Written by: Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Callisto Cosulich, Louis M. Heyward, Ib Melchior, Antonio RomŠn, & Rafael J. Salvia, Renato Pestriniero (original story)
Directed by: Mario Bava
Starring: Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell and Ńngel Aranda
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
A close encounter of the undead kind.
It may not be possible to overstate the importance of Mario Bavaís career. As you examine it closely, you realize he was either constantly refining or planting the seeds of genres that have become staples in the horror genre. His advancements for slashers and gialli might be his most famous contribution on the latter front, but Planet of the Vampires is an early minor classic in the space horror genre and represents the directorís only foray into science fiction. While it wasnít the first of its kind (It! The Terror From Beyond Space bowed about seven years earlier), it feels like such an obvious precursor to films like Alien, so much so that youíre surprised when Dan OíBannon and Ridley Scott claimed to have not seen it while they were developing their classic a decade later.
At an undetermined point in the future, mankind has the ability to explore space, and theyíve sent out two vessels into uncharted territory. Upon receiving a distress signal, they encounter a strange and unknown world that pulls them into their atmosphere and begins to drive the crews to an insane, homicidal rage. Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) is the only one able to resist this unseen force and shake his crew from their trance-like state before leading them out to explore the eerie, barren planet, where they discover that their counterparts from the other ship (including Markaryís own brother) have all killed each other.
Like so much of Bavaís 60s work, Planet of the Vampires is straddling two eras--it has the deliberate as hell pacing of early, gothic horror, but itís infused with a then-futurist aesthetic thatís been rendered into retro-coolness five decades later. It looks like an episode of Star Trek before Gene Roddenberry had even brought his television series to airwaves, complete with imaginative, sleek space suits (whose designs have been aped in Prometheus), meteor rejecters, atomic ray guns, and all manner of whizzing and humming interiors. All of this serves as nice window dressing for the classic monster movie thatís resting at the center; really, Planet of the Vampires is a pod movie transported to the swinging, colorful 60s, as the largely unseen terror has little to do with vampires (the filmís title is one of those great drive-in circuit teases cooked up by AIP).
Instead, the true nature of the filmís horrors is a drawn-out mystery, and Planet of the Vampires feels just like classic Bava films such as Blood and Black Lace and Kill, Baby, Kill, only the director traded in those filmsí unseemly urban ghettos and rural countrysides for a craggy, foggy extraterrestrial wasteland. The effect is still the same, as viewers feel as though theyíve been transported to an otherworldly nightmare; isolation is often a theme in Bava, and, even in his films that were very much earthbound, there was a sense that its characters had been caught in some kind of purgatorial hell. Planet of the Vampires is no different, and the film represents one of Bavaís most impressive feats of budget-stretching, which was the company line at AIP (this was the rare Bava film they actually co-produced instead of just distributing in America). The entire film is obviously stagebound and hemmed up in a studio soundstage, but the exterior sets have a staggering sense of depth and openness that captures the despairing mood. This planet is a triumph in sparse creepiness, as itís ornamented with snaky mists, mysterious objects, and piles of gore-laden corpses that was high-schlock in 1965.
Planet of the Vampires certainly is schlock and pulp thatís been gorgeously rendered by Bavaís art house sensibilities. Itís perhaps as beautiful as a film can be when itís dealing with reanimated bodies and soul-sucking beings from outer space, but it doesnít come without that signature, underlying Bava weirdness that makes it genuinely effective beyond its goriness. At this point in his career, Bava still couldnít be fussed to move his films along at the breakneck, nightmarish pace of his later work, so Planet of the Vampires is another one of those half-remembered dreams that unfolds in puzzle-like increments that are slowly pieced together. Some of these corpses rise from their graves to form one piece, while some weird, gigantic remains and ruins form another, and they eventually lock together to form a film that relies more on subtle paranoia more so than overt, visceral thrills. The ending shot is nothing short of ballsy, ominous perfection.
The movie obviously reveals its budget and its era in the form of silly techno-jargon and somewhat stodgy performances (some of which feature dubbed dialogue since everyone on set was speaking in their native languages). Effects work here involves primitive miniatures that are crudely effective and donít fare as well as the make-up effects, which are fantastically grisly. A lot of Planet of the Vampires is what you would probably call a pretty bad B-movie, but the same can be said of most of Bavaís oeuvre, as the director frequently elevated his material to greater effectiveness, mostly through the sheer power of his visual grandeur. Planet of the Vampires isnít among his absolute best work, but even pretty good Bava is better than most things.
As is often the case with Bava, he crafted a film here that was both influential and good; while Scott certainly polished up this sort of material even more in Alien, Planet of the Vampires is still remarkably cool even 47 years later. Unfortunately, the film didnít escape the fate of many of Bavaís films, as it was also edited and cut down over the years and re-released under other titles (all of them better than the one AIP saddled it with). Fortunately, though, MGM released the uncut, original version way back in 2001 as part of their now defunct (and terribly missed) Midnite Movie series. Itís a decent release, though the non-anamorphic trailer is a bummer, and something tells me the film could use another restoration to really bring out its vibrancy. This would be a perfect film for a Blu-ray upgrade given its gorgeous marriage of Colorscope photography and Bavaís painterly eye. The lone special feature is a trailer and some fun facts on the back of the DVD packaging. Some sources indicate that the disc is out of print, but itís still out there in plenty of places at very cheap prices. Definitely seek it out. Buy it!
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