An everlasting icon for the creative genius of Mario Bava, Terrore nello Spazio is an object lesson in making the most of very little, a film which can be easily described as a gothicised Star Trek episode, albeit one painted in the most vivid and driving fashion by Bava’s camera mastery. The popular title given to the film for its English-dubbed release, Planet of the Vampires, is at the least misleading, because there are no vampires in the film: Planet of the Zombies would be closer to the mark. Either way, it stands with the following year’s Operazione Paura as Bava’s most cinematically resplendent and dramatically confident work, as Bava achieves a canny and clever synthesis of two genres that often overlap but rarely blend as effectively as they do here. His film’s acute similarities to Alien are impossible to ignore, and Bava’s film more than holds it own in the comparison.
Adapted from Renato Pestriniero’s short story “Night of Twenty-One Hour”, Terrore commences with two spaceships travelling to a remote planet in response to a distress signal. On approaching the planet, the ships are brought down by irresistible forces and, shortly after landing, the lead ship’s captain, Mark Markary (Barry Williams), is the only member of the ship’s crew not to be afflicted with a sudden murderous rage, and it’s a lucky thing that in fighting off his crewmembers and restoring them to sensibility, or they could have all killed each-other. Which, the crew finds when they’ve recovered and made the trek across the planet’s fog-wreathed, hallucinogen-coloured surface, is exactly what’s happened to their fellows on their sister vessel. They bury their comrades, but soon enough those gnarled and scarred bodies rise from their graves and lurch away on their business.
That business, as it slowly becomes apparent, is to commandeer more humanoid bodies and their spaceships, for they’re now possessed by invisible aliens desperate to escape their dying world, and need to eliminate or similarly possess the remaining humans to be sure of getting away and establishing a foothold on a new planet. The low-budget and rushed production is easy to discern thanks to such details as plastic flooring of the spaceships that crinkles up when people fall on it, and amusing lapses, like how the women crewmembers, after days humping it around with leather helmets on, still when they take them off retain perfect ‘60s hairspray bobs. It’s equally apparent that a lot of Bava’s fog-machine and lighting effects are to cover up a set-bound production.
And yet such limitations swifly fade as Bava tackles the project with a proper genre maestro’s enthusiasm: the technical qualities of the cinematography and the inventiveness of the set decoration, art design, and special effects crew (apart from the uninspiring model shots of the ships in space) would have been impressive in any circumstance. With an FX budget too low for matte images, Bava utilised the Schufftan photographic process to achieve some fascinating multiple-element shots, of the heroes trekking across the seething stygian landscape of the planet, exploring the capacious innards of their own ship, or approaching the ruin of another, ancient alien craft. Bava turns the planet’s surface, studded with knobs of rock and bubbling pools of sulphur, into a wonderland of recontextualised expressionism: if Forbidden Planet presented a planet upon which the embodied id roamed, Terrore turns an entire world into an emanation from the id.
Bava’s excellence at graceful, context-establishing tracking shots is quickly reconfirmed: being a cinematographer has by no means proven over the years to automatically imbue a director with understanding of the cinematic form, but in Bava’s case it was certainly true. His capacity to create an unnerving mood hits its peak when the resurrected astronauts escape their graves, pushing up the steel tablets that eight them down and tear off plastic shrouds, amusing little details that confirm the clever fashion in which the generic blend has been achieved. The astronauts wear black clinging space-gear which combines a peculiarly Italianate idea of the futuristic with a fitting gothic flourish, as if everyone’s clad in Dracula’s riding leathers.
Bava offers a neat quote from his debut film, La Maschera del Demonio, when the humans glimpse the gruesomely tattered torso of one of the reanimated bodies when his tunic flaps open, and the nightmarish struggles of the zombies to rise from their graves likewise is reminiscent of Jovatich’s revival in that film, but realised in altogether more delirious terms, with plumes of rising smoke and ponderous slow-motion filming that evokes the pure physical improbability of the dead reanimated. If any director ran wild with the gaudy delights of Technicolor, it was Bava. At least before a fitting but slightly illogical twist ending, the story is tight and the script sober and intelligent, sporting some interesting sci-fi motifs, where often Bava had to often work wonders in spite of flat screenplays. Tension builds with efficient force, as the struggle becomes one not merely to escape the hostile planet but for the remaining humans to save their whole species. The urgent fight-and-flight climax is a surprisingly well-executed action sequence considering Bava rarely helmed such scenes.
As John Carpenter admitted Bava’s influence on Halloween, then the notion this film influenced his take on The Thing is hard to resist, especially in contemplating the dark conclusion. The theme of possession is a common one in fantastic cinema, but Bava’s specific fascination for collapsing temporal identities as individuals become repositories for restless spirits and unresolved traumas, their own inherent personalities fading into insignificance in the face of a parasitic yet unquenchable remnant desires, refusing to be laid to rest, is certainly present here. In this regard, Bava seems to me to have done some work in paving the way for the innate body horror of filmmakers like Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Romero, in whose films people’s flesh cease to obey their commands and warp, pervert, and decay in resistance to their will. Only a couple of years would elapse indeed between Terrore and Night of the Living Dead, which also fused elements of science-fiction logic to animate a much more earthbound take on the zombie motif.
And of course it’s hard not to think Bava might have had grounds to sue Dan O’Bannon and company in the scenes in which the crew discover the ancient, crashed alien spaceship still littered with the fossilised bones of its own very non-human crew. That sequence, with the ship’s huge interior lit by gaudy clashing hues and dominated by concentric circular corridors, anticipates in immediate terms the twisted, spiralling interiors of Operazione Paura’s Villa Graps, and also anticipates the geometrical conceits of Dario Argento’s set design. Where Alien, and to a certain extent The Thing, both become in essence monster-on-the-loose movies, with heroes battling dissociated, animalistic enemies, Bava’s film offers a more subversive, multi-hued, interesting threat, as the factions fight to escape the doomed planet: what any individual is willing to do for their own species, and what that victory might entail for others, presents an intelligently articulated ambiguity, one beautifully essayed in a fratricidal moment in which Williams has to gun down his possessed brother in order to save the world. The finale retains some punch as Earth is assessed with the contemptuous eye of colonial real estate developers.
Terrore nello Spazio is less distinguished as a smart, compact thriller however than as a darkly beautiful evocation of outer space as the last frontier not of the superego but of the psyche’s bleakest pits. Williams, familiar face from B-westerns but who proved to possess a curious mix of the gentle and the gritty in Samuel Fuller’s great 40 Guns, is quite effective in setting the tone of cool, measured authority, as his crew – even the ship’s two female officers, Sonya (Norma Bengell) and Tiona (Evi Marandi) are occasionally brittle but generally allowed the dignity of professionalism and some effective ray-gun action, an element handled with refreshing ease after stickiness of so many ‘50s sci-fi entries in dealing with altered gender roles – maintain a stoic awareness of their own mortality and the value of that mortality in this context.
A terrific film.