Directed by Mario Bava
Starring Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Angel Aranda, Evi Marandi
Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R1/RA HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), MGM (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1), Legend (Germany R2 PAL), IIF (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
After altering the face of gothic horror and establishing the slasher and giallo subgenres, Mario Bava returned to American International Pictures for a low budget science fiction project entitled Terrore nello spazio. Known by various titles over the years but most widely available on video as Planet of the Vampires, the film posed a formidable challenge with its demand for extensive special effects and the creation of an otherworldly atmosphere created with limited means. Once again Bava's ingenuity and crafty visual sense produced an effective genre classic whose influence still lingers today.
An S.O.S. signal in space draws two ships to a seemingly uninhabited, mist enshrouded planet. For no apparent reason the crew members of one ship kill each other in a violent frenzy, while the second ship, the Argos, is saved by the will of the steadfast Captain Markary (Sullivan). While the bodies of the dead are buried in transparent bags (and a few of the deceased vanish without a trace), the astronauts explore their new terrain and discover traces of past alien voyagers left to die on the planet. Furthermore, the dead crew members seem to be still roaming the dark, misty landscape, and the lines separating the living and the dead begin to blur. The invisible force which destroyed one ship now seems to be wreaking havoc across the planet, and Markary and his crew have only a limited amount of time to repair their damaged ship and escape this terrain of the dead.
Though consigned to the matinee crowd during its release, Planet of the Vampires (which really doesn't have any literal vampires at all) has enjoyed a steadily growing reputation both through the increased appreciation of its director and the frequently noted story parallels to 1979's Alien, particularly that large skeletal alien astronaut. However, the film also functions perfectly well on its own terms; the slow pacing allows each creepy visual to seemingly pop out of nowhere, and the images of resuscitated astronauts tearing the plastic away as they rise of the earth are not easily forgotten. As usual Bava floods the screen with unnatural, saturated colors, and the sincerity of its construction allows the viewer to easily overlook the typical '60s conventions of its sci-fi trappings. While Antonio Margheriti's space sagas like Wild, Wild Planet offer delightful, eye-catching fun, Bava's film is really the only legitimate Italian science fiction film of the era capable of being appreciated as a genuine work of art. Though the actors (Sullivan included) are workmanlike at best, the story (penned by AIP regular Ib Melchior, from Renato Pestriniero's short story, "One Night of 21 Hours") grips through its sheer oddness and the power of its memorable, Twilight Zone-style denouement.
First available on American VHS from HBO and Thorn/EMI, Planet of the Vampires featured a decent but cropped transfer with a new Kendall Schmidt electronic score, a fate that also befell such legally problematic titles as Witchfinder General and Curse of the Crimson Altar. The same transfer appeared on laserdisc through Orion and Image, doubled up with Curtis Harrington's endearingly bizarre Queen of Blood (which shares two similar alternate titles, Planet of Blood and Planet of Vampires, with those given to Bava's film). After vanishing for a few years, Planet went through the restoration process at MGM, after which it surfaced in a dramatically improved widescreen but non-anamorphic transfer on a 2001 DVD release. The ads claimed the film was shot in "Colorscope," though this seems to be just standard hard matting at 1.85:1 like most of Bava's other titles from the same period. The original, more subdued theatrical score was reinstated along with the hellish luminous quality sorely missing from previous editions. The film runs about two minutes longer than the 86-minute HBO print, confined to some more character exposition and footage of actors wandering through the mist. The disc also includes the amusing U.S. theatrical trailer, which makes the film look like a particularly unhinged episode of Star Trek and slaps the title card over two cartoon bombs for no apparent reason. The same elements were also used for a higher resolution German 16x9 DVD release as well as occasional HDTV screenings. For a fascinating variant, fans may also want to hunt down the Italian DVD, which retains Bava's original cut of the film in Italian with optional English or Italian subtitles. The opening and closing credits here play out completely over black with the creepy ambient score gurgling underneath, a far more foreboding approach than the Christmas light credits of the English-language cut. Several scenes reveal slightly different editing and bits of alternate/additional footage, while the Italian dialogue eliminates the unintentional chuckles generated by a handful of lines in the English track. Picture quality is quite fine, with pin-sharp detail and perfect colors; as usual for Bava titles, the Italian film processing has a more pronounced golden cast than the overseas versions. Don't expect much in the way of extras, though; all you get is a photo gallery and a look at the "2005 Venice Cult Film Festival."
Given its intense visuals and substantial fan following, it was a given that Planet of the Vampires would have to hit Blu-ray at some point, especially with MGMHD's airings of its solid master. The 2014 release from Kino Lorber (with a remastered DVD bearing identical bonus features) does a fine job of presenting the same extended 88-minute version in all its glory, complete with enough vibrant shades of blue and red to melt your TV screen. The English mono track (with the original theatrical score) is presented in DTS-HD and sounds great. While the usual AIP trailer is here, there's also a welcome raft of new extras kicking off with the most substantial one, a new audio commentary by All the Colors of the Dark author Tim Lucas. It's a fine companion piece to the work he's done on the majority of other Bava releases from the U.S. and U.K. and a veritable crash course in how to mount a horror/sci-fi epic on a threadbare budget. He covers most of the actors drifting in and out of the action and points out a few idiosyncrasies necessitated by the nature of the production, and he also does a fine job of placing this in context within the larger body of Bava's genre-hopping work. Also included is a nifty gallery of stills, video release art, and a great behind-the-scenes shot, among other goodies, while Trailers from Hell is represented here with two takes on the same trailer by Joe Dante and Josh Olson. The original Pestriniero story is presented here in an English translation by Joe F. Randolph, bearing the title "Night of the Id" and containing a more savage, unsettling ending than what was found in Bava's film. There's also a reel running just over 20 minutes containing the Kendall Schmidt rescored scenes from the HBO version, plus the opening and closing of the Italian cut for comparison. Essential viewing.