Investigating a signal from the mysterious planet Aura, a group of spacemen led by Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) are foiled in their attempts to fathom anything about its surface as the atmosphere is so cloudy and dense. However, when they get too close their two spaceships are drawn forcefully toward its surface by unknown means, leaving them about to crash when abruptly their craft land safely. There they find that there are dangerous beings outside which plan to take over their ships - and their bodies.
One of the best looking science fiction films of the 60's and testament to the power of imagination when your budget is not as high as you would like, director Mario Bava's film was a bleak tale that built on the scary bits of the earlier sci-fi hit Forbidden Planet, complete with its invisible villlain. The idea of setting a horror film in space, or on a distant world at any rate, had still not brought forth much fruit and although the crossing of these genres was not new, Bava illustrated how potent an idea for disquiet such a premise could be as for some reason the notion of menace outwith Planet Earth was a powerful one.
This must have influenced Ridley Scott's Alien, and it certainly was the inspiration for a selection of films that came along in that effort's wake; often they worked with the same level of expense that Bava had, although rarely with the same results. The screenwriters of Alien in particular were evidently impressed with the scene where the astronauts find the remains of an alien spacecraft, complete with giant skeletons sprawled about therein. But this was more about mounting dread than the haunted house in space that the Scott film was, and there were few instances of the Italians deliberately trying to make the audience jump out of their seats here.
In lieu of elaborate sets, using colour, shadow and lots and lots of dry ice, Bava created an nightmarish, otherworldy atmosphere, helped by the splendid set design and eerie soundtrack. You'll notice how dark everything is, an ominous look that seems all too appropriate once you see how the plot plays itself out. Our cast creep about through the foggy, rocky terrain, brandishing laser rifles, unaware how futile they will be against the planet's inhabitants, but only discovering that for the big shootout at the end, or as big as they could allow anyway. Once Markary and his team see that their fellow ship's crew have descended into hysteria and killed each other, he knows that the best thing to do is get away as quickly as possible.
Or he would if he didn't need a vital bit of spaceship machinery for his own craft. The spacemen themselves are pretty much interchangeable - if this was an episode of Star Trek, they'd all be wearing red jumpers - and it's mainly Sullivan's Captain and the chief female cast member, Norma Bengell as Sanya, who make much of an impression and prove essential to the plot. Not to do down the contribution of Wess (Ángel Aranda), who valiantly tries to save the day for the climax, but it would have been sharper plotting if he had more to do earlier on. And, um, there aren't any vampires; though the bad guys do reanimate the dead, there's no bloodsucking to be seen in this movie. Still, this is real gem with a sinister, nihilistic mood to treasure, all the more because it was so out of keeping with many of the sci-fi productions of the decade. Watch for the twist ending - aah! Bet you didn't see that coming! The music is by Kendall Schmidt.
Italian director/writer/cinematographer and one of the few Italian genre film-makers who influenced, rather than imitated. Worked as a cinematographer until the late 1950s, during which time he gained a reputation as a hugely talented director of photography, particularly in the use of optical effects.
Bava made his feature debut in 1960 with Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, a richly-shot black and white Gothic gem. From then on Bava worked in various genres – spaghetti western, sci-fi, action, peplum, sex – but it was in the horror genre that Bava made his legacy. His sumptuously filmed, tightly plotted giallo thrillers (Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Bay of Blood) and supernatural horrors (Lisa and the Devil, Baron Blood, Kill, Baby...Kill!) influenced an entire generation of Italian film-makers (and beyond) – never had horror looked so good. Bava’s penultimate picture was the harrowing thriller Rabid Dogs, while his last film, Shock, was one his very scariest. Died of a heart attack in 1980.