First of all, I had not realized that it was a Mario Bava movie. Have we talked about Mario Bava? I'm pretty sure we have, but I'm too lazy to look. Bava was an Italian filmmaker who worked in the late-mid 20th century, and though he dabbled in most genres, we mostly remember him for his horror movies. He more or less created the slasher genre and was a major influence on giallo, which is a uniquely Italian type of crime thriller. Giallo is film noir's less subtle kid brother. You'd like him.
I had also not realized that Planet of the Vampires was a Spanish co-production with AIP, using both American and Italian actors. We've discussed AIP before. Well, I've discussed AIP--you might not have been listening. I can't say that AIP's films are universally worth your time, but they're usually worth a look.
So anyway. Planet of the Vampires. Got around to watching it tonight. Liked it. I'm going to spoil the hell out of the ending, so if you want to avoid that, just know that Planet of the Vampires is a cheaper, uglier version of the first act of the movie Alien.
The film begins on a starship called the Argos which, along with her sister ship, the Galliott is investigating a distress signal emanating from an uncharted planet. The two crews agree to check it out, but during the landing process, the crew of the Argos begins to behave violently. It is only after the landing that they realize that their minds had been temporarily possessed by an outside force. The crew of the Galliott experience the same possession, and do not fare as well; they've killed each other.
The surviving crew of the Argos begin to explore the planet and discover a derelict ship from an alien civilization. Its crew are long dead--possibly centuries. This is not the source of the distress signal, which means the signal has been calling out for a long, long time. The crew of the Argos prepare to bury the bodies of their comrades, a task made more difficult by the disappearance and eventual reanimation of the corpses.
The reanimated crew provide the big Information Dump necessary to put the story together: The planet's dominant lifeforms are made of energy, and can inhabit and control corporeal bodies. Their sun is dying and the planet is becoming uninhabitable. They want off, hence the distress signal.
So here's where those spoilers come in: Unsurprisingly, our heroes fight their way back to the Argos, blast off, and GTFO. Surprisingly, two crew members turn on the third, revealing themselves to be possessed by the energy beings. The bad guys have won! In the film's final moments, the ship begins closing on an inhabitable planet. The viewscreen shows us that this is the Earth (with America on top!), and when they zoom in, we see a large, bustling city--probably New York or Paris.
My interpretation of the ending seemed obvious to me until I started reading other people's summaries of the movie, and now I'm not so sure. The shot of the city is probably mid-'60s stock footage. At any rate, the filmmakers certainly did not choose to create a futuristic city. Some people interpret the ending as the ship returning to earth with possessed crew onboard. My interpretation (and I'm sure I'm not alone in this) was that the ending of the movie foreshadows the human race's first contact with aliens, meaning that the characters we've been watching this whole time are inhuman. Does it matter? I suppose not. But I like my ending much better.
So is it a good movie? Depends, I suppose, on whether or not you can get past the cheapness of the production. I'm good at overlooking that stuff, but the negative reviews online show that a lot of people simply can't get over the sub-Star Trek quality of the set design. At any rate, I think the movie has some good ideas to play with, and a lot of thought went into the execution. In particular, I was impressed by the derelict ship, where the filmmakers put some work into designing alien interfaces for everyday object. In plain English, that means that the doors on the ship open with a mechanism that isn't knob. That doesn't sound so impressive, but the film pays a lot of attention to those details.
One of my complaints about Star Trek-style sci-fi is that the aliens are never truly alien; they're always colorfully dressed humanoids with telepathy or weird religious practices or extra genitalia. I've always half-joked that I'd like to see a movie where the aliens are thousands of times larger and slower than we are, so that neither race has any conception that the other is alive. I don't think you could make that movie--or rather, you could, but it would be difficult to make it interesting. Planet of the Vampires doesn't quite go that far, but it aims higher than I'd expected.
Oh, are there vampires in this movie? No. Not one. But like most foreign B-movies, this one had about sixty thousand alternate titles when it was released over here, so you can take your pick. My favorite? Terror of the Outlawed Vampire Planet of the Demon Damned in Space.
Click here for the trailer.