Edward D. Wood's "Plan 9 From Outer Space" means a lot to a lot of people. To the snide, it's an uproarious exercise in ineptitude. To appreciators of B-movie horror, it's something more-or-less quaint: for all intents and purposes, a Halloween play caught on film, performed by the neighborhood kids, with a few of their most popular headlining the endeavor. The B-film crowd understands why the 1959 release prevails; for it rekindles a child-like wonder that few pictures can capture.
Some well meaning filmmakers have tried, with varying success, to emulate "Plan 9'"s charm, but most have stumbled. One simply can't force that kind of magic. It must come naturally.
Despite the high bar, writer/director/producer John Johnson has decided to tackle the task, and lo and behold, he's actually hit the mark, and not through sheer Gus Van Sant emulation. Instead, Johnson takes a page from Hammer Studios' playbook and gives the Wood classic a crafty spin.
With this said, Johnson's version sometimes has more in common with the Romero/Russo flesh-eating zombie legacy than Wood's movie, which used a "Revolt of the Zombies" type formula, abetted by an alien-invasion angle.
The aliens are still influential in this modern version. However, they're stationed in the background and when they do make their presence known, it's not through flying saucers, but rather blazing meteors and lots of blood and unsettling goo. (Incidentally, we learn that the grave-robbing takeover is set for various phases or plans, if you will, which is elaborated by Jarod Kearney's Eros, who's quite a stretch from Dudley Manlove's version.) Also, unlike the original invaders, the new crop implements a fast, widespread resurrection of the dead via a pulsation, heart-reviving wave (and on Halloween, no less, in a town called Nilbog--spell that one backwards for fun). The zombies charge the living relentlessly to rip at their flesh and grow so great in number that one group must seek shelter in a general store, where the "Night of the Living Dead" tensions soon run high.
The film's overall participants make a fine mix, consisting of television "psychic" Criswell, played by Cinema Insomnia's beloved Mister Lobo; Sara Eshleman as Lucy Grimm (the film's woeful, scientific heroine); Brian Krause as Jeff Trent (Larry Walcott's character in the original); Amy Hart as Paula Trent (Mona McKinnon in the original); Mathew "Galidor" Ewald as Jimmy; Aaron Yonda as Toby; Matt Sloan as Sammy; Monique Dupree as Becky; and Addy Miller as Sarah. James "Angry Video Game Nerd" Rolfe and filmmaker Johnson play policemen (the latter named after Paul Marco’s Kelton the Cop). Also, Conrad Brooks, a favorite among Wood aficionados (and costar of the original epic) cameos as an intuitive, old gent.
Johnson's pacing is impressively smooth and his script scary, funny and engaging. He makes one feel for the characters through his snappy dialogue, which is enhanced by the varying nuances that each performer brings to his/her role.
Whenever given the chance, Mister Lobo steals the scene, and by the film's very Woodian nature, he should. Yes, he's playing Criswell (i.e., Jeron Criswell Konig's famous alter ego), but he's also making the utmost use of his horror-host image, which in its own right, pushes the remake into its own cult status. In fact, Mister Lobo's opening "Criswell Predicts" monologue is a hoot, especially in the way it angrily skids into the eerie opening credits. Wood would certainly appreciate this tactic, for it immediately establishes Mister Lobo as this version's equivalent to not only the original Criswell, but to Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Maila Nurmi/Vampira and Lyle Talbot.
The remake's living dead (supplied by Bio Duck FX) would also please Wood, even if they're more over-the-top than what he could ever hope to feature. We're even granted effective imprints of Vampira (Camille "I Spit On Your Grave" Keaton); Tor Johnson's Inspector Clay (John R. Price II); and a unique take on Lugosi/Tom Mason's heartbroken widower (Hal Handerson). The trio (though not seen as frequently as some might prefer) does adequately fill the bill for sentiment's sake, and the gusty, undead assaults put the the lumbering choreography of many recent zombie films to shame.
Like the old, the new "Plan 9" does, in fact, include a symbolic, good-over-evil motif. After all, we're talking about a U.S. invasion here. That the characters ultimately want to fight back (and regain a sense of normality) is inspiring in the good, old fashioned vein. In this regard, Johnson's revised version smacks of what many westerns and war movies contain: the devising of a strategic plan to fight an opposing one, all in the name of liberation. Yep, "Plan 9'"s protagonists are freedom fighters all the way.
Though Wood obviously didn't possess the resources to achieve what Johnson has, the remake's sleekness never ignores its roots. The basic, traditional fun remains throughout, defying the cynicism that plagues so many current horror films. This "Plan 9", as with its blueprint, invokes a sense of hope in spite of an apocalyptic setting. (The use of '50s/'60s rendered music also benefits this tread.) The results create an air of naivety and innocence: precisely the ingredients that make any Wood film endearing.
By the time the end credits hit, I was astounded by how deftly Johnson made Wood's recipe his own, offering us something that's simultaneously old and new; so, put your doubts aside and plunge in. I'm confident that once you view Johnson's lurid homage, you'll become a "Plan 9" remake believer, too.