Planet of the Vampires [Terrore nello spazio] (1965)

(aka, Terror in Space)

This is one of the most incredibly stylish SF films ever made.

We have a brooding, shadowy spaceship, full of strange angles and odd spaces, some of them large enough to leave its crew dwarfed within them.

And this isn’t the aliens’ ship: this is the one our protagonists show up in!

There’s a planet whose jagged, hostile terrain is constantly shrouded in mist, there’s a long abandoned alien ship whose monstrous crew have been reduced to skeletons, there are weird glowing lights and dead men walking…

The ship reminds me a bit of the Ikarie XB-1 in the Czech space film, or perhaps of some of the ships in other Iron Curtain SF of the era, thanks to its curious architecture, large spaces and relative emptiness.  However, none of those ships were as filled with shadows and lurking darkness, nor did they have its brooding emptiness.  I hadn’t noticed on my previous viewings of this film that most of the interior is actually painted black to achieve that gloomy look.  But then, the director, Mario Bava, was a master of lighting and color which he uses to incredible effect here.

Bava was perhaps the greatest Italian horror director of the Sixties and Seventies, an incredibly talented man who, someone once claimed, might have been another Hitchcock if he’d just had better scripts.  That might be a tad exaggerated, but there’s no question that he managed to turn out a few quite remarkable films.

And Planet of the Vampires is easily one of his most remarkable, full of eerie and unsettling visions, the sort of thing that would leave most directors ecstatically happy if they came up with even one or two of the more extravagant moments here.  Perhaps my favorite is when several of the crew rise from their graves, although the visit to a long abandoned alien ship might just edge it out.

It has been claimed that this one influenced Alien.  Ridley Scott denies having seen it, but his screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, admits he’d heard of it and had seen some of the stills.  I’m not sure that explains all the parallels, but what is true is that there haven’t been many other films other than Alien that have matched Bava when it comes to creating a world so creepy and atmospheric.

The story itself is spare and stripped down:  there are a lot of things hinted at, barely explained, or taken no further than needed for the story.  Nor is there much character development, and we really don’t learn much about the crew.  However, the Captain does reveal a side to his personality we would never have guessed at, one that would never have been admitted by the Captains in the movies that influenced Mario Bava (The Thing from Another World comes to mind).

Also noteworthy is the film’s stunning sense of design — and not just for the big, obvious things, but for all the details, from the strange spacesuits with their collars that reach up to the cheekbones, to the jagged shapes of the “tombstones,” to the clattering sound of the steel panels under their feet as they run through the ship.   The odd U-shaped ship is also noteworthy, although it is a little light on detail.

One of the factors that adds to the immediacy of the film is that most of its effects were shot in-camera, using the Shuftan process (which uses mirrors to reflect the live action into a matte) although, instead of mattes, Bava appears to have used small sets and models, which is an intriguing — and I think unique — variation on a process which has been around since the early days of film.  It may not be perfectly realistic, but he manages to combine the mists surrounding his actors with spaceships and jagged rocks.

The result is a singular film, which dumps us helpless on an alien world, and leaves us fighting for our lives against an unseen enemy, a film which is at once creepy and colorful, ominous and dazzling.  It may not be perfect, but you aren’t going to find many SF horror films this good no matter how hard you look.

(For a perfect companion piece, just right for a midnight double feature, check out the equally colorful, weird and creepy Japanese Horror/SF film, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell )

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5 thoughts on “Planet of the Vampires [Terrore nello spazio] (1965)

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