Before Alien, There Was...Planet of the Vampires

It goes without saying that Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror masterpiece Alien remains one of the most influential genre films of all time, spawning not only an entire franchise but many like-minded copycats.  The story of a crew of astronauts encountering a stowaway alien life form which threatens the survival of all involved has been told and retold countless times over the years with Alien being the most iconic.  Until recently however, only staunch cinephiles have been able to point out that the plot elements of Alien aren’t necessarily as original as we’ve been led to think.

Originally intended to be a sleazy B movie ala Roger Corman before Ridley Scott elevated the project to a classier level, the film wears exploitation horror roots on its sleeve with numerous preexisting pictures providing the framework such as Forbidden Planet and It! The Terror from Beyond Space.  But the one which inarguably bore the most direct and obvious influence upon Alien was Italian horror maestro Mario Bava’s 1965 psychedelic sci-fi classic, Planet of the Vampires.

Though some of the visual effects are somewhat dated and the film is separated by language with the American version redubbed in English and vice versa, Planet of the Vampires pretty much is THE blueprint for Alien.  From the distress signal, the shaky landing, the landing leg, the heavy winds and rock-lava base, the derelict spacecraft and most of all the space jockey, you can count the influences Alien derived from Mario Bava’s film.  The story of a crew of astronauts who find themselves besieged by the dead souls of the planet seeking to inhabit the bodies of the living also arguably served as an influence on the low budget Michigan based sci-fi thriller Moontrap

'Alien life form...looks like it's been dead a long time...fossilized'
It’s the stuff of pulp science fiction but achieved with a kaleidoscopic visual sense that would make the likes of Dario Argento or Nicolas Winding Refn (who oversaw a new 4K restoration of the film) blush.  Time and time again, against technical limitations and language barriers, Mario Bava nine times out of ten has beaten horror filmmakers to the finish line with many of our most celebrated suspense/horror chillers almost directly informed by Bava’s work.  

Visually, Planet of the Vampires is overwhelming and equally inspired is the key use of sound design and music, working to create a brooding atmosphere of unease.  One sequence inside the derelict alien spacecraft with machinery slowly churning to life sounded very like the industrial complex Jeffrey Beaumont spies on in Blue Velvet, leading this reader to believe the great David Lynch too felt the vibes of Bava.

"We shouldn't have landed on this damn ball, I know that!"

I’ll admit I’m a Bava novice and have only seen a few of his films but can say without hesitation Planet of the Vampires is easily my favorite, a colorful sci-fi horror romp with genuine thrills and chills, a coda that would chill the bones of Rod Serling and a visual style that all who are interested in film and science fiction should learn from and respect.  Some elements are indeed dated with some of the visual effects showing off their chintzier edges, but overall Planet of the Vampires is a blast, rich with creativity and told by one of the most visual filmmakers to ever stand behind a movie camera!


- Andrew Kotwicki