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Planet of the Vampires

by Glenn Erickson Aug 02, 2022

There’s no getting around it — Mario Bava’s one space opera is now confirmed as a classic. Barry Sullivan and Norma Bengell must oppose invisible aliens that possess the corpses of their fellow space men. Bava’s ‘gothic’ Haunted Planet recipe just adds more weird colored lights and swirling fog to his supernatural Gothic formula. The designs are excellent and the results unique, from the odd spacecraft to the kinky costumes. The show is also genuinely influential, as should be well known to every fan of more modern sci-fi / horror films. The new HD remaster is an improvement, too!


Planet of the Vampires
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1965 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 88 min. / Terrore nello spazio, Planet of Blood, The Demon Planet / Street Date July 26, 2022 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Ángel Aranda, Evi Marandi, Stelio Candelli, Franco Andrei, Fernando Villena, Mario Morales, Ivan Rassimov.
Cinematography: Antonio Rinaldi, Antonio Pérez Olea
Set Decoration: Giorgio Giovannini
Costume Design: Gabriele Mayer
Film Editors: Romana Fortini, Antonio Gimeno
Original Music: Gino Marinuzzi, Jr.
Italian writing credits:
Sceneggiatura: Ib Melchior, Callisto Cosulich, Antonio Román, Alberto Bevilacqua, Mario Bava, Rafael J. Salvia
American writing credits:
Screenplay by Ib Melchior, Louis M. Heyward, screen story by Ib Melchior
Based on the story “One Night of 21 Hours” by
Renato Pestriniero
Produced by Fulvio Lucisano
Directed by
Mario Bava

Kino Lorber improves on the 2014 Scorpion Releasing/Kino Blu-ray release with a Special Edition Blu-ray that touts a new transfer. That’s good news, although we’re still talking about the standard A.I.P. cut of the film as released in the United States; we’re told that foreign versions differ slightly in content. Kino adds a new commentary to sweeten the mix.

We’d be wrong to call Planet of the Vampires Mario Bava’s first foray into science fiction. Back in his ‘take over for other directors’ days, the cinematographer reportedly directed most of Paolo Heusch’s 1958 La morte viene dallo spazio, aka The Day the Sky Exploded. And it was established early on that most if not all of Riccardo Freda’s Caltiki, il mostro immortale is Bava’s show too. Planet of the Vampires is notable for its genre ambition. No scenes take place on Earth. For a full 90 minutes we’re either in space, on a completely weird nightmare planet, or within the interiors of spaceships that needed to be designed from the ground up. That’s the same ‘gotta do list’ that MGM tackled for Forbidden Planet. Sticking a photo blow-up in front of the camera just wouldn’t hack it.

Mario Bava’s fanciful lighting style is so diverting that it can be fairly considered a special effect on its own. Most every shot applies the in-the-camera trick film techniques that made Bava the go-to guy for fantastic visuals in ’50s Italian cinema. The continuity of style led to Planet being tagged as a ‘Gothic’ Sci-fi, especially in America where the title identifies its resurrected astronaut corpses as vampires. In 1965, with the Italo horror cycle on the wane, an alien planet inhabited by undead spirits was a novel idea.

 

The nightmare begins when the twin spaceships Argos and Galliot alight on the volcanic and foggy planet Aura. Soon after landing, Argos’ Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) and Sanya (Norma Bengell) of the Argos can barely restrain members of the crew from maiming each other in inexplicable fits of violence. Worse, when they trek to the Galliot they discover its entire crew dead, with evidence pointing to an orgy of killing. While the Argos is being repaired some crewmembers report seeing strange lights. Mark and Sanya then investigate a derelict alien craft nearby. It is littered with the skeletal remains of grotesque alien creatures. When the astronauts’ hastily buried casualties begin returning from their graves, a terrible secret finally becomes obvious: spectral Auran beings can possess their dead bodies and turn them against the living.

Had it been released a couple of years later, Planet of the Vampires might have become a noted ‘trip’ film — its atmosphere of colored smoke, weird lighting and the strange costumes are more expressive than the the psychedelic exploitation films that would follow. Bava could toss off these delicate visual effects and complex lighting schemes at a dizzying pace. The dreamlike atmospheres he creates are not the outer space of Stanley Kubrick. The spaceships could belong to Buck Rogers, and the planet Aura could be a mythic Hell from Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World.

 

Science fiction is the only genre in which success is routinely measured by the ‘realism’ of the special effects. Most of us are biased against giant space ships that look like toys, yet readily accept obvious miniatures in Japanese fantasies. Bava’s in-the-camera composite illusions do have their limitations. His planetary vistas often have a sharp foreground and background, but a fuzzy mid-ground, a photographic impossibility that unmasks many faked flying saucer photos. But Planet also features shots too clever to yield to easy analysis. When the film was new we certainly didn’t realize that Bava had filmed some spaceship shots underwater. Tim Lucas’s careful explanations for other Bava effects point out things I had never considered, including an errant finger caught holding a miniature.

And who wants realism, anyway?  Bava’s alien phantasmagoria is more interesting than the Death Valley scenery and fake studio caves of Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Bava approached his films as personal art craft. He kept them small-scale to avoid surrendering artistic control to producer oversight. In the middle ’60s before the visual effects boom, this autonomy made Bava a one-man effects artisan-genius. Nobody confuses Ray Harryhausen’s animation with that of anyone else, and the same goes for Bava’s work. We know a Bava picture as soon as we see the way scenes are lit. As Tim Lucas points out, even an insert of a hand picking up an object is immediately recognizable as Bava’s. Nobody else sculpted such attractive blends of color and shadow.

 

Planet of the Vampires does have drawbacks, mostly related to some story and production simplifications. The Argos was meant to land intact and the Galliott was to be wrecked, but it was too tempting to keep both spaceships in good repair so that one studio set could serve for both ships. The result is that we can become confused about which ship we are on at any given time — they are identical. Both the ship interior and the smoking, foggy landscape outside are largely assembled from modular units — sliding doors and blank wall panels inside, interchangeable rocks outside. We never get a good idea of the geography of either area. The spatial dislocation that results is good for eerie atmosphere but not good for building a strong narrative.

Barry Sullivan’s captain and to a lesser extent Norma Bengell’s assistant stay clear in our heads, but most of the the other astronauts are a blur lacking distinct personalities (or distinct voices). They fight, shoot ray guns, and run from one place to another incessantly — yet we quickly lose track of who’s who. It’s more rewarding to concentrate on the impressive designs and especially the excellent costumes. The leads are even given two styles. The black leather space outfits look like warm-ups for the next year’s Diabolik. Their high collars look great — and also look like they might chafe. The stylishness pre-empts any question about ‘pressure suits’ — even the helmets are great designs.

 

According to Robert Skotak’s excellent book on Ib Melchior, director Bava skims over the finer points of the screenplay, some of which sound very difficult to visualize. The most novel is the idea of ‘peripheral vision’ Auran phantoms, which the spacemen glimpse only out of the corners of their eyes. Bava offers no visual representation of this beyond flashing some lights across the frame. I can imagine an “Aura-Vision” in which something can be seen only in the corners of the frame … but knowing how theatrical projection varies, any effect seen at the screen’s edge would often be masked off, and go unseen.

These ‘dreamlike’ details contribute to Planet of the Vampires’ status as a movie that de-emphasizes the narrative experience in favor of pure visual delirium. We instead soak up the heady Auran atmosphere. The rising of the ‘Vampires’ from their impromptu crypts is certainly eerie, despite the slow motion achieved with optical step printing. Did A.I.P. impose that?  We know that Bava avoided optical work whenever possible.

The film’s defining, fully original sequence is the investigation of a derelict alien spacecraft. Inside its chambers, Markary and Sanya find giant skeletons that look like spiders with human skulls. Good sound effects add to a claustrophobic effect, as Captain Markary and Sanya work to free themselves before an ancient mechanism pumps all of the oxygen from the alien ship interior. Back in 1965 we assumed that the skeleton was the remains of an Auran. Only after Ridley Scott’s Alien came out did we pay closer attention to the dialogue in these scenes.

Tim Lucas notes that the skeletons outside of the wrecked ship are posed much like the dead human bodies found back in the Galliot – the Aurans forced both races to destroy themselves using mental control. A more focused screenplay would have made Markary point out this similarity for the benefit of clueless thirteen year-olds in the audience (me). Not since Forbidden Planet were we invited to contemplate an alien race based on archeological evidence. Planet of the Vampires succeeds as a spacey spook show, but it also touches on some very good ideas.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Planet of the Vampires is touted only as a ‘brand new 2K master.’ I’m happy to say that even without input from my professional friends (we’re still avoiding COVID) I could compare the two by myself. The 2014 Scorpion/Kino disc was actually an older MGM HD master from a number of years before. Kino’s new disc is from the same source element, but remastered with today’s improved scanning techology. It appears that digital clean-up has been performed, because a great many nicks & dirt spots have been eliminated. The colors overall seem more pleasing, more detailed. The contrast is a bit sharper as well. The improvement is easily observed.

It’s still the American cut with English dialogue only, the track that was supervised and partially re-written by writer-director Ib Melchior. The extras mostly repeat those of the previous Scorpion Releasing disc, even the two complete Trailers from Hell trailer commentaries. Another retained extra offers samples of the replacement music tracks added by Orion in the 1980s. In space, nobody can hear Kendall Schmidt!

The opening title sequence from the Italian version is included as well. It lists a number of Italian writers not mentioned in A.I.P.’s credits. If the opening is correct, then the tilt-down from a starfield window port seen in the American cut, is not used in the Italian.

 

Tim Lucas’s fine commentary has been retained. It references his own researches and credits the work of Robert Skotak and Tom Weaver as well. We like Lucas’ vivid descriptions of the low-tech methods by which the instrument panel view screens were accomplished. How did Bava put together his crazy Auran landscapes for no money?  They are literally smoke and mirrors, and Lucas even names the two kinds of smoke that were used. I particularly enjoy hearing Tim calmly explain the film’s umpteen alternate titles, one version after another.

Eight years ago Lucas corrected my mis-read of his commentary and offered an explanation for my difficulty keeping the characters/actors straight: “In the shot of the two possessed astronauts being found and invited aboard the Argos, we literally see the first actor walk toward the camera into shadows and then be replaced by the second actor, Massimo Righi, in the next shot!  I have since identified the actor who played Doctor Sallis in the early part of the picture as Peter Martell, whose biggest success appears to have been in Italian Westerns. But he also made War of the Planets with Margheriti the same year as POTV.”

The Bava track is joined by a more conversational new commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw, who have been turning out so many tracks that they’re now go-to Sci-Fi experts as well. They hit on the discrepancies in the writing credits between the two versions, talk about the film in context with A.I.P.’s Italo co-productions. They also half-explain some topics of interest — were both Bava and Jim Nicholson involved in divorce issues during filming?  Newman says that this is the movie where Samuel Z. Arkoff banned company relatives from acting in the movies, just to rule out Susan Hart. The change required the enlistment of Norma Bengell. They then dismiss the Brazilian actress in a way I didn’t expect to hear, distinguishing her only by her ‘big boobs.’

I was intrigued to learn that Barry Sullivan thought the show was a big nothing until he saw the finished product, when he was taken by Bava’s images as much as anyone. Newman and Forshaw bring insights to a number of plot details. But when the cynical ending arrives, with its view of New York City, they compare it to Planet of the Apes, not A.I.P.’s own Voyage to the End of the Universe of two years before. The A.I.P.- imposed finish of that film is identical.

One possible reason to keep the older Blu-ray is that it includes an English translation of the entire text of Renato Pestriniero’s source story “One Night of 21 Hours.”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Planet of the Vampires
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
New audio commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw
Audio commentary by Tim Lucas
Alternate music score highlights
Original Italian opening credits Terrore Nello Spazio
2 Trailers from Hell commentary trailers, by Joe Dante and Josh Olson
Theatrical trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 29, 2022
(6770vamp)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.