Planet of the Vampires (1965) is far more accurately described by its Italian title, Terrore nello Spazio, because for almost all of this Mario Bava film all you have is terror and atmosphere. In space.
You have so much Terrore because of mirrors and darkness punctuated by weirdly roiling neon fog and the same few small sets and some plastic tarps, the same couple styrofoam rocks that the actors run past over and over. These tricks make much out of very limited resources and more than make up for some awkward simplistic dialogue, resulting in an oppressively scary sci fi thriller that clearly influenced later movies in plot (Alien) cool black leather costumes (X-men) and terrifying tone (Event Horizon). Barry Sullivan heads the crew on one of two ships that are attracted by strange signals from a planet, and as they approach, the planet’s extreme gravitational power pulls them in for a crash landing. The second the crew comes to their senses they start trying to murder each other. Thanks to the level-headed Sullivan they calm down long enough to wonder what came over them, and get to work on repairs and exploration.
Most of the movie is a process of seeing strange things, asking each other if they really did see those strange things, losing, finding, burying, and re-encountering (rinse and repeat with some decomposition) their fellow astronauts. Sounds monotonous and it is, in a good way; that is, it creates a deeply unsettled feeling, doubt and uncertainty about everything, for them and for you. Another thing they find is a long abandoned ship littered with the skeletons of some massive humanoid creatures, who, they soon discover were summoned just like they were, lured to this planet by its desperate and dying inhabitants, so they can be invaded like zombies and used as vessels to carry the parasitic aliens back home where they’ll repopulate a fresh and yummy new globe.
For very little actual visible shocks, minimal gore and zero glimpses of the alien enemy, Bava makes this movie so overwhelmingly dreadful, so pervasively, relentlessly tense and creepy, that by the end you’re certain you witnessed the spookiest creatures ever. Sure, not showing you some “thing” saved a lot of money, but like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the trick is playing on that fear of no longer knowing the person you know. Terrore also uses the Body Snatchers device of invading you when you sleep or let down your guard, so that willpower and spiritual resistance is more important than wielding those very cool laser blaster-flamethrowers.
The otherworldly sounds are haunting and maddeningly repetitive, the massive, cavernous spaceships with high ceilings and endless halls are somehow tight and claustrophobic, and along with the dwindling crew you feel increasingly alone and hopeless despite the hugeness of the planet. By the end you think you know who’s really who, and who held out and won, and then you get surprised, and fooled again, a couple of times. They get the ship working and escape but are they finally alone, still human? The ship’s damaged and they’re not going to make it home. By the way the crew’s not from Earth, did I ever say they were from Earth? Excellent space horror, a must and a cool look at how some very familiar themes and stories have been done before, and stand up well to their reimagined modern versions.
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