Monday, October 15, 2012

Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires (1965)
Dir. Mario Bava
Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Callisto Cosulich, Antonio Roman, Rafael J. Salvia
Starring Barry Sullivan, Ivan Rassimov, Norma Bengell

Literally nothing on this poster has anything to do with the movie. There are no giant chameleon men, no windmills, no vampires, and what's the deal with this "10,000 years ago..." text?

So, this is kind of a psychological horror sci-fi that Mario Bava did in 1965, five years after BLACK SUNDAY, but still six years before he would change horror forever with TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. It concerns a bunch of indistinguishable Italian actors landing on a planet which would have looked laughable in an episode of Star Trek and mostly hanging around their bland white spaceship wondering what will happen next. And for some reason, decades later Ridely Scott decided that it would be a good idea to remake it for 130 million dollars and call it PROMETHEUS, so I guess in retrospect it’s some kind of cultural icon. But even if he hadn’t, it’s a movie which is extremely odd and even sort of good in a shitty kind of way. I sort of liked it.

It concerns two crews of identical middle-aged Italians (as far as I could tell, all named “Carter” although later I learned from wikipedia that the captain is named “Mark Marky”) who get sucked down by mysterious forces onto a seemingly dead planet of paper mache rocks and dry ice. Mysteriously, they immediately go into a violent trance-like state, saved from slaughtering each other only by the convenient fact that a good punch in the face (for men) or a hard slap (women) wakes them up. They set out to discover the mystery of the planet (which does not turn out to have any literal vampires, leaving one to assume it's named after its discoverer, Sir. Reginald S. Vampires) but, finding no sign of life, resort to a strategy of assigning single crewmembers to isolated guard duty (what they’re guarding is never clear) and then returning to find them mysteriously killed. This turns out to be an unexpectedly effective strategy because eventually the mysterious evil forces of the Planet of the Vampires just come out and explain everything.

We don't later find out this was just a suit, making this alien race clearly better than the pale bald dudes from PROMETHEUS.

All things considered, this is a ludicrous, hilariously inept film which generally feels like the campiest TWILIGHT ZONE ever. But somehow it’s also kind of good. The sparse, expressionistic and minimalistic sets and general lack of music gives it an austere, almost darkly absurdist feel (it could easily be staged as a play, should anyone care to attempt it) and it has a few genuinely good ideas and cool images. Most memorably, a few crew members explore the interior of another ship marooned on the planet, finding it filled with gigantic skeletons (don’t worry, they leave a guy by himself outside as a guard). There’s something evocative about the discovery of this other mystery ship, united with our crew by their common predicament but bizarre and alien in every other way. I can see why Ridley Scott would want to rip it off more successfully in ALIEN and less successfully in PROMETHEUS. Most of it is simply too bland and slow to be worth your time, but the film has its moments, including a pleasantly silly dark twist at the end. Probably more valuable as a cultural artifact that lead to better things, but surprisingly not entirely without its own charms. 

Every conversation in this movie. One of the dramatic highlights of the film comes at the turn of the third act, when someone puts on a new outfit.


BOOBIES: No, it’s rare enough that these ladies even take off their hats. You call this an Italian film?!
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: A little corpse mutilation, but not much considering it’s Bava.
MONSTERS: Aliens, if that counts.
SATANISTS: Religion is not mentioned.
ZOMBIES: Reanimated corpses, but not traditional zombies
VAMPIRES: None, oddly.
SLASHERS: No, only shooters.

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