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DVD SAVANT

Planet of the Vampires


Planet of the Vampires
MGM Home Entertainment
1965 / Color / 1:85 flat letterbox / 88m. / Terrore nello spazio
Starring Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Ángel Aranda, Evi Marandi
Cinematography Antonio Pérez Olea, Antonio Rinaldi
Set Decoration Giorgio Giovannini
Film Editors Romana Fortini, Antonio Gimeno
Original Music Gino Marinuzzi Jr.
Writing credits Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Callisto Cosulich, Louis M. Heyward, Ib Melchior, Antonio Román, Rafael J. Salvia from a story by Renato Pestriniero
Produced by Fulvio Lucisano, Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson
Directed by Mario Bava

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

For Planet of the Vampires Mario Bava turned his visual sense to a new genre, the space opera. By 1965, American movies about interplanetary travel had dwindled to a few minor pictures a year: Two exceptions were Robinson Crusoe on Mars and First Men In the Moon. But Italy was having a mini-boom, mostly through the work of prolific director Antonio Margheriti. With their overlit sets and emphasis on flashy action, pictures like Wild, Wild Planet played like Sword 'n Sandal pix transplanted to rocketships. In contrast, Bava's stunning Gothic variation weaves a weird tale of flying saucers, ray guns and zombies that looks like no other space movie ever filmed.

Synopsis:

Twin spaceships Argos and Galliot land on the dark and foggy planet Aura, and the nightmare begins. On the Argos, Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) and Sanya (Norma Bengell) can barely restrain members of the crew from maiming each other in inexplicable fits of violence. Worse, when they investigate why no communications are coming from the Galliot, they discover its entire crew is dead, with evidence pointing to an orgy of killing. While trying to repair the Argos and warding off phantom sightings of strange lights, Mark and Sanya investigate a derelict alien craft nearby. It is littered with the grotesque skeletal remains of alien creatures. When their hastily buried casualties begin returning from their graves, it finally becomes obvious: Spectral beings on Aura are possessing the spacemen's dead bodies, hoping to escape to a new world.

Planet of the Vampires is an outerspace thriller that has almost nothing in common with similarly plotted pictures, like Curtis Harrington's Queen of Blood. In the standard space epic, hardware and special effects are everything. Here on the ghastly planet Aura, they take third place to Bava's signature lighting and atmospheric effects.

Explaining what's so special about this picture requires one to say what it isn't: Planet of the Vampires doesn't have a well-written script or interesting characters. The action is repetitive and the plot plods along to a rather unexciting conclusion. Its appeal lies in director Bava's creation of an eerie and unsettling alien world that is its own reason for being.


The action takes place in two very unnatural locales. The interior of the Argos is vast and gloomy, with large interior spaces similar to those in Ikarie XB-1(Voyage to the End of the Universe) but with none of their optimistic futurism. The spacemen sit at uncomfortable stations in a cavernous piloting room, and the rest of the craft is made of bulkhead doors and industrial-sized machinery.

But the Argos is cozy compared to the hellscape outside: a rocky, steaming, boiling nothingness. The volcanic activity and bizarre gases allow Bava to conjure all manner of weird lighting schemes. Glowing rocks and phosphorescent mists bathe the characters in reds and greens; after a few minutes of unmotivated lighting schemes, even the most strangely colored key lights seem perfectly natural.

Bava clearly wanted to create the self-contradiction of a Future Gothic style, just as his Diabolik would later create a Gothic Comic Book look. The strongest images, such as huge scarred faces soaked in green light, or spidery figures creeping in hallways or struggling out of shallow graves have a direct affinity with shots in Black Sabbath or Blood and Black Lace. Bava fans don't have to be persuaded that a pleasing movie can be made from visuals alone. If you enjoy the raw look of a Fritz Lang or Tim Burton picture, then Planet of the Vampires will be your cup of tea.

According to author Robert Skotak,  1 this was a true international production begun as a coproduction between AIP and Italy's Fulvio Lucisano, and bringing in Spanish money later on.  2 AIP truly appreciated Bava (then still obscure in the US) and connected him up with writer Ib Melchior, who had apparently been a positive creative factor behind AIP moneymakers The Angry Red Planet, Reptilicus and Journey to the 7th Planet, and had just come off Paramount's prestigious Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The cast was mostly Italian, with the aging second-stringer Barry Sullivan in for an American name and Norma Bengell representing the Spanish interests. Born in Rio and already an established name in South America, Bengell's extensive Brazilian credits don't read like the series of 'sex movies' that some some sources imply.

Working at the height of his popularity in Italy, Bava adhered to his personal style of production - a small crew and a low budget. The art direction was inventive but he used few if any expensive sets. Even the cheap Margheriti pictures had the occasional optical but almost all of Bava's effects were done in the camera. This refusal to expand into the riskier, less personal scale of 'normal' filmmaking kept Bava artistically pure but out of the mainstream. "Important" directors were supposed to spend money, not try to stay small-scale. Tim Lucas' upcoming megabook on Bava will hopefully make the case for Bava as either a man who couldn't handle the stress of bigger productions, or as an artist who desired control of his work too much to let it be dissipated in a film-factory setting.


When the effects in Planet of the Vampires fall within Bava's bag of tricks, the results are marvellous. Many foreground miniatures and other twisted-perspective gags are perfect, putting the artless fakery of AIP's Sid Pink movies to shame. But many specific illusions, while always interesting, come off much less successfully. Most angles on the spaceships in flight suffer from an insufficient depth of focus, making them look like what they are, toys attached in front of the camera. And some Aura-scapes immediately ring false because of focus shifts between miniature and full-sized parts of the frame. In one angle, the foreground and far distance are in sharp focus, while, illogically, the middle ground live-action miniature is not. This isn't expected from the Bava who created such magical illusions in the Hercules movies and Caltiki. Some of the physical trappings, like the unconvincing ray guns, also don't make the grade. On the plus side, the sleek leather-vinyl costumes are both attractive and interesting. They must have given Bava's costumer a good trial-run for the remarkable rubbery suits later perfected for Diabolik.

Ib Melchior's script is an unfortunate bore made worse by undeveloped ideas. Interesting intended concepts, such as the spacemen being able to momentarily see the Auran phantoms in their extreme peripheral vision (corner-of-the-eye ghosts, so to speak) are insufficiently supported by the visuals. The idea of hosts and parasites is explored a little bit more, especially in the American version where Melchoir seems to have been able to add dialogue on the subject. But the fact remains that the action onscreen is a repetitive series of fights and disappearances among interchangeable spacemen. Keeping track of who's possessed and who's not is difficult and unrewarding. Cutting between the two spaceships is also confusing. Melchoir's script intended for the Galliot to be a crashed wreck, but it must have been too tempting to the budget to make them identical-looking.

The film's most successful scene is the exploration of a third, alien spaceship that is discovered to be a derelict ruin. The spacemen climb into what looks like a futuristic spider's lair and almost become the victims of aliens who may have died centuries before. The monstrous occupants are dessicated skeletons but their still-functioning machines trap the heroes inside. The wholly original scene is the film's best transposition of the Gothic into outer space. The only thing to break the eerie mood is a moment of unintended comedy when Barry Sullivan grabs a glowing disc that not moments before delivered a shock to Norma. He's doltishly surprised when the disc shocks him as well.



MGM's DVD of Planet of the Vampires has only one drawback - it's not 16:9 formatted and therefore doesn't get the full benefit of the superior DVD resolution that's helped make many of the entries in Image Entertainment's Mario Bava Collection so remarkable. The picture otherwise looks simply great, with a sharp transfer that (finally) shows off Bava's compositions in their full 1:85 aspect ratio. Shots that on videotape had characters half-cropped out of frame or made symmetrical compositions look lopsided, are now balanced and complete.

MGM went back to original Italian elements and had to sort out a complex puzzle between the original Terrore nello spazio cut and AIP's American version, which had trimmed some scenes while recutting others longer. As a result, this DVD is somewhere between the Italian and American cut, adding as much non-dialogue footage as possible. There is a European disc in 16:9 that reportedly restored one of the original continental cuts, with French or Italian dialogue. It was quickly withdrawn from stores, presumably because it was discovered that MGM possessed all of the rights, and is now a hotly desired collector's item. After all the praise and attention for MGM's restoration, 4 it seems that their corporate clout will slow or stop the release of an original European Terrore nello spazio DVD.

For American fans accustomed to trash versions of these movies, the best news by far about MGM's disc is its restoration of the moody original score by Gino Marinuzzi Jr., an electronic jumble of strange sounds and tones. Unable or unwilling to legally investigate the music status of a number of European AIP titles, Orion pictures had a handful of them rescored with shoddy synthesizer noodlings in the middle '80s. Planet of the Vampires not only looks as good as it did in 1965, it finally has its correct music score back in place.  3


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Planet of the Vampires rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 19, 2001


Footnotes:

1. Ib Melchoir, Man of Imagination by Robert Skotak. 2000, Midnight Marquee, Baltimore.
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2. There are so many recorded titles for Terrore nello spazio, it must set some kind of record for international distribution: Demon Planet, The Haunted Planet, The Haunted World, The Outlawed Planet, Planet of Blood, The Planet of Terror, The Planet of the Damned, Space Mutants, Terror en el espacio, Terror in Space. One wonders if all these titles were really used ... The Outlawed Planet is awfully close to The Outlaw Planet, the title on the cover of Ib Melchior's final script.
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3. Of course, the next highly-awaited MGM title that needs to have its beautiful symphonic score reinstated for DVD is The Conqueror Worm (Witchfinder General). A DVD release had been put on hold so that the music issues 'can be worked out', as home video executives say.
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4. Savant wrote an article on the restoration of this film for the September 2001 issue of Video Watchdog (#76).




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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