Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) gets the name of being the worst film ever made. It isn’t; it isn’t even Ed Wood’s worst film. Plan 9 does have that oddly poetic Wood dialogue that doesn’t make sense and can’t quite be read properly by his actors. It also has a raft of really awful cinematic mistakes, particularly in editing.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with the film. It’s a low-budget story of aliens who come to Earth and re-animate dead people. For some reason, the aliens believe this will frighten the living into listening to a dire warning: mankind is on the brink of a discovery that could threaten the entire universe. If this doesn’t make sense, then you should watch the film, because that doesn’t make sense either. Plan 9 is also notable for being Dracula star Bela Lugosi’s last film. Lugosi died suddenly in 1956 during tests for a movie that was to be called Tomb of the Vampire. Three years later, Wood cribbed this footage and used it to make Lugosi seem to be one of the walking dead. For most of the picture, he’s awkwardly doubled by a guy holding a cape over his face.
When I teach classes in film history, I use the graveyard scene chase from this Plan 9 as an example of bad editing. The scene is intended to be a tense chase through an old cemetery. The walking dead chase Mona McKinnon as she struggles to stay ahead of them. This aim fails completely, because Wood has cut it in such a way that there is no consistent geography to it. The shots are all over the map, some out of sequence, and some just wrong. Now, that monster is… over there… and… over there, and she ran through that set once, no, now backwards, and that monster moved left to right and now right to… oh, I give up.
The other problem that the editing exposes is the utter poverty of the film. Bela Lugosi’s double basically trips over a cardboard gravestone, and we see it bobble. Wood hired an actor with a gigantic posterior to pick up Mona McKinnon at the end of the scene, and he cut it so that the posterior is seen far too often. Tor Johnson has a nice shot in which he is seen emerging from his grave, but the bulky actor can’t quite stand upright, and struggles to get to his feet. Rather than cut away… please CUT, Wood leaves it in, because big Tor looked so cool.
Watch Ed’s cut for yourself. Now that I’ve pointed out the myriad errors, we can move on from there.
This is a sequence that lends itself to reordering, because the soundtrack is essentially just the Plan 9 theme. The music is actually pretty good. The monsters are at least somewhat spooky. The photography is fine. The problem is that the sets are cheap, and the editing is horrid. Apart from one shot at the beginning of the sequence, there’s not a single shot with a monster and Mona McKinnon in view at the same time. This is not fixable, but a good editor can minimize it.
I noted several key problems with the scene:
- Mona McKinnon takes forever to run out of the shot with Lugosi’s double, and there’s no sense of drama in it. Too long.
- Tor Johnson’s grave emergence takes too long and slows the pace. If we start it earlier and shorten the whole thing, making it seem as if he’s coming out just as McKinnon is going through the cemetery, then we’d have more tension.
- McKinnon goes through the same set 3-4 times in different directions to pad out the scene. It’s confusing, and too long. CUT.
- The actor who rescues McKinnon at the end takes too long getting around the car and his posterior is embarrassing. Let’s help him out by minimizing that.
- OK, we all know that Bela Lugosi was long dead by the time this movie started shooting. Wood’s use of test footage is actually pretty clever, but the double (Dr. Tom Mason) is glaringly obvious because he looks nothing like Lugosi. In order to give us a little illusion, let’s not hold on long shots of Mason. Let’s also not use the same shot of Lugosi six times just because he’s billed in the film. If it doesn’t make sense, it needs to go.
I had to fudge a little. I didn’t have access to the sound stems (the separate tracks for music, sound effects, and dialogue), so I was stuck using the sound as it was on the finished soundtrack. By the time dialogue occurs, late in the scene, I’d cut the better part of a minute out of it, so I had to overlap two pieces of disparate music to make it work. Here’s what I did with it:
The point in all of this is to show what an editor does. People think he just cuts out the boring parts of a movie. That can be true (it was in this case!), but he’s also responsible for making the film flow properly. He takes a bunch of shots that the director supplies him and has to make sense of it. If the film’s shooting was a disaster, then he’s essentially trying to rescue the film at the last moment. There are people known as film doctors who specialize in taking footage from troubled films and creating something better out of them.
One of the episodes of the Dr. Film TV show will be dedicated to editing techniques and how films are put together, as we trace the development of the art through the years. Look at this and sort of a sneak preview of what is to come if the show gets picked up.
Stephen King directed Maximum Overdrive (1986). He told an interviewer that when he saw the “rushes” of the film with his editor, he thought he had another Plan 9 from Outer Space on his hands. The editor told him that all films look like Plan 9 until they’re cut properly.
Plan 9 would never have been a good movie, but Wood’s editing makes it a lot worse than it had to be. Sometimes it’s what you do with the lemons that makes all the difference.