly wouldn't have endured if Wood hadn't believed that this was some sort of monument to high art, and it's this earnestness which has turned Plan 9 into one of the quintessential American cult films.
But do we love it because of its grand ineptitude or because it speaks, at some level, to our ingrained sense of entertainment? There are any number of films to equal it in flagrant incompetence alone, but Plan 9, despite its (sometimes literal) flimsiness, retains its off-center artistry through Wood's uncommon devotion to his material. Even in the strictest sense of the term, Wood was an auteur, writing, producing, and directing his own original works in the face of even his own blatant lack of talent. In this case, however, talent didn't necessarily precipitate industriousness, just as quality didn't precipitate the film's lasting appeal. For all its grade school-level production flourishes, cardboard performances, narrative lapses, and continuity errors (Wood quite literally gives new meaning to the phrase "day for night"), Plan 9 stands as a testament to sincerity run amok, and as a passionate display of artistic limitations, it's as glorious as it is flabbergasting.
Then again, you've really got to hand it to Wood, who apparently would let nothing stop him from realizing his epic vision—not even the death of his ostensible star, Bela Lugosi, who was literally resurrected for the film via footage Wood shot three years prior to his death (a double, played by Wood's chiropractor, natch, would stand in for Lugosi for most of the shoot, and not very convincingly). And credit where it's due: Plan 9 is essentially well cast, with Vampira, Tor Johnson, and Lugosi kept all but mum throughout, allowing their physical presences do the talking while Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, and the appropriately named Dudley Manlove are left in the lurch with some of the most ludicrous, Cold War-steeped dialogue in the history of the B picture (say it with me: "Your stupid minds! Stoopid! Stooopid!").
Not that there's a whole lot of plot for the actors to work with here (the basic premise involves aliens—who look deceptively like humans, only with silk purple blouses in place of stock '50s attire—journeying to Earth to thwart the U.S. government from developing a universe-obliterating bomb), but it's nonetheless commendable how many classic moments and caricatures Wood was able to stumble upon. The cardboard gravestones, the handmade UFOs strung with clearly visible strings, Tor's awkwardly anti-climatic resurrection, the casually misogynistic and pointedly flamboyant alien leader Eros—it all adds up to one seriously stupid, endlessly entertaining flailing, a masterpiece of the maladroit and a cultural relic so one of a kind that it could have only passed from curiosity to classic through a cultural reconciliation of discretion and base impulse. It's safe to say that Wood had the last laugh.
Essentially a 1080p upgrade of Legend Films' previously released DVD, the new Blu-ray again boasts the color-enhanced version of the film as the default rendition. Thankfully, the color is well saturated, smoothly rendered, and not overtly camp (even more thankfully, the original black-and-white version of the film is included, though still as a bonus feature, ceding the spotlight to the novelty of the primary hues). Regardless, the film itself looks pleasing, exhibiting nice contrast without undue black-level boosting or, again, color exaggeration. Scratches and other film-related detritus have been mostly wiped clean, though grain is healthy enough to not suspect much if any DNR tomfoolery. Wood was obviously never much for refinement, so if nothing else, you can now experience all the jury-rigged production design in vivid splendor. Sound, meanwhile, is appropriately kept in its original mono 2.0 mix, though bumped to DTS-HD, sounding clear, without any noise or other audible distractions. It's a solid A/V display all around, though subtitles are conspicuous by their absence.
The bonus material duplicates the 2006 DVD with an entertaining, if perhaps too smarmy, commentary track by Mike Nelson ("You can actually see the heroin kick in right...there"), a selection of Ed Wood's work in television commercials (which are as bad as expected), and an endearingly odd reel of home movies, which basically amounts to two minutes of Wood admiring a birthday cake and cross-dressing in front of a Christmas tree. More worthwhile factoids are imparted by a pop-up-trivia subtitle track, which contextualizes Wood's career along with the production and legacy of the picture. Unfortunately, we miss out on the two-hour documentary, "Flying Saucers Over Hollywood," originally included on the first-run Image Entertainment DVD, which could have rendered the release definitive.
A modest if satisfying Blu-ray package from Legend Films brings Ed Wood's glorious cult classic to 1080p with some fun if redundant extras—perfect for those who've never experienced this ideal-altering cinematic train wreck. [Slant]