In the annals of science fiction films, "Planet of the Vampires" is never going to rank alongside "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Alien" as one of the benchmarks, but it's fair to suggest this eerie 1965 merging of sci-fi and horror had a significant influence on those great films as well as many lesser ones.
Its connection to 1979's "Alien" has been pretty well documented. The basic premise of both films is the same – a spaceship's crew answers the distress call of another ship from a mysterious, gloomy planet, only to find themselves prey to the planet's deadly inhabitants. In "Alien," of course, those inhabitants were terrifying monstrosities. In "Planet of the Vampires," the hunters are not exactly vampires (no blood drinking here), but they are the revived dead, used as hosts for a nebulous life force trying to find a new home.
It's more than plot that ties Mario Bava's "Planet of the Vampires" to Ridley Scott's enduringly popular "Alien." While far more polished in every regard, Scott's film mirrors the chilling atmosphere and slow-building sense of menace in Bava's, and while "Alien" certainly jumps out and yells "boo!" at the audience with more impact, both movies fit the description of a "haunted house in space" so often applied to the later film.
The influence on Stanley Kubrick's "2001" (1968) is more debatable and certainly the B-movie kicks of "Planet of the Vampires" are far removed from the intellectual, spiritual and psychedelic musings of Kubrick's masterpiece. But with its emotionally remote characters, strangely observational feeling, and quietly foreboding view of technology at the mercy of the cosmos, it's hard to imagine Kubrick hadn't seen the film.
Like most of Bava's movies, "Planet of the Vampires" falls short in the writing and acting departments, though precise evaluations of those areas are difficult to make from the U.S. release version of the film (used for MGM's DVD) as it was re-written and dubbed for the English-language audience. (Like many Italian features, even its native tongue was dubbed for domestic release.) The film has more than its share of stilted performances and awkward expository dialogue.
But, as mentioned in last week's DVDetour to "The Girl Who Knew Too Much," atmosphere is everything with Bava. The director created a vivid, claustrophobic world that is somehow ominous even when portrayed with the stunningly rich colors that are one of the highlights of the film. Bava also made superb use of his sets and costumes. Though contemporary audiences may find the look dated and a bit campy (the high collar space suits worn by the crew seem like fetish wear for bikers), it is undeniably eye-catching. Despite the extreme limitations of his budget (the landing of the spaceship is unconvincing even by special effects standards of the time), Bava presented a vision of outer space life radically different from anything that came before it and his visual dynamism dwarfs modern notions of "realism" (what is that in fantasy film anyway?) or fashion.
The film also overcomes its dramatic deficiencies with its brooding, oppressive tone. It may have been viewed as drive-in fare in its day, but this unhurried, relentlessly grim adventure denies the audience the usual release points of popcorn flicks. Aided by outstanding sound design, with weird electronic effects and background noise seamlessly blending with the subtle soundtrack music, the movie starts on a threatening note and never gets any cheerier. In "Planet of the Vampires," space truly is the final frontier.
MGMs DVD is part of their bargain-priced Midnight Movie series, so there are no supplemental features aside from a theatrical trailer. But the movie looks fantastic, with its saturated color scheme virtually jumping off the TV screen. After succumbing to the palette and pessimism of "Planet of the Vampires," your DVDetours guide is still on a Bava kick, so next week we'll take one more journey into the stylish vision of this Italian maestro.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund