Planet of the Vampires is Mario Bava’s science-fiction extravaganza, a film pulled from the printed page and given life on the big screen, on par with any spectacle of the day. While there are no vampires of the traditional sort, the creatures featured in this movie steal lives instead of blood in order to preserve their existence. There might be an initial disappointment in the viewer because of this, but what Bava and company do is create something original, a film set far from the monsters of the day like Hammer’s Dracula and in doing so, give the audience an all-new vision of horror.
Famously shot on a budget of almost nothing, Bava had to resort to numerous forms of camera trickery to pull off what he needed to accomplish. What ended up on screen was a truly stunning and beautiful work of art, especially given the fact many would have failed to do the same. Admittedly, the man had to use a lot smoke machines among other things to cover up the cheaply made sets, but it worked exceedingly well and created an atmosphere both mysterious and frightening. There were times when as a viewer, the empathy for the astronauts was high, never knowing what was going to come out of the dark and the fog that Bava created, be it friend or foe. Bava would also paint the film in vivid colour whenever possible; those hues providing not only a sense of safety within the ship, but one of uneasiness as well as it would serve to highlight the ever-present fog on the planet’s surface. It is on this planet where two spacecraft would find themselves marooned, their respective crews going mad and eventually being killed off, one by one. The men and women of the ships are surrounded by hopelessness in this alien territory and Bava revels in it. For a time, he gives them a light at the end of the tunnel, but slowly extinguishes it as each body falls. Visually, the film is beautiful, but there is a desolation in that beauty that eventually lays waste to everything in its path.
It was not just the atmosphere that Bava created that would lend itself to the horror of the picture, but the aliens and the fear of the unknown. The disembodied consciousness of those aliens, the ‘vampires’ of the film were frightening as they could essentially do anything that they wished, anything except get off of their planet that is slowly dying. Not being able to see them and not being able to fight them off as they overtook the minds of the crew and possessed their dead is a horror one can only imagine and the actors and actresses within did a great job at bringing that across. Additionally, Bava gives it all a sense of gravitas with the discovery of another alien ship, filled with the bones of giants much more technologically advanced than the Earth-men. It is impressive and awe-inspiring, yet once again, quite scary. for if they could not fend off the aliens, what chance does the crew ultimately have?
As far as science-fiction films go, Planet of the Vampires is one of the very best – a perfect blending of 1950’s adventurous and pulpy sci-fi with a bleak and terrifying foray into horror. Mario Bava took those two genres and mashed them together to create a movie that kept its audience guessing and glued to their seats. It was scary and exciting and would then leave off with an ending that held connotations of doom for the human race, a fitting conclusion to a picture filled with a nameless and faceless horror.
4.5 out of 5