Monday, 29 July 2019

Reflections on ... Plan 9 from Outer Space

My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space? Can you handle unspeakable horrors from outer space paralyzing the living and resurrecting the dead? If so, then do we have the film for you!

Gloriously inept and twisted b-movie visionary Ed Wood Jr unleashed Plan 9 from Outer Space – his much-ridiculed el cheapo sci fi horror thriller – on an unsuspecting world on 22 July 1959. Come celebrate the 60th anniversary of this notorious cinematic atrocity on Wednesday 17 July when the FREE monthly Lobotomy Room sinema club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!) devoted to Bad Movies We Love presents Plan 9 from Outer Space!

Starring horror legend Bela Lugosi (in his final film appearance), hulking Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson and wraith-like glamour ghoul Vampira, the plot - incorporating flying saucers, zombies and nuclear war - offers a nightmare scenario about what happens when aliens administer long distance electrodes into the pineal and pituitary glands of the recent dead, bringing them back to life! A true cult classick, Plan 9 simply must be seen to be believed and will improve immeasurably by drinking Fontaine’s frosty cocktails!

Is Plan 9 from Outer Space one of the worst films ever made? YOU be the judge on 17 July! Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt! And remember: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives! ..."

/ Art by Mitch O'Connell /

Plan 9 is my pride and joy … if you want to know me, see Glen or Glenda, that’s me. That’s my story. No question. But Plan 9 is my pride and joy.” Ed Wood quoted in Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D Wood Jr (1992).

The following blog post is cobbled-together from my introductory speech on 17 July plus some random observations and fun facts about Plan 9 from Outer Space.

It was deeply gratifying to have such an enthusiastic crowd riveted to the screen to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I feel like we did Ed Wood proud.

It’s been said that Wood directed Plan 9 “with brazen confidence but no taste, common sense or budget.” Wood himself would regard Plan 9 as his greatest artistic achievement for the rest of his tormented but productive, abbreviated and booze-sodden life. (He died in 1978 aged just 54 after years of chronic alcoholism and abject poverty). 

Plan 9 was little seen when it first emerged in 1959 and mostly languished in obscurity (aside from late-night TV screenings) until 1980 when Harry and Michael Medved published the book The Golden Turkey Awards, in which they nominated Plan 9 as the official worst film of all time. Thrust back into public attention, it’s been embraced by subsequent generations as an enjoyably terrible must-see cult film ever since. Certainly, you can’t call yourself an aficionado of cult or exploitation cinema without experiencing Plan 9 at least once.

Wood completed the film in 1956 but it took almost three years before he could find a distributor willing to touch it.

The original title was meant to be Grave Robbers from Outer Space.

The budget was an ultra-frugal $60,000 and those economic limitations are harshly visible onscreen. The tombstones in the graveyard are plywood and they wobble. Shadows of boom microphones are sometimes visible onscreen. When two pilot are shown in the cockpit of a plane, it appears to be a shower curtain behind them. It’s been widely reported that the flying saucers were hubcaps painted silver, but they were in fact made from a child’s model kit bought from a hobby shop. (Actually, there are multiple accounts of those flying saucers. I highly recommend you read the biography Nightmare of Ecstasy for more details about the making of Plan 9). For me, rather than detract, the cheap’n’cheerful aspect of Plan 9 – the fact that Woods’ ambitions vastly outstrip the financial restraints imposed on him and his own film-making expertise – considerably add to the film’s charms. This is genuine naïve outsider art.

/ Above: Bela Lugsoi. Below: Thomas Mason. I can't spot the difference, can you? /

Famously, Plan 9 represents horror icon – and definitive Dracula - Bela Lugosi’s final film appearance. In fact, you only get the most fleeting glimpses of Lugosi (looking gaunt and desiccated) at the film’s beginning. When he died of a heart attack on 16 August 1956 aged 73 with virtually no completed shots in the can, the resourceful Wood simply replaced Lugosi with a chiropractor named Thomas R Mason - who looked nothing remotely like him, was significantly younger and taller. Undeterred, Wood compensated by having Mason hunch and keep his face concealed with a cape. There’s something poignantly optimistic later when Wood intercuts footage of Lugosi and Mason assuming the audience won’t notice the difference.

The rest of the cast incorporate Wood’s colourful entourage of freaks from the lunatic underbelly of Hollywood Babylon: hammy psychic The Amazing Criswell (visibly reading his lines from cue cards), massive Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson and morbidly beautiful Finnish-born horror movie hostess Vampira (real name: Maila Nurmi).  Honourable mention must go to the exhausted-looking John “Bunny” Breckenridge (1903 - 1996) as the queen-y, disdainful leader of the aliens simply called The Ruler. I treasure his undisguised contempt, heavy eyeliner and lemon-sucking expression. (Bill Murray beautifully and accurately channeled Breckenridge’s hauteur in the 1995 biopic Ed Wood: the sole Tim Burton / Johnny Depp film I genuinely like). And those poor actors playing the aliens wear wildly unflattering tunics and leggings, unforgiving for their portly middle-aged frames.

I am unashamedly obsessed with cult icon Maila Nurmi (1922 - 2008), though, so for me Plan 9 feels like a paean to her macabre beauty and bizarre charisma. The woman is a sacred icon / touchstone for generations of punks, queers, goths, psychobillies and other assorted misfits. Re-visiting Plan 9, it’s always striking to see again just how freaky and extreme the cadaverous Nurmi’s look was. That emaciated waist! She was truly a pioneer in terms of body modification and fetishism.  The passage of time certainly hasn’t muted the shocking impact of coffin cutie Nurmi’s appearance.

Nurmi was the original TV horror movie hostess and a pop culture sensation between 1954 and 1955. But then The Vampira Show was abruptly cancelled in a dispute with ABC (they wanted to own the rights to her persona, she refused and was blacklisted), her career dramatically fizzled-out and never recovered. (Like Wood, Nurmi pretty much spent the rest of her life in poverty). She also alienated many by exploiting for publicity her friendship with James Dean following his death in 1955. By the time Nurmi appeared in Plan 9 she was widely considered washed-up and a show business pariah. All her scenes were filmed in one day, she was paid a grand total of $200 for her performance (the union minimum) and she was presumably glad to get it. Nurmi considered Plan 9 a humiliating nadir, but considering no footage of her TV series survives, it remains the definitive document of her onscreen allure. Enigmatic, mute and studiously indifferent, she is mesmerizing to watch in Plan 9.

Nurmi has claimed she was so horrified by the dialogue that Wood wrote for her that she demanded she play the role entirely in silence. But this oft-repeated theory feels apocryphal: remember - she and Tor Johnson both play zombies and he speaks no lines, either. And let’s pause here to ask: is Nurmi meant to be a zombie or a vampire in Plan 9? In many synopses, she’s called a vampire. But she’s raised from the dead by the aliens just like Johnson, and he is consistently referred to as a zombie. Which is it?

But seriously: how can such an entertaining, highly individual and compellingly weird work be considered “the worst film ever made”? The movie is Ed Wood’s labour of love and shouldn’t be dismissed. I prefer the more generous “so-bad-it’s-good” approach to Plan 9. At 80-minutes long, it zips along rapidly and never outstays its welcome (although when one of the aliens starts lengthily defining what a solaronite bomb it certainly threatens to).  

At its best, Plan 9 unfolds like a dream (or should that be nightmare?). Wood’s convoluted, jumbled story-telling - with reason, coherence and narrative jettisoned - only makes “sense” as nightmare logic. There are moments that almost anticipate David Lynch or Guy Maddin. Characters are almost always isolated, rarely sharing the same frame, which is disorienting and breaks movie-making conventions. And consider the repetition: Wood recycles the same footage over and over. We get glimpses of the long-dead Lugosi popping-up late in the film for no plausible reason, wandering through the woods in his Dracula cape.  The sequences of Tor Johnson and Nurmi shuffling silently and zombie-like through the bargain basement mist-enshrouded graveyard, past bleak gnarled trees, are hauntingly eerie – and are repeated over and over.

Adding to the strangeness, we’re never certain what time of day it is and seemingly neither is Wood. It changes shot-by-shot. For example, Wood will depict grave diggers in broad daylight – then cut to Vampira menacingly approaching them in night-time pitch darkness – and then cut to daylight again as they recoil in terror. The scene where Mason - doubling for Lugosi, face shrouded by his vampire’s cape - silently breaks into the sleeping woman’s bedroom and carries her off feels like primal silent cinema horror, a fragment from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It’s like watching a waking nightmare. Sixty years later, Plan 9 from Outer Space still casts an uncanny spell.

The next film club is Wednesday 21 August! Event page

If visionary director Josef von Sternberg was the Leonardo da Vinci of cinema, then German glamourpuss leading lady Marlene Dietrich was his Mona Lisa. The Devil is a Woman (1935) was the last of the seven exquisite films the duo collaborated on together. And boy, did they conclude in high style! Sumptuous and bizarre, it’s a kinky and cruel black comedy about sexual humiliation, tinged with sadomasochism, and offering one final swooning and ambivalent valentine from von Sternberg to his gorgeous muse.

Set in a dream-like, deliberately artificial turn-of-the-century Seville, it stars Dietrich (clad in a wild wardrobe of lace mantillas) as heartless gold-digging femme fatale Concha Perez (variously described as “the most dangerous woman you’ll ever meet!” and “the toast of Spain!”) cruelly pitting virile young Antonio Garvan (Cesar Romero at his most handsome) against the self-destructively besotted Captain Don Pasqual Costelar (Lionel Atwill – deliberately styled to resemble von Sternberg himself) for her own amusement.

The Devil is a Woman is a deliriously perverse, borderline-surreal spectacle! Come see the movie the Spanish government successfully banned and that Dietrich herself called her favourite (“because I was most beautiful in it”) on Wednesday 21 August!

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!) devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the queer! Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt!

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Reflections on ... Love Has Many Faces (1965)

Recently watched: tantalizingly lurid and trashy melodrama Love Has Many Faces (1965) starring 44-year old screen diva Lana Turner at the height of her mature glamour. The steamy action is set in sun-drenched Acapulco amidst the amoral la dolce vita milieu of the jaded idle rich, where tanned half-naked gigolos ply their trade on the beach to sex-starved affluent society matrons. (In this realm, it's women who buy the services of male prostitutes, not other men). The hedonistic idyll is abruptly interrupted when Billy Andrews, one of these beach boys-for-hire, washes-up dead on the shore. Was he murdered? Did he commit suicide? A bracelet on his wrist (engraved “Love is Thin Ice”) links him to married 40-something heiress and playgirl, Kit Jordan (Turner). 

/ Pete (Cliff Robertson) and Kit (Lana Turner) pouting through the pain aboard their yacht. Note Robertson's safari leisure suit - so atomic-era. Note too the glasses of brandy: this duo continuously knocks back brandy (in the blazing heat on the beach!) as if their lives depend on it. Taking a sip each time they do would be a fun drinking game. Interesting: in real life Turner was reportedly a hard drinker, but onscreen her drunks scenes are wildly unconvincing / 

/ Portrait of a marriage /

The all-star cast screams "1965": buff Cliff Robertson as Turner’s ex-hustler husband (Robertson, of course, tormented another older diva - Joan Crawford - years earlier in Autumn Leaves), gravel-voiced Ruth Roman (she gives Love’s earthiest, most nuanced performance as a horny middle-aged tourist. Years later she would make a vivid impression as the butch, growling bewigged mother in freaky exploitation film The Baby), god-like furry-chested Hugh O’Brien as wolfish veteran gigolo Hank (he spends most of the film virtually naked and is a sight to behold. His motto is “Always treat a tramp like a lady and a lady like a tramp”) and Stefanie Powers in her early ingenue starlet years. 

/ Margot (Ruth Roman) cops a feel of Hank (Hugh O’Brien). Can you blame her?! / 

/ Above: A tousled, post-coital Ruth Roman as Margot /

Mainly, though, Love is a star vehicle for Turner: as troubled socialite Kit, she gets to suffer, emote and hide a painful secret, drink and smoke too much, wear sunglasses, dramatically ascend and descend a spectacular staircase, impatiently snap orders at servants in Spanish and repeatedly changes clothes (her garish Edith Head-designed wardrobe was one of the film’s major draws and cost an estimated $1 million). Turner's fellow actors’ close-ups are in crisp normal focus, but when the camera cuts to Turner, the lens is abruptly misty with Vaseline or gauze. No one over-acts quite like Lana Turner. Is she awful or majestic? She’s certainly always undeniably compelling. 

/ Lana - shimmering in soft focus / 

/ Poor Stefanie Powers doesn't stand a chance: you barely notice her when she shares a scene with the majestic Turner /

/ Below: a sampling of Turner's much-ballyhooed Edith Head-designed "Million Dollar Wardrobe" in Love Has Many Faces

/ Fascinating five-minute behind-the-scenes"featurette" about Turner's wardrobe, narrated by Edith Head /

Seen today, the unapologetic and overt focus on bronzed and oiled male flesh is eye-popping. Love needs to be embraced by modern audiences as an LGBTQ camp classic! While all the romantic interludes depicted are strictly hetero, it’s difficult to imagine a queerer movie emerging from mainstream Golden Age Hollywood. (Well, considering this is 1965, this is Golden Age Hollywood in its protracted agonizing death throes). In fact, there’s so much outrageously homoerotic beefcake worship in Love Has Many Faces it suggests Bob Mizer  of Athletic Model Guild was some kind of consultant or adviser! In addition to women looking to luxuriate in a weepy deluxe melodrama, I suspect the audience was full of connoisseurs of firm male flesh and “confirmed bachelors.” 

/ MILFS gone wild! Cougars on the loose! Sex tourists Margot (Ruth Roman) and Irene (Virginia Grey), hungrily eyeing up the local talent and out of their depths in Acapulco. (Note the sliced lemon motif on Irene's sunhat). Do these two actually represents gay men? Let's have a heated debate! /

/ Love for Sale: cynical hustler Hank and his smooth-skinned, younger and more naive twink colleague Chuck (Ron Husmann). Their scenes together sizzle with repressed homoeroticism. Regrettably, they never once kiss /

/ Kiss! For the love of god - kiss! /

(I know virtually nothing about the director of Love Has Many Faces, Alexander Singer (who's still alive at 91). But his very skimpy Wikipedia page alerted me that his debut film was the steamy, intenses low-budget 1961 sexploitation film A Cold Wind in August, in which the excellent Lola Albright plays a 30-something stripper infatuated with a cute 17-year old thug. Alexander Singer has suddenly shot up in my estimation! It was John Waters' praise of A Cold Wind in August in his book Crackpot that led me to seek it out years ago. Sadly, it's very difficult film to see. Come on, Criterion - bring out a digitally remastered director's cut Blu-ray of this essential movie!). 

/ Above: Lola Albright in A Cold Wind in August (1961) / 

The storyline is inconsequential soap opera (by the end I was still unclear whether Billy was murdered or committed suicide. It ultimately didn’t seem to matter very much). Singer's direction is frequently indifferent and the pace can drag. But then things build to a totally unexpected climax involving a charging bull (!) that is genuinely jolting and surreal. You will rub your eyes in disbelief! Another bonus: Turner’s palatial beach house is minimalist atomic-era “Tiki moderne” heaven. The most lingering impressions left by Love Has Many Faces is Turner at her most histrionic and the sight of Hugh O'Brien in his revealing bathing suit. 

/ Glimpses of Turner's sumptuous beach house. She makes maximum use of that spectacular staircase for dramatic moments. And check out her zebra-print robe! /

/ Some bonus pin-ups of O'Brian in his tiny well-stuffed white briefs /

Further reading:

Comprehensive and excellent analysis of Love Has Many Faces here.

In August 2018 I spoke my brains to To Do List magazine about the wild, wild world of Lobotomy Room, the monthly cinema club – and my lonely one-man mission to return a bit of raunch, sleaze and “adult situations” to London’s nightlife! Read it - if you must - here. 

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