A spaceship responds to a beacon emanating from a remote, desolate planet. While exploring its inhospitable surface, some of the crew (led by their no-nonsense captain) inspect a derelict craft and the giant, skeletal remains of its long-dead occupant. Meanwhile, they’re beset by mysterious, malevolent entities intent on their destruction whose ultimate goal is hitching a ride aboard their ship. Sounds like a rough outline of 1979’s Alien, but it’s actually the plot of a film made 14 years earlier: Mario Bava’s sci-fi/horror opus Terrore nello spazio, commonly known as Planet of the Vampires, and one of Alien’s key inspirations.
Like many of his contemporaries in the Italian film industry, Bava spent the ’60s bouncing from genre to genre. Following his official directorial debut with the 1960 Gothic horror Black Sunday (a genre he returned to with 1963’s The Whip and the Body and 1966’s Kill, Baby… Kill!), he tackled in quick succession the peplum (1961’s Hercules in the Haunted World), Vikings (1961’s Erik the Conqueror), gialli (1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1964’s Blood and Black Lace), a horror anthology (1963’s Black Sabbath), and a western (1964’s The Road to Fort Alamo). Only then did he circle back to the territory he staked out in 1958 with The Day the Sky Exploded (a film signed, like the rest of Bava’s ’50s work, by another director).
The result of a co-production deal with American International Pictures, which had distributed a number of Bava’s previous films, Planet of the Vampires found the resourceful cameraman-turned-director working his usual wonders on a six-week shooting schedule and a tight budget. (Bava biographer Tim Lucas cites the figure $200,000 on his commentary, one of two on the KL Studio Classics Blu-ray out this month in a new, 2K transfer.) Relying as little as possible on optical effects, Bava used models, forced perspective, the Schüfftan process, and other ingenious in-camera methods of placing his actors amid the cavernous spaceship interiors and otherworldly exteriors of the planet Aura, all created on the stages of Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios.
Aura, it turns out, is the source of the beacon that attracts the Argos and its sister ship, the Galliot. (Bava again demonstrates his frugality by having one set double for both.) The former is under the command of Capt. Mark Markary, played by Hollywood veteran Barry Sullivan (The Bad and the Beautiful, Forty Guns), whose square-jawed performance lends his character the authority that might otherwise be lacking, due to the pseudo-scientific word salad he and the rest of the cast are tasked with reciting – phonetically, in some cases. As was standard practice, Sullivan’s co-stars hailed from all over, with Brazilian Norma Begell and Greek Evi Marandi standing out as Sanya and Tiana, the two female Argonauts expected to hold their own alongside their male counterparts.
The crew of the Galliot, on the other hand, doesn’t stick around long enough to leave an impression since they’re all killed upon landing on Aura. A similar fate nearly befalls the crew of the Argos when they’re rendered unconscious – save for Capt. Markary, who manages to halt their uncontrolled descent – and awake with the desire to attack each other. Markary prevents the bloodshed that occurred on the Galliot by literally knocking some sense into them, but it takes a while for the penny to drop that anytime they go to sleep they’re susceptible to being possessed by the planet’s restless natives. No wonder engineer Wess (Spaniard Ángel Aranda), who works around the clock to repair their solar batteries, is so sleep-deprived when they’re ready to lift off a couple days later. By that time, Markary, Sanya, and Wess are the only ones left alive, but who – or what – else has stowed away with them?
Planet of the Vampires boasts no shortage of eye-popping visuals and eerie scenes, with the most memorable following Argos crew’s burial of the Galliot’s dead. Soon after, the mangled bodies are resurrected and emerge from their improvised graves – a chilling echo of Javutich’s disinterment in Black Sunday and a sign the Aurans aren’t particular about the physical condition of their temporary hosts. It’s in these scenes that Planet lands squarely on the horror end of the sci-fi/horror spectrum, the clearest precursor of Alien and its multitude of imitators.
As for Bava, he was no stranger to being imitated. (His 1971 proto-slasher A Bay of Blood boasts a dozen scenes that would be lifted wholesale by filmmakers in the decade to come.) In spite of its success in the States, though, where it played on a double bill with the Boris Karloff vehicle Die, Monster, Die!, Planet’s poor domestic box office meant his subsequent output remained decidedly earthbound, even as he skirted sci-fi territory with the 1966 spy spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (the sequel to AIP’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, with Vincent Price reprising the title role) and revisited Planet’s striking costuming in the 1968 fumetti adaptation Danger: Diabolik. Mario Bava’s venture into the cosmos may have been a one-time trip, but it was a memorable one.
“Planet of the Vampires” is streaming on Prime, Shudder, and a host of other services.