By J. Malcolm Stewart
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Fellow Ghouls. You are a group of intrepid space travelers whose flight through the cosmos is interrupted by a mysterious signal coming from an uninhabited wasteland of a planet. You land to investigate this signal. You come across a weird alien ship filled with the bones of a race of giants, lying dead in place at their navigation seats. Soon, you and your crew are infected with a parasitical evil, one that needs your body to survive….and breed. Yep, you’ve guessed it; you’ve just heard the plot to…. Mario Bava’s 1965 sci-fi thriller Terrore Nello Spazio ? (Commonly translated: Planet of the Vampires, but AIP released this film in English under several title names.) Apparently, in space, no one can hear you scream copyright infringement.
Yes, the influence of Il Maestro reaches far and wide in this, his only science fiction undertaking. Adapated from Renato Pestriniero’s short story “One Night of 21 Hours,” Bava’s film is blessed with a moody, backlit atmosphere that was uncommon for science fiction movies of the time. Starring American Barry Sullivan as Captain Markary and Brazilian bombshell Norma Bengell as Sanya, Vampires gives us some signature Bava moments with its set design, costuming and its mastery of the use of forced perspective. The monster moments of the film are a little muddled (We never are quiet sure what the creatures on this forbidden planet are… Ghosts? Undead? Psychic Phenomenon? Who knows? And given the budget constraints, who cares?) And the “twist” ending does come right down Main Street (Invasion of the Body Snatchers anyone?). But make no mistake, the scene and sets in this film are wonderful. And their influence has endured, despite all the denials to the contrary.
Both Ridley Scott and Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon pleaded ignorance of the Bava film when they made their 1979 sci-fi touchstone (Too bad. I can just imagine young Ridley punking younger brother Tony for the popcorn) However, given Bava’s influence in all realms of film making, there certainly was some thematic borrowing from him in the work of French graphic artist Moebius (RIP) and set designer Ron Cobb. Swiss creature designer, H.R. Giger takes the fifth on this one and given his Necronomicon work, you’ll need brass balls to bug him about it.
Cobb, who also worked on Star Wars, was certainly familiar with Bava given George Lucas’ generous use of forced perspective in that movie. The homage to Planet is evident, especially in the alien spacecraft scene (Fire the movies and compare for yourself, fellow ghouls). Also, Bava’s dead navigator at the controls is a motif that pops up again and again in Ridley’s films (Take that Charlize Theron!) It just proves once again, no one loves Trash Theater more than the guys who do the dirty work.
Of equal interest to Bava-lunatics is the possible influence of Planet on a certain American sci-fi TV series that would boldy go where no man has gone before in the following year of 1966. Now calm down Trekkies (or Trekkers or Tweakers or whatever you’re calling yourself now), I’m fully aware that Gene Roddenberry had versions of Star Trek in the hopper as early as 1960. I also know that good ol’ Gene had the concept rejected several times until he made aspects of it more, shall we say, young-male accessible? Which meant less high concept sf and more mini-skirts. Bava’s Planet crew has a passing resemblance to the Enterprise’s final make-up; tough, but loveable captain, crusty, older doctor, hot-chick communications officer.
Too bad Gene didn’t steal the idea of putting all his female leads in black vinyl uniforms like Planet did. It would have gotten him the Sir Mix-a-Lot seal of approval.
P.S.-Kudos to Ridley Scott for working in another tribute to “Planet of the Vampires” in his recent release, “Prometheus.” Small, but important homage to “P.O.T.V’s” discovery of the dead aliens’ method of activating their technology. Thanks Ridley from us triva buffs. Hope that makes up for all the lukewarm reviews…
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