Monday 6 February 2012

Viva Bava, Part 6: In space, no-one can hear you make mediocre films

In the early sixties, American International Pictures made a ton of money by distributing Mario Bava's films stateside. They'd usually retitle and edit the original film, removing gore, re-arranging the segments of Black Sabbath and so on. For that reason we Bava aficionados prefer the Italian release versions, but let's give credit where credit is due: without AIP, Bava could never have built a fanbase in America.

Despite having passed on Blood and Black Lace, AIP still wanted to distribute Bava's films, and they decided to get closer to the source. Thus it was that the maestro's next feature was financed jointly by AIP and Francoist Spain's Castilla Cooperativa Cinematográfica, and for the first time a Bava film was released almost simultaneously in Italy and the US (in September and October 1965, respectively).

I'd dearly love to blame AIP, who released the film as a double bill with Die, Monster, Die!, for the all-out badness of Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello spazio), but I can't. Yes, the film's English screenplay, penned by Ib Melchior and AIP producer Louis M. Heyward, is dire almost beyond belief, but it's a translation of an Italian script Bava himself cowrote. Sure, AIP gave the Italian just $100,000 to work with, but low budgets were never a problem for Bava before (see Black Sunday). And the all-round bad acting? Well, working with an international cast who didn't understand each other, Bava must take at least part of the blame for not getting better performances.

Two interplanetary spaceships, the Argos and the Galliott, approach the unexplored planet of Aura when they suddenly find themselves subjected to an enormous gravitational force. The ships lose contact, and the Argos' crew begin attacking each other under the influence of an unexplained force. Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) manages to contain his raging crew and land the Argos on Aura's barren, fog-covered surface.

Our plucky heroes go on an expedition to the Galliott, which has crashed not too far from the Argos, but find all her crew dead and conclude they killed each other in the same fit of madness. After burying the victims, however, crew member Tiona (Evi Marandi) believes she's seen the dead walking while standing watch. Eventually, they realise the planet is inhabited by a non-corporeal race who are possessing the dead humans for their own nefarious purposes.

You may have noticed the above summary doesn't include any vampires. The Aurans certainly don't count: they inhabit dead bodies, sure, but they don't drink blood, and no-one ever suggests taking a stake to them. It's much more Invasion of the Body Snatchers than Dracula, but hey, AIP had previously marketed more than one Bava film about vampires, so they must have decided that marketing the picture as 'vampires... in space!' was a great idea. (Commercially, it worked out.) Thankfully, I don't have to blame Bava for this too: the Italian title just means, more vaguely but also more accurately, 'terror in space'.

Logic isn't the script's strong suit. Well, that's putting it mildly: nothing in Planet of the Vampires makes a lick of sense. Instead of coherence, Bava and/or Melchior decide to load up the script with incessant technobabble - especially sad given the cheapness of the sets. The less said about the thespians the better: the cast of Planet of the Vampires are, despite the extenuating circumstances listed above, an exceedingly sorry lot, with Ángel Aranda plumbing the depths of unconvincing acting.

But it's still a Mario Bava film and therefore looks gorgeous. There's an absolutely terrific giallotastic pan and zoom over a roomful of corpses, for example. (Notice that our space explorers' symbol seems to be struck-out double lightning bolts, as if fighting fascism was their primary concern.)

As always in Bava's films, the lighting is vibrant to the point of garishness. The director used vast amounts of fog to obscure the cheapness of the papier-maché rocks of Aura, but at least he shot said fog and rocks exceedingly well, emphasising otherworldly reds, blues and gaudy greens:

Its visual beauty can't save Planet of the Vampires from succumbing to utter tedium. It takes a stronger reviewer than me to behold the boring, confusing story and woeful acting and not throw up one's hands, saying, 'I don't care'. The film lives on mainly thanks to critics' claim that it inspired Alien, despite Ridley Scott's insistence he hadn't seen Planet of the Vampires before making his masterpiece. If we must compare the two, it is sadly entirely to the detriment of the earlier film. It's no surprise that Bava never dabbled in science fiction again.

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