Silk Purses From Sows' Ears

Some lessons from the "worst movie ever made"

The home video and VCR boom of the early 1980s gave a new lease on life to the low-budget movies made for independent and drive-in theaters starting around the late 1940s. Video companies would snatch them up as fast as they could get their hands on them, and reissue them to a new audience.

The boom unearthed some cinematographic gems, but it also gave a new life to some truly awful creations. This soon helped, in part, to inspire a tongue-in-cheek series of books spawned by The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, written in 1984 by Harry Medved.

The film that sunk the lowest in this competition was Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), which "won" the "Golden Turkey Award" as "The Worst Movie of All Time," as did its director, Edward D. Wood, Jr., as "Worst Director of All Time."

Ed Wood was a Marine vet who, after the war, moved to Hollywood from New York to pursue his passion to make movies. Starting with short films, he eventually wrote, produced and directed a number of features, two of which starred Bela Lugosi, who had fallen on hard times after attaining stardom on the stage and screen in his role as Count Dracula.

Wood began shooting test footage with Lugosi for a third feature, but the sick and elderly actor passed away in his sleep in 1956. Wood kept the footage, which he incorporated into Plan 9.

Wood had the true entrepreneur’s ability to get people to share in his vision and invest in the production. But the film fell far short in terms of marketability in the eyes of potential distributors. And who can blame them? Rife with miserable narration and dialogue, bungled scenes, and awful acting, Plan 9 was an obvious flop waiting to happen.

Like many so-called "B" films, it was a cheap rental for drive-in theaters to pick up and for TV stations to air at 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning. Then a strange thing began to happen. The movie was so awful that many viewers found it both amusing and fascinating. It began to develop a "cult" status—people wanted their friends and relatives to experience this quintessentially horrible B movie. And as its popularity grew, the money began to roll in. The colossal flop, with all its amazingly poor scripting, acting and editing, slowly became a colossal success.

Ed Wood, Jr., never lived to see the full recognition and acknowledgement of his work. He died in December 1978.

Ironically, this film that once couldn’t be given away, or was at best relegated to a pre-dawn time slot, eventually made many millions of dollars from rentals and merchandising and now costs more to rent than some local TV stations are willing to pay.

In a stunning reversal of fortune, Plan 9, arguably the worst feature film ever made, has nearly turned into a household word, owing to a host of tongue-in-cheek references in the media, including multiple jokes about it on the Seinfeld TV show, while many of its more prestigious and celebrated cinematic contemporaries have long since been forgotten.

Largely because of the popularity of Plan 9, Edward D. Wood, Jr., became the subject of a 1994 film biography starring future superstar Johnny Depp. That film went on to win two Academy Awards, beating out Forrest Gump in both categories.

Not every failure turns into success, of course. Not every flop becomes a hit. But if we can learn any lesson from the story of Plan 9, it might be this: Every sinner does become righteous — not because we actually are righteous ourselves, but because Jesus Christ gives us his righteousness.

It is precisely into the darkness of our sin that Jesus shines the light of his perfect righteousness, turning our failure into his success.

Plan 9 became a success because it was so bad that people just had to see it to believe it. Having no redeeming qualities of its own, it made money in spite of itself; it’s a film people seem to love to hate.

We become a success in Jesus Christ because he loves us so much he will never let us go. We have no redeeming qualities, spiritually speaking, but that’s why he died for us — precisely because we were sinful and utterly unworthy of him.

Every time I think of Plan 9, I am reminded of that. Plan 9 From Outer Space was an unmarketable movie that found success only in the "grace" of curiously interested audiences. We are sinners who find salvation only in the grace of our Creator who loves us without measure.

It’s funny where we find encouragement sometimes. For me, the worst movie of all time reminds me that my salvation doesn’t depend on me. It depends on Jesus. And any way you look at it, that’s good news!

Al Doshna
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