Later tonight, I’m going to watch Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath but before I do, I want to take a few minutes to review another one of Bava’s films, 1965’s sci-fi/horror hybrid Planet of the Vampires.
Taking place in the far future, Planet of the Vampires begins with two space ships receiving a distress call from an unexplored planet. While landing, the two ships are separated from each other. As the Argos lands, its crew is possessed by an unknown force and suddenly start trying to kill each other. Only the ship’s captain (Barry Sullivan, who gives a surprisingly good performance in a role that most actors would have just sleepwalked through) is able to resist and he manages to snap the rest of the crew out of their hypnotic state.
Once the Argos lands, search parties are sent out to find the other ship. They find themselves on a barren planet where the surface is obscured by a thick, multi-colored fog. As they wander through the planet, it quickly becomes apparent that they aren’t alone. The searchers may have left the ship as human but they return as something else all together. It all leads up to a surprisingly bleak conclusion.
If the plot of Planet of the Vampires sounds familiar, that’s because it’s probably one of the most influential, if not widely known, films of all time. The film has been imitated in several other, far more expensive films but few of them manage to capture Planet of the Vampires’ sense of isolation and impending doom. With this film, Bava again showed that he was one of the few directors wh0 could accomplish so much with so little. While this isn’t an actor’s film, fans of Italian horror will squeal with delight to see Ivan Rassimov pop up here in a small role.
I’ve mentioned Planet of the Vampires before on this site when I was giving 10 reasons why I hated Avatar. To me, Planet of the Vampires stands as proof that you don’t need a gigantic budget to make an effective horror (or sci-fi film). In fact, often times, all a huge budget does is shut down the audience’s imagination and quite frankly, nothing on film will ever be as impressive as what the audience can imagine. With Planet of the Vampires, all that Mario Bava had to create an alien world were two plastic rocks and a smoke machine. Working without the crutch of CGI, Bava had to pull off most of the film’s special effects “in camera,” and he would later say that one of the benefits of all that smoke was that it helped to obscure just how low budget this film was. In short, Bava was working under circumstances that James Cameron would refuse to even consider and yet Planet of the Vampires holds up better upon repeat viewings than Avatar ever will. The low-budget forced Bava to emphasize atmosphere over effects. Yes, this film has its share of gore (it’s an Italian horror film, after all) but ultimately, this is another example of a horror film that works because of what it doesn’t show. This is a film that exploits your imagination, working its way into the darker corners of your consciousness. Bava creates a palpable atmosphere of doom that makes Planet of the Vampires into a surprisingly effective film.