“Planet of the Vampires” (or “The Haunted Planet”, the best of the film’s many alternate titles) was the one-and-only excursion into the realm of science fiction by consummate Italian visual stylist Mario Bava. Although he worked in many genres during his lengthy career, the director and one-time cinematographer is today best remembered for ghostly Gothic chillers such as “Kill Baby … Kill”, “Lisa and the Devil” and “The Whip and the Body”; and his darkly cynical thrillers (or Gialli) such as “Blood and Black Lace” and “Twitch of the Death Nerve”. It’s not surprising, then, that “Planet of the Vampires” incorporates many themes, motifs and images from Bava’s main body of work in these much-loved genres, developing a hugely unsettling atmosphere from what initially looks to be nothing but a standard ‘60s space opera romp full of square-jawed heroes in outlandish leather costumes. In fact, Bava creates a Horror/ Sci-Fi hybrid that still retains the power to surprise.
After picking up a distress signal from a mysterious planet, sister ships the Argos and the Galliot encounter bizarre gravitational effects that force them to crash-land on the mist shrouded surface. Almost immediately, a sudden and dangerous compulsion overcomes them that forces them to turn on each other and fight. The crew of the Argos, led by the indomitable Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) manage to contain the impulses and realise that the effects only appear when their wills are unable to combat the violent unseen forces — such as when they are asleep. Finding that they are unable to contact the crew of the Galliot by radio, Markary and some of his people set out on a perilous trek across the surface of the unknown planet — a barren wasteland of fog-shrouded rocks, irrationally lit in vivid reds & greens — only to find the crew of their sister ship (which included Captain Markary’s brother) has been wiped out, having apparently succumbed to the same murderous impulses that ravaged the Argos.
Markary and his people bury the mutilated corpses of the three Galliot crew members they can find and return to their craft to fetch equipment to enable them to breach the sealed control room, where they expect to find the rest of them. However, even stranger events are to occur: puzzling multicoloured lights are seen whizzing through the opaque atmosphere; an ancient spacecraft, surrounded by the calcified remains of giant alien beings, is found and explored; and, in one of the films many memorable images, the dead crew members of the Galliot return to life, leaving their makeshift graves and attempting to murder the ever-dwindling crew of the Argos one by one!
The film is appreciated today not only for having clearly influenced Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, but for displaying so effectively Mario Bava’s great ingenuity and creativity in finding methods that enable him to craft atmosphere on a hugely limited budget. The special effects are always crude (sometimes even laughable), but are lavished with such care and attention to detail that one cannot help but be drawn in to their cinematic illusion. The landing of the Argos was memorably achieved by lowering a miniature into a cloudy fish tank lit with red and blue lights; and, contributing to the effect of the swirling, colour-drenched output of a fog machine and one or two plastic rocks, the inhospitable landscape of the unknown planet is embellished with a soundtrack of unseen waves distantly crashing on an invisible shoreline and the sound of moaning winds in a bitter storm. Some of the acting is as wooden as one often expects to find in ’60s sci-fi movies; Barry Sullivan doesn't appear too distraught at the idea of having to kill the reanimated corpse of his brother who has been taken over by an alien life form, for instance; but aside from the sheer visual beauty of Bava’s ever-present lighting effects, the film overcomes and subverts its genre limitations with a cunningly crafted plot, full of unexpected twists that bring the dark and cynical edginess more usually expressed in Bava’s greatest gialli to the film. Bava’s misanthropic world view, full of Darwinian struggle where “evil” always seems to have the upper hand, is never more effectively disturbing than it is here, especially in the film’s final mind-blowing twist!
“Planet of the Vampires” is available on region 1 DVD courtesy of MGM’s budget priced “Midnite Movies” series. The film is presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen and comes with a trailer and French and Spanish subtitles.