Thursday, February 26, 2015

Movie Review – Planet of the Vampires by Jerry Chandler

On a World Strangely Devoid of Vampires, We Found the Planet of the Vampires


A word of warning here- There be spoilers ahead. I’ll clearly mark when the spoilers start and stop, so you can skip them if you so choose.

A group of space explorers move carefully across the surface of an unexplored world. It’s a foreboding place, seemingly eternally shrouded in darkness and shadows, with thick fog banks rolling across a surface covered in jagged mountain peaks.

They come upon an alien spaceship, broken, rusted, and showing signs of having long ago crashed there. The ship is unusual. Not just in the typical way of being alien in design, but in scale. The entry hatches, the hallways, the locations of the various control panels all indicate a race substantially taller in physical stature than man.

They make their way into the ship, carefully navigating the dark corridors towards its long dormant heart. Once there they find, still seated at a set of controls, one of the long dead crew. The body is enormous, easily more than twice the size and bulk of a human. Its cause of death will ultimately be revealed in the film to be from an alien species that uses the bodies of other creatures as host forms so as to continue to spread itself across the galaxy.

What, you’re thinking 1979’s Alien? Well, while that certainly describes a lot of the first half of that film, I’m not talking about Alien. Lots of people discuss the fact that some of Alien’s roots trace back to It! The Terror from Beyond, and at least a good chunk of trivia buffs also cite A.E. van Vogt’s The Black Destroyer. But there was another film that influenced Alien, the entire sequence I described above being from that film, and that was Mario Bava’s 1965 sci-fi horror Planet of the Vampires.

It’s one of the great tragedies of my life (which probably means I’m doing pretty good all else considered) that at least 8 out of 10 people I talk movies with look at me with blank stares whenever I first mention Planet of the Vampires. Their stares occasionally get an even more confused nature to them when, if they mention that vampires aren’t their thing, I try to explain to them that the film doesn’t actually have vampires or even vampire-like creatures in it.

The plot itself is fairly basic for many of the science fiction stories of the day. The crew of a spaceship lands on an alien world. Once there they encounter the alien menace. From that point on it’s a race to the finish as the two sides battle it out for survival. The casting is more or less along the lines of the basic casting from that time as well. The leading men are square jawed and heroic while the leading ladies are rather attractive, and all are of slightly above average acting skills.

But what Bava does with that very basic story elevates it and the film quite a bit above some of the other similar works of the day. Bava was one of those great Italian directors who started the giallo subgenre of film, and he brought that style of suspense and mood into this film. He knew how to use the proper mix of angles, close ups, long shots, sounds and even silence to create tension in a scene. He built atmosphere with tensions taut, and told his story through it.

He also made the film stunningly beautiful to look at. But it’s not simply beautiful, it’s Bava beautiful. And if you are at all familiar with Mario Bava, you know what that means. Bava was originally trained as a painter before following his father, cinematographer Eugenio Bava, into the Italian film industry, and he long espoused the belief in the importance of strong or striking visual composition in filmmaking. It was something he put on display in all of his films, but science fiction allowed him to truly cut loose.

The color palette on display for his alien world is filled with vivid and sometimes strongly contrasting primary and secondary colors. The dark sky runs from a rich blue to a deep purple. Light sources from the planet’s surface sometimes contrast against the sky, dark yellows or orange, or contrast against one another with vibrant reds and greens. The result is a world where everything looks strangely unnatural, even a little unsettling, but absolutely gorgeous.


And it’s in this world that our story takes place. Our crew and one other crew land their ships on a desolate planet where they immediately begin to act strangely. Everyone starts to act almost hypnotized, lashing out in anger. Captain Markary manages to resist this by sheer force of will, snapping the others out of it as well.

They set out to find the other ship, a personal mission for the Captain since his younger brother is a member of its crew. By the time they find the others, they’re all dead, and signs are that they may have killed each other. They bury those that they can, but some of the dead are sealed inside the control room of the ship. They go back to their own ship to get the tools to break into the control room, but return to find that the bodies have gone.

A sense of dread overtakes the crew, and their #1 goal becomes leaving this world. However, they’re prevented from doing this due to damage their ship sustained while landing. Tensions begin to build as misfortune after misfortune occurs, including the deaths of some of the crew. The mental states of several crewmen come under question, especially after one, Tiona, seemingly goes into shock while claiming that she saw some of the dead crew members walking in the mist covered areas around their ship.

*** Okay, we’re crawling into spoiler territory now. ***

The others think she’s gone mad, but soon enough they catch two of the other ship’s crew, both believed to be dead, sneaking onto their ship in an attempt to steal a part that might allow the other ship safe travel off of the planet. One escapes, taking a device that protects the ships from meteors and other random space debris during flight, but the other is captured.

It’s then that the movie pulls its reveal of the creatures. The captured crewman’s suit is ripped open to show the rotted flesh of a corpse underneath. No longer having to keep pretending to be one of them, the alien explains what’s going on. Their planet is dying, no longer hospitable for life, and they need living beings to survive and thrive. They’re a form of parasite, and they take over bodies for their own use.

The parasite lays out the plan to leave the planet, taking as many of its race as can follow, in order to seek out the home world of the explorers, offering their people the chance to experience an entirely new and wonderful “complexity” of existence. It’s just that in order to experience this they must willingly surrender their bodies and wills to the parasites.

Captain Markary, of course, tells them to stuff it. He declares that they’d rather die than allow these creatures to succeed. From there it’s a race to see who can escape the dying world first while also ensuring that the others are unable to follow.

*** Okay, we’re leaving spoiler territory now. ***

Obviously, and this isn’t in the spoiler section as I mention it at the top, the creatures here are not vampires. They’re more space zombies than anything else. To be honest, I’m really not sure why they chose to call it Planet of the Vampires. I’ve seen several explanations over the years, but digging into them proved them to be more urban legend around the movie than fact.

And it certainly had more accurate English language names thrown on it, a little over a dozen actually. The original Italian name, Terrore nello spazio, would translate roughly into Terror in Space, and that, or even The Haunted World and The Planet of the Damned might all have been a better fit. But they went with Planet of the Vampires instead.

The best guess that I’ve seen in various places is that it was simply a matter of what became the traditional exploitation theater habit of selling a film as something other than what it really was. Sometimes this would be by latching onto whatever was hot at the time. When Planet of the Apes became a huge hit, as just one example, they actually recut the opening of Tombs of the Blind Dead and renamed it Revenge from Planet Ape for its release here in the states despite it having nothing to do with apes. In the case of Planet of the Vampires, one belief is that the vampire craze started in 1966 by Hammer Films with the release of Dracula: Prince of Darkness led the powers that be at the time to attempt to cash in by riding the vampire’s coattails.

It was really an unnecessary move whatever the reasons though because, all in all, the story is pretty damned tight and the film is very enjoyable. The film also has a twist that I’ve not mentioned even in the spoiler section, but, had he seen it in his younger days, it would have likely put a smile on the face of a young M. Night Shyamalan that would have had to have been jack hammered off. And, unlike some of M.’s later plot shock & surprise twists, this one is pretty cool.

Are there are a few moments of the dreaded low budget visible strings on things? Yeah, but pretty much only in shots where you can see the ships flying through space. Having a low budget appearance is one problem that isn’t anywhere near as prominent of an issue in the film as it is in other low budget films from the time. Mario Bava knew how to get every dollar he used up onto the screen, and he sometimes made it look like he was working with a larger budget than he actually was when comparing his films to other better budgeted affairs from that era. That was actually a large part of his reputation with the studios, as well as with some fans at the time. Studios knew they could save money with Bava at the helm, and for a good while fans knew that seeing Bava’s name meant that they were at least in for a visual treat.

Some of this was due to Bava knowing when to scrap the idea of things like green screens and doing whatever he could in camera. He knew how to use forced perspective, the same technique you see in some scenes in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, as well as shooting through miniatures and matte paintings or against mirrors. But no matter the tricks he used behind the scenes, the important part, the end result up on the screen, is still to this day pretty damned good looking.

Yeah, some of the sets dealing with technology look dated in that way that anything from that era does, but some aspects of even that still look good. The spacesuits for example would fit right in with the outfits found in a modern X-Men film.


And, again, the important thing, the story itself is an entertaining one, so any of the minor low budget pitfalls of that era shouldn’t really matter. This is a good film. This is a film that actually inspired some other great films that came along decades after it. And it’s a film that, honestly, in my opinion, is criminally overlooked by a lot of genre fans.

The film was available for some few years back as a part of MGM’s Midnight Movies line of DVDs. Just recently, late October of 2014 to be exact, Kino Video put out an excellent Blu-Ray edition of the film, looking and sounding better than any of its prior home video releases. Now is the time to go out and discover this film if it’s slipped under your radar all these years. Or, if it’s been a bit too long since you’ve seen it, now is a really good time to go out and rediscover it.

1 comment:

  1. If this or any Bava film is available with commentary, look for the name TIM LUCAS, creator of Video Watchdog and author of the amazing MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE NIGHT, maybe the greatest book ever written about a director. Encyclopedic does not begin to cover his knowledge of all things Bava.

    Great write up, Jerry.

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