Planet of the Vampires (1965)
By: Mr Intolerance on June 30, 2009  | 
DVD
MGM (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (Non-anamorphic). English DD 2.0 Mono. French, Spanish Subtitles. 88 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Mario Bava
Starring: Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Angel Aranda, Eve Marandi
Screenplay: Ib Melchior, Louis M. Heyward
Country: US/Italy
External Links
IMDB Rotten YouTube
Alien was a great film, but then so were its two predecessors, or, if you like, the two films it ripped off wildly – It! The Terror From Beyond Space (which you really should see if you haven't) and this little seen Mario Bava sci-fi chiller, Planet of the Vampires, itself a not-too-subtle riff in some ways on the old sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet.

When you see the American International Pictures logo at the start of a film, you know you're in for entertainment; these guys never stinted on the fun – God bless Roger Corman. When you see the name Mario Bava at the directorial helm, that vote is seconded, plus you know that you're in for fantastically shot entertainment, even if right from the get-go the special effects are a little... umm, dated. And the spaceship I have on screen right in front of me, the space-ship Argos, at this second is looking pretty darned dated indeed. However, that's all part of the charm, after all – retro camp chic, or actually I guess it's retro-futuro camp chic, a la Danger: Diabolik! and Barbarella. The uniforms of our heroic space crew kind of reinforce that, looking as though they were designed by some Nazi-S&M freak, until the helmets (or should I say skull-caps?) go on. Ouch, cool factor just dropped by 82%.

So yes, we have our brave space heroes looking every bit the fascist sci-fi cliché of Earth folks in space that we expect from pulp fiction of the day, and they've had what they think is a distress call (or maybe it's something else...) of unknown origin from a distant and rather sinister fog-shrouded planet. Hmm, that sounds slightly familiar – if Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett try to plead that they'd never seen this film before, please call them liars for me. And maybe step on their toes, or give them a nipple-cripple, too.

The eerie and quite atmospheric score sets the scene for the creature feature we're about to see. It also helps to get the audience feeling uncomfortable and not a little perturbed. Yeah, we might have all the sci-fi trappings I've mentioned, but by and large what we're watching here is a horror film. It all helps to get the audience anxious from the get-go.

The boys and gals waste no time in preparing for a landing, having worked out where the message is coming from, and the crew have to be ready for descent "in sixty fractions of Meg-on" - which I'm assuming means a minute; I love sci-fi talk like that. Bava is not letting one second of screen time go to waste here, it's action, action, action all the way – let's face it: by this point of his career, he knew exactly what his audience were after, and loads of egg-head expository dialogue was not it. Things suddenly go horribly wrong – gravity increases, communication with their sister-ship, the Galleon, has been lost, and the Argos plummets like a wounded duck to the planet's surface, saved from an untimely end by our square-jawed hero Captain Mark and his quick thinking. Basically, that's the first twenty-five minutes of Alien crammed into five – nice! - but with the added bonus of all the crew suddenly going totally bananas and attacking each other – an early what-the-fuck moment for us all to savour, and to prep us for weirdness on the planet itself. The only way to bring the crew back to normality is to give them a fierce beating about the head – reminded me of all those old sit-coms: someone gets a nasty knock to the brain, they develop amnesia – the cure? More cranial trauma! There's quite a bit of violence present, actually – I mean, it's not 2000 Maniacs! by any stretch of the imagination but you can tell that the Italians had a hand in it, the use of bloody wounds being closer to that of Italian action films than American ones at that time.

It's worth mentioning the set that constitutes the planet itself at this point, as one of the berserk crew-members (the Doctor, not really adding to anyone's sense of confidence in the medical profession) flees the Argos on to the surface – lit with various strong primary colours and dense with fog, this actually has more in common with Bava's more gothic horror films (and the old TV show Lost In Space, but in the dark) than it does with his more contemporaneously set films. Mark and a bunch of his intrepid crew-members, Wes, Elvin and Sonia strike out across the wasteland that is LV-426...I mean, that is our uncharted planet, towards wherever the signal was originally coming from. However, on the way they discover the Galleon seemingly having landed and not crashed, with a bunch of dead crew members nearby, apparently having killed each other due to the same madness that nearly killed crew-members of the Argos. Mark's convinced something malignant is out there – these can't have been coincidences or accidents.

Mark, Sonia and Wes head back to the Argos to get some cutting tools to help solve the mystery of the Galleon, leaving poor old Elvin on his own – it doesn't take long before the whatever-they-are who live on the planet start to fuck with his mind. Nobody in a B-grade sci-fi/horror movie left on his or her own ever survives to the end of the film – they're like Imperial Stormtroopers or Star Trek away-team members in red skivvies – dead, dead, dead; AND they couldn't hit the back end of a barn with a shotgun at six paces, let alone hit horrible beasties at a safe distance (ie: long range) with a precision weapon like a laser rifle.

Just as you'd expect, Mark, Wes and Tiana are quite surprised that the crew-member they'd abandonded wasn't all tickety-boo when they returned. Even more disturbing is the fact that all of the bodies in the control room (which was locked, remember, which was the reason for them to head back to the Argos for the cutting gear in the first place) have gone, and now all the previously security-locked doors are open. Something is definitely amiss here, people, and it just might be starting to get through the thick skulls of our heroes. Or maybe it's the thick skull-caps that are stopping the information getting through... Whatever the cause, they're all getting freaked out by the weirdness on the planet's surface, to the point where they're getting panicky and leaving weaponry behind – me, I wouldn't be out on the surface of this god-forsaken creepy rock without anything less than the firepower of one of those smart-guns from Aliens.

And with good sodding reason too – something on this planet is better at re-animation that Herbert fuckin' West, and personally I'd like a lot of lead/laser between me and some recently re-awakened dead folks, who most likely aren't in the best of moods. They certainly don't look it. Now this is one point where the film does stray from what we might have expected from the Alien references – when folks become infected, they don't become hosts for a rapidly-growing carnivorous parasite, they're the undead, and they need to kill more folks to become hosts for more of these mental monsters – maybe I should have changed my reference point to Alien meets Lifeforce? And once they tear themselves out of their polythene re-animation bags, they seem very pissed off indeed. And green.

And hungry to survive.

Back at the ranch, Mark is trying to work out how to get off the planet, given that their solar batteries are seemingly hopelessly damaged and they may be under attack from forces unknown. He offers that grand old line of B-grade wisdom: "Right now, I think we should all get some sleep – I think we need it." Because it's all so easy to sleep with the threat of rather permanent death (or should that be undeath?) or entrapment upon a planet you're hopelessly trapped on above your head. Where do these guys come up with these lines?

And thence the problem comes to a head, as the Doctor realises the truth: there are alien minds out there on the planet and they can influence our minds when we're unconscious – these are the vampires of the film's title, and they can take over our bodies when we're dead, which is even more disconcerting. So the basic message is this: don't go to sleep, or you're fucked.

The repairs to the ship are going better than expected, and the crew hope for extraction that night, but some silly fucker always has to ruin it for the gang and distract them away from the main deal, and that inevitably happens here, running us back on track with the Alien story-line. You'll almost immediately see how. Amongst an inhospitable landscape, our crew come across an obviously alien spaceship, with the skeleton of an ancient and enormous alien carcass inside (ringing any bells? It fucking should be). There's all kinds of badness lurking in the alien spaceship, although nothing like that inside the spaceship in Alien.

Some of the other crew-members back at the Argos have been freaking out at things that don't actually exist. Ghosts in outer space? Could well be – there's something that craves the attention of the living regardless. The undivided attention of the living, at that. The atmosphere becomes a great deal more oppressive and tense, anyhow.

When the captain of the Galleon, Sallust, and Mark's brother Toby turn up out of the blue, lurching out of the fog like a couple of Romero shamblers, we don't really believe their status as uninfected, but sadly, the ship's crew do, and it's only clever people like me who talk loudly in restaurants who know that they should be blown to smithereens on sight. How can you trust on face value a pair of fellas whose entire crew has been slain or taken away by alien entities, and who you saw not that long beforehand looking to all intents and purposes, dead? I mean, really...

Our heroes' plight is becoming more and more desperate as the film goes on, just like in that Ridley Scott film y'all know about. The bodies of Sallust and Kier have been taken over by the alien entities, and that's a bad thing for all concerned, as they're now trying to fuck up the Argos by knocking out the meteor rejector, which is one of the few things that keeps 'em alive in outer space. The aliens make a final State of the Nation-style speech, demanding the bodies of the Argos' crew for the furtherance of their race, but in that grand old tradition of pulp sci-fi from the early days, as far as the Earthlings are concerned, it's a case of, "why didn't they ask us for help before-hand, instead of just taking what wasn't rightfully theirs?", Mark sees no reason why the alien intelligences shouldn't all just die. That way, we Earthlings get to take the high moral ground, because we were just protecting our own. I love a bit of Cold War philosophy – basically, we get to be the most ruthless bastards known to man, as long as we're protecting our own – and according to US philosophy, that puts us in the right. The alien must die, as long as we're keeping the public clean. Senator Joe McCarthy would applaud.

"Well never lose our bodies to a race of parasites." Our human defenders stand up well to the cause, but those pesky aliens have a trick or two up their multifarious alien sleeves. That said, so do those equally pesky humans, and so all kinds of shenanigans are about to be pulled in order for a race to survive this crazy feud – but which will it be? The humans or the aliens? It's a matter for yourself to find out.
Video
It's a beautiful and quite prisitne widescreen (non-anamorphic) presentation of the film with obvious care taken in its restoration – it probably looks better now than it did on its theatrical release 44 years ago. A gorgeous colour palette and excellent use of lighting, too – Bava, as you well know, was a directorial genius, and even on a B-grade flick like this lets us know it by his effortlessly brilliant use of the camera to evoke mood.
Audio
Despite the obvious limitations of an English mono track, the sound is quite crisp and clear – believe me, I'm quite sure of that; it's bucketing down rain outside at the moment as I review this, and I've got the damned thing cranked right up so that I can hear it clearly.
Extra Features
Bugger all, I'm sorry to say. When MGM put out these "Midnite Movies" discs, they rarely, if ever feel the need to lash out on giving film fans that little extra bang for their buck. I've got a bunch of old Hammer releases in the same line, and, as here, all you get is the original theatrical trailer, which is hardly stretching the imagination.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Based on the sci-fi short story "One Night of Twenty-One Hours" by Renato Pestriniero, Planet of the Vampires is a B-grade gem that more people oughtta watch. It's a fine piece of 1960s science-fiction/horror fun, loaded with camp uniforms, camper dialogue and the campiest of special effects. There are are more good nostalgic laughs to be had here than the average Three Stooges short, and more sci-fi thrills and spills than your average episode of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. All up, a great deal of fun. Give it a look and enjoy it greatly.

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