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Earlier this year at Cannes, Planet of the Vampires, a little-seen 1965 Italian sci-fi directed by Mario Bava (Black Sunday) was screened as part of the festival’s “classic” section. The showing was introduced by Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn, a well-documented avid fan of schlocky cinema. He stated to his audience:
“Planet of the Vampires” is the film that Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon stole from to make ‘Alien.’ We found the elements, we have the evidence tonight. This is the origin!”.
He was quick to note, however, that he meant his comments with “the highest respect” to Scott’s sophomore effort –
“I think it’s wonderful: everyone steals from everyone. And with ‘Alien,’ which is another masterpiece, it defined genre movies as having a very high artistic standard”.
Refn has not been the first to notice similarities between the two works. Many critics over the years have pointed out how akin these movies are to each other.
“Bava’s film was a direct influence on Ridley Scott’s 1979 big budget B-movie Alien. But where Scott’s film tried to mask its humble drive-in origins, Planet of the Vampires revels in its origins. The film literally feels like a pulp magazine cover come to garish life…” – Derek Hill, MGM Midnight Movies.
“Much of the conceptual design and some specific imagery in the 1979 Ridley Scott screamer undoubtedly owes a great debt to Mario Bava’s no budget accomplishments.” – Robert Monell, DVD Maniacs.
Over the week, I sat down to watch the two films in quick succession to gauge just how alike they truly are.
Let me begin by saying that Alien is a far better film than Planet of the Vampires – which, for the record, features no vampiric characters. As much as I adore the way Bava’s feature looks, the awful dubbing, the weak characters and the terrible acting make it, on one or two occasions during the drama, a slight chore to sit through. Meanwhile, Alien just unravels more and more joy upon re-watch as the viewer notices little pleasures they did not pick up first time around e.g. how Ian Holm’s masterful performance as Ash subtly hints to the audience the character’s true robotic nature, even before the big reveal.
Yet, despite the vast difference in quality between the movies, one can clearly see the DNA of Planet of the Vampires in Alien. The plots are undisputedly very similar – both revolve around a space-crew (consisting of mostly men and two women) who receive a distress call from a crashed ship. Investigating the wreckage, they discover a race of malevolent and malignant parasitical aliens which wreak havoc, causing the crew to feud with each other as they are picked off one by one.
The likenesses do not stop there. As Refn notes:
“When you look at the two movies it’s not just similarities. It’s lifted structure, scenes, characters, dilemmas, themes that are very apparent”.
For example, Bava and Scott both abide to the belief that a moving camera is always better than one that is static. The two directors build dread by circling the lead protagonists like a shark, even as they just go about their daily activities. This is evident in the opening shot of Planet of the Vampires where Bava rotates around the ship’s crew as they work and also in Alien, during the moments where Scott pivots among the workers on the Nostromo as they sit down to eat. The camera movement and pacing are almost identical.
The way scenes are constructed in the films are strikingly similar too. While, for the most part, this mainly consists of slow and long build ups of tension before sudden bursts of violence or moments of other significance, there is an entire sequence in Planet of the Vampires which is copied shot-for-shot in Alien.
In both films, the protagonists leave their spaceship – walking through the foreign planet’s barren landscape to investigate the origin of the distress call they received. As the scene begins in the two movies and the viewer gets the same shot of astronauts walking over a foggy rocky hill at night – one could write the likeness off as a coincidence. After all, many modern science fictions include a similar shot.
Yet as the sequence continues and the characters enter the unknown spaceships, the commonalities begin to increase. Both crafts feature long cyclical tunnels, in which we see the protagonists emerging from out of the dark – something which looks notably more unique. As the spacemen exit this passage and locate the centre of the ship, we see the thing that proves either Ridley Scott or Dan O’Bannon saw Planet of the Vampires at some point in their lives – a skeleton. But not just any skeleton – a giant alien skeleton. The previous victim of the parasitical creature targeting the crew.
The parallels between Planet of the Vampires are both broad and specific, the latter being particularly hard to ignore. So why does Ridley Scott get a free pass? How is he not a hack? There are two reasons. Firstly, Refn is correct when he states how great artists steal e.g. Tarantino from Leone, De Palma from Hitchcock, Anderson from Altman. Recently, I sat down to watch High Sierra starring Humphrey Bogart and was shocked and pleased to discover the finale of the film was replicated almost exactly in this year’s Hell or High Water.
Secondly, Alien took the best elements of Planet of the Vampires and improved on and modernised them. As good as Bava’s movie looks (it is oddly beautiful), it hasn’t aged well, playing today like a curio from a time where every sci-fi film looked like Barbarella. Meanwhile, Scott’s film had a far bigger budget and was better able to create its unforgettable scenery and disgustingly fascinating antagonists and hire actors like Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt who can actually deliver a line. Also, there is no depth to Planet of the Vampire’s story and no message for the audience to take away and dissect on future viewings. Meanwhile, Alien is so meaty in that respect, with scholars capable of interpreting it as everything from a critique of capitalism to an anti-war statement to a manifestation of fears regarding both pregnancy and sexual violence. Ultimately, these are the features which separate a classic from a B-movie.
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