Saturday, July 23, 2011

Movies: "It will give you this wonderful new complexity."

Look at how awesome the poster for Bava's 1965 flick Planet of the Vampires is. Seriously, just ponder it for a bit. Soaked it all in? Are you ready to absorb all the weapons-grade spectacularness that poster implies?

You didn't really look.

No. I know you.

Yeah. Especially you Nathan. With your hyper ADD.

Look at it.

I'll wait.

Okay. Now: Are you ready to absorb all the weapons-grade spectacularness that poster implies?

Here's the bad news: The poster's BS. In fact, weirdly specific BS. It's not typical sci-fi "we hired some hack who didn't read the book, but he painted us a cover anyway" BS. It's the BS of somebody who watched the film, decided that they liked a fairly minor aspect of original and that they'd then spin out a weird alternative story about how they felt that more interesting aspect would play out if it was the focus of the flick. It's a poster from a weird alternate dimension where the poster artist was the director and screenwriter of Planet of the Vampires.

Here's the good news: The movie is still nifty. And I say that as somebody who is, more often than not, underwhelmed by Groovy Age Italian horror. I usually find their plotting lazy, their visual excesses tastelessly tacky, and their detached sadism more contemptuously hip than genuinely thrilling or horrifying. In this case, however, Bava set out to make a distinctly Italian answer to that cornerstone of cinematic sci-fi, American Fred Wilcox's 1956 classic Forbidden Planet, and the genre borrowed genre template and trappings provide a framework that prevents Bava from indulging in the fatal lack of focus that undermines so many of the of the flicks from him and his compatriots.

Solid screenwriting goes a long way to explaining why PotV works as well as it does. Sure, the dialog is a wooden and gets bogged down in clunky technobabble - the creation of top notch technobabble seems to be a poetic pursuit that English is uniquely suited to, sci-fi nonsense translated from another language always sounds extra fakey - but Bava and his writing team understand that the key to this flick to forward motion. The plot, which is involves two crews of space explorers fighting for their lives against murderous body-possessing alien entities, is lean and efficient. Furthermore, the campy artificiality of the sets and alien landscapes provides a context for Bava's visual excess that feels natural, rather than self-consciously showy. Finally Bava's icy brutality seems to have evolved naturally from the amorally genocidal Darwinistic calculus driving the film's baddies, instead of feeling like the heavy-handed imposition of a filmmaker hungering for extreme visuals. The result is a graphically restrained film whose darkness is conceptual and thematic.

With its dated sci-fi trappings, stilted dialog (which I'm sure isn't helped in translation), and lack of blood and guts, Planet of the Vampires doesn't demand the attention of contemporary thrill-seaking modern horror audiences. But if you're looking for a deliciously retro pop sciffy gem that's still solid entertainment, you could do far worse than Planet.


dfordoom said...

Bava was very hit-or-miss (I hate his giallos) but this is definitely one of his best efforts.

The basic idea has since been done to death, but never as well.

James Gracey said...

I've yet to see a Bava film I didn't love. I watched this one fairly recently, too - SO entertaining! Bava's direction and ability to create such wonderfully moody atmospheres really elevates Planet of the Vampires. And like you say, the dated, kitschy sets add to the fun!

Sasquatchan said...

I'd have to watch the film to realize the poster was selling a different product ..