Yes, movies keep trying to be bigger and better.
But it’s time to celebrate the opposite – ones that are brash and bizarre and, at times, really bad.
On Friday night (June 16), Turner Classic Movies has a sort of schlockfest, from “Beach Blanket Bingo” (shown here) and “Barbarella” (8 and 9:45 p.m. ET) to the notorious “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” at 5:45 a.m.
All of them fit the loose category of “camp.” In a short film on its website, TCM describes camp as when “artifice and exaggeration transcends taste” and when it has “style over substance,” a place where “pretentiousness and virtue are left behind.”
These films aren’t always bad … although “Plan 9” (1959) is truly awful. “It looked like they shot the thing in a kitchen,” its star, Gregory Walcott, said years later. He called it “the worst movie of all time.”
But some of the others have their merits. For instance:
— “Barbarella” (1968) offers the gorgeous visuals of director Roger Vadim, whose then-wife Jane Fonda stars.
— “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965) is “arguably the best entry in the beach party series” John Malahy wrote in “Summer Movies” (2021, a Turner Classic Movies book via Running Press).
That’s modest praise, for sure. We’re talking about a film that managed to include a mermaid and a skydiving Sugar Kane (Linda Evans in candy-striped bikini), plus Buster Keaton, Don Rickles, pop songs and a biker gang. But critic Leonard Maltin agreed. In his “Movie Guide” (2017, Plume), he called it the best of the beach-party films and “the ultimate wallow in ‘60s surfing nostalgia.”
It’s also a good-looking film. The director of photography had already won an Oscar (“Tabu”) and a Golden Globe (“High Noon”) and had raised a future rock star (David Crosby).
After those two films, however, things descend. TCM has:
— “Earth Girls are Easy” (1988) at 11:30 p.m. ET. It’s a moderately enjoyable comedy, co-written and co-starring Julie Brown; it was also a small step in Geena Davis’ leap to stardom.
— “The Apple” (1980), at 1:15 a.m. This musical sees a couple being tempted by Mr. Boogalaw, in a Garden-of-Eden style. It’s “as bad as it sounds – maybe worse – but now celebrated for its awfulness,” Maltin wrote.
— “Queen of Outer Space” (1958), 2:45 a.m. Zsa Zsa Gabor, dressed elegantly, guides our heroes.
— “Hercules, Samson & Ulysses” (1963), 4:15 a.m.
— And “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) at 5:45 a.m., an essential piece of any schlockfest.
After languishing in late-night TV obscurity for decades, “Plan 9” became famous when the 1980 book “The Golden Turkey Awards” proclaimed it “the worst movie ever made.”
Many people – including its star, Walcott – agreed, but others begged to differ.
“For all its bad acting, loopy dialogue, illogical plotting and cardboard cheesiness, (it) is far, far from being the worst movie of all time,” Ken Hanke wrote in “Tim Burton” (1999, Renaissance Books). “It just happens to be the best-known bad film.”
Hanke credits writer-director Ed Wood as “probably the most blindly optimistic filmmaker that ever lived.” Like many young filmmakers now – but without their talent – he willed films into existence.
His first movie, “Glen or Glenda” (1953), was a micro-budget film that survived because of its unusual subject — Wood played a cross-dresser, which he was in real life – and because it had a well-known actor. Wood paid Bela Lugosi, then declining into morphine addiction, $1,000 to play God.
That launched a friendship. Preparing for a movie that was never made, Wood filmed Lugosi in random, silent scenes in which he walked around with his cape and his scowl.
Shortly after Lugosi’s death (in August of 1956, at 73), Wood wrote “Grave Robbers From Outer Space,” billingit as Lugosi’s last movie. That became “Plan 9” – aliens from outer space plan to resurrect the dead, to prevent humans from destroying the universe via nuclear bombs.
The result is what the Rotten Tomatoes website calls “the epitome of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, an unintentionally hilarious sci-fi ‘thriller’ … justly celebrated for its staggering ineptitude.” For instance:
— Needing a few more scenes with Lugosi’s character, Wood cast his wife’s chiropractor. The guy had no resemblance to Lugosi … which he tried to conceal by holding the cape over his face.
— The “space ship” was clearly a toy flying saucer. Round and wide in the air, it was vertical on land.
— Other sets were cheap (lots of curtains right behind the actors) … dialog was stiff … one scene seemed to be both day and night … and sometimes the dead just wandered aimlessly. Also, when “Plan 9” is shown in some aspect ratios (but not the one TCM uses), viewers can see a boom mike overhead and a script on one actor’s lap.
Still, Wood managed to get some known actors. Walcott – later a busy character actor on TV – starred as a pilot. Lyle Talbot – who had a decade-long run as Ozzie’s friend Joe in “Ozzie and Harriet” – played a general. It was Talbot’s third Wood movie and he explained his philosophy to a Los Angeles Times reporter: “I never turned down a job, not ever.”
Then there was Maila Nurmi, already well-known for her Vampira character, introducing horror films on Los Angeles TV and in a package syndicated to other stations.
Wood paid her $200 to walk around some scenes in a tacky costume, she told one interviewer. “I thought, ‘Oh well, nobody is ever gonna see this movie, so it doesn’t matter.”
And then, gradually, lots of people saw it. There were re-releases, DVD’s and more. There was a “Plan 9” play, a short (with puppets) and a videogame. Jerry Seinfeld mentioned it in his Chinese-restaurant episode; Tim Burton featured it in his “Ed Wood” movie. And now it wraps up a camp-fest on TCM.
Yes, movies keep trying to be bigger and better.