Planet of the Vampires
Dir. Mario Bava
AKA Terror en el Espacio
Two interplanetary ships on an exploratory expedition into deepest, darkest, unchartedest space receive a distress signal from Aura, an unexplored and seemingly deserted planet. When the ships are pulled into its gravitational pull and crash land on the ominous surface, the surviving crew members gradually fall victim to the disembodied inhabitants of the world who begin to possess their minds when they sleep. They also possess the bodies of the dead and use the animated corpses to stalk and kill the remaining survivors in an attempt to get off the planet which is about to go postal...
Based on Renato Pestriniero's short story “One Night of 21 Hours”, Planet of the Vampires is a bit of a misnomer – the alien entities that possess the bodies and minds of the crew are more like ‘body-snatchers’ than blood-thirsty vampires. That’s by-the-by though; the title is as wonderfully kitsch, exploitative and lurid as the film itself. In short – it’s totally fitting. While there are undeniable moments of kitsch courtesy of dated costumes and sets, they don’t detract too much from the masterfully eerie atmosphere Bava conjures.
Bava specialised in creating striking and sumptuous looking films with relatively little money. He relied on ingenuity and a penchant for optical effects which have for the most part, stood the test of time. In this film he combines live-action filming with miniature sets and models by reflecting the sets through a mirror that had portions of its reflective surface scraped away so the actors could be seen through it. The result is quite breathtaking. Sure, some of the sets are dated, but with Bava lighting and filming them in that inimitable way of his, they’re imbued them with a distinctly gothic and oddly psychedelic majesty, elevating what is essentially a bargain basement B-movie, to something much more commanding. The film is often credited with being a major influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien particularly in terms of its narrative structure and set design. This is no more evident than in the beautifully haunting scene where the ship’s macho captain and his female companion explore a derelict alien vessel and discover the giant skeletal remains of an alien crew. From the cylindrical passageways to the grotesquely oversized alien remains, one can’t but wonder if O’Bannon and Scott had sneaked a peak at Planet of the Vampires before penning Alien (they claim they hadn’t).
A rather stifling air of paranoia begins to manifest as the crew fall prey to the disembodied entities as they sleep. The dead crew members are buried in makeshift graves on the surface of the planet and as they rise from them, wrapped in plastic burial shrouds, the result is really striking and calls to mind similar imagery in the likes of Black Sunday and the future work of Fulci. They are more space zombies than vampires. The majority of the story features the crew exploring the surface of this strange new world, and of course we’re happy for Bava’s narrative to meander along this path as everything looks so beautiful and eerie – all sinister ground fog and spookily glowing lighting. It is really only in the third act when tension begins to mount as the last survivors engage in a race against time (and each other) to escape Aura before they are dominated completely by their alien nemeses.
The film’s weak spots include the technobabble-tastic script, awkward dubbing and disposable characters who at times are hard to differentiate. Fans of Italian cult movies shouldn’t be too put off by these aspects; and of course they really add to the film’s irresistible kitsch appeal. The interior scenes of the crews’ ship are also pretty dated and more closely resemble left-overs from Lost in Space or Star Trek; all spacious soundstages and control panels with throbbing lights and weird electronic bleeps. It is the exterior scenes where Bava really succeeds in creating a memorable and hauntingly beautiful landscape that seeps with a gothic otherworldliness.
Planet of the Vampires is a pulpy, lurid comic-strip of a movie in which fans of Bava and cult sci-fi/horror flicks will find much to drool over. It also works well as a companion piece to Queen of Blood for those wanting a kitschy sci-fi double bill to die for. Masterfully lensed and saturated in a foreboding atmosphere, it is a much better film than it has any right to be - and all because of the imagination and ingenuity of Mario Bava.