However, looking just the slightest bit deeper will reveal an incredibly inventive, detailed and well-thought-out motion picture that took the miniscule budget it was dealt and created something truly fantastic! Fantastic enough to transcend its budget, fantastic enough to exceed expectations, fantastic enough to influence a great many followers and fantastic enough to be recognized today as a classic! Who could be behind a surprising thriller that does so much with so little? Who else... but Mario Bava!
That's right! Released a full year before Star Trek began airing (and debuting in theatres the very same day that Lost in Space premiered), Bava's colorful, maximalist science fiction film shows the same forward-thinking that those television shows did with the same spirit of adventure and a deep, serious eye for horror, worthy of the name Bava!
Two futuristic spacecraft (actually two obvious, lightweight models), the Argos and the Galliot receive a distress call from a strange, seemingly dead planet with a super-strong gravity well. As they touch down on the surface the crew begins to immediately act strangely, attacking each other and committing acts of sabotage, then immediately forgetting what they had done and fighting off the next crewman who loses it. The strangeness continues until some of the crew actually die! Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) barely escapes the chaos himself and barely keeps what's left of his crew from suspecting and thus fighting each other even unaffected.
Still, this bizarre sort of demonic possession seems to come in and out of even the most trusted allies... even... and especially... after they are dead. The fact that the enemy could be anyone they know is not lost on any of the crew and it makes the villains hard to fight and harder to identify, while making the best of friends impossible to trust. Luckily Mark has his trusted ally Wess (Ángel Aranda) on his side, an officer who can scarcely be corrupted. In addition, the crew features the stalwart Dr. Karan (Fernando Villena) and the Captain's own brother Toby (Alberto Cevenini).
When two survivors from the Galliot, including Kier (Rico Boido) and the ship's captain Sallas (Massimo Righi) join the crew of the Argos, things are looking a bit better. That is until Officer Tiona (the very lovely Evi Marandi) begins to see (or possibly hallucinate) the presence of others of the Galliot crew walking around like determined zombies!
The mystery of just how and why these things are happening thickens when Mark and his team of Carter (played by a young Ivan Rassimov) and the trusted Sanya (the beautiful Nora Bengell) discover a derelict ship on the planet that landed there before them, complete with an enormous skeleton representing the fallen crew.
If the idea of a tough crew landing on a strange, smoky planet to investigate a distress beacon before finding a crashed alien spacecraft with a huge skeleton killed by a malevolent force sounds a bit like Alien to you, you're most certainly not alone. Terrore Nello Spazio and It! The Terror from Beyond Space are often cited as direct influences on that later film. Meanwhile, if the idea of beautiful women in space surrounded at different times by Vampires and Zombies sounds a bit like Lifeforce to you, then check above your head for an animated light bulb, because the stories for both Lifeforce and Alien happen to have been written by the same dude!
However, Planet of the Vampires is by no means a simple prototype for these later films. Make no mistake, this film is much more than meets the eye here and regardless of how many times you've seen the similar films that followed or preceded this one, you would be hard-pressed to predict the ending of Planet of the Vampires! Writers Mario Bava with Alberto Bevilacqua, Callisto Cosulich, Antonio Román and Rafael J. Salvia (and Ib Melchior and Louis M. Heyward on the English version) cultivate some excellent concepts from the original story One Night of 21 Hours by Renato Pestriniero and escalate both the science fiction and the horror aspects, while never quite forgetting that this is a fine dramatic picture.
But one of the most interesting things about Terrore nello spazio the pioneering creation of the sets, costumes and scenery using technology that was old for its time, along with other things that somehow still feel ahead of their times. The set decoration by Giorgio Giovannini never looks like anything but a decorated set, however, the techniques that he employs are fascinating and look like some of the more bizarre landscapes from films like Forbidden Planet and Star Trek: The Motion Picture! The costume design by Gabriele Mayer look like the leather uniforms from X-Men!
As for the special effects, they don't stand up well to anything we would see today and in some areas pale to what was available in 1965 with the right budget. Then again, the effects were by Bava himself with the great Carlo Rambaldi, who would go on to quite a career that included special effects work on... you guessed it, Alien!
Still, the film has moments of less than perfect acting and there are logic leaps required as well as that constant suspension of disbelief. That said, the Samuel Z. Arkoff-produced Terrore nello spazio comes off great and taken for all with all it earns its Three Stars out of Five! Fans of inventive Science Fiction and Horror should love Planet of the Vampires (even though "vampires" aren't really what you get with this film). Fans of the original Star Trek, Rambaldi fans and filmmakers with big dreams and low budgets should get a kick (and maybe an education) out of this film. Finally, this is a must for Bava fans, not only showing again what Old Man Mario can do with meager funds, but also because Mario's son Lamberto assisted dear old dad on this film for the first time... but most certainly not the last! Necessity is the Mother of Invention and in order to make Terrore Nello Spazio a good film, plenty of invention was necessary! Luckily with a team like this it paid off and inspired some great films to come. See you (and them) in the next reel, Space Jockeys!