Friday, May 05, 2006

Vamp or Not? Planet of the Vampires

This is a 1965 movie directed by Mario Bava. On the surface things look promising with the film’s title and the trailer that declares “but attack like vampires,” leading us to believe that this is a vampire movie. However, it would be reviewed, rather than be in “Vamp or Not?”, if things were that simple.

We start aboard the starship Argos, one of two ships investigating a strange signal emanating from a planet called Aura. They are preparing to land, on ship to ship communication with the Galliant when things go horribly wrong. Communications fail and they loose control of the ship, the gravity rapidly increases rendering al the crew, bar Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan), unconscious.

Somehow, however, the ship lands perfectly. On board, unfortunately, things are no so good. The crew has gone mad and are attacking each other. Mark manages to stop everyone from killing each other. They receive a distress call from the Galliant, which has also crash-landed, but the Argos does not have enough energy to take off and perform a rescue. Four of the crew set off across the hostile environment of the planet surface on foot. However, when they get there the crew of their sister ship have killed each other. Not only that but the Meteor Rejecter, used to deflect space debris, has been smashed by one of the crew. Four, including Mark’s brother Toby (Alberto Cevenini), are locked inside part of the ship. They bury the other dead and leave one guard whilst they get cutting equipment. On returning to the Galliant the guard is missing and so are the four dead bodies.

The crew return to the Argos and, once they have left, we see the dead crewmen rise from their graves.

Back at the ship crewmen begin to die, often they see flashing lights on the periphery of their vision and one dying crewman, Mud (Stelio Candelli), says he was attacked by Captain Sallas (Massimo Righi) of the Galliant. As engineer Wes (Angel Aranda) tries to get power back, Mark takes a contingent to check out something they’ve spotted in a nearby valley.

They find a derelict spacecraft, with alien skeletons 3 times their size – sound familiar? This is another movie that must have influenced the creation of Alien (1979).

Sallas and another crewman find their way to the Argos, asking not to be shot. They talk slowly, but remember the names of the Argos crew. Their slow-speech is put down to shock and they are accepted, however they are not what they seem. They try, successfully, to steal the Argos’ Meteor Rejecter, but Sallas is caught, his uniform opening to reveal a bloodied mess of a torso. He admits he is no longer Sallas, he is the indigenous lifeform of the planet, an incorporeal being. They lured the ships there, like the alien ship before them, as their sun is dying and they need to escape the planet. They caused the crew, whilst they were unconscious, to fight and kill each other in order that they might possess the bodies – but they can possess a living, conscious host if they are willing.

The stranded astronauts accuse the aliens of being parasites but the aliens mention symbiosis. The race is on to steal back the stolen Rejecter and escape the planet.

The film is great fun and very atmospheric – as you would expect from a Bava film. The effects aren’t bad given when it was made and it seems that Bava combined live action filming with miniature sets by reflecting the sets through a mirror, with portions of the reflective surface scraped away so that the actors could be seen through it. Now that’s innovation. There is even a very neat twist at the very end that, today, we would probably call clichéd but, given when it was made, was excellent.

The film uses techno-babble to the max and there are readily apparent plot holes such as: if the ships need the Meteor Rejecter so much, why on Earth was the Galliant’s destroyed when the crew went mad, given they were possessed by the aliens who wanted to escape the planet? Yet the film captures you so completely that you just don’t care, and that has more than a little to do with the atmosphere that Bava is able to inject into his movies.

But is it a vampire movie? Frankly, no, and it is a great shame as it would have been a good one. The film has possession elements, zombie overtones and even slight tinges of body-snatchers but no vampires. Just one feeding scene, as the trailer promised, and I might have conceded its vampness. Possession by an invisible entity does not make a film a vampire movie, nor does rising cognisant from the grave, if the cognisance comes from an alien force - indeed they make it very clear that, whilst the aliens can access the memories of the dead crewmen, there is nothing of the original person left. With a few changes the film might have proven a basis for another form of vampirism, but not in the way it was done.

This is a good 60’s sci-fi, complete with leather jump suits that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Flash Gordon episode and, as a movie, I thoroughly recommend it. Just do not expect any vampires.

The imdb page is here.

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