Forget the silly name. It's not the movie's real title, anyway: Originally it was called Terrore nello spazio, or "Terror in Space." The name Planet of the Vampires gives an impression of some lousy B-movie cranked out for an adolescent audience. This is a solid film, and it's only a B-movie in the sense that director Mario Bava didn't have much of a budget to work with. Here, Bava uses a space adventure as the context for a Gothic horror that follows in the spirit of his earlier Black Sunday. It's effective and, as it turns out, influential. Elements of this film later turned up in Alien, and it has even been adapted into an operatic production. Space opera, indeed.
The English-language script was co-written by Ib Melchior, who among other things is responsible for The Angry Red Planet. There is a certain similarity between the two films, though Planet of the Vampires lacks the vaudevillian camp of that earlier crap-fest. The tone here is dead serious: first as we see a dedicated spaceship crew carry out their mission, then as we see them battle for their lives.
The story begins on board the spaceship Argos, which with another ship, the Galliot, has been sent to find the source of a distress signal that originates from Aura, an uninhabited planet whose sun is dying out. A transmission from the Galliot cuts out on approach to the planet, and the Argos is subjected to an extreme gravitational pull. This effect is far in excess of what the planet below should be able to produce, and it is beyond what the human body can safely withstand. The crew is rendered unconscious.
The ship lands safely. On waking, each crew member undergoes a violent episode and attacks the others. These episodes are short-lived, and all on board recover quickly with no memory of the incident. This burst of action is startling, as the film to this point has been talky and lacking in activity.
The Argos is undamaged, but a mysterious system failure occurs moments later. A desperate emergency call comes from the Galliot, which is found to have landed on the other side of a nearby volcanic valley. Investigation reveals that the Galliot's crew members have killed each other off in a fit similar to the one experienced on the Argos. Some of its crew members are missing, and the Galliot itself is damaged irreparably. After a look around the ship, the search party returns to its cabin and finds that the corpses of its crew have disappeared.
Crew member Wess is caught, in a trance state, trying to disable a piece of equipment vital to the ship's ability to return home. On recovery, he speaks of something having taken over his will. Other crew members note strange lights that appear at the edges of their field of vision. A distant reflection is found to be another crashed spaceship that contains gigantic, ancient skeletal remains.
Deceased Galliot crew members are now seen walking around. Their captain, Salas, returns and explains that he is not Salas but is an alien entity who has assumed control of Salas' corpse. He reveals the Aurans' motives, and the remainder of the film becomes a race not only to escape the planet but to avoid falling under the Aurans' control.
Plot-wise, this is more or less a straight science fiction suspense film. The stylistic touches are what aligns this with Gothic horror. First, there is the pervasive quiet that intensifies the mood of seriousness. Other than an eerie, near-constant roar of howling wind straight out of Black Sunday, the film takes place in a silence that gives a constant impression of impending threat. This silence emphasizes the Gothic element of isolation that is already present due to the extraterrestrial setting. The wide-open spaces of the ship design also contribute to this feel.
Castles and ruins are present in the form of spaceships. The Argos serves as a safe home base, while the Galliot sits perched high in the "clouds" of mist. Ruins are represented by the giants' ship, which is immeasurably old.
Clarke's Third Law provides the most important Gothic element. One of three "laws" formulated by the great science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, it states that any sufficiently advanced technology basically functions as magic. The Aurans exist on a different vibratory plane and are not subject to the same physical laws as are we. This is a supernatural element provided in the form of the film's future science.
Bava's sense of visual style was sharpened by years as a cinematographer, and it pays off here. The distinctive set designs enhance the Gothic feel. Shadowy and dark though the film may be, it is rich in color. It's apparent that attention was paid to detail. This design no doubt led to the film's most surprising showing: as the backdrop to a 2007 production of Francesco Cavalli's 17th-century opera La Didone.
Who knows how good the acting was? It's dubbed. The dubbed dialogue is a little stiff, but it's better than most. This is not a movie with a wide range or subtlety of emotion, so any loss here is not a disaster.
Planet of the Vampires may not be the intense experience to which modern horror fans are accustomed. It's an interesting and effective science fiction hybrid that is also family-friendly. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but it has no particular flaws and is deserving of a better reputation than it currently enjoys.