Planet Of The Vampires – An Introduction

Here is the transcript of past Friday’s introduction to Mario Bava’s Planet Of The Vampire which screened over at Derby Museum And Art Gallery.

planet-of-the-vampires-posterHello, welcome to Derby Museum for tonight’s very special film show and celebration of a particular area of under-appreciated Italian culture. My name’s Darrell Buxton, I’m a Derby-based writer, lecturer and critic; editor of two acclaimed book-length studies of British horror movies, ‘The Shrieking Sixties’ and ‘Dead or Alive’; and regular host of the monthly Fright Club horror strand over at QUAD.

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The whole world loves Ridley Scott’s movie ALIEN, or so it sometimes seems. Well I hate it, and have done since I emerged, utterly underwhelmed, from a local cinema screening in 1980. I was already a big teenage monster movie nut, and had hoped that Scott’s film might be the ultimate monster rampage. What was delivered instead was a rather silly, simplistic, often ludicrously plotted affair with few of the thrills I’d found elsewhere in science fiction. And don’t get me started on the alien’s lifecycle, which many fans of the film have attempted to explain or debate with me over subsequent decades – it may make sense to you but certainly does not to this baffled viewer, and never will.

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Tonight here at the museum we’re screening something far superior, Mario Bava’s TERRORE NELLO SPAZIO, or PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES to you and me. Made in 1965, it’s a key example of Euro SF of its era. In 1980 I hadn’t seen it, nor had I seen Edward L. Cahn’s 1958 drive-in mini-classic IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, also often considered influential; my dislike of ALIEN had therefore purely been based on Scott’s movie’s own aesthetic and obvious failings. So I was immensely gratified when finally catching up with Cahn’s film, to find a lean, mean, exciting, ‘monster on the loose on board a confined spacecraft’ outing that managed not to bloat and inflate itself, and which Scott had lifted virtually wholesale; and when I first watched PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, and discovered how all of the little embellishments added to ALIEN had been thieved from an Italian source, Ridley’s reputation took another huge hit with me. You’ll see so much in ALIEN overtly lifted from PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, but to be fair Ridley Scott isn’t the only director to have supped from the Bava well. Martin Scorsese is a huge Mario fan, and has frequently spoken about seeing Bava’s films in New York cinemas during his younger days. In tonight’s film, pay particular attention to the use of coloured filters, lighting, gels, and dry ice to conjure up an eerily otherworldly image. And next time you watch Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, study the opening scene very carefully to watch Marty also use coloured filters, lighting, gels, dry ice… you get the picture? SHUTTER ISLAND, likewise, takes many cues from Bava. David Lynch, too, has borrowed from Mario on several occasions, most notably the scene in INLAND EMPIRE where Laura Dern frenetically pursues a prowling mystery figure who turns out to be herself. A terrific moment in perhaps my very favourite film of the 21st century so far, but wholly lifted from an identical chase sequence involving Giacomo Rossi Stuart in Bava’s 1966 masterpiece KILL, BABY… KILL!

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Mario Bava was particularly admired for his string of moody, beautifully photographed, 60s and 70s shock horror classics which often managed to cleverly intertwine psychological and supernatural fears. BLACK SUNDAY, banned in Britain for eight years, is a sumptuous feast of chiaroscuro creepiness, renowned for its brutal opening scene where a spiked mask is malleted on to the face of an accused witch. BLACK SABBATH contains a trio of terrifying tales, one of which stars Boris Karloff as a grizzled vampire patriarch in an episode based on Tolstoy’s ‘Family of the Vourdalak’; another, called ‘A Drop of Water’ is regarded by many horror specialists as the scariest short film ever made, all about a corpse returning to reclaim a piece of purloined jewellery. A Birmingham heavy metal quartet called Earth noticed BLACK SABBATH playing at their local cinema and decided that a name change for their band might be in order… you know the rest of that saga! Bava’s most chilling cinematic offering has to be 1966’s OPERAZIONE PAURA, released to English-speaking areas as KILL, BABY… KILL! – the groovy title belies the grim, gloomy feel of this unnerving ghost story involving the spectre of a dead child and a series of strange murders where the victims have silver coins embedded in their hearts. A year later the emperor of sixties Italian cinema, Federico Fellini, adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘Never Bet The Devil Your Head’ into a short film named TOBY DAMMIT  – and guess what, openly stole most of his spooky imagery from Bava’s neglected chiller. From the financially greed-driven parade of murderers-killing-murderers in BAY OF BLOOD, to the striking display of modern voodoo involving a jet aeroplane and a garden swing in SHOCK, from the hellish conundrum of LISA AND THE DEVIL to the period costume drama about a cursed and deadly statue, THE VENUS OF ILLE, Bava maintained his level of style, skill, and individuality throughout the seventies  – sadly he died suddenly in April 1980, mere days after being given a full bill of health by his physician. Since his death, Bava’s reputation has been elevated by the strong support and admiration of a bunch of keen and committed fans, and today he’s rated as one of the key Italian filmmakers of the 20th century, as well as having been a superb cinematographer, a special effects ace, a reliable and dependable project-saver often called in to finish the work of other directors who may have been dismissed or walked away from their movies, and a man who brought artistry and grace to the generally critically-frowned-upon world of fright films. And – guess what – BAY OF BLOOD had much of its savagery and slaying stolen by the later FRIDAY THE 13TH series, notably PART 2; while Greek/American actor Telly Savalas played Satan in LISA AND THE DEVIL, nonchalantly sucking on a lollipop. A year later he was cast as Theo Kojak and took the lollipop with him to the small screen…

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PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES was a rare excursion into the realm of science fiction for Bava  – in the mid-sixties other Italians, notably Antonio Margheriti, were tackling interplanetary and alien space themes, but it was an unfamiliar area for Mario. Applying all of his regular tricks, Bava transforms what could have been rather flimsy fare into a ravishing visual feast, with snazzy black space suits trimmed with yellow, sleek-looking spacecraft, a convincing evocation of an alien landscape created out of nothing more than two polystyrene rocks left over from a sword-and-sandal historical adventure movie, and more than a few surprises.

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Writing for the ‘Image Journal’ website, critic Derek Hill accurately summed up PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES by saying “the film literally feels like a pulp magazine cover come to life”. The Monthly Film Bulletin praised Bava, commenting that the director “does atmospheric wonders with pastel-shaded fog and cunning camerawork”. Kat Ellinger’s 2013 piece on the movie, for the website ‘Gore Splattered Corner’, notes similarities with Gene Roddenberry’s TV science fiction sensation ‘Star Trek’, but – guess what?  – points out that Bava’s film hit cinemas a full year before Captain Kirk and company boldly went on telly. We’ll leave the final word to the world’s leading Mario Bava expert, Tim Lucas of ‘Video Watchdog’ magazine. Lucas spent years and years putting together his epic book on Bava, a vast 1100-page tome called ‘All The Colors Of The Dark’, and within this masterwork he remarks that with PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, “Bava achieved a rare, wholly successful fusion of horror and science fiction  – using imagery borrowed from his earlier peplum pictures  – that would prove lastingly influential”. Lucas also cites David Twohy’s film with Vin Diesel, PITCH BLACK, and Brian De Palma’s MISSION TO MARS, alongside ALIEN, as further cases where Hollywood has taken inspiration from maestro Mario.

Planet of the Vampires

Ok, time to buckle up, put on your space helmets, and ready yourselves for a journey out of this world and into terror territory. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES – we have lift-off…

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