Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Planet of the Vampires

1965 **

"I didn't steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!" -- Dan O'Bannon

I'm recycling that quote because It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires make a nice double feature of movies that influenced Alien. It's murky if either film was actually a direct influence on the screenwriters of Alien (accounts vary), but in a way it doesn't matter. I say we just give them credit as aesthetic/spiritual antecedants and move forward.

Two interstellar ships, the Argos and the Galliot, receive a distress call from Aura, an unexplored planet shrouded in thick fog. The spaceships' interior design takes its cues not from the cramped, real-ish, submarine-like template of It! but rather the more fantastic, minimalist ideas I believe grace a lot of Flash Gordon serials. Having watched Apollo 18 recently, I just marveled at the spaciousness of this cockpit.

"I'm sorry, what the hell did you say? I can't hear you guys from my space desk."

Shortly before landing, the Argos loses contact with the Galliot and then everyone on board starts beating each other up. For some reason the captain keeps his cool and manages to slap everyone back to normal. Here's a shot of a nonsensically roomy hallway because I just can't shut up about it.

"Good Christ where is that fucking outlet?"

The crew finds the landed Galliot but they all killed each other, except later some of them are seen walking around. Also every Argos crew member who is placed on solo guard duty goes missing. This happens no less than three times, which is astoundingly dumb. So too is the reveal, as crewmembers both alive and dead are being possessed by very un-vampirish "balls of light you can only see out of the corner of your eye." They're the remains of the native Aurans, who are trying to escape their dying world with the old distress call/alien possession gag. They tried it once before on some really big aliens, so as to inspire Dan O'Bannon someday.

I so wish that table were crammed with giant alien wine bottles.

This movie gets all its points for stylishness because the story is a big fizzly blandwich. It seems like nothing happens even when some stuff is actually happening, like the promising subplot of the alien ship with the spooky giant skeletons. They get stuck inside, they get out, the redshirt they left outside is gone, aaand scene!

Moreover, the style didn't really wow me that much. This was directed by Mario Bava, whose atmospheric touches in Black Sabbath I couldn't get enough of last year. This flick also deploys ample smoke machinery and weird colors, but the end result just doesn't play as another planet. Bava is great at old school horror, but the eerie, otherworldly isolation at the core of good sci-fi horror seems to be beyond his reach.

Here's where I get a little ranty. While trawling for screenshots I came across a few opinions more positive than mine, and the word "camp" was trotted out more than once. Campy style can be a lot of good things, but I dislike it immensely as an excuse for a movie's shortcomings. In my opinion, the overused go-to "They knew it sucked when they made it!" does not make things better, but rather the opposite. I think the better artists push through their limitations and find a place of sincerity in their storytelling, even with something as silly as Forbidden World.

That said, I don't think Planet of the Vampires was really aiming for a self-aware wink at the audience. It's based on a short story, and I suspect it just wasn't enough story to make a whole movie, at least not one with very good pacing or plot. Not a bad stopover point if you're doing a Bava film festival, and it's got what might be the hippest space suits ever. Best thing about them: you can't fault the crew for removing their space helmets in an alien atmosphere.

Because they don't have space helmets. They have little hats.


Johnny Sweatpants said...

Awesome, those pictures look really cool. I had no idea Bava flirted with sci-fi. Actually most of the Bava movies I've seen were shoddy public domain copies (Kill Baby Kill, Black Sunday) found in those 50 packs. I think it's time to give his movies proper attention but scanning through his filmography is pretty intimidating.

If I ever get to choose which spaceship to fly on I'm picking the roomy Bava ship!

Catfreeek said...

I'm digging the roomy Bava ship too. I loved what you said about the use of campy, it is way over-used and mostly improperly. Myself, when I think of campy I think of films that made an effort to make fun of their own bad film making by throwing in bad jokes, sarcastic references to their own film and obviously cheesy effects. When a serious attempt at a film is mad and it goes bad, it's just a bad movie.

Also, "fizzly blandwich" is the perfect way to describe any overly talky/techie sci-fi film.