There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, yes, you can be both inspirational and inspired.
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
Distributed by: American International
Directed by: Mario Bava
Nearly 40 years ago, moviegoers went back into space with another filmmaker’s project. Whereas George Lucas thrilled them, Ridley Scott scared them.
When it came out, no one seemed prepared for Alien, a horror film set in deep space. Audiences were shocked as they watched space travelers deal with threats that violated their bodies, using them as vessels for their survival.
At least, audiences with short memories were shocked.
Our film opens in deep space where the Argos and her sister ship the Galliot are following signals emanating from the planet Aura. As they enter orbit, they find a planet that’s so fog enshrouded that their instruments cannot get any readings from the surface, so they start landing protocols.
Their approach to the surface, however, stops following protocol as the ships experience a vast increase in gravity, followed by the crews going into a savage frenzy that makes them want to kill each other.
Only the strong will of Captain Mark Markary of the Argos (Barry Sullivan) saves his ship as he helps his crew snap out of their murderous hypnotic state. The Galliot, however, is not so lucky, and Markary and his crew, which includes Sonya (Norma Bengell), Wes (Angel Arada), Tiona (Evi Marandi), Caerter (Ivan Rassimov), and Doctor Karan (Fernando Vellela), are tasked first with securing the Galliot and burying her crew, then trying to get off the world themselves.
The tasks are not easy. Their own ship is damaged, and Mark and Sonya nearly suffocate when they explore an abandoned ship whose aliens left behind their bones but no instructions on how to leave before an atmospheric purge takes place.
Added to that, the bodies of the dead crew of the Galliot get up and walk around. The reason for this is straightforward: There are aliens on Aura that exist out of phase with our universe who want to leave their world and carry on their survival.
To do so, they need to inhabit physical bodies, displacing the spirits already inside them. This is something the Argos’ crew is unwilling to allow them to do, of course. Which leads to a major struggle for survival and a few twists and turns before the credits roll.
Speaking of twists and turns, a certain amount of them came into play in order for the film to come about. A-I’s Samuel Arkoff had been impressed with Bava’s work licensed from Italian studios, especially the last film the company got from him, Black Sabbath. Wanting a bigger piece of the profits from all channels the film would go through (theaters, television, etc.), A-I co-produced this film with Italian International Film, with some Spanish investment through Castilla Cooperativa Cinematográfica. This led to a cast that came together from many different lands, oftentimes unable to communicate on set without an interpreter.
Bava would have to deal with both too many languages among his actors and too few effects to use on his picture. What props he had were minimal, requiring lots of in-camera effects and copious amounts of smoke. Which, with a script that had aliens who possessed bodies and animated the dead coming from a fog-bound world, worked to the story’s advantage.
For a film that supposedly was very cheaply done, there’s no sense of a strained budget evidenced on screen. Bava’s strong color palate comes to the fore here, both in how the instruments on the ships light up and how light plays on the surface of Aura.
Gabrielle Mayer’s leather spacesuits give the film and the actors distinct looks that draw the eye to them and away from anything else in the shot that might break the illusion. The electronic music by Gino Marinuzzi Jr. is also of note, adding atmosphere to a film that unfolds more like a dream than unspools like a tale.
In terms of how it gets its ideas across, much has been made of the movie’s influence on Scott’s 1979 film. While both Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon claimed to not have been familiar with Bava’s film, the elements of the main story, combined with the aspects from the earlier film of an alien using our bodies against us and finding an alien wreck on a planet’s surface, are hard to ignore.
Yet there’s plenty of influence that flows both in and out of the film. One could cite how much Planet of the Vampires owes to Forbidden Planet if pressed, as well as It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which also had aspects of its plot winding up in Alien. The fact that O’Bannon’s later screenplay for Lifeforce also shows the influence of Bava’s film makes his claim about never seeing it hard to accept.
In the end, it’s not the ownership of core story that can be called into question; look hard enough, and one could claim that the ultimate source of the plot was memories of merchants bringing the Black Death to Europe.
What Bava contributes, directly or otherwise, is an aura and feel, conveyed through shades and colors set up in every shot, the basic tools through which a story about the dangers of space travel can best be told. The fact that others would turn to this film when examining Alien is not an indictment of Scott so much as a recognition of Bava; there is no foul on either director in this instance.
Unlike this other guy we know…
NEXT TIME: Like James Cameron, we take a look at Alien with new eyes, while like the Beatles, we go back to the USSR.