Thursday, June 7, 2012

Cult Thursdays: Planet of the Vampires (1965)

    An hour and twenty-eight minutes, and not a proper vampire in sight…

    Smooth surfaces. They were the sure mark of science fiction movies for decades, instantly distinguishable due to their routine use of shiny props and detail-less sets. Then a little movie called Star Wars came along and summarily changed all of that. All of a sudden the miniature spaceships didn’t look like models floating oddly in front of a starlit background - they looked real. Where previous directors polished and shined their sets of all detail, George Lucas went against the grain by filling his picture with details galore. Making everything dirty. Grimy. Lived-in. It was a brilliant choice. And like all brilliant choices, it was immediately copied by nearly everyone else. All of a sudden spaceships were detailed with the tiniest of model kit parts. Robots were masses of wires and plated metal. Helmets were nicked and worn down, long missing the sheen they once possessed. And while the more realistic worlds captured audience’s imaginations like nothing before, there was something lost in all the grit and grime. A dream-like quality where things only made sense until they didn’t - where landscapes and the creatures inhabiting them were places that could be shaped only through the nightmarish prism of the Id.

    Planet of the Vampires is one such movie. Despite its cheesiness and inherent cheapness, it feels plucked straight from the dark recesses of the mind - a miasma of color and sound, shaped to something resembling a movie but much closer to an acid-laced fever-dream. Mario Bava pulls out all the stops for his sci-fi horror picture, his manic, colorful style elevating the fake sets and fake actors and fake everything else to an almost spiritual level of pure imagination, in the process giving us a movie whose influence - while not immediately apparent - would be felt for decades *.

    The film begins with two spaceships, the Galliot and the Argos, picking up a distress signal from an unidentified planet. The two ships make their way to the surface, but the pull of the planet’s gravity is so strong that it instantly knocks them all out, causing the Galliot to crash while the Argos barely lands in time. The crew of the Argos all awake in a state of madness, instantly trying to kill one another. Only ship captain Malarky (Barry Sullivan) is strong enough to resist, and quickly snaps the others out of their trance before anyone does something rash. They all proceed to search the strange planet for the Galliot, and upon finding the crashed ship, are dismayed to find the crew all dead. But far worse than that, some unseen force is causing the corpses to rise from their deathly state, manipulating them to pick of the remaining survivors one by one…

    The most astonishing thing about Bava’s film is just what he accomplishes under a tight budget. The most remarkable being that there are no optical effects - everything Bava shot was in-camera. There was no rotoscoping, no matte lines - if it couldn’t be done there on-set, then it wasn’t done at all. Kind of makes me appreciate the film more knowing this, as what Bava achieves in certain shots is mind-boggling. Don’t get me wrong: there is some really dodgy effects work here (the spaceships being the worst), but the ingenuity Bava shows elsewhere more than makes up for it, such as the numerous forced perspective tricks that make objects and the environments larger in relation to the actors.

    Regarding the actors, well… there’s not really that much to regard. The international cast ** is fine, I suppose; providing the movie with decent-enough characters to get by, but the real star here is the design. The outfits they all wear are rather spectacular: black leather space-suits highlighted by yellow seams. Seeing them on the poster, you might mistake them for the film’s titular vampires, with their high, angular collars and black skullcaps. But they’re not vampires - indeed, the film doesn’t even really feature anything that could be recognized as a vampire - the risen dead crewmates resembling zombies more than anything else. They come back from the dead due to their being possessed by the disembodied inhabitants of the planet, who send out distress signals to nearby ships, luring them in to provide a means of escape.

    Bava was something of a chameleon, weaving through genres and styles, always bringing a singular vision and energy to whatever film he happened to be working on. Not every film he made was a home run, but his ambition shone through it all. Ambition is probably the thing I admire most within artists, whether or not their works turn out for good or ill. Bava's ambition meant taking big risks, which led to many failures - but just as many memorable films.

    * The biggest influence on Alien, itself one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, had to be Planet of the Vampires. Both deal with spaceships answering distress signals, both crews find the skeletal remains of large alien race, both films had parasitic life-forms picking of their crews one by one. Both also had smoke - lots of smoke.

    ** Several dialogue scenes seem dubbed over, while others are perfectly in-sync. That’s because, as was often the case on Italian films of the time, the actor would speak their lines in their native language, and would later be dubbed appropriately to whatever market it was released in.

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