Sci-Fi and Horror, together again!
Planet of the Vampires is a film that not everyone might be aware of, but is an important sci-fi and horror film from 1965. It also marks the kickoff film for the crossover between Sci-Fi Saturdays and the 2021 season of 31 Days of Horror. So without further delay, please deploy your landing flaps, and put on your neck guards.
The trailer shows a lone spaceship sets down on a mysterious planet that is harboring vampire-like aliens that take over the bodies of the crew. What do they want? Can they escape? How can they stop these alien bloodsuckers? This trailer looks a little cheesy, but also seems slightly familiar as well. Welcome to the 31 Days of Horror articles for Sci-Fi Saturdays!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Two large spaceships, the Argo and the Galliot, are responding to a mysterious signal from a foggy planet called Aura. A device called a “meteor rejector” keeps each ship from hitting over 1,000 meteors as they prepare for a landing. As they begin their descent the planet’s signal stops, and communication between the two ships is interrupted. Gravitation readings increase to 20 g’s and all the crew blacks out except for Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) who manages to steer the ship carefully to the surface.
The unconscious crew members awaken and immediately begin attacking each other. Dr. Karan (Fernando Villena) locks the others in the ship and takes off outside. Mark and Wess (Angel Aranda) find him, but he seems to be dazed, not knowing how he got there. Mark has the crew look over the ship but it is damaged. He then takes a scouting party, which includes Wess, Sanya (Norma Bengell) and Eldon (Mario Morales) to find their sister-ship the Galliot. All they find are a number of dead bodies of the crew, which they bury.
Eldon is the first member of the Argo crew to disappear. The three bodies which the team buried rise up out of the swirling fog, coming back to life. Meanwhile Wess tries to steal the meteor rejector, but when stopped he’s not sure where he is. Mark realizes that while unconscious or asleep the crew is susceptible to an alien presence on the planet. Outside some of the crew see some luminous globes in their peripheral vision. Captain Salas (Massimo Righi), of the Galiot, attacks and kills Bert (Franco Andrei) who comes back to life in the medbay, startling Tiona (Evi Marandi).
Mark and Sanya investigate a derelict ship spotted by Carter (Ivan Rassimov) who stands guard outside. The ship has been on the planet for quite a while and contains two giant skeletons, one inside and one out. The pair are trapped inside by a sonic lock as the air is slowly drawn out of the room. They find the control to open the portal and escape, but Carter is now gone. Back at the Argo Captain Salas and Keir (Rico Boido) arrive apparently healthy, but bloody. While no one is paying attention they steal the meteor rejector and return it to the Galliot.
The Auran that inhabits Salas’ dead body explains itself to Mark. They can no longer survive on the planet and are looking for a way off. Mark would rather die than help these aliens escape the planet to infect his homeworld. Mark works out a plan with Sanya and Brad (Stelio Candelli) to grab the rejector and blow up the Galliot. Back at the Argo Dr. Karan and Tiona stand guard while Wess fixes the ship. Mark’s brother Toby (Alberto Cevenini) tries to stop them from completing the mission, but they ‘disable’ him.
Only Mark and Sanya make it back to the Argo, where Wess is the only survivor of another attack. The three of them depart the planet and plug the meteor rejector back in. Wess then realizes that both Mark and Sanya are “infected” by the Aurans. He smashes the meteor rejector so they can’t return to their point of origin, but in doing so electrocutes himself. Mark pays no mind to that and agrees that they can reach a nearby planet with a primitive civilization. It happens to be the third planet of a star they call Sol. The vid-screens show the planet Earth.
“Our sun’s been dying, as you can see. And that means the end of our species as well.” – Auran inhabiting Captain Salas
History in the Making
Planet of the Vampires has an interesting pedigree. It’s an American produced film, shot in Italy by director Mario Bava with an international slate of actors, and distributed in the States by American International Pictures. AIP had been distributing other Italian produced films when their Producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z Arkoff, whose credits included lower grade B-Movies such as X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and Invasion of the Saucer Men, decided to finance a film of their own. They hired Ib Melchior who had written Robinson Crusoe on Mars and written and directed The Angry Red Planet to adapt an Italian sci-fi short story called “One Night of 21 Hours” by Renato Pestriniero. The international makeup of the cast created an interesting and rare sight in sci-fi films of the time. American Barry Sullivan, Brazilian Norma Bengell, Italian Evi Marandi, and Spaniard Angel Aranda reportedly spoke their native tongues on set, being all over-dubbed later in English for the final release. The look and camaraderie of the crew created an international looking feeling a year prior to the emergence of Star Trek, which boasted a multi-ethnic crew. What followed was a low-budget, yet creative film that many have never heard of.
The film manages to be both a solid sci-fi film and an effective horror film, with the final twist that the characters are not from Earth as audiences might have believed, and the fact that they will be landing on our planet with their Auran infected bodies leading to a potential outbreak, being terrifying. As with many low-budget films, shortcuts were taken to allow the film to be made, but there’s so much that is actually inventive and appropriate, it seems like an obvious choice, rather than a budgetary one. The mysterious planet that this strange signal is broadcast from is dark, with swirling mists–a choice probably made to hide the limited sets. The Italian crew used colorfully gelled lights to provide a surreal appearance to the rocky set pieces and ship interiors, giving the sense of a real alien planet. The crew costumes look like something from the 2000 X-Men film, with leather body suits and thin color piping. Each ship’s crew gets a different color emblem (yellow for the Argo and red for the Galliot), and the captain gets one that contains more lightning bolts. Additionally the use of high collars and leather skull caps plays into the horror aesthetic. If fans ponder the use of the word Vampires in the title, the collars would protect the characters necks from a fanged bite, which may be a purposeful misdirection since these monsters are psychic suckers. The skull caps evoke the slicked back hair of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, while also completing a futuristic ensemble. The special effects may be on the lower budget side in comparison, with a lack of depth of field in shots where a miniature spaceship is filmed. But there’s a dreamlike quality in these moments that fits in with that horror vibe.
One of the immediate things that audiences notice about Planet of the Vampires is the similarities to Ridley’s Scott’s Alien and later Prometheus. A space bound crew lands on a planet due to a strange signal emanating from it. While on the planet some of the crew explore a derelict ship which contains a corpse of a gigantic dead alien. The crew is also a host for an alien lifeform which wants nothing more to get off world. You can see the similarities, so why is the film so unknown? Ridley Scott claims he was unfamiliar with this film as did writer Dan O’Bannon, but in more recent interviews (The Making of Alien, 2019 by JW Rinzler) O’Bannon admits, “I stole the giant skeleton from the Planet of the Vampires.” But knowing the influence that Alien drew from this source doesn’t detract from either film. Both movies have decidedly different tones and approach the same sci-fi/horror concepts from different avenues. Bava’s Vampires has a surreal and ethereal dreamlike quality, while Scott’s Alien is all too real.
Planet of the Vampires, while released in 1965, feels like a sci-fi film from the late 1950s at latest. The low budget ship designs with their random buttons and flashing lights seem like something from Forbidden Planet. The characters also use a lot of techno-babble in the opening of the film, creating jarring dialogue that is meant to seem “futuristic” but comes off as awkward. They talk about “60 fractions of a megon,” and applying “neuro-vascular tension” as they make their landing on the planet. This could be an early clue that this is not a crew from Earth, but some other planet, but instead it seems like a lot of words the writers made up. The one phrase that gets used a lot, and stands out as being wrong, is the “meteor rejector.” The Captain is very interested in how many meteors the device has rejected, joking with the crew that they are almost at 1,000 meteors. It’s a force field, or even an energy curtain guys! You sound dumb when you say it like that.
The film makes clever use of miniature spaceships for the early moments of the Argo landing on the planet. Aside from the sometimes blurry image (as mentioned above) these models convey a sense of what the ship looks like, as sci-fi models often did. This was not a traditional flying saucer, but a disc-shaped ship with nacelles sticking out the rear and three clawed landing gear. The production helps to sell the scale of this ship later by building giant landing gear props for the crew to stand by. This was not a common technique but for this lower budget film, the technique really sold the reality of the spacecraft. The use of forced perspective miniatures and the Schüfftan process, where mirrors, miniatures and live action sets are combined to create an in-camera effect that appears to incorporate the models and the actors in a single shot, allowed for some creative and inexpensive scenes that would have been too cost prohibitive other ways.
But Planet of the Vampires is not only a science-fiction film but a horror one as well, and the attention to detail for these elements was not overlooked. Besides the omnipresent fog, which sets a spooky horror vibe, the production also built at least one giant skeleton (used in two shots as two different dead aliens), because what’s a haunted planet without a skeleton? They also created several makeup effects for the dead and reanimated bodies that wander around the planet and ship. The chilling shot of the dead arising from their futuristic grave, covered in plastic sheeting is creepy. The partially decomposed bodies rip the plastic from over their face as they wander, zombie-like towards the ship. Later, Captain Salas accidentally allows his tunic to fall open, revealing a skinless thorax with bone and muscle exposed. It’s a quick shot but effective to sell the reanimation of the dead pilots. Director Bava also utilizes some cinematic techniques to communicate the horror. When a character rises from the dead or a particular moment of terror affects the crew, the camera performs a quick dolly or a fast zoom in to capture the fear on the character’s face, often accompanied by a sufficient sound effect. These may feel a little cheap or dated in today’s world but they do promote the audience to jump at some of the shocks.
Planet of the Vampires reminds audiences that even in space, characters in a horror film can make dumb decisions. After Mark realizes that the aliens appear to be possessing the crew while unconscious, he makes the edict that anyone sleeping shall have a guard stand over them. Yet later when Salas and Keir are found and brought back to the ship (unknowingly possessed by Aurans) Mark informs them of needing a guard, but he will tell them why later. It seems like a pretty important piece of information that one might want to provide to a friend. This, along with constantly leaving single guards on duty, who end up wandering away because they hear something calling their name or getting killed off-screen are some of the normal tropes attributed to horror films and expected of the more minor characters.
But the plight of the alien creatures is really the most interesting aspect. The possessed Salas communicates the dire nature of the Auran people to Mark and his crew. Their sun is dying and they would like to be able to leave the planet before that happens. He mentions that they don’t need dead bodies, just ones willing to submit to having a “traveller” with them, though dead bodies work as well. Mark snaps that he will not submit to parasites and would rather die than help them, even though the Auran indicates that it’s not a parasitical bond, just a shared body. This may seem appropriate for the character of Mark, the protagonist and hero of the story, until you realize that these ships were responding to a distress call from the planet in the first place. Maybe it’s the fact that the aliens didn’t ask for consent that really irks the Captain. But this moment provides a more empathetic moment for the alien beings (the vampires of the title) that many horror films of the time did not attempt. Was this the correct choice to make? It’s not clear because Mark and Sanya end up becoming “infected” at some point anyway, and revealing that they will be landing on contemporary Earth. This twist is very surprising since it was intimated several times that these space travellers are humans and as such presumably from Earth. The Auran mentions that he knows, “you humans have fought and killed for centuries.” But that all appears to be misdirection, and it was well-earned reveal!
The Science in The Fiction
Space flight can be dangerous. That’s why all spaceships should be equipped with meteor rejectors. And if you’ve got one, why not a back-up? The ability for the possessed crewmembers to steal a working rejector to blackmail the remaining humans to rescue the Aurans seems like something that could be prevented with a change in the way this necessary piece of technology is incorporated into the ship. Obviously, the plot necessitated keeping the characters on the planet and giving them a reason to have a ticking clock they were working against. Maybe in 1965 this was a novel idea, but it’s something that seems silly and contrived now.
Another very dangerous aspect of space travel is landing on alien planets. Besides Dr. Karan (who was admittedly possessed at the time) racing out of the ship without breathing apparatus or checking to see if the atmosphere was safe (it was) is a little dumb. But the biggest moment of what-are-they-thinking comes with the increased gravity during the landing. The characters were experiencing anywhere between 20 and 40 times the force of gravity as they were landing (both units are stated), knocking everyone out except for the heroic captain. He managed to struggle and maintain consciousness allowing him to operate the necessary controls. Listen, if you are smart enough to create a meteor rejector but fail to automate and control any forces that could kill the crew in seconds, then you deserve to die on an alien planet.
The Final Frontier
Planet of the Vampires has cheesy moments of both horror and science-fiction but it also has a quality about it that is fascinating. Perhaps it’s the visual style put forth by the Italian filmmakers, or maybe it’s the unique story of a large spaceship crew struggling to escape this planet. The dubbing of the English dialogue can certainly be distracting, as can any kind of foreign dialogue film, but it also adds a uniqueness that provides an interesting viewing experience. Plus, seeing a film that has a number of elements that influenced one of the scariest sci-fi films of the modern era is a real treat.
Be sure to check back each Saturday in October as Sci-Fi Saturdays is channeling it’s inner horror as it crosses over with 31 Days of Horror. The remaining films will be a mix of fun, bizarre and classic 80s movies that mix up sci-fi with a varying amount of horror. And be sure to tune in nightly all October for new articles showcasing a myriad of scary movies on 31 Days of Horror, such as last night’s Jaws. Thanks for reading and be sure to wear your high-collared spacesuits the next time you head to a strange planet.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.