Planet of the Vampires / Planet of the Damned / Planet of Blood / Planet of Terror / Demon Planet / The Outlawed Planet / The Haunted Planet / The Haunted World / Space Mutants / Terror in Space / Terrore nello Spazio (1965) ****
Every so often, I’ll run across a movie of little or no repute that will make me jerk upright in my seat and say to myself, “Holy shit! How could something this good have hidden from me for so long?!” That was how I felt the first time I saw Island of Terror, The Return of the Aliens’ Deadly Spawn, and Shock Waves: like I’d unearthed some secret treasure from a forgotten civilization while digging a flower bed in my yard. Mario Bava’s mostly neglected sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Planet of the Vampires/Demon Planet/Terrore nello Spazio, gave me my latest dose of that rare rush, so much so that its very first scene banished all trace of the fatigue that had taken hold of me shortly before I noticed that it was coming on late-night cable, and my attention never wandered for a second afterward, even though it was past 5:30 in the morning by the time the closing credits rolled.
The credit has never been officially acknowledged, so far as I know, but there’s just no way Dan O’Bannon wrote his Alien screenplay in ignorance of Planet of the Vampires. A pair of spaceships, the Argus and the Galeat, have been sent to the planet Aura to investigate a repeating signal that first showed up on the sensors back home two years before. Aura is an aptly named world, its surface shrouded in layers of impenetrable cloud cover, and neither ship’s crew has been able to discover anything about the source of the transmissions from orbit. Eventually, seeing no recourse, Argus captain Mark Markary (Pyro’s Barry Sullivan) talks his counterpart on the Galeat (Ivan Rassimov, who would go on to be a mainstay of Italian schlock horror in the 70’s, appearing in movies like Jungle Holocaust and The Eerie Midnight Horror Show) into landing in order to take a more hands-on approach to the search. No sooner have the preparations begun, however, than the communications link between the Argus and the Galeat fails and some mysterious force begins dragging the two ships down to the surface with many times the strength of the planet’s natural gravity.
Things actually get worse once the Argus sets down more or less safely— against long odds indeed— on Aura. First of all, maneuvering against the magnified gravity that drew the ship in has left the Argus’s engines in a miserable state. The second, and more urgent, development concerns the strange effect the planet has on the crew’s minds. Everyone but Captain Markary (who was the only crewmember to remain conscious throughout the entire descent) suddenly goes wild and begins fighting viciously against each other for no readily apparent reason; they stop only once they’ve all been knocked out again, and not a single one of them has any memory of the fighting at all. Then communications officer Sanya (Norma Bengell), who was among the first to recover from the bout of unexplained madness, picks up a fragmentary transmission from the Galeat, which strongly suggests that the same thing is happening on the other ship. Captain Markary puts together a rescue team and makes haste with them to the Galeat’s landing site, but it’s far too late by the time they arrive. Markary and the others are greeted by the bloodied corpses of three of their sister ship’s crewmen, lying in the sand just outside the vessel’s gangway. Four more bodies are inside, in compartments sealed off from the rest of the ship by air-tight, blast-proof bulkheads, leaving Captain Sallas and First Officer Kier (spaghetti western regular Federico Boido) unaccounted for. Markary and his men bury the three corpses they can reach, and then head back to the Argus for a cutting torch so as to get to the remaining four, leaving a crewman named Eldon (Mario Morales) to stand guard and wait for their return. They won’t be seeing him again— at least not alive. And what’s more, the bodies inside the Galeat have vanished, too, by the time Markary and company come back with the torch.
Our heroes do the smart thing at this point, and post a round-the-clock watch on all the approaches to the ship as insurance against the possibility that whatever absconded with Eldon and the bodies of the Galeat crew might pay a visit to the Argus before Chief Engineer Wess (Angel Aranda, from Goliath and the Giants and The Colossus of Rhodes) can get the engines repaired. This is an even better idea than Captain Markary realizes, for back at the Galeat, the three dead crewmen whose bodies were buried by the rescue team are clawing their way free of their tombs. When Burt, one of the guards on station outside the Argus, turns up dead after leaving his post to investigate the strange, fast-moving lights he keeps seeing out of the corners of his eyes, we in the audience thus have a somewhat better idea of what might have happened to him than his comrades. Space vampirism (actually, “space zombification” would probably be the better term, as no blood-drinking ever occurs here) turns out to be just as contagious as the terrestrial variety, and Burt does not stay dead for long. It’s just a good thing for Crewman Tiona (Evi Marandi, from Revenge of the Barbarians) that the undead don’t want to make their presence known just yet. Wary of the attention that her screams are sure to draw, Zombie Burt cuts short his attack on her in sick bay, and lies back down on his gurney, ensuring thereby that no one will quite believe the hysterical woman’s story when they come racing to her aid.
Meanwhile, First Officer Carter (Franco Andei) has noticed something odd near the horizon on the opposite side of the ship from the Galeat. When the light is cooperating, a faint, metallic glinting can be made out between the shadows cast by the crags and outcroppings. Hoping to uncover some kind of clue to all the sinister goings-on, Markary takes Carter and Sanya to investigate. The glinting turns out to be caused by light reflecting off the hull of a huge old spacecraft, the decayed condition of which suggests that it may have been stranded on Aura for centuries. Within and around the derelict vessel are the moldering skeletons of humanoids nearly twenty feet tall— looks like our heroes aren’t the first bunch of spacefarers to be lured to their deaths by the signals emanating from Aura. Markary and Sanya split up from Carter while exploring the wreck, with the result that we have come to expect whenever an Argus crewmember is left alone. There’s no sign of Carter when his two comrades emerge from the alien ship.
On the other hand, the long-missing Captain Sallas and his first officer come calling at the Argus soon thereafter. Both men look like they’ve been through hell on a Greyhound bus, and they can offer only the haziest explanation of what has happened to them and their ship. The two survivors are put up for the night— presumably in quarters vacated by Eldon, Burt, or Carter— and are instructed to sleep in shifts. Medical Officer Dr. Karan (Fernando Villena, from The Mysterious Island of Captain Nemo and Night of the Seagulls) has determined that Markary was spared the effects of whatever caused the outbreak of violence the crew experienced upon landfall because he alone was never unconscious during the descent, and Karan has prescribed shift-sleeping as a prophylaxis against the phenomenon’s recurrence. Sallas and Kier do not heed these orders, however, because they are already among the living dead. They have come aboard the Argus to steal the ship’s “meteor rejector,” a sort of force field apparatus without which the vessel could never survive a trip through the debris-strewn space around Aura. Sallas is captured by the Argus crew during the burglary, but it was Kier who was carrying the meteor rejector, and thus that vital piece of equipment is now in the hands of the zombies.
Fortunately, the undead are a talkative lot, and at last we get some real answers. The inhabitants of the planet Aura are some manner of energy creatures— those lights Burt saw earlier were their true forms— which are able to enter the bodies and control the minds of more substantial beings, if the conditions are right. Foremost among those right conditions is the absence of a resisting will; a dead human is therefore an ideal host, though a sleeping or unconscious one will do in a pinch. The reason the Aurans have been so hot to get their hands on the spacefarers’ bodies is that their sun is dying, and their world will soon be uninhabitable, even for them. But because they have no bodies of their own, they are incapable of building machines that could take them to other inhabitable planets. After explaining all of this, the Auran inside of Sallas offers to make a deal with Markary and his people: they will be allowed to live and their meteor rejector will be returnred if they will enter into a symbiotic relationship with the Aurans, opening their minds to the aliens’ control and providing thereby a means of escape from the doomed planet. Markary doesn’t like the sound of that. He figures the Aurans will want to hold on to their bodies even after the journey is finished, and he rightly worries about what will happen once the Argus returns home with a cargo of incorporeal, body-snatching aliens aboard. Far from accepting the Aurans’ deal, Markary incinerates Sallas with his raygun, and sets about planning a raid on the Galeat, where the rest of the zombies are holding the Argus’s meteor rejector. And again we see a parallel between the zombies of Aura and their more familiar cousins from Pittsburgh or the Philippines— large-scale confrontations between them and live humans tend not to go very well for the living. There’s also a neat double twist at the end, half of which you’ll surely see coming, but the other half of which you might very well not.
I cannot overemphasize how completely blindsided I was by the sheer excellence of this movie. Mario Bava’s broody, methodical direction definitely won’t be to everybody’s taste, but to my way of thinking, it is exactly what the story of Planet of the Vampires calls for. The air of slowly but relentlessly escalating menace that pervades the first hour of the film resembles the best of Romero and Carpenter, and it’s easy to see why so much of this movie later ended up being recycled into the first act of Alien. In fact, in its best moments, Planet of the Vampires is almost as potent as its illustrious descendant. The film’s two greatest assets are probably its music and its production design. The former resembles a starker, stripped-down version of the already eerie electronic score from Forbidden Planet, and gets under your skin in a way that more conventional background music would not. (Note, however, that the only way for English-speakers to hear that especially apt score is to catch this movie in the TV edit known as Demon Planet. As so often happened with Italian movies during the 60's, US distributors American International Pictures commissioned a new and significantly less distinctive score for the theatrical prints, which sadly formed the basis for the currently available DVD.) And as for the latter, let me start by saying that Planet of the Vampires looks like no other movie I’ve seen. The sets for the Auran landscape look more conventional today than they would have in 1965, but there is a threatening rawness to them that few if any of the movies that have copied them can match. The spaceship interiors also bear a faint resemblance to those used on “Star Trek” a year later, but it would perhaps be better to say that the Argus looks like the Enterprise of Captain Kirk’s nightmares. The spaces are all infinitely too large, and become intimidating by virtue of their very emptiness, as though the crewmembers were children occupying rooms designed for the comfort of giants. There is never enough light to see by, and the color scheme inside the ship is dominated by a somehow hostile, bluish battleship gray. Then there are the costumes. Where else have you seen black leather space suits with orange piping at the seams? In these outfits, the Argus crew look less like astronauts than a fascistic interstellar biker gang. Everything about the movie’s visual esthetic seems calculated to throw the viewer off balance; with so few of the familiar science fiction commonplaces to fall back on, it is impossible not to feel the forbidding alienness of Aura.
It is perhaps only to be expected, then, that the movie stumbles at precisely those points where familiar elements begin creeping into the story. I experienced an almost palpable letdown when the tired old dying-world cliche reared its wizened head, and I also found the strong echoes of Invisible Invaders in the last act a bit disappointing. The latter complaint might sound a bit odd, given how much I liked the aforementioned film, with its foreshadowing of Night of the Living Dead, and in most other contexts I would indeed look favorably upon the association. But in its first hour, Planet of the Vampires is so completely its own creature that any strong hint of another, earlier movie looks lazy. If anything, it is a mark of this film’s power that it can earn my annoyance by reminding me of something toward which I am otherwise positively disposed.