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'Planet of the Vampires'? Hell Yeah!

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‘Hell Yeah!’ is an ongoing series in which horror filmmakers, critics and fans share their take on movies they love. This month: vampires!

I'm a huge horror film fan, but I'm not especially drawn to vampire films for some reason.  That's not to say I dislike vampires... it's just that I'm a bit more selective when it comes to that particular slice of the horror genre.  I love Carl Theodor Dreyer's dreamlike Vampyr (1932) and F.W. Murnau's sinister Nosferatu (1922).  Larry Fessenden's Habit (1996) is one of the best vampire films in recent memory.  But today I'm going to talk about an entirely different flavor of vampire film: Mario Bava's Planet Of The Vampires (1965).

Bava began his career by mopping up for absent directors.  He would take over for a director who had left the helm of a production, and then finish the film for him, usually without being credited.  Bava's breakthrough hit (as a properly credited director) was Black Sunday (1960) starring Barbara Steele.  After a series of sword and sandal pictures, plus the quirky thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) with John Saxon, Bava hit his second home run with Black Sabbath (also 1963).  Working tirelessly, Bava then cranked out The Whip And The Body (again, 1963) starring Christopher Lee, Blood and Black Lace (1964), and The Road to Fort Alamo (1964).

He then directed Planet Of The Vampires, which has also been released as Planet Of Blood, Space Mutants, Terror in Space, The Demon Planet, The Haunted Planet, and several other titles.

Planet Of The Vampires scores high marks for being among the most unique vampire films I've seen.  It teeters on the edge of not really being a vampire film at all, which I think is one of its charms, though it does bear similarities to other films that fall into the narrow "space alien as vampire" sub-genre (sharing shelf space with Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce and the like).

Planet Of The Vampires is a sci-fi tale of two ships landing on a mysterious planet where an alien race is trying to escape their doomed world.  This alien race - the "vampires" of the title - are almost invisible, as they exist on a "plane of vibration" different than ours.  In addition to having influence over humans who are unconscious, the alien beings can also inhabit the bodies of the dead, causing them to rise from the grave.  When the crew of the spacecraft begin dying, the alien vampire beings get down to business.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this movie is the look of the doomed planet - and the fact that, as usual, director Mario Bava had the smallest of budgets to create it.  Instead of striving for absolute realism, the filmmakers chose to be a bit expressionistic with the look of the alien landscape.  Given the budgetary limitations, this was a sensible choice.  Bava photographed this alien world using only two or three full-sized rocks lifted from the set of another science-fiction picture.  The rest of the alien world came into being through the use of matte paintings, miniatures, and clever forced perspective trickery.  The resulting visuals, swirling with thick mist and bathed in vibrant reds, blues, and greens, make Planet Of The Vampires a beautiful movie to look at.  These visuals also create a Hades-like environment from which the space vampires rise, visually linking this sci-fi film to the supernatural roots of vampire lore.

Planet Of The Vampires seems to have made little impact on the vampire films of today.  In fact, the film's greatest claim to fame is being a primary inspiration for Ridley Scott's Alien.  Still, the spectrum of vampire movies through the history of cinema is a little more interesting thanks to this small film, and the ingenuity of its director.

- Eric Stanze
(Director, Scrapbook, Deadwood Park, Ratline)

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