At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (Kino Lorber)

By • Jul 18th, 2015 •

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The MGM DVD release of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES had serious aspect ratio problems. Their image was at least 2.35:1, whereas on IMDB it is specified as 1.85:1. Looking at it again, compared with the new Kino BluRay release, Barry Sullivan looks a little plump for having been in space as long as he has. So not only was the Aspect Ratio wrong, but it stretched the image, making everything uncomfortable to watch.

I am guessing, assuming, and betting that the aspect ratio is now absolutely correct, else Tim Lucas would not be doing the commentary track. As everyone in the civilized world must know by now, Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog, is the world’s leading authority on Mario Bava, the director of this film. Lucas has published a coffee table book on Bava so immense that when I hefted it over to my coffee table, I irritated a pre-existing double-hernia and had to go in for a pelvic CAT scan.

Bava was too sedate a director for passionate thesps like Barbara Steele, though even she admitted to his remarkable technical expertise. Steele & Bava launched a film genre – the Italian Gothic Horror, in 1960. I doubt it would have taken hold without both of their involvements. Several films later, Bava is in outer space (sci-fi being a genre he liked more than horror) tackling a narrative that would influence ALIEN (1979), and perhaps not influence but certainly bear comparison with Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (1972).

Responding to a distress signal on an unexplored planet, the spiffy crew of an Earth vessel descends to the surface and comes to realize they’ve been duped, and that fates worth than death await them (think zombies – worse than death, correct?).

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is sumptuously produced and enjoyable. Would I ordinarily recommend it as a keeper? Perhaps not. But now, with Lucas’ commentary, it’s another story entirely. Lucas launches into his talk with both guns blazing: The film was made at Italy’s great Cinecitta studio for two hundred grand, a feat of economic filmmaking, he explains, with Bava wearing several hats to stretch the dough as far as it did. And not only do we learn this, but the dimensions of the stage as well, with a quote thrown in about Fellini’s affection for ‘Cinema City’. Carlo Rambaldi (the creator of the creature in POSSESSION, who actually reminds me of one of my wives…) constructed the glossy space ship. The interior navigational deck is partly a hanging miniature. The people are moving somewhat stiltedly to suggest gravitational differences from Earth’s.

All this is fascinating. Lucas’ voice is oddly miked, as if he has a frog in his throat. But one quickly adapts to it, particularly because the facts are flying so fast and furious. Lucas feels that the rather minimalist art direction on the bridge is ingeniously disguised by Bava’s camera placement, which highlights props, etc. I don’t agree. I think the negative space in the bridge exposes the budgetary limitations and, along with the dubbing, makes it all a tad hokey. What I think does work in the opening scenes is the color co-ordination between the astronauts’ suits and the painted hues on the walls of the set, all of a piece and lushly reproduced by the BluRay transfer. But I applaud Bava for his efforts, and Lucas for his devotion.

The commentary goes on, and we learn who all the actors & crew are, and what their positions in the industry were at the time they appeared in the film. Sullivan was not happy to be in it at first. In a much later interview he admits that he underestimated both the script and Bava’s technical skill, both of which he began to trust as he saw the crew’s dedication to the director’s vision. And by the time it was in post-production, he totally reversed his opinion of the project. I’ll stop paraphrasing Lucas’ commentary here so that you have the joy of discovery while listening to it yourselves.

Joe Dante introduces and narrates a trailer from PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. He was a long-running guest columnist in Lucas’s Video Watchdog, reprinting reviews he wrote for Film Bulletin. Other supplementals aren’t mentioned on the disc’s back cover, such as a second ‘trailers from hell’ presentation, and a music comparison between the Italian and US scores.

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