It makes sense that so much of Mario Bava’s oeuvre would deal with situations and people that/who are not what they seem. His whole life was spent in the world of deception and illusion. His father was a sculptor who moonlighted as an effects man for Italy’s magnificent silent era spectacles. Bava himself studied to be a painter but apparently wasn’t very good, so he followed in his father’s footsteps and entered film, first as an assistant cinematographer and part of the special effects department, then as a cinematographer and assistant director, and finally a fully fledged director.
Although best known for Gothic horror, Bava plied his craft in just about every genre. In each case, he brought a master’s deft touch to the film and usually ended up making the most inventive example of each genre. One of his earliest directing jobs was assisting Ricardo Freda with the completion of Caltiki: the Immortal Monster, considered by many to be the first Italian science fiction film. Released in 1959, at a time when horror had fallen out of fashion and had to be dressed up in science fiction trappings, Caltiki fits in nicely alongside films of the era. Caltiki‘s monster is a menacing blob, not unlike the blob in, well, The Blob, released only a year earlier. Parts of it also resemble The Quatermass Xperiment, released in 1955 by England’s Hammer Studio. A year after Caltiki, Bava directed his first full film in 1960 (Black Sunday), and a year after that, his first color film, the phantasmagorical fantasy-horror spectacle Hercules in the Haunted World.
Hercules in the Haunted World was unlike any sword and sandal film that came before or after it. Saddled with a pittance of a budget, Bava masked the poverty of finances with a wealth of imagination. Hercules (Reg Park) must travel to Hades with his buddies to rescue his one true love from the clutches of the underworld’s vampire lord (Christopher Lee, totally not playing Dracula). Hades is a parade of psychedelic lights, mist, and surreal sets populated by things that are not what they seem: beautiful naked women who are really monsters, rock walls that are really monsters, vines that are reall…eh, you get the point. And reigning over it all is Christopher Lee as a character who plays at being a noble political advisor but is really a vampire. Even for folks who do not see the charms of “peplum” films, Hercules in the Haunted World is a pretty difficult film not to enjoy.
It would be some four years or so before Bava would return to science fiction, although once again it was science fiction with the heart of a horror film and with something that looked an awful lot like Hercules in the Haunted World. Released in 1965, Planet of the Vampires is an eerie mix of Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World that borrows the overall look and phantasmagoric feel of Bava’s own Hercules in the Haunted World, which is fitting given how much the two films have in common. Captain Mark Markary commands one of two incredibly spacious interstellar ships (seriously, what’s the point of having vaulted ceilings and like twenty empty feet of floor space between your pilot and your navigator?) that crash-land on a mysterious planet. Almost immediately, his crew turn on one another in vicious fits of violence. It’s only the stolid determination of Markary that manages to shoulder shake and slap everyone back into proper behavior. Disturbed by the sudden outbursts, the crew never the less pull together and mount a search for survivors from the second ship.
The world they find outside is one of the film’s greatest triumphs: an utterly bizarre and hostile hellscape that obviously shows Mario Bava learned a thing or two about creating such things on a tiny budget during the making of Hercules in the Haunted World. With limited sets, matte paintings, forced perspective camera tricks, and lots of oddball lighting and mist, Bava’s planet is a wholly believable and instantly threatening place. He often shoots scenes from an apparent great distance, framing his actors as tiny specks moving across this warped and unwelcoming world. Markary and his crew find the second ship, but much to their distress everyone on it is dead — not from the crash, apparently, but because they too turned on one another. Almost immediately, more weird things start happening. Corpses vanish. Survivors feel compelled to commit acts of sabotage. And bodies that were buried decide the grave is no place from the dead.
Although Planet of the Vampires is as much horror as it is science fiction (just as Haunted World was equal parts mythology and horror), he weaves the two genres together seamlessly to create a film that contains the wonder of science fiction with the creeping paranoia of horror. At the same time, he doesn’t commit himself to the expected tropes of an “any one of us could be the monster” movie. Even once it becomes apparent what is happening to the crew, they stick together and do not lapse into the petty in-fighting and accusation that so often comes with paranoia horror.It makes for a more interesting and tense scenario when the people in it are basically competent and likable, and it makes for more tragic horror when, one by one, they succumb to the nightmare around them despite being decent people.
Hercules in the Haunted World is full of things that are not what they appear to be: beckoning naked women that are really monsters, trees that bleed, and Christopher Lee as a sinister political advisor who is actually, to one’s surprise, the vampire lord of Hades (again, definitely totally not Dracula). Similarly, Planet of the Vampires is populated by people who, one by one, are no longer people. And the film’s final twist in the “not what they appear to be” sweepstakes is one of my very favorite movie curve balls. Even among people not predisposed to liking Mario Bava films, Planet of the Vampires is considered something of a minor classic. Personally, I think it’s much more than minor. And double-billed with Hercules in the Haunted World it makes for about as perfect a night of trippy horror, science fiction, and mythology as you could hope for.