Friday, August 31, 2012

Random Movie Report #110: Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires DVD cover and Amazon link

Science fiction films of the 1960s were as much influenced by the pop art and psychedelic movements as they were by the actual space race. Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires is a good example of the strange, stagey unreality that many genre films of the time embraced, but also an engaging thriller in its own right and a clear influence on Alien. Plotwise it suffers one or two of the maladies that plagued European genre cinema of the time, but it's moody enough to power through.

An expedition to the dark, foreboding planet Aura starts off on a bad note, when the crew of the starship Galliot go mad and attack each other shortly after landing. Eventually they pull themselves together, but their sister ship, the Argos, was not so lucky- it crashed on the planet and its crew killed each other. Temporarily stuck on the planet, the astronauts explore and discover a crashed alien spaceship holding two giant skeletons; meanwhile, their own dead are rising up and attacking them, as an unknown and deadly force seeks to control their bodies and minds.

This is not the most tightly plotted of thrillers, at least not for the first two thirds- we know that something odd is happening, and if we remember the title we can work out what it is, but it takes some time for the astronauts to catch on. Not that the deliberate buildup is entirely a bad thing; there's a good sense of dread and uncertainty which carries us along despite thin characters.

The main attraction is the art design, which is pretty damn cool. Things seem a little off from the start, with the crew in severe dark suits working in cavernous chambers, and the landscape is a jagged and foggy nightmare. A scene of the "vampires" (if that's what we can really call them) rising out of their makeshift graves in slow motion is beautifully staged- it's a familiar horror movie sight given a striking new context. The dead aliens are another amazing sight, clear ancestors of Giger's Space Jockey.

Even if the characters are largely ciphers and the actors don't get to do much besides look worried, the film builds up enough of a head of steam that the climax is genuinely suspenseful. The divide between the living astronauts and their dead attackers is sometimes blurred, with no obvious way of telling one from another, though obviously it's fair to say that the ones they put in the ground are not to be trusted. The film does end on the kind of cheap twist that was apparently required of all European genre storytelling for some decades, from films to fumetti; it's not badly played but it feels more like an obligatory scare than a rational conclusion to the story.

Movies like this always feel like they're taking at least some ironic distance from their subject matter, but mysteriously this doesn't prevent Planet of the Vampires from genuinely working as a moody and involving thriller. Bava makes no real concessions to verisimilitude, but he creates a kind of alternate reality nonetheless. It may be a triumph of style over substance, but it's got as much substance as a scare picture of its ilk needs. It's a solid B picture, and inventive enough that it shouldn't be overlooked.

Based on the short story "One Night of 21 Hours" by Renato Pestriniero
Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Callisto Cosulich, Antonio Román, and Rafael J. Salvia
English language version written by Ib Melchior and Louis M. Heyward
Directed by Mario Bava

Grade: B+

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