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.

Planet of the Vampires 1965 Terrore Nello Spazio MSS poster 6
Terror in Space is a much better title. Source:

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.

Planet of the Vampires
C’mon, these are great spacesuits. Source: IMDB

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.

Planet of the Vampires 1965 Terrore Nello Spazio MSS VD60
Look at that thing, it’s awesome. Source:

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.

Planet of the Vampires. Gravemarkers
Planet Gothic would be a good name for the film, too. These are the grave markers over the dead astronauts. Source: IMDB

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.

USS Enterprise sciences crew woman 3
Scene from “Charlie X”
Source: Memory Alpha

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

4 thoughts on “Science Fiction, Horror, the Uncanny

  1. If you have a yen for primitive motion picture sci-fi, try the ’30s “Flash Gordon” series. I watched these as reruns on network TV in the ’50s.

    1. Ah, Buster Crabbe!! I remember seeing some of those at the local pizza place when I was I kid. I can’t remember the name of the place anymore, but their schtick was to have old movie serials continuously playing in the pizza parlor all day. Fun stuff!

      1. My youngest brother, who became a successful competitive amateur body builder, used the “theme music” from Flash Gordon as his “pose down” music! “Les Preludes” by Liszt. It is pretty much the only piece of classical music he likes. As you can imagine, competitive body builders use much different music as a rule.

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