American International Pictures lived up to its name on this project. Terrore nello spazio was a Spanish/Italian/American effort. The American release title, Planet of the Vampires (PoV) suggests a campier film than it is. There actually aren't any vampires in the usual sense. Yet, it is still a horror/sci-fi hybrid. Director Mario Bava (famous for horror pictures) gives the dark screenplay by Ib Melchior a good presentation, despite a low budget.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Mysterious signals received from a distant planet named Aura suggest some intelligent life, perhaps a distress call. Two interplanetary space ships are sent to investigate. The Galliot goes in first, but seems to crash. The crew of the Argos go lower to check on them. A sudden increase of gravity pins everyone to the floors and the Argos seems to be doomed to crash. At the last minute, the gravity normalizes and Captain Mark Markary is able to land the Argos. When various members of the crew awaken, they go viciously homicidal temporarily. Captain Mark is able to restore order. The Galliot is found near by, perfectly intact. When a team of the Argos investigate, they find the entire crew of the Galliot dead. They killed each other. The Galliot's "Meteor Rejector" device is smashed, making the ship unspaceworthy. The Argos team return later to find no bodies. (They are rising from the dead, but the Argos crew don't know this yet.) A team from the Argos find a derelict alien ship with a huge alien skeleton out front. Mark and Sanya check it out and almost become trapped inside. Various crewmen, usually given lone sentry jobs, disappear one by one. Two Galliot crewmen appear with a story of being unconscious after the landing. They are taken aboard the Argos, but it was a trick. They were zombies who came to steal the Argos's "Meteor Rejector" device. One zombie explains that Aura is inhabited by a race of energy beings. The Auran sun is dying but they cannot construct spaceships. So, they lured other race's ships to Aura to hijack their bodies and flee. The takeover can be done willingly too. Captain Mark says "Never". Mark, Sanya and Wess steal back the Meteor Rejector and plant bombs aboard the Galliot. They take off in the Argos. Wess discovers that Mark and Sanya are possessed by the Aurans. He smashes the Meteor Rejector, thinking he's stopping the Aurans. He dies in the process. Possessed Mark and Sanya decide to set down on an obscure little planet: Earth. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
PoV has the quirky charm typical of Italian sci-fi, but also some visual fun via Bava's sense of art.
Cold War Angle
This isn't present much, beyond the somewhat customary "who can you trust?" trope typical of alien-takeover films.
Zomies In Space -- The American title is a misnomer, but probably deemed better (by A.I.P.) for marketing. The dead bodies, re-animated by the Auran energy beings, were more the classic zombie than the classic vampire. There is no sucking of blood or needing of human blood, etc. The whole rising-from-the-grave scene is clearly in the zombie idiom. Mixed into the zombie trope is the familiar 50s theme of alien-takeover.
Budget Friendly -- Like many B movies, the production budget for PoV was very tight. Modern viewers could easily scoff at the modest special effects and simple sets. Yet, fans of B sci-fi can appreciate how much mileage Bava got from his shoestring budget. He made an entire alien planet out of a few "rock" props left over from a prior sword-and-sandal film, making use of lots of dry ice fog to disguise how sparse things were. The ship models were quite small (and therefore cheaper), but he manages to make them look larger. To save on matte art and optical effects, Bava used mirrors to put actors and small models into the same shot. Of course, having the Argos and Galliot be identical ships meant handy double use. The giant alien skeleton was probably his biggest expense, but well worth it.
Alien Colors -- Bava also made ample use of strong color to make things look "alien." Pairs of red-green, or red-blue, or green-orange lights add a vivid other-worldliness. The lighting is reminiscent of that used in the soviet film: Mechte Navstrechu ('62) ("A Dream Come True"). American audiences wouldn't get to see the soviet footage until 1966 when A.I.P. created another of their mash-ups, this one entitled: Queen of Blood.
Alien Inspiration? -- Some viewers see an inspiration for Ridley Scott's famous Alien (1979). Certainly the scene in which Mark and Sanya discover and explore the derelict alien ship bears a strong resemblance. Even though this scene in PoV is more of a sidetrack than pivotal, it is certainly possible that Scott drew upon it as a portion of his story.
Hostile Planets -- Screenwriter Ib Melchior was fond of the notion that alien planets harbored mysterious danger. His dark vision was quite the opposite of the almost glib notion that alien beings would be pretty women in short skirts. Melchior's Angry Red Planet ('60) featured ominous unseen Martians who tell the earthlings to get lost and never ever come back. Journey to the Seventh Planet ('62) featured a malicious intellect being that messed with the earthlings' minds and was trying to get off its cold, dark moon, to a better planet -- like earth.
Nihilism or Sequelism? -- The ending of PoV is decidedly un-hollywood. Most of the crew die. Even the last uncompromised humans (Wess) dies trying to stop the Aurans. He fails, despite his heroic sacrifice. Auran-Mark and Auran-Sanya fly down to an unsuspecting earth. The danger of the mind-controlling energy being Aurans was about to be loosed on our simple civilization. On its own, such an ending does have nihilist overtones. It also smacks of a potential sequel along the Body Snatchers line.
Bottom line? PoV will not impress modern viewers who rate movies by how lavish the effects are. It is still a budget film. It also suffers some of the usual pitfalls of foreign films repackaged for American release. There are almost too many characters who are easy to mix up (everyone wore identical leather suits) Nonetheless, it one of the better B movies of the 60s.