Planet of the Vampires Blu-ray Review: A Low Budget Masterpiece

Mario Bava’s work as a special effects designer and cinematographer before he became a director is apparent in all the films he directed. This is no more easily seen than in Planet of the Vampires (1965), a sci-fi/horror film that looks beautiful, eerie, and like it cost a whole lot more to make than its actual minuscule budget. Kino Lorber is putting out an excellent-looking Blu-ray of the film this week with plenty of cool extras.

Two spaceships receive a distress call from an uncharted planet. As they attempt to land on the planet, the extreme gravity-forces knock nearly everyone unconscious. Only Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) of the Argos remains fully awake. Upon landing, he is attacked by one crew member after another. A good punch in the face or a knock on the head brings them out of their rage whereupon they have no memory of what just happened.

Once the entire crew of the Argos has come back to sanity, a team is sent to the Galliott where they find nobody left alive. The bodies met violent ends as if they had been beaten to death. Later, one of the crewmembers of the Argos who had been sleeping is found trying to sabotage the ship while in a trance-like state. Whatever aliens are on this planet must be able to take control of their minds when they are unconscious.

When another ship is discovered across the eerie, fog-filled landscape, Marakay, Sanya (Norma Bengell), and Carter (Ivan Rassimov) investigate. There they find the skeletal remains of giant, alien creatures. It seems our heroes were not the first people to have answered the distress signal’s call. Later, some of the dead crew members become reanimated by the non-corporeal aliens. Making me wonder why the title of this film is not Planet of the Zombies instead of Planet of the Vampires, but I guess zombies weren’t a common enough idea in 1965 to sell tickets. The original Italian title for the film translates to Terror in Space which I think is a better name than either of the others.

Honestly, if I were to write out every plot point in this film and you tried to put it together in a logical manner, you’d be left scratching your head. There are a lot of problems with this story. But the thing is Mario Bava is not known for his well thought out, perfect puzzle-piece plots. He is a visual stylist and there is plenty of that in this film.

Because of its incredibly low budget, all of the special effects had to be shot “in camera” meaning what they filmed is what you get. There were no additional effects to be added in post-production. Luckily, Bava is the freaking master of this sort of thing and the film looks great because of it. He used miniatures, forced perspectives, fog, mirrors, and every other trick in his large pockets.

Inside the vast and strangely empty spaceship, two people talk to each other through a classic sci-fi-looking screen, except the screen is just clear glass and the other characters are simply on the other side. Yet it looks really like a space-age video screen. Mirrors are placed on the planet set so that plastic rocks are multiplied over and over (in an interview Bava said there were only two of them, but this process makes it look like there are lots of them). Characters are placed in very particular spaces so that when the camera is placed at a certain angle next to the small models they look gigantic compared to the actors.

Fog obscures the cheapness of the sets and adds an eeriness to the ambiance. Dark blues, reds, and green lights create an otherworldly atmosphere. Bava uses all the tricks to make a cheap movie look and feel like something special.

Kino Lorber presents Planet of the Vampires with a new 2K transfer. Extras include an audio commentary from critic Kim Newman and journalist Barry Farshaw, plus an additional commentary from Bava expert (he literally wrote the book on him) Tim Lucas. Also included are highlights from the alternate score, the original Italian opening credits, Trailers From Hell from Joe Dante and Josh Olsen (in which the trailer for the film plays while they comment on the actual film), and the actual trailer.

Mario Bava was an incredibly influential director whose name has sadly mostly been forgotten outside of genre fanatics. His films truly deserve to be seen by more people. Planet of the Vampires is a great example of what would be a silly sci-fi flick in the hands of anyone else but becomes something quite beautiful and brilliant with Bava at the helm.

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Mat Brewster

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