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Conjuring Sublime Shadows: Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires

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One word that is often synonymous with “Gothic”, especially when it comes to the literary form of the tradition, is the “sublime”. Writers such as Ann Radcliffe established this concept early on, introducing readers to the idea of overwhelming, breath-taking landscapes that proved exotic and exhilarating to many readers that, as was the norm of the day, had no personal experience with world travel. This was especially true for female readers who were often confined by their domestic duties to the family home. In this sense the Gothic sublime represented the perfect means to escape the mundane routine of everyday life. Radcliffe herself, not a worldly traveller, gathered inspiration from the travel based writings of others to create her awe-inspiring landscapes. Bram Stoker was another to continue this trend with Dracula—for example in his descriptions of the Carpathian forest, as a wild and remarkable location— despite the prose being written many miles away, in the dreamy British coastal resort of Whitby. Likewise, Mary Shelley used the stark and foreboding backdrop of the Arctic to set the tone for parts of her landmark novel Frankenstein.

Although it is such an integral part of the Gothic setting, the concept of the sublime has been rarely translated to the cinematic counterpart of the genre with any success. The reason for this often comes down to simple economics; much of early Gothic cinema springing out from the B-movie realm and its associated limitations. The genre convention was forged not in the upper echelons of the highly cultured, art cinema, but by cheap and cheerful studio units such as Universal, Hammer horror and AIP (with the Corman/Poe cycle of films). This was cinema associated with tight budgets, limited shooting schedules, and lack of either modern technology or access to resources. Instead, the bulk of these films favour interior locations—creepy castles, foggy graveyards, crypts, corridors and creaky old houses—rarely venturing outside of these boundaries because of economic constraints. Invocations of the sublime became limited to the use of baroque matte paintings as backdrops, often denoting awesome landscapes just on the outer fringes of where the action is occurring, but never taking centre stage. That doesn’t mean that it was impossible for these maverick genre filmmakers to conjure a true sense of Gothic sublime in their cinema. If anyone was testament to this fact it was the Italian maestro of the macabre, director Mario Bava, who recreated exactly this essence in his landmark Spaghetti Sci-fi Planet of the Vampires (1965), a film that ironically isn’t considered “Gothic” at all, at least not in the purest sense. Since it could be argued that one of the greatest Gothic stories ever told, Frankenstein, has its roots in the science fiction world just as much as it does in Gothic, what better way could there be to stretch this crossing over of genres further, and conjure a true sense of the sublime than within the strange and otherworldly domain of a foreboding alien landscape?

Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires

Mario Bava was a master when it came to atmosphere; especially in the Gothic sense. As a filmmaker, he was one of the leading voices in establishing an Italian Gothic tradition in film; with films such as Black Sunday (1960) Black Sabbath (1963), The Whip and the Body (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966). A cinematographer by trade, Bava was best known for his unique skill in establishing gorgeous visuals and a strong sense of ambience, even when working with extremely tight budgets. There is an undeniable magic about the work of Bava that proves difficult to resist, his work today remaining a strong influence on the genre—with his films providing inspiration to subsequent generations of directors from Dario Argento to Guillermo Del Toro.

Originally titled The Shadow World by the director, Planet of the Vampires (or its Italian title Terrore nello spazio) arrived in the middle of Bava’s peak Gothic period, carrying on the thematic concepts encapsulated by his more straight forward horror films, moving them into the popular medium of science fiction. Bava himself preferred to label the film “fantasy-science-terror”rather than sci-fi. The film has been cited as one of the main influences for the similarly Gothic-tinged Alien (1979); although neither director Ridley Scott nor writer Dan O’ Bannon ever admitted on record to seeing Bava’s feature before making their own. However, there are so many similarities to be found between the two that it leads one to wonder how much is simply a matter of coincidence (even further still when you consider O’ Bannon later co-wrote the script for Lifeforce (1985) which featured a vampiric alien life form). Staying on the topic of influence briefly, it is also worth mentioning that scholar in Italian film history Peter Bondanella ( in is landmark tome A History of Italian Cinema) cites Planet of the Vampires as being one of the earliest inspirations for the Italian zombie film; a cycle established in the late seventies which was highly popular with fans who loved their horror on the gore-laden side.

Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires

Based on Renato Pestriniero’s story One Night of 21 hours, Planet of the Vampires takes place on the dying planet Aura. Two spaceships from earth, The Galliott and The Argos, crash land after responding to a distress call omitting from the mist-shrouded mysterious planet. The bulk of the crew from The Argos survive the crash relatively unscathed (although not all), but most of the team from The Galliot are not so lucky. What becomes apparent on arrival is the alien atmosphere provokes people to act erratically, even violently, toward one another. As the dead are buried, the true horror of the location becomes obvious; it is infested with an alien life-force wanting to escape the planet’s dying sun- to relocate—and the means by which it intends to achieve this is through the possession of human bodies: doing so through those of the living and the dead. Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) head of The Argos leads the charge to get to the bottom of the mystery, desperate to find the key to repairing the ship in order to escape, while also attempting a rescue mission to recover the missing crew from The Galliot (those who haven’t been taken over by Aurain life-forms) ; aided by his able crew, Sanya (Norma Bengell), Wes (Angel Aranda)  Carter (Ivan Rassimov) and Tiona (Evi Marandi).

Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires

Critic Tim Lucas, has described the feature as a “tour de force of special effects wizardry which Bava supplied almost entirely with deceptively primitive in-camera techniques dating back to the silent era” (All The Colours of the Dark, p.620).  This is not surprising when you look at the pedigree Bava carried with him into his directorial career, the filmmaker working prolifically in the Italian industry, as a cinematographer, before turning his hand to making his own films. Mario’s father, Eugenio Bava—who was an innovator in the same field in his own right, and sadly died just a year after Planet of the Vampires was released—was also brought in to advise on how to accomplish some of the effects.  The film, made in collaboration with A.I.P, with a limited budget of just $200,000 and a scant six week shooting schedule, defied B-movie convention to conjure a real sense of the sublime: the director employing his own inimitable artistic flair to create a phantasmagorical landscape steeped with an atmosphere of terror and dread. Aura comes veiled in swirling mist, fog, smoke, a rocky landscape uninviting and drenched in perpetual darkness. Eerie lighting in bold colours—reds, greens and blues—illuminates the air itself, throbbing and pulsating through the vapour, to conjure a real sense of the otherworldly and awesome. Even the crew of the associated spacecraft are of a piece with this dark and menacing place; their black leather spacesuits adding to the dark Gothic mood and aesthetic, while giant alien skeletons and blood soaked walking dead interrupt the feeling of desolation and loneliness.  Bava and his set designer Giorgio Giovannini—who also worked with Fellini on La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini Satyricon ( 1969) Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Cassanova (1976)—employed a number of imaginative techniques to a fairly modest leftover set at the Cinecitta studio in Rome. As always, the director’s favoured use of lighting gels add his trademark tints to the illumination of the set ; a method he used in his other signature pieces such as Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, Blood and Black Lace, Kill, Baby Kill!, to produce a unique stylistic flavour that was later dubbed Bavian when it was adopted by contemporary filmmakers; most notably Dario Argento (especially for Suspiria (1977). Other techniques featured the use of miniatures, and there is a particularly inspired early shot when the Argos crash lands on the mystical Aura, that involved the use of a small model inside an aquarium full of water. Mirrors on the set multiplied the dimensions to give a real sense of expanse, and the eternal mist that blankets the planet’s surface further supports this feeling of being in an alien dimension as well as adding to the element of creeping dread. The piase de resistance has to be the gigantic skeletal remains Captain Markary and Sanya stumble upon as the horror unfolds, and the terror provoking shots of undead crew members rising from their graves in a dreamlike, fantastical set piece. The film is surprisingly gore laden for its time, with some nasty effects on display; chewed up faces of dead crew members, the hideous zombie make-up that was pioneering for the era, and pools of blood dripping from broken instruments aboard the fated Argos.

Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires

Bava was able to tap the Gothic vein further by exploiting the horrific elements inherent in his scenario to their fullest potential; especially by utilising the idea of crossing the boundaries between life and death as a main theme; a concept associated with the Gothic tradition just as much as the sublime; playing with the notion that a body can revive long after the heart has stopped beating, being key plot device in many Gothic horrors. Having the life forms of Aura resurrect the dead also brings in an interesting angle on the concept of the zombie, in a way that had never been seen before in Italian film. And it must be said Planet of the Vampires is a zombie film more than it is a vampire one, despite the original English title, which proves misleading. The vampires here are not the archetypal blood sucking kind, but rather feed like parasites on the host’s physical body by penetrating  from within; turning their victims into mindless puppets (regardless of their status of mortality prior to being taken over). Further notable examples of films invoking the idea of an alien “space vampire” would be seen just a year later in Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966) and then in the aforementioned Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985).

The final way in which Bava was able to extract both terror and a sense of the Gothic was in the utilisation of fear conjured in interior locations, and the idea of place as character: with the notion of the home being at the very core of threat, and family members ( or in this case crew members) being those who carry the most menace. Nowhere is safe on Aura, the landscape is bleak and unforgiving, danger lurks round every corner, yet the confines of the supposed safe haven The Argos, is just as toxic. Evil can infiltrate anywhere, through the bodies of the hosts, who bring the threat with them into the spacecraft. The Argos becomes a labyrinth of danger, just as much as any old Gothic castle, because there is no escape from the terror which lurks within.

Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires

References: 

Lucas, Tim (2007) Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. Video Watchdog.

Bondanella, Peter (2009) A History of Italian Cinema. Bloomsbury Academic.

 

 

 

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief of Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness podcast. Her writing has appeared in the pages of Fangoria, Scream Magazine (UK) and Gothic culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. She has recently worked a number of liner notes for cult home video label Arrow Films, as well as appearing on camera for them, written for Senses of Cinema and is currently working on a book on Daughters of Darkness (1971) for the Devil's Advocates Series (Auteur).

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