Plan 9 for Ironic Appreciation: On B-movies, Riffing and Value-Added Irony

Pop irony and the evolution of trash culture have resulted in an entire designation of entertainment often described as “so bad it’s good”. This can be applied across the spectrum of popular entertainment, but its usually reserved for film. “B-movies”, they’re called, or sometimes “cult classics”.

I’m forever skeptical of this particular phenomenon, usually finding such specimens so bad they’re really bad, but there are exceptions. Take, for instance, the oft-cited Worst Movie of All Time, Ed Wood’s 1959 magnum opus Plan 9 From Outer Space.

It truly is a sight to behold. On a technical level, Plan 9 is only a few clicks above what my high school friend Mike managed to achieve on Super 8 in 10th grade. Everything about it is terrible — the script, the acting, the editing and especially the special effects. To call it a B-movie would be an insult to consonants.

But Plan 9 is the exception that proves the rule — it is terrifically entertaining. A sci-fi/horror hybrid, the film concerns a plot by space aliens to resurrect the Earth’s dead as zombies and destroy the world. You might remember Jerry referencing the film on Seinfeld: “This isn’t like plans one through eight. This is Plan Nine! The one that worked!”

Wood shot almost every scene of Plan 9 in one take, then inserted a motley collection of stock footage and scenes from other projects to stitch the movie together. Most famously, the “star” of Plan 9 — Bela Lugosi — died before the movie ever started filming.

Ever the resourceful fellow, Wood inserted a few Lugosi scenes he had shot as test footage. Then he brought on a body double who, despite spending the whole movie holding his cape in front of his face, is very conspicuously Not Bela Lugosi. (When the movie was reissued years later, promotional materials trumpeted: “Plan 9 from Outer Space! Almost Starring Bela Lugosi!”)

I’m hip to all this thanks to the new RiffTrax series of DVDs, brought to you by the creators of the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), RiffTrax continues the enduring tradition of transforming bad movies into good movie-watching experiences by making fun of them. Relentlessly.

As with MST3K, the formula is simple: Bad movies + a wisecracking commentary track = good times. Each RiffTrax title is essentially a reissued film — some old, some recent, some actually not bad at all — along with an overlaid audio track of jokes, musings and random pop cultural references.

RiffTrax launched last year with a line of ten initial titles, including the infamous Reefer Madness, the freaky Carnival of Souls, George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and two volumes of shorts — mostly campy educational films from the ’50s and ’60s.

The company has since added several more titles, and in fact the DVDs are but part of a larger RiffTrax empire which offers commentary on new releases via synchronized digital audio.

The cool thing with the RiffTrax DVD reissues is that you can toggle the commentary on on off – “riffed or “unriffed”, to use their preferred terminology. This way, you can screen the original B-movie artifact, unadulterated, and assess its ironic pop culture value for yourself.

Having done so with several of the RiffTrax offerings, I’ve concluded that Plan 9 really is one of the very few movies that, experienced in its original form, is indeed so bad that it’s good. Other bad movies in the RiffTrax library are just that, and the novelty wears off pretty quick. I don’t know about you, but it takes a certain sustained effort for me to marshal 1990s-style ironic appreciation anymore.

So it’s a great help to have an optional commentary track of smart comedy. As “MST3K” will already be aware, these guys are genuinely funny. You will be amazed at the sheer volume and the velocity of jokes herein. You get a lot of bang for your buck.

It’s like added-value pop culture irony for the 21st century.