A distress beacon brings a group of astronauts to an alien world where they discover a derelict spacecraft and its dead and calcified giant crew. When the astronauts start being picked off one by one the true horror of their situation begins to be realized. If this premise sounds vaguely familiar it might be because you’ve seen or at least heard of Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction masterpiece Alien, but what is rather odd is that both Scott and author Dan O’Bannon claim to have not seen Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires prior to filming Alien. Having just watched Planet of the Vampires I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that either someone is definitely fibbing or at least very forgetful.
Director Mario Bava was mostly known for his horror films like Black Sabbath and fantasy horror flicks like Hercules in the Haunted World when he tackled Terrore Nello Spazio, which would later be retitled Planet of the Vampires for North American audiences. Bava had a great love for science fiction and it truly shows in this American International Pictures and Italian International Film co-production as almost every frame of this film is a work of art.
The story begins with two large spacecraft, the Galliott, and the Argos, approaching an unexplored planet in response to a distress signal but as the ships attempt to enter the planet’s atmosphere they are seized by an immense gravitational force that causes most of the crew to pass out from the G forces, only Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan), captain of the Argos, has the strength of will to stay conscious and safely land his ship.
Trivia Note: Barry Sullivan was not Mario Bava’s choice for the part of Captain Markary as it was forced upon him by American International Pictures so that they would, at least, have a marketable American actor in the lead. Now, Sullivan is quite good in the role but as he was in his fifties at the time his heroic constitution over that of his much younger crewmates is questionable, to say the least.
Upon making a perfect landing, Captain Markary is almost immediately attacked by one of his crewmates and it’s not because of their obvious jealousy towards his awesomeness, not at all, apparently, there is some force on this planet that can take over an unconscious person and operate them like a puppet, a very homicidal puppet. Once again, only Captain Markary is able to resist this alien power and he is able to break his crew free of its hypnotic control. When everyone is back under their own power they decide to head out across the alien landscape to find their sister ship the Galliott.
Sadly, the crew of Galliott didn’t have an amazing captain like Markary so everyone on board that ship died fighting each other. Markary’s younger brother, Toby, is found among the dead, and the crew of the Argos has the sad duty of burying their dead colleagues. Some of the dead crew are discovered to have been locked inside the bridge but when Markary and company return with tools to cut through the bulkhead door they find all the bodies missing. That’s not creepy at all.
While waiting for Wess (Ángel Aranda) to fix the damaged Argos’s power supply a group goes out and explores this weird but hauntingly beautiful landscape only to stumble across a strange derelict spacecraft, inside they find the large skeletal remains of the long-dead crew and thus realize that they are not the first ones to have been drawn to this planet by a distress beacon.
Ancient dead space navigators are the least of their problems, as the dead members of the Galliott don’t seem to want to stay buried and our heroes are forced to come to the quick conclusion that not only can this strange alien presence take over people;e when they are asleep but it’s even easier to take them over when they’re dead.
Two supposedly dead crew members of the Galliott show up and claim no knowledge as to how they survived or what happened to their crew, and sure, that’s not suspicious at all. So it is no surprise when it turns out they are both animated corpses being inhabited by the alien race we learn are called Auran.
The Auran race is dying along with their home planet and their distress beacon was a lure to get a ship here so that they could hijack it and escape to start fresh on another world. The Aurans tell Markary that killing isn’t required and that the Aurans are willing to cohabitate with them, of course, Markary’s not keen on his own homeworld being invaded by a parasitic race and tells them to go and stuff it. Unfortunately, one of the Aurans made off with the Argos Meteor Rejector and without it their ship will not survive the long trip home.
Markary and his crew rush to the Galliott to retrieve the Meteor Rejector with the secondary mission being to plant explosives and blow the Galliott and its alien infected crew to smithereens. Only Captain Markary and Sanya (Norma Bengell) make it back, as Wess launches them into space and away from the Planet of the Vampires.
Sure enough, it turns out that Markary and Sanya didn’t quite get away as cleanly as we would have liked to believe, poor Wes discovers that his friends are now Aurans, he refuses their offer to join them and runs off to destroy the Meteor Rejector, fatally electrocuting himself in the process, and thus without the device the Aurans must pick a nearer planet to land on, a more primitive planet, one that is the third planet from the Sun.
The ending may scream out Twilight Zone but this is a Mario Bava movie and the thing that will stand out above all else is its visual style, which this movie certainly has in spades. From the snazzy black leather spacesuits to the Daliesque ship designs, to the colourful smoke-filled alien landscapes this movie is a feast for the eyes. It’s an international cast so at times the dubbing isn’t the best but, overall, the actors all do a great job in a film that looks much better than its $200,000 budget has any right to look. This is a must-see for fans of early science fiction movies but is really a must-see for anybody who simply likes great movies.
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
Though the movie contains no vampires, and really should have been called Planet of the Zombies, this is a gorgeous film and easily one of the most influential ones of the genre.