by Mel Valentin
Mention Maria Bava's name to old-school horror fans and chances are you'll get a head nod, a smile, and the beginning of an extended conversation about Bava's oeuvre and his contribution to the horror genre. Bava, a cinematographer-turned-director, first made his name as a genre filmmaker with "Black Sunday" ("La maschera del demonio"), a loose adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1865 short story “Viy.” Bava's first effort ushered in a renaissance of gothic horror (picked up stateside by Roger Corman, who adapted Edgar Allan Poe's works to positive critical reviews and appreciative genre audiences).Bava's subsequent efforts remained focus on the horror genre. Bava is credited with influencing the slasher genre with 1971's Twitch of the Death Nerve. He occasionally branched out into other genres, including a comic book adaptation, Diabolik and Planet of the Vampires ("Terrore nello spazio"), a science-fiction/horror film considered an influence on Ridley Scott's Alien almost fifteen years later in 1979. Although Planet of the Vampires is no masterpiece (far from it), it does have its share of B-movie pleasures, especially for Bava's fans and those of us who grew up watching "Creature Features" or "Thriller Theater" in the 70s and early 80s.
"Not one of Mario Bava's best, but still worth seeking out by fans."
Before we go on to the synopsis (I know you're all holding your breath in anticipation), it bears mentioning that, despite being officially titled Planet of the Vampires, Bava's film has no vampires to speak of. In fact, Planet of the Vampires was released in English-speaking countries under a dizzying array names, including Demon Planet, Planet of Blood, and The Haunted Planet, all of which are better titles than Planet of the Vampires (this reviewer first saw Bava's film as Demon Planet back in the mid-70s).
Two interstellar spaceships, the Argos and the Galliot answer a distress call emanating from a nearby planet. Approaching the planet, the two ships almost immediately lose contact with one another. The crew of the Argos is struck by a homicidal impulse. Only the captain of the Argos, Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) manages to escape the effects of the planet's atmosphere (or whatever is afflicting his crew). He saves his crew, but communication is broken with the Galliot. Mark and his crew, including Mark's romantic interest, Sanya (Norma Bengell), and his second-in-command, Wess (Ángel Aranda) must discover what happened to the Galliot during the descent. Add to that the Argo's inability to depart the planet, due to technical problems (something to do with the "solar batteries"). But wait, there's more. The now dead members of the Galliot begin to emerge from their graves. Either that, or the planet's weird atmospherics are playing havoc with the survivors' minds.
On the plus side, Bava's involvement ensures that Planet of the Vampires had, at minimum, a unique visual design, from the cavernous spaceship interiors to the mist-shrouded landscapes. Bava creates phantasmagoric, dreamlike visual compositions, from the interior of an alien spaceship occupied by a long-dead crew, through two characters framed inside a series of circular, off-center doorways inside the alien spaceship, the alien occupants themselves (an unacknowledged influence on Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott's Alien), to the fog wrapping itself around newly dug shallow graves. And how can you argue (you can't really) with crew's fetish wear masquerading as uniforms (tight black leather pants and jackets with gold trim, high collars, and matching leather helmets to match)?
Planet of the Vampires' shortcomings are easy (and numerous) to point out. Planet of the Vampires has everything you'd expect from a micro-budget Italian-American co-production (AIP, the standard bearer for cheap exploitation flicks, put up part of the financing): pedestrian dialogue, laughably bad dubbing, one-dimensional characters, and wooden performances from a no-name, short-on-talent cast. The first scene gives you a taste of what follows: it’s laced with techno-babble, with time described as "60 fractions of a megon" (even a talented actor would have difficulty delivering that kind of dialogue with a straight face). Bava's limited budget also didn't allow for optical effects work, so all the effects had to be handled "in-camera" via mattes or forced perspective miniatures. He did the best he could with limited resources, but contemporary audiences aren’t likely to be too forgiving.Then again, there's the can't believe-they're-going there double twist ending that can be charitably described as lame at best and ridiculous at worst. "Planet of the Vampires" at least proves that M. Night Shyamalan isn't (or, more appropriately wasn't) alone in ripping off plot points from Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone." That said, "Planet of the Vampires" still has its charms, at least for those of us willing to see it through nostalgia-tinged glasses. Now if only find another mid-60s Italian sci-fi flick, "Wild, Wild, Planet" ("Criminali della galassia") would get its justly deserved release on DVD, all would be right with the world.
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originally posted: 03/14/06 09:24:47