Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Title: Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Director: Mario Bava

Cast: Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell


In the world of filmmaking, there are directors out there who choose a certain type of genre and make it their specialty, making only films from that particular genre. Others like to venture out of the box and do all sorts of genres. For example, Terry Gilliam is a director who has never ventured far from the fantasy genre; he has decided that fantasy is his specialty, and his quite good at it, if not one of the best. On the other hand, a director who constantly shifts genres and rarely makes the same film twice is Ridley Scott. The guy goes from sci-fi, to fantasy, to sword and sandal films, to gangster films. You name it, he’s done it, or on his way to doing it. He does seem to love the sci-fi genre though since amongst all the genres he has worked on, it’s the sci-fi genre he’s most worked with, in fact, he is currently working on his third science fiction film, a prequel to Alien (1979) called Prometheus (2012). The thing about directors such as these is that they always try and make the quintessential good film for whatever genre they happen to be working on. If Ridley Scott’s going to make a sci-fi, he will make sure it will be the best damn sci-fi you have ever seen. By they way, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was very influenced by the film I will be reviewing today, Mario Bava’s campy science fiction/horror film, Planet of the Vampires. But more on that later! Italian maestro Mario Bava was a director who was primarily known for his classic contributions to horror but in reality, Bava made films from many different genres. Planet of the Vampires was his venture into sci-fi territory. How was it?

Well, story goes something like this: the crew of spaceship Argos is forced to land on an alien planet known as Aura when their sister spaceship The Galliot crash lands there. There should be no major problem with this operation since the planet has an atmosphere, and it appears there are no dangerous life forms on the planet. Yet, upon landing on the planet something strange happens to the crew of The Argos! Everyone suddenly tries to kill each other! What has overcome them? Why has everyone suddenly turned so murderous and violent? Thankfully, this fit of anger passes, and they all go back to normal. But the question remains: what just happened? The crew decides to continue with their rescue mission. Once they reach The Galliot, they discover that most of the crew is either dead or violent and crazy! What’s going on in this strange planet?

Planet of the Vampires’ is actually a very misleading title for this film since there are no vampires to be seen on this flick. At all! A more appropriate title would have been Planet of the Zombies; since what happens on this film is that the crew members die and come back to life as zombies, not vampires. But whatever, I guess that was just a clever marketing scheme used to capitalize on the popularity of Hammers vampire films, which were quite popular during the time of this films release. Even The Haunted Planet, one of the films many alternate titles suits this film better.

So basically, what we have is a planet in which the buried don’t stay buried, they come back as zombies, and you can’t trust anybody. It’s the kind of story where you have a bunch of people locked up in an isolated environment, and you don’t know who is going to turn against whom. It has a similar vibe to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). This comparison makes sense; since Carpenter has stated on more then one occasion that Bava was a major influence on his films. But then again, Bava was a major influence on many filmmakers, for example, the similarities between Ridley Scott’s Alien and Bava’s Planet of the Vampires are many. Let’s see; we have a spaceship that is forced to land on an alien planet. The crew decides to venture out into the planet and explore it since it has an atmosphere. While exploring the planet, they encounter an abandoned spaceship from another alien race that also crash landed on the planet, but died; what’s left of them are their giant carcasses. Sounds pretty much like the first half hour of Ridley Scott’s Alien don’t it? But it aint, its Bava’s Planet of the Vampires!

Aesthetically both films are similar as well. The alien planet is shrouded by eternal darkness, never ending fog and the landscape is filled with jagged mountains. The only difference between the two films is that Bava made his film with a mere 100,000 dollars, while Ridley Scott made Alien with 11 million. Of course you can achieve a whole other level of believability with 11 million clames, but still, it goes to show just how much Bava could do with a small budget. Plus the level of influence Planet of the Vampires has had on science fiction films over the years goes a long way considering the films meager budget showing once again that its not how much money a production has, but the talent that’s behind the camera that matters. A relatively small film like this one has influenced so many others that have come after it! That’s how influence goes, one filmmaker influences the next, and the next, and the next, each film taking things one step further. Each film trying to improve on the previous one that influenced it. The chain could go something like this: Planet of the Vampires influenced Alien, which in turn influenced Galaxy of Terror (1981), which in turn influenced Aliens (1986), which in turn influenced an innumerable amount of films, like David Twohy’s Pitch Black (2000). But they can all be traced back to Bava’s Planet of the Vampires! It just goes to show how important Bava was as a filmmaker; a real trend setter.

Above, Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), below, Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Planet of the Vampires is a real Bava film, it has all his trademarks. One of the legendary filmmakers’ trademarks is making a film with an extremely low budget, yet making the end product seem beautiful beyond its budgetary limitations. Bava was famous for saving his producers money on his productions; as a result they were always willing to finance his films because they would always make their money back. On Planet of the Vampires, the budget limitations are visible at times, mainly when it comes to showing the spaceships flying in space. I have to admit, this is one of the few set backs that the film has, the effects aren’t convincing when it comes to the spaceships, which are obvious miniatures that scratch on looking like something out of an Ed Wood film. Some might hate this aspect of the film, others will find it adds to the films b-movie charm. The effects on this film where achieved old school style, with miniatures, smoke and mirrors. And they were all achieved on camera! The small budget they had pushed the filmmakers creativity in order to achieve
the visuals they needed to tell their story.

U-shaped spaceships. Above: Alien (1979), below: Planet of the Vampires (1965) 

But what really makes this one special is Bava’s trademark use of colors and style. The planet itself is lit with Bava’s wonderful use of primarily colors, lots of reds and blues. The use of these primary colors gives the whole film a pulpy, comic book feel. Planet of the Vampires isn’t the deepest film in the world, its story is extremely simplistic, almost childlike in its innocence, but visually it pulls you in. Some of the most visually striking moments come when the crew stumbles upon the giant skeletons of the long dead alien species. That scene is awesome! Spookiest part is when they play a machine that lets us hear how these creatures sounded when they talked in their alien language. You can definitely see where the ‘Space Jockey’ in Alien came from when you see these scenes. Another eerie scene is when the crew members who have died come back to life as zombies, this scene reminds us that we are also watching a horror film! Bava successfully mixed both genres with this film.

Giant alien skeletons! Above: Alien (1979) Below: Planet of the Vampires (1965)

My only problem with Planet of the Vampires is that it drags in certain areas. Visually its amazing, love the colors and the marriage of sci-fi and horror, but I found it lacking in terms of excitement and thrills. The film starts out with a real interesting premise, and the alien planet is eerie enough, unfortunately the film manages to fall into a rut as far as excitement goes in its third half. Things could have turned out so interesting had we gotten a glimpse at those giant aliens! But no, they never show up. Same as in Ridley Scott’s Alien, we never get to see where the giant aliens come from. I guess that’s just another way in which Planet of the Vampires influenced Scott’s film. But still, Planet of the Vampires is a beautiful marriage of science fiction and horror, it might not be the most exciting film ever made, but is sure is a great film to look at!
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5

The films original Italian title translates to: Terror in Space


Movies on my Mind said...

Where can I watch this?

jervaise brooke hamster said...

The entire movie is available on YouTube.

Franco Macabro said...

Jervaise is probably right, but watching a movie on You Tube is no way to watch a movie, you can buy the dvd through various websites, including Amazon (where I bought it from) for under ten bucks. The dvd I believe is out of print, its probably the reason why netflix doesnt have it available for rent.

It's worth it if you like Bava's style of filmmaking and 60's sci fi movies.

SFF said...

A fascinating juxtaposition and comparison to Alien Francisco.

I've not seen the film. But your images are very interesting indeed.

The film looks appealing to me for its mood and atmosphere to be sure.

Thank you.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I love "Planet of the Vampires" primarily because it isn`t British, sadly i cant say the same about that "Alien" fiasco.

Franco Macabro said...

@The Sci-Fi Fanatic: If there is one thing this movie does right, its the constant atmosphere and feeling of dread, Im sure you would appreciate it a lot Sci-Fi Fanatic! Its classy 60's sci-fi the way only Mario Bava could do it.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Francisco, dont be too keen to trash YouTube, it is the future, DVD is the past.

Franco Macabro said...

Oh yeah, I love You Tube, just not for watching movies. A lot is lost in terms of quality in both image and sound. But I guess when you absolutely cannot find a copy of the film, its the last option in my book. And I mean the last, I prefer searching and buying a dvd then watching it on You Tube, its just not the way to watch a film.

But I do see the value in You Tube, its freaking awesome for so many things.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This is far superior to ALIEN, a film that also owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE. I think you can overdo the comparisons though. It is damaging to the reputation of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES to be mentioned in the same breath as Ridley Scott's tawdry and crappy little film.

Franco Macabro said...

I guess we disagree on Ridley Scott's ALIEN, to me thats a masterpiece of horror/sci-fi. Awesome production values, great special effects, lots of suspense and tension, and to me the creature looks its most frightening on that picture.

But yeah, Planet of the Vampires was a huge influence on it, the comparisons between both films are too obvious to pass up!

I need to see It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Thanks for commenting Shaun!

Bianca said...

I think it's worth mentioning how the Argos has the same horseshoe shape as the derelict ship from Alien. It even has the same organic-looking doughnut-shaped portal, and the same circular feature in the centre of the curve of the U. Seems like it couldn't be a coincidence. BUT, you do have to see IT! The Terror from Beyond Space. Alien is practically a remake!

I think Shaun may be trying to get your goat with calling Scott's film tawdry and crappy, though. That's just silly.

Franco Macabro said...

Totally agree with you, those scenes when they are entering the alien ship are so similar, even the giant alien skeleton they find is a precursor to the space jockey we see in alien...so even in design, Bava's Planet of the Vampires influenced Scott's film.

As for Shaun's thoughts on Alien, different strokes for different folks as they say, we all have our opinions and sometimes they collide, like in this case, but hey, diversity makes the world more interesting.

But if you ask me, Scott's Alien is a masterpiece of horror, my recent review will let you know exactly how I feel about it.

Thanks for commenting!


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