- Ravi Swami
"Planet Of The Vampires", Dir: Mario Bava, 1965
Mario Bava's 1965 Italian-Spanish film "Planet of The Vampires" seems to have generated a considerable cult following due in large part to its' rediscovery after years of being consigned to late-night TV broadcasts and thanks to its' perceived similarities to Ridley Scott's "Alien" and is often cited as a major influence on that film both in terms of its plot and the visual design elements of the film.
Before watching the film for the first time on YouTube following the announcement that it is due to be re-released in 4K BluRay format, I read a Twitter post stating that Ridley Scott claimed never to have seen the film prior to making "Alien", however the comment omitted to mention (or chose to ignore) the likelihood that the other key creatives on "Alien", Dan O'Bannon and H.R Giger, had very likely seen the film or were aware of it enough to incorporate elements into Scott's film.
After watching the film it's clear that it features recognisable elements from other earlier science fiction films, most notably "Forbidden Planet" (1956), particularly in the opening plot of an interstellar craft responding to a signal from an unknown planet and the decision to investigate and the idea of an invisible threat on the planet surface that kills members of the crew.
"Alien" itself can be seen to have been influenced by another 50's scifi "B" film, "It-The Terror From Beyond Space", in which an alien stowaway terrorises a spaceship crew and it is in this respect that it deviates from the plot of Bava's film.
It could be said that Bava's film is essentially a horror film where the haunted house trope has been replaced by a spaceship and its' crew landing on a planet of long dead alien life and this "haunted house in space" notion was also used to describe "Alien", a film that many consider to be a reinvention of science fiction films up to that point even if it wears its' influences less prominently or less obviously via inspired art direction and a higher budget.
Bava throws into the mix a story of zombies of the revived corpses of crew killed by a mysterious force on the planet that menace the remaining crew, reminiscent of the plot from "Plan 9 From Outer Space", but aside from this is the remarkable and wholly original detail of giant skeletons found by the crew in a derelict spaceship on the planet that is echoed in the discovery of the giant "Navigator" in the crashed alien ship in "Alien" and it would be a stretch to imagine that this was purely coincidental.
The sense that the strange force on the planet is malevolent and alien is made clear early on in the film with a rather over-acted - on the level of childs play - scene where the crew suddenly turn murderous toward each other as their ship is dragged to the planet surface by its intense gravitational field.
Beyond concepts inspired by "Forbidden Planet", scenes where crew are assigned to guard their ship while their captain (Barry Sullivan) and crew investigate the fate of an earlier mission to the planet, with crew members on the planet surface standing next to the landing gear of their ship with weapons at the ready, echo similar scenes from the 1956 film.
In spite of not having the same level of budget lavished on it as MGM's "Forbidden Planet", considered by many to be a high point in terms of art direction and visual effects for a science-fiction film up to that point, an aspect built upon later by MGM with "2001 - A Space Odyssey", it manages to craft a suitably spooky ambience on the alien planet with some cool art direction for the crew ship and the derelict alien ship that succeeds in lending a dreamlike quality that runs through the film via lighting design and rolling mist on what were apparently very limited means.
In terms of the script, Bava seemed less concerned about scientific plausibility so much of what the crew says sounds like claptrap, along with choppy editing and strange jumps in continuity but it could be argued that this just adds to the unsettling sense of horror that pervades the story in that nothing on this strange planet makes any sense.
I found myself losing interest in the story by the half way mark as it settled into a more or less conventional "living versus the undead" story though Bava manages to rescue the film by the conclusion with a creepy twist in the ending that I will leave for viewers new to the film to discover for themselves.
The many plus points that lift "Planet Of The Vampires" above the usual science fiction "B" movie potboiler include the costume design for the crew of the ship that range from leather one-piece tight-fitting space suits to colourful stylish jump suits, making full use of the Technicolour Widescreen format of the film.
Adapted from a pre-existing science fiction short story entitled "One Night of 21 Hours", by Italian author Renato Pestriniero - unfortunately at the time of writing the story itself is difficult to locate and is somewhat tellingly also referred to as "Night of The ID" - "Planet Of The Vampires" manages to stand taller than the many low-budget science-fiction films of the prolific period of the 1950's and 60's despite its' many shortcomings.
Incidentally, there are no actual vampires in the film that I could see though the various dead crew seem to have been despatched in ways that suggest that the cause may or may not be vampires, and the title just looks like creativity from the film publicity department to pique the curiosity of English-speaking audiences.
"Planet Of The Vampires", Dir Mario Bava, 1965
YouTube with English dub.