by Adam-Troy Castro
Gregory Walcott just died at age 87. He was an actor. He was not a bad actor, though he was famous for it. He appeared in films directed by John Ford, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, and Tim Burton. His TV and movie appearances reflect a career spanning forty years. He never achieved what you and I would call stardom, but neither was he a failure at his chosen profession. Casting agents knew that they could always call him to appear as a certain type against better-known actors.
Walcott was, to his eternal dismay, best known for headlining a movie that he considered beneath him at the time, a film he was supposed to lend some class, that instead became the headline of his obituary: Ed Wood’s infamous stinker, the supposed “worst film ever made,” Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959).
And that makes this a more or less appropriate time to make a point that sometimes does need to be made.
Plan Nine doesn’t even come close to being the worst movie ever made.
It may be the most entertaining awful movie ever made, but that’s far from the same thing. I used to work for a website that paid me to review direct-to-video films, and I must report that a number of those would have been proud to possess even a fraction of the artistic integrity and storytelling skill of Plan Nine. There were movies where you couldn’t be sure that the people who made them even liked movies, or had ever seen a movie; movies where it was difficult to tell that the people who made them had a plan before they started or instead just showed up in some dingy garage set, lit a bare lightbulb, and commanded their actors to start doing stuff.
My DVD collection somehow features a movie called After Last Season (2009), so awful and pointless that there exist persistent rumors that it was made by a prominent Hollywood director who knows better, as a gag. It defies summary, but is worthy of note for circular conversations about such pressing subjects as whether a given character has actually been to an area or just driven through it. You will also notice the construction-paper MRI machine in a building that is ever-so-obviously a private home and not a hospital. You will watch the whole movie wondering what it’s about before a story resentfully starts up, about twenty minutes from the end. It is far worse than Plan Nine From Outer Space. It is, unlike Plan Nine, not a movie anyone will willingly watch a second time. Nor is it the worst movie ever made.
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) has a similar reputation. It features long and pointless shots of the East Texas landscape passing by out the window of a moving car as the protagonists drive around waiting for the movie to start. It has long gaps in the dialogue as the actors try to remember what they’re supposed to be doing. It has a genuinely disturbing ending that might have been brilliant in a better film, instead of the level of icky it is in this one. But it is not the worst movie ever made.
I’m perversely fond of Horror (2003), a film featuring the Amazing Kreskin and a goat, yes, a goat, that in its aimless wandering about is supposed to be a sight capable of reducing its cast of characters, and audience members, to hysterical paroxysms of terror, but is never more than a goat, visibly just ambling about wherever its wranglers put it. That synopsis makes more sense than the movie itself, which is far harder to sit through than Plan Nine. But it is not the worst movie ever made.
If such a thing exists, we have likely not heard of it.
And yet we pick on Plan Nine. Why?
Plan Nine evidences a rudimentary command of story structure, the key understanding that movies have to be about something, and even a subversive point — all positive attributes absent in many worse movies, even if they are not enough to take Wood’s film very far. The sad truth? If you were to somehow manage to examine every movie ever made, and rank them in order of objective quality, I believe it quite possible that Plan Nine or the others mentioned above wouldn’t even sink below the lowest twenty percent. There are thousands and thousands of thousands of other movies that were not only just as incompetent in terms of craft, but also more lifeless, more pointless, more interminable, and probably more offensive, without the nagging ameliorating sense we get from Plan Nine that their respective creators were onto something that their limited talents could not grasp.
At the very least, Plan Nine possesses one moment of almost superb genius: the exchange where an alien being describes a weapon of horrific, universally destructive potential, and the hero played by Mr. Walcott muses that it would be neat if America could have it — immediately followed by an exchange where the frustrated alien calls him stupid for being able to understand nothing but violence, and said hero responds by punching him.
Plan Nine is memorable for a reason, and I submit that the reason was that the level of potential he did have fell into a sad uncanny valley, between that which would have turned his work into a lifeless dirge, and that which would have been rendered it almost competent. You can sense an energy to his vision. His limited resources were another factor. He was, in life, like one of the contestants on an episode of Iron Chef, told that tonight’s special ingredient is horse manure; the least you can say of him is that he wouldn’t have stormed off the set and wouldn’t have been hating every moment of the project. He would have tried to whip something up.
This doesn’t excuse everything, of course. Only nine years separated Plan Nine from Outer Space and Night Of The Living Dead (1968), two movies with similar shoestring budgets, similar casts of often subpar actors, similar technical limitations and even similar premises. One evokes giggles, one left a permanent and still-growing mark on the popular imagination. One is still mocked and one is still dissected for layers of meaning. The difference was vision. But during the ten years that separated them, how many awful movies were made that nobody will ever willingly sit through again, that are objectively worse than what Ed Wood did? The difference there was vision, too.
Wrapping up the column, some recent discoveries:
Honeymoon (2014) stars Harry Treadaway, best known for playing a version of Dr. Frankenstein on the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and Rose Leslie, best known for repeatedly telling Jon Snow that he knows nothing on Game of Thrones. It’s a neat little science fiction horror movie about a young couple, deeply in love, who go to celebrate their recent marriage at that place where nobody should ever go in a movie like this, the cabin in the woods. Remarkably, the first third or so is almost completely chill-free; it’s just an observant study of this one happy couple, deeply and persuasively into one another, being funny and charming and warm and sexy and all those other things that give you reason for dread when you remember what genre this is supposed to be. Then she suffers an interval of sleep-walking and gradually becomes someone other than herself, in initially subtle ways that become more and more disturbing as the movie goes on.
The genre doesn’t fully announce itself into the final third, at which point the horror-adverse might want to avert their eyes. It gets extreme. But none of that would work, at all, if we didn’t have that first half hour, the two people nuts about one another in ways that feel genuine, instead of saccharine. This is a fine lesson for makers of horror movies whose protagonists are so terrible that the terrible fates they meet among other places, other cabins in the woods, come as a relief to us in that they’ve finally managed to be interesting. This is a couple who could have gone on to make a fine relationships comedy together, if not for the pesky tropes hanging about wanting to spoil things.
Housebound (also 2014) is a tougher genre to slice, since much of it hinges on the question of whether supernatural stuff is really happening or if there’s a more rational explanation, but your friendly reviewer will justify its place in this compendium of fantastic movies by declaring that as long as the tension comes from that ambiguity, it’s fantasy enough for him. It’s a New Zealand film about a troubled young woman (Morgana O’Reilly, rocking the disturbed raccoon eyeshadow like a champ) who is sentenced to house arrest after an attempt to rob an ATM, and forced to stay with her mother, who has always claimed that the family home is haunted. After a while, our heroine begins to suspect the same. What follows is a woefully long entrance ramp to a tale that, trust me, becomes a rollicking action-comedy in its last half. Your friendly reviewer adored the climax.
Predestination (2015) defied a rule of thumb well-known to movie folks, both professionals and fans. To wit, movies released in January almost always suck.
There’s a reason for this, that being that the movies studios have the most faith in as Academy Award contenders are usually officially released in November and December, often in limited releases designed to gather up positive reviews and enthusiastic word of mouth before they start percolating to local theaters in January and February; by contrast, the films with official January release dates are those that nobody has any real faith in, that are abandoned to that frozen and unwelcoming soil where it matters little that few of them are fated to find any purchase. Often January movies are those that were intended to come out in more congenial times of year, until somebody took a look at them and said that they were going to sink like a stone, so they might as well be dumped. It’s the kiss of death, and it is every once in a while given to a movie like this that does not deserve it.
So what we have is an actually quite commendable and very faithful adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s time-travel paradox story, “All You Zombies—”, about a Moebius Strip of a protagonist whose life doubles back upon itself in any number of confusing and upsetting ways. It was written and directed by the Spierig Brothers, two makers of prior genre films who are getting better and better with every release. It stars Ethan Hawke as a character called The Barkeep, who is listening to a tale told by one Sarah Snook, playing a character called The Unmarried Mother. Hawke, who is always terrific, is one thing, but Snook is an absolute revelation. Establishing just what the role demands of her would involve spoilers, but rest assured she’s equal to it.
Perhaps the best thing about the film, which follows the Heinlein tale quite closely, is that it takes its really quite appalling unexamined sexism — manifesting in among other things as the heroine’s long training at a career that amounts to “space concubine” — and, without changing a thing but tone, turns it into commentary. In this iteration, you’re not supposed to like the range of choices The Unmarried Mother’s been given. It’s just a given that they’re the choices she has.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.