fredag 9. januar 2015

Planet of the Vampires/Terrore nello spazio

Italy/US/Spain, 1965

Directed by Mario Bava

Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Angel Aranda, Evi Marandi, Fernando Villena, Stelio Candelli, Franco Andrei, Ivan Rassimov, Massimo Righi, Rick Boyd, Alberto Cevenini, Mario Morales, Peter Martell

Italian science fiction films from the 1960s have become practically synonymous with Antonio Margheriti and his many colorful, lighthearted and goofily enjoyable space adventures. But made during the same period was Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, which unlike Margheriti’s efforts is rather serious in tone and carves out a distinct identity for itself by mixing the science fiction plot with full-blown scenes of horror and grue.

The plot follows the crew of a high-tech spaceship named the Argos, which is picking up strange radio signals from a mysterious, fog-enshrouded and seemingly uninhabited planet. Suspecting that the planet must contain some form of life, the crew decides to take a closer look but as soon as they are nearing the planet, the radio communication is blocked and a massive gravitational pull forces the spaceship down. Everyone passes out except the ship’s captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan), who heroically manages to keep it together and ensure a safe crash landing for the Argos.

The crew of the Argos pick up strange radio signals

The sudden gravitational pull knocks out most of the astronauts...

...and forces the Argos to crash land on the mysterious alien planet

Once the various team members start to regain consciousness, they appear to be possessed and start violently attacking each other. Only Captain Markary and a few others remain unaffected and are able to overpower the possessed crewmen until they snap out of it with no memory of their strange behavior.

The crewmen inexplicably turn on each other

Captain Markary and fiery-haired communications officer Sanya (Norma Bengell) lead the rest of the Argos crew over to their sister ship, the Galliot, which has crash landed on the same planet, and discover to their horror that the entire crew of the Galliot (among them Captain Markary’s little brother Toby) are dead – having savagely killed each other. They bury three of the dead crewmen but the rest of the mutilated corpses are located inside a sealed control room – making it necessary for Markary and his men to return to the Argos to fetch the necessary equipment to break the door open. By the time they return, however, all of the bodies have mysteriously vanished.

Captain Markary and the others begin to explore the sinister planet...

...and find the crew of their sister ship savagely murdered

Shortly afterwards, things turn even more sinister as the Argos crew members start vanishing or turning up dead. Even though no signs of life can be found anywhere on the barren and sinister planet, it’s clear to everyone that they are in great danger, but with the spaceship damaged from the crash landing, they have no way of leaving. Chief engineer Wess (Angel Aranda) tries his best to fix the ship’s broken engines but in the meanwhile things take a turn for the worse as the dead crewmen start to rise from their graves – their bodies having been taken over by malevolent alien forces who intend to use them as vessels to escape from their own desolate planet...

It’s bad enough that the astronauts from the Argos start turning up dead...

...but it gets much worse when the dead start coming back to life

Famous American B-movie company AIP (American International Pictures) achieved great success when they purchased the rights for Mario Bava’s gothic horror film The Mask of Satan (1960) and released it in the US in a slightly modified version as Black Sunday. This led to AIP deciding to co-produce a series of Italian films in order to excise more control over their content, and Planet of the Vampires was one of these numerous co-productions. But in spite of co-financing from Italy and Spain as well as the US, Bava was given a practically non-existent budget to work with. According to Bava scholar Tim Lucas, the exterior scenes for the planet were shot on a practically empty sound stage furnished with only two plastic rocks left over from a peplum film. For anyone who has seen Planet of the Vampires it is almost impossible to believe that this can be true since the colorful and richly atmospheric scenes displaying the planet’s landscape are among the most memorable imagery in the film. However, the vast planetary landscape was actually nothing more than a spectacular illusion created by Bava through the use old school camera tricks. He multiplied the two plastic rocks through the use of mirrors and multiple exposures, employed miniature models which were made to appear larger through the use of forced perspective camera setups, and filled the set with smoke in order to cover up the emptiness of the sound stage. And the results are truly amazing. The barren alien-landscape enshrouded in glowing, psychedelic colors and a swirling, never-ending fog is a feast for the eyes, and accompanied by Gino Marinuzzi Jr.’s wonderfully creepy musical score, it creates an unforgettably eerie atmosphere.

Bava’s stunning alien landscape

Admittedly, the film still has the look and feel of a low-budget movie, and its lack of resources is particularly visible in the very modestly decorated Argos interiors, or the unconvincing miniatures shots of the spaceship, but in the end this is of little consequence. When you take into account just how preciously little Bava actually had to work with here, the look of the film is just stunningly impressive and Planet of the Vampires stands as perhaps the ultimate showcase for Bava’s terrific technical creativity and ability to transcend the limitations of the most meager of resources.

The most memorable imagery from the film is the striking scene in which the dead crewmen rise from their graves in slow motion and tear through the clear plastic they’re wrapped in. It’s a breathtaking sequence that manages to be stunning to look at and genuinely creepy at the same time.

The scene with the dead rising from their graves is the film’s crowning achievement

Still, the most famous sequence in the film is the one in which Sanya and Captain Markary explore the ruins of an alien spacecraft and stumble upon the giant skeletal remains of the long-dead alien crew. As most reviewers have made a big point of, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) contains a remarkably similar sequence in which the exploration of a derelict alien spaceship leads to the discovery the skeletal remains of a large alien creature. It has been widely reported that both Ridley Scott and Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon denied having ever seen Planet of the Vampires but when interviewed by David Konow, O’Bannon did indeed admit to having been inspired by Bava’s film:

I was aware of Planet of the Vampires, I don’t think I had seen it all the way through. I had seen clips from it and it struck me as evocative. It had the curious mixture that you get in these Italian films of spectacularly good production design with an aggressively low budget mentality.”

Sanya and Captain Markary enter an alien spaceship...

...and, in what has become the film’s most celebrated sequence, they discover the huge skeletal remains of the alien crew

It’s great to hear O’Bannon pay proper respect to Bava’s film, but with that said, I don’t really want to focus too much on the film’s influence on Alien, which has already been covered extensively in pretty much every review of Planet of the Vampires – with some reviewers going a bit overboard in their attempts to portray the film as a veritable blueprint for Alien. The influence is definitely there but in fairness the tone and feel of the two films are radically different. In spite of its impressive designs and special effects, Alien is above all a terrifically thrilling and nail-biting suspense film, whereas Planet of the Vampires is more a triumph of atmosphere and visuals than of suspense. And it is certainly not without its shortcomings, the worst of which is a poorly constructed screenplay, which is hampered by underdeveloped cardboard characters, and a somewhat tired alien possession plotline in the vein of Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) without really adding any fresh spin to the proceedings. The script underwent numerous rewrites by a series of different writers, so its uneven qualities are to be expected, but are regrettable nonetheless. And so is the misleading American title that AIP came up with, seeing as how the film only features vampires in a strictly metaphorical sense.

Italian newspaper ad bearing the Italian title Terrore nello spazio, i.e. Terror in Space, which is more appropraite than the American one

The worst stretch of the film is the opening 15 minutes, which are surprisingly dull due to a lot of uninteresting techno-babble. This is made worse by the fact that Bava drops the ball on the crash landing of the spaceship – a badly staged and flatly executed sequence that is slightly embarrassing to watch as the actors awkwardly thrust around while trying to give the impression of being affected by the heavy gravitational pull. Once the crew begins to investigate the sinister planet, the film thankfully picks up very quickly but it is still bogged down somewhat by the repetitive script. There are numerous sequences where the characters split up to investigate and leave one unlucky crew member to stand guard outside even though it always ends badly for the poor guy left on his own. Likewise, there’s a late surprise twist to the story, which in and of itself is pretty clever, but which fails to work because it makes absolutely no sense.

The cast awkwardly pretend to faint

There are also some continuity problems, with the most glaring error being the fact that there are two different actors playing the role of Salas, the captain of the Argos’ sister ship. When we first see him on a monitor he is played by frequent spaghetti western lead Peter Martell (real name Pietro Martellanza) but in the later scenes where he interacts physically with the other actors he is played by Massimo Righi, who had previously featured in such Bava films as Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964). The reason for this discrepancy is not known and it’s very bizarre and silly, though I suspect many viewers will not even notice since several of the film’s underdeveloped supporting characters are more or less undistinguishable from one another. This problem is not helped by the English dubbing, which flubs several character names by continuously changing the pronunciation or even using the wrong name on a few occasions, but overall this is a minor quibble which does not detract from the film’s entertainment value in any significant way.

Planet of the Vampires isn’t really an actor’s film but considering the limited material he is given to work with, Hollywood actor Barry Sullivan does a pretty solid job as the heroic captain. Sullivan also dubs his own performance for the English version of the film, which gives him a bit of an advantage over his dubbed co-stars. Brazilian actress Norma Bengell is also quite good in the female lead, and it is refreshing to see a female character that gets to do more than just scream and act the part of the damsel in distress. Bengell shows that she can take care of herself and she certainly knows her way around a laser gun as well. Somewhat less fortunate is the film’s other female character Tiona – played by popular 1960s starlet Evi Marandi – who is more your typically helpless female, who screams a lot and even faints if sufficiently upset. Marandi does this very well, however. She’s a great screamer and an even greater looker. The rest of the cast also includes several familiar faces from Italian genre cinema, such as Stelio Candelli, Franco Andrei, Rick Boyd and a young Ivan Rassimov at the start of his long career. They don’t really get a lot to do but it’s nice to have them around. And of course they’re all dressed in deliciously fetishistic black leather uniforms with yellow piping and huge Dracula-style collars. It’s quite a sight to behold!

The striking Brazilian starlet Norma Bengell, a major star in her homeland, makes for a strong and confident female lead

Mario Morales, Ivan Rassimov and Evi Marandi display the spectacular leather uniforms in all their glory

While one cannot help but wonder what Planet of the Vampires could have been like had it been equipped with a stronger script, it is still a highly enjoyable, visually pleasing and colorful sci-fi adventure with a fantastic atmosphere. It stands as a testament to Bava’s remarkable ability to make something cheap look a million times better than it really has any right to, and as a triumphant example of style over substance. Recommended viewing!

© 2015 Johan Melle

The cast:

Barry Sullivan as Captain Mark Markary

Norma Bengell as Sanya

Angel Aranda as Wess

Evi Marandi as Tiona

Fernando Villena as Dr. Karan

Stelio Candelli as Brad

Franco Andrei as Burt

Ivan Rassimov as Carter

Massimo Righi as Captain Sallas

Rick Boyd as Keir

Alberto Cevenini as Toby Markary

Mario Morales as Eldon

Peter Martell as Captain Sallas (monitor sequence only)

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