It's that time again for spooks and goblins and zombies and the devil and creatures of the dead (or if you're so inclined, Saw, ::shrugs::). As for me, I wasn't quite sure what to watch at first. Would I venture to the local Blockbuster or my Netflix to see their horror movie wares, or just take on one of the many titles I have at my disposal? For the sake of time and a rather crazy weekend that I shant get into here, I decided on a couple of movies I had right at my fingertips. And as a connecting theme, these two movies would have the same director. In this case, the Italian horror maestro, MARIO BAVA! Ahahahahaha!
Sorry, couldn't help myself at the end there.
Planet of the Vampires takes up a rather curious moment in Bava's career. He had a reputation for the most part for making creepy and atmospheric horror movies that dealt with old-school themes (one of which, Black Sabbath, has Boris Karloff featured prominently), and of the two 'Black' movies I've seen, Sabbath and Sunday, both provide the kind of eerie chills via Bava's exemplary sense of cinematography and how to frame spooky space that makes up for some lacking acting or creaky sets. But in this case, it's a science fiction movie first, and then a horror. At least that's what the title would make us believe it's a hybrid.
Ultimately, if one had to classify it on the surface it is science fiction, and of the ilk that American International Pictures would swipe in a second for distribution. Unfortunately, the title (albeit one of several alternate titles) is misleading, as there aren't really vampires in the sense of what we know them as (though I'd prefer to think of these as vampires as opposed to, say, Twilight ::shrug::). So what of the story? Astronaut-scientists in black leather suits with collars up to their necks and dubbed into English are headed to some planet, and get a big ZAP at their ship or something that makes them all go kind of bonkers on the way down; violence erupts and some members of the crew attack others. Then they're on a mysterious, fog-filled planet, where graves have been marked that have metal coverings... and inside bodies wrapped in plastic, ready to come up on the signs of life that are on the ship.
At least that's what I could gather from it. And actually there are two ships, and one of which that crashed on the planet none of the astronauts survived. So what of the vampires again? Nope, not really a-one in sight. It's more like an infectious plague of an alien race that takes over the bodies one by one - one can tell which is which by the way Bava does a QUICK zoom-in on the faces of the astronauts, their faces becoming torn apart by the virus - and it's up to a few on-the-defensive astronauts to fend off the others and make sure they don't fulfill their plan, which is to leave the planet and take over another.
The opening minutes of when they get on the planet seem to precede Alien in means of a very creepy, densely fogged (must emphasize the fog here as it's one of the film's main attributes in its style) and well-designed planet. Perhaps it's the Italian side of things; I could see an American director taking similar material and characters in their costumes and with some ridiculous dialog as the silly stuff that it is. But what Bava brings to the table is the horror element, what we don't see is much more terrifying than what may come what may, and in a way what leads up to seeing the deformed and "vampiric" astronauts is more frightening than actually seeing them in the rotting flesh.
I was impressed by that aspect, how in terms of production design and mood the film was ahead of its time. On other counts it doesn't fare better or less than other movies of its ilk (or even Star Trek) in terms of a group of people in ships come to a planet and shit happens. But I do think that there is that added ingredient of Bava that makes the difference. And considering also how low the budget for this movie is (I have to think they used some previous sets), there is a lot done with a little. If one can look past most of the acting, which is admittedly stiff (even if the actresses are nice to look at in a shallow way), then the atmosphere of a somewhat unique horror-space environment makes up for it. It's a solid B-movie that properly has the release of an MGM "Midnight Movie" release on DVD.
Kill, Baby, Kill (a mostly more apt title than the previous Bava feature, though it's more of a child than a baby), Dr. Paul Eswai comes to the village by order of an Inspector, who seems to be hard to find. There's a woman who is deceased after jumping to her death in a well, and at first there is much resistance to her being autopsied - and why, of course, because of an odd object (a coin) found near her heart.
From here we get the murder-mystery part of the horror, where a very creepy (which is redundant) woman with gray raggedy hair and less-than-fair complexion Baroness Graps (perfectly cast and made-up Giovanna Galletti) who once had a little girl named Melissa. Indeed Melissa turns up a lot in this community, and there have been a rash of murders that have occurred to usually healthy-normal people. One of them, as it turns out, is Inspector Graps. Meanwhile Melissa keeps turning up, not least of which to one of the local women in town, Monica, who may be next on the death-list that has no real writ to it. Funny how that works out really; but then what does one expect in a village loaded with dark alleys spiked with shadows and little light, funky fog, spider-webs, and of course that little girl.
Is there a curse on this town? Well you'll have to watch to find out, won't you? Bava isn't interested really in keeping the audience on edge with whether it's a full-on curse and this little girl is causing these murders, or if it's all an illusion and most of the townspeople are nuts. No, that would be too logical. This movie is all about bringing out the dread of horror with the cinematic eye. It doesn't matter even if a moment may not make total sense, or if a performance such as the Doctor's isn't totally up to snuff. How does a girl plagued by nightmares and kept "safe" by her parents by strapping thorns to her body is most important for her? Hey, what about what she 'sees' in her dazed delirium, how she gets out of bed, comes close to a knife's edge and sees the little girl outside the window looking in, her hand making an imprint. That's what counts.
I have to wonder what kind of magic Bava could work at today; he could take a script that would be made into horse-shit by Uwe Boll and make it at least watchable in the atmospheric sense. One of the most memorable things, in any horror movie, is the way he shoots a spiral staircase. It comes at two points in the film; the first time it's remarkable if only for one over-head shot looking down as the Doctor goes down it after what he thinks is something like the girl. It's lit, composed and the characters move like in no other movie with a spiral staircase. The second time around it's even crazier, as we get the over-head shot, we get a shot looking upward, we get a zoom-in and zoom-out and zoom-in AGAIN, and it's all remarkable. I was on the edge of my seat more during these moments more than any other (and another involving the Doctor trying to find Monica through the Sorceress' home, only to chase himself, literally, through an endless loop of the same room and door).
This isn't to say that all of Kill, Baby, Kill is incredible. The story itself and some of the acting, despite having some over the top charm and edge, is still like a good many other old-school horror movies, either from its period or going back to the 40's. All the Doctor would have to do is leave and come back with some no-funny-business people and all the problems could be solved in quicker time. But then again, where's the horror-fun in that? The joy of this movie is seeing how people react to things, and how Bava gets the "shock" of something like the little girl appearing, or a dead body as a surprise, and pulling real terror out of cinematographic technique. It's a work like this, along with other Bava films from the early 60's, that should be seen by any aspiring DP looking to shoot horror movies - or that is anyone looking to shoot them with a sense of horror.
So, in short, watch it for how the director moves us through this paranoid-cursed village, or how the little girl makes her movements or how a person dreams in delirium. The script one could take or leave. There's no other word for it except as 'Gothic'. Or a 'Gothic Gem' to be more precise. If only it were an overall great film then it would be unstoppable.
As it stands, Bava, for all of the flaws in his films, is one of the primary horror directors in cinema.