Adapted from some ramblings on Twitter.
I watched Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires the other night. I’ve been exploring Bava’s early giallos and proto-giallos, and my husband is an enthusiast of schlock 50’s style sci-fi and horror (“quantity cinema” is what he calls it). Planet of the Vampires was in his collection, but neither of us had noticed it was a Bava. Until now.
It’s not as groundbreaking as Bava’s giallos; it really is a schlock B movie. But it’s a fun movie. Terrible title, though.
The set design was mimimal, and very much of the genre, but it was well done, considering the teeny tiny budget Bava had: something like $200,000. Yes, it showed. My husband pointed out the thermofax machine that was doubling as a piece of instrumentation. The “captain’s log” (some years before Star Trek) also looked to be a copier or blueprint printer or something, and the periscope-style viewer on the bridge looked like it was cobbled together from a salon hairdryer. But it was endearing. And the elevator hatch thing to bring the astronauts down to the planet’s surface was clever.
I loved the costumes.
Considering Bava’s budget, the effects and production values were impressive. Supposedly the set for the planet’s surface was literally two styrofoam rocks, smoke and mirrors, along with some well done in-camera effects. But on screen, it looks pretty good.
The giant proto-space-jockey skeletons were waaay cool. Ridley Scott and/or Dan O’Bannon definitely saw this film, whether they remember it or not.
I really liked the gothic vibe Bava infused throughout the film. The bodies rising from the graves! The grave markers! All the smoky scenery helped, too, and the derelict spaceship on the cliff, like an old haunted castle.
The film also reminded me a bit of Star Trek: The Original Series. Part of it was that the set and the styrofoam rocks gave the whole thing a ST:TOS look and feel, but I can also imagine a near variation of Planet of the Vampire‘s plot as a Star Trek episode. Of course, Captain Kirk would have handled things differently.
Those last two points reminded me of something Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media once said, about how ST:TOS is really a horror series. I don’t know how serious he was, but it’s worth remembering that the first broadcast episode of ST:TOS was “The Man Trap”, about a salt-sucking creature that could read your mind and control how you saw its appearance (a bit like a glamour, no?). The second broadcast episode was “Charlie X,” which is basically Twilight Zone‘s “It’s a Good Life” on the Enterprise. And there’s “Wolf in the Fold” (the Jack-the-Ripper episode), “And the Children Shall Lead”… the idea has legs.
This got me thinking about the relationship between SF and horror. Not just the “monsters from outer space” like The Thing (’51 or ’82) or Alien–that connection is obvious. I mean more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, “Who Goes There?” (the short story), Annihilation, Stalker. The scifi episodes of the Twilight Zone. And yes, Planet of the Vampires. Not gore horror, but unheimliche: uncanny.
I’m not particularly a science fiction fan (except ST:TOS and The Orville). But I do love my ghost stories. And I enjoy the “uncanny” style of scifi film (and horror/ghost films).
At some point in the late 19th/early 20th century critics were writing about how the electric light and scientific rationalism had obsoleted the ghost story. And here we are, and it still exists. We may not believe in ghosts, but we still enjoy the stories.
You would think science fiction would be the antithesis of supernatural fiction, but somehow, the tropes of science fiction and the tropes of the weird blend together quite well. We just choose to call the sources of the uncanny “science beyond our experience” rather than “supernatural”. It’s interesting.
It suggests that it’s the feeling we are after, and the ghosts and/or aliens are just the window dressing.
Featured image: The bridge of the Galliot, from Planet of the Vampires. Source:: IMDB