Blu-Ray Review: Planet of the Vampires (1965)

JULY 26, 2022


When most horror fans think of Mario Bava, their mental image is likely something from Black Sunday or Black Sabbath, maybe Shock if the big scare (the one they ripped off in Annabelle) is burned into their mind. But for me, who has never really taken a shine to the senior Bava’s work (Lamberto is more my speed), I just picture Planet of the Vampires; specifically, the astronauts in their goofy/awesome suits standing in their rather sparse spaceship, yammering on about this or that. And I know that sounds like my feelings are negative on the film, but on the contrary, it’s perhaps my favorite of his (or at least tied with The Girl Who Knew Too Much), and thus I was delighted to hear that Kino Lorber Classics would be reissuing it on Blu-ray with a new transfer and some more bonus features.

Because my mental image of the film is also blurry, as my only viewing was on Netflix back when a. it was called “Netflix Instant” (to differentiate from the DVD service that I’m not even sure if they still have) and b. Netflix would include 1960s Italian sci-fi among their offerings. Back then, the quality control wasn’t as tight nor was the service itself, so a lot of movies kind of looked like crap. But I had to laugh, because one of my issues with the film was that it was hard to tell some of the men apart, but watching now in proper high def it wasn’t really a concern. Ironically, even a 16K mega-remaster in immersive 3D wouldn’t completely solve that problem, because it’s partially baked into the film anyway! Per the commentary by Tim Lucas (who, when it comes to Bava, I tend to trust without question) one character is given two names, and another is seemingly recast halfway through the film. I assume that these are just mistakes stemming from the film’s dubbing (the actors spoke at least four languages among them, so almost nothing we are hearing is what they were actually saying), but still: nice to know that my “wait, who’s he?” kind of feelings aren’t just from a mushy transfer or my own mental shortcomings.

Also, it was my first time watching it since seeing Prometheus, which seemed to take influence from it and has had me wondering for a while now whether Ridley Scott and co. did it on purpose to be cute. Vampires’ influence on Alien has been noted but also debated over the years; Scott denied ever having seen it (as did Dan O’Bannon, though he apparently later recanted), so it's hard to levy any "intentional!" sort of claims at it. It’s also unknown if Bava ever saw it himself, though he definitely read the novelization (Lucas notes someone witnessing it firsthand), and he passed away in April of 1980, long before the rise of horror mags and blogs that would probably still be bugging him about it today if he was around. But back to Prometheus; I remember seeing it on opening night and chuckling that they were borrowing from Bava’s film again – the spacesuits alone seem to be proof that this time around the homage couldn’t be chalked up as coincidental. And it didn’t stop there; that film’s plot not only had the characters going back and forth to the other ship from their own quite a bit (as opposed to the single trip in Alien), but it also had a possession angle of sorts, with the crazed Fifield’s attack on the others feeling very much like the “vampires” in this film possessing the heroes and attacking their crewmates. Long story short; maybe it was a coincidence for Alien, but this time around, there was no denying that they were looking at Bava's film for inspiration.

Of course, Prometheus was also a polarizing film with regards to its answers to the mystery of the “space jockey”, so it was nice to go back and be reminded that there is no such explanation offered here when our heroes find a giant skeleton. One theorizes that it was another race of beings that was answering the same distress call that they were, but that’s all it is: a theory. Given the multi-national cast, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were more explanations for this or that in the script only for them to get wiped out due to the complications of dubbing everything, especially when so much of the dialogue is technical jargon as it is, with even simple things like “minutes” given different names. It’s ultimately all explained in a way (spoiler for 60 year old movie ahead: the astronauts aren’t from Earth as you might just assume), but I can still easily believe that they wanted to cut back on such stuff whenever possible in order to make it easier for everyone.

Kino’s Blu looks terrific and is loaded with extras, though most are trailers for other Bava movies as well as not one but two Trailers from Hell segments (one with Joe Dante, the other with Josh Olson). The two meaty supplements are the commentaries; the aforementioned one by Lucas (which appeared on their previous release in 2014), and a brand new track with Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw. Lucas’ unsurprisingly sticks to Bava and the actors, with some of the background history of AIP and their relation to Bava, while the other two have a little more fun and talk about its placement in the sci-fi genre as a whole, occasionally poking fun at some of its production design (the “meteor rejector” being in the middle of the room, for example). Both tracks note the Alien connections (as well as The Thing, albeit to a lesser extent) but don’t dwell on it, though I was surprised to hear how little Prometheus was mentioned, since as I noted, the influence is in my opinion even more direct there.

(Unfortunately “One Night of 21 Hours” - the original story the film was based on, which was included in their previous Blu - is not carried over here. Not a dealbreaker, but worth noting.)

It’s a shame Bava didn’t do more full on sci-fi; his use of color is a great match for the otherworldly landscapes the genre offers, and he clearly has a great deal of affinity for the “science” part of the equation (Newman notes that after Star Wars, sci-fi usually meant something else with very little “science fiction” involved). And he did a pretty good job of depicting an alien planet and a spaceship on a very low budget, all with in camera effects to boot! So imagine what he could have done in the 1970s when the budgets started getting bigger and the technicians learned even more tricks to pull off the impossible. Oh well. At least we got this one.

What say you?


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