Sunday, October 22, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: Q is for Queen of Blood (1966)

In the far-flung future of 1990, The International Institute of Space Technology has been monitoring some strange signals originating from deep space. And as the resident communications expert, astronaut Laura James (Meredith) appears to be in the know, explaining to her fiance and fellow astronaut, Allan Brenner (Saxon), over lunch that it’s believed these signals are an attempt to communicate by some alien race. And just as they’re joined by fellow colleagues Paul Grant (Hopper) and Tony Barrata (Eitner), a general assembly is called, where Dr. Faraday (Rathbone), the head of the institute, announces those mystery signals have finally been translated and confirms it was made and sent by an alien intelligence that is currently sending a diplomatic envoy to Earth.

But this excitement is tempered a few days later when Laura decodes the latest video message, showing the alien transport has suffered a massive technical mishap that’s forced them to crash-land on the planet Mars. Thus, Faraday makes a plea to the united nations of Earth to all pitch in to accelerate the IIST’s already planned exploratory sojourn to Mars and make it a rescue mission before it’s too late. And so, as supplies are rushed to the moonbase launch site, the three person crew to man the Oceano rocket are selected: Laura, Paul Grant, and commanding officer, Anders Brockman (Boon). When Laura receives her orders, she’s disappointed Allan won’t be joining her on the mission. And while he’s equally disappointed, Brenner knows darn well she’s more qualified than he and offers a hearty congratulations. Besides, he won’t be too far behind her in the Oceano II.

And after a successful launch of the Oceano, the flight to Mars goes pretty smoothly at first until the ship is slammed by some kind of “starburst”. Despite the damage and loss of fuel, the ship makes it to Mars safely. And from orbit, they detect the alien craft and land nearby. Then, Brockman and Grant suit up and investigate the wreck but only find one dead alien in the wreckage. Relaying this to Faraday, he believes the rest of the envoy must have jettisoned in an escape pod before the main ship crashed. But to find that, they’re going to need some help -- and fast. Enter Brenner and Tony Barata, who’ve come up with a contingency plan since the Oceano II is nowhere near ready for that follow up flight to Mars yet. Instead, they suggest taking a smaller, faster Meteor class ship, which they can land on one of Mars’ moons and launch the vital observation satellite needed to detect the smaller alien escape pod. And once that’s done, they can use their own escape pod to rendezvous with the Oceano for a ride home since their smaller ship can’t carry enough fuel for a round trip. Faraday agrees.

And so, Brenner and Barata head to Mars, avoid any starbursts, successfully land on Phobos, and launch the satellite drone. Told they only have a 32-minute window to reach the Oceano, both astronauts hope for a quick result -- and then get one way quicker than they’d hoped for as Brenner spots the alien lifeboat through a porthole. Seems the alien’s escape pod crashed on Phobos, not Mars. Inside it, the two men find a living alien that approximates a human female. After carrying her unconscious form back to their ship, the two men realize their own escape pod only holds two people. Stuck and thus, they flip a coin to see who remains behind. And when their escape pod reaches Mars, there is a bit of a harrowing interlude as a sudden sandstorm whips up as Brenner tries to transfer the alien to the Oceano on foot. Luckily, both survive. And don’t worry too much about Barata, either, as Faraday assures the Oceano II will reach him long before his air and survival rations run out.

Meantime, the crew of the Oceano gets their first look at the alien visitor (Marley). Again, she appears humanoid and female but her skin is green and her off-white hair resembles one of those Troll Dolls. And when she finally wakes up and opens those piercing glittery eyes, she smiles at the men but suddenly recoils when spying Laura. Thus, Crewman Grant is put in charge of looking after the alien visitor, who refuses all food and water. Curious to examine her physiology, Brockman attempts to take a blood sample until the alien reacts violently to this, smashing the syringe. Agreeing to try again after a mandatory sleep period, Grant is left to watch the alien while the others turn in. And after the others have gone, sometime later, the alien moves toward Grant, her eyes glowing predatorily and hypnotically. Thus, Grant finds himself hypno-whammied by the alien, and then stands helplessly as she seemingly gloms onto his face!

Cut to the end of the sleep period and, as the others report for duty, they find the bridge eerily silent and deserted. Further searching finds Grant dead; his wrist savagely punctured and torn open but there is little evidence of blood. Then, Laura cries out in horror. She’s found the alien -- asleep, bloated, and purring like a satiated kitten. And the cause of those screams? There is a massive amount of blood that obviously isn’t the alien’s trickling from the corners of her mouth...

Back in October of 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik satellite, which was the opening salvo of the escalating Space Race between the East and the West. A race that was, at the time, being clearly won by Roscosmos. And to celebrate these early victories, Soviet filmmakers were encouraged to celebrate this achievement by making some state-sponsored science-fiction films concerning a socialistic future and the advancement of their space program, resulting in films like Nebo zovyot (The Sky Calls, 1959), which sees two rival countries competing to be the first to land on Mars, Planeta Bur (The Planet of Storms, 1962), where a bevy of Cosmonauts land on the planet Venus and find themselves in danger from the voracious plant and animal life they find on it, and Mechte navstrechu (Encounter in Space, A Dream Come True, 1963), where a rocket from a distant planet on its way to Earth crashes on Mars, and so, the Earth sends a rescue mission to retrieve them (-- sound familiar? I know, we’ll get to why that is in a sec).

Mostly shot at the Odessa Film Studio in the Ukraine just off the Black Sea, their efforts were stunning and dominated visually by some spectacular special-effects. These films were highly imaginative with breathtaking use of vibrant colors, eerie but beautiful alien landscapes, state of the art production design and visual effects -- with some amazing, forced-perspective futuristic sets and spaceships. And while the prickly politics and pro-socialist tendencies were ever present, the future still looked amazing and wasn’t really equaled, visually, in America until George Lucas came along. 

And so, you have these big, beautiful sci-fi epics that were visually intoxicating tales of the future courtesy of the Bolsheviks. Thus, leave it to a notorious American exploitation guru to chop them up and turn them into a space vampire movie.

As the legend goes, Roger Corman stumbled upon these films at a cinema in east Hollywood. Duly impressed by the scope and sophistication of the FX and imagery, Corman would personally travel to the Soviet Union to secure the licensing rights for them through Mosfilm, who were in charge of the state-run motion picture industry. And once that was secured, Corman knew due to their massive length, the heavy political and anti-capitalism and anti-American slant of most of the plots, a simple dub-over would not do. And so, he charged several of his underlings to cannibalize the special effect sequences and salvage as much as they could of the other high production values and made at least four films by picking the bones of this far superior product.

In Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), a Thomas Colchart -- the pseudonym for an aspiring filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola, with an assist from Jack Hill, re-cut and re-dubbed Nebo Zovyot, making the straw-Russians the bad guys, natch, and also infamously added a fight between two giant monsters that resembled human genitalia in a “insert Tab A into Slot B” sense. And in 1968, a Derek Thomas -- better known as Peter Bogdanovich, also cannibalized Nebo Zovyot and Planeta Bur for Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), shooting new scenes with Mamie Van Doren, who joins several other women as telepaths who worship a pterodactyl that is killed by the cosmonauts in the original version. And then there’s Curtis Harrington, who shot several new scenes with Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue and inserted them into a dubbed-over Planeta Bur, turning it, for better or for worse, into Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965).

Harrington first got on Corman’s radar when the producer was duly impressed by his big screen debut, Night Tide (1961), a fairly effective, no-budget psychodrama based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, which he both wrote and directed, and whose creepy, eerie, earnest and sincere moments strike a strange alchemy. And his first job for Corman was writing scripts that could be wrapped around the FX for these imported Soviet films. And after delivering Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Harrington was tagged to write and direct the inserts for Queen of Blood (1966), too, which mostly cannibalized Mechte Navstrechu, originally directed by Mikhail Karzhukov and Otar Koberidze. 

And while it follows the same plot of a rescue mission to Mars, it was Corman who felt the original film footage lent itself to a “space-age version of a traditionally Gothic vampire story” not unlike Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), which also helped to inspire Dan O’Bannon when he wrote the script for Alien (1979). And while Harrington claims his film also helped inspire Ridley Scott’s master class in suspense and terror, while there is some tangential evidence for that argument, you have to remember they were all ripping off IT! The Terror from Beyond Space (1957), which itself ripped off a couple of old A.E. Van Vogt stories, The Black Destroyer and Discord in Scarlet. And if you haven’t read those yet, get your hands on a copy of The Voyage of the Space Beagle or Mission: Interplanetary as soon as possible.

To his credit, Harrington does a commendable job of folding his new footage and dime-store sets into the old with nary a hiccup, and the resulting film is actually pretty good and filled with some pretty progressive notions and interesting ideas both before and after things hit the fan -- make that, before the fangs hit the artery; especially when the crew’s next action after the alien kills Grant is to not jettison her out the airlock -- or even restrain her. No, cooler heads prevail, as both Faraday and Commander Brockman both feel this first contact alien must be preserved and delivered at all costs. Here, the battle lines are quickly drawn on the ship between Brockman and the other two, who feel the death of Grant was nothing short of murder. Thus, he scolds and lectures them for trying to impose their human morals onto something alien, whose culture and customs they know nothing about, and considers this just a harsh lesson learned and a noble sacrifice for the benefit of both species.

And so, unable to disobey a direct order, Laura and Brennan agree to a plan to feed the alien the blood plasma they have stored on board for the remainder of the trip home. But when that runs out before they get to Earth, Brockman decides they will all have to offer up transfusions of their own blood to keep the alien fed. The ever-silent alien, meanwhile, watches all of this drama with a cold, reptilian detachment. These are not other sentient beings to her, but cattle to be fed on whenever she wants -- at least according to Brennan. And his theory is proven right when the alien predator impatiently forgoes the pending transfusion, strips naked, puts the hypno-whammy on Brockman, her advocate, remember, in a pretty nifty scene as he tries to resist coming under her influence before he is overwhelmed and exsanguinated.

When the other two astronauts find Brockman’s body, they waste no time in restraining the hibernating alien. Reporting this latest incident to Faraday, he still insists the alien must be safely brought to Earth. Thinking they are safe, neither Laura or Brennan could know the alien’s deadly hypnotic eyes could also generate something akin to heat vision, which she uses to burn through her bonds. She then forgoes the sleeping Laura and goes on the hunt for Brennan. And perhaps awakened by some slurping noises, Laura searches the ship and catches the alien feeding on Brennan in the same fashion as the others. 

Without a moment’s hesitation, the astronaut throws herself into the fray, knocking the alien away from Brennan. And as they struggle, Laura rakes her nails across the space-vampire’s shoulder, tearing the skin open. Here, the alien immediately breaks off the fight, touches her wounds, sees some green blood on her fingers and then howls in despair (-- the first and only noise she will ever make in the film), before vacating the room.

Laura lets her go for now and tends to Brennan’s wounds. When he finally comes around, the two go looking for the alien and find her on her bunk, face down, in a pool of her own green blood. She is dead, and the two theorize she was some kind of hyper-hemophiliac, explaining why she reacted so violently when they tried to draw blood earlier. Anyhoo, the two surviving astronauts finally reach the Earth. But as they prepare to land, Laura opens a hatch to retrieve some protective gear only to discover the alien had apparently been busy when no one was watching as the compartment is chock full of the alien’s eggs -- red, pulsating nodules embedded in some lime green Jell-O. And while Allan moves to destroy them, a quick check of the other compartments proves this will be a futile gesture as the entire ship is completely infested with the eggs. (And when the hell did she have time for all that? Your guess is as good as mine.)

Once they’ve landed, Faraday enters the ship and congratulates the two surviving astronauts on a successful mission. (Successful how?!) And when Brennan reveals the existence of the eggs, Faraday is positively giddy over something of the alien may be salvaged after all and summarily ignores Brennan’s dire warnings that the alien wasn’t sent to visit the Earth but to colonize it like some giant, blood-sucking queen ant. And so, instead of destroying these incubating alien invaders, they are collected for further study. What happens next? No one can say.

Out of the four films mentioned, Queen of Blood is easily the best of Corman’s Soviet sci-fi cut-ups. And like with the other gleaned films, having already invested a huge chunk of change on the Soviet footage, Corman wasn’t interested in spending a whole lot on the rest of the film -- the amount ranges from $40,000 to $65,000, depending on the source. And what little money there was appears to have been spent by the art department, who did a fairly credible job mimicking the designs of the original films. Again, you will easily spot the Soviet footage compared to what came later but I still think Harrington did a pretty good job of seamlessly splicing it all together, resulting in an eerie, suspenseful, and moody piece that is far better than it probably had a right to be.

Queen of Blood was a rare theatrical appearance for Judi Meredith, who mostly appeared on TV -- though she also played Princess Elaine in Jack the Giant Killer (1962). Apparently she was a star figure skater with the Ice Follies as a youngster, but broke her back and was told she would never skate again. She then turned to acting in 1956, when George Burns spotted her and gave Meredith a steady part on his TV show. I liked her a lot in this, and I loved the way her character was treated. She was an astronaut. Not a female astronaut. She wasn’t there to be rescued. (In fact, she does the rescuing.) She was there to a do a job. In fact, the only person who seems to have a problem with Laura’s sex is the alien; a plot thread the film never really does resolve. And thank GOD the usual love triangle in these things was also absent.

Honestly, it took a awhile for all of this to sink in, but there’s a moment on the Oceano while it’s on the way to Mars, the lunch bell is sounded and no asked or expected her to prep and serve the meal for them -- even as a joke; and that is where it all finally clicked together. And while this made me smile, somewhat sadly, this is perhaps the most fictionalized piece of science in the whole film.

And while Meredith, John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, and Dennis Hopper -- who starred in Night Tide for Harrington, are all pretty great, the movie is practically stolen out from under all of them by Czech actress, Florence Marly. Apparently, Corman wanted a younger woman for the role but Harrington fought hard for his friend, Marly, believing she had “the required exotic quality” that would be perfect for the role. And she was, and she played the silent killer to the hilt. And her cold detachment as she eats her way through the crew is chilling. I love the scene between her and Hopper when he thinks he’s being seduced for a possible sexual encounter while she’s probably wondering what he tastes like. And later, the phantasmagorical sequence when she approaches Brockman, clouding his mind, so she keeps disappearing and reappearing between blinks.

I guess what Queen of Blood all boils down to, then, is the struggle of mankind to find its place in the galactic food-chain. It’s very Star Trek in the at least token attempts to understand different cultures, civilizations, and social mores but it’s also very The Thing from Another World (1951), when it’s discovered we’re on the menu and then diplomacy be damned. Still, it’s fairly progressive when it comes to gender roles and its united Earth front. Sadly, by the real 1990 we weren’t even close to reaching those heights. And sadder still, by 2017, we seem even farther away than ever from that particular benchmark. 

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 17 down with nine to go! Up next: S.H.E.E.R. S.T.U.P.I.D.I.T.Y.

Queen of Blood (1966) Cinema West Productions :: American International Pictures / EP: Roger Corman / P: George Edwards, Samuel Z. Arkoff / AP: Stephanie Rothman / D: Curtis Harrington / W: Curtis Harrington, Mikhail Karzhukov (Mechte navstrechu), Otar Koberidze (Mechte navstrechu) / C: Vilis Lapenieks / E: Leo H. Shreve / M: Ronald Stein / S: Judi Meredith, John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, Dennis Hopper, Robert Boon, Don Eitner, Florence Marly

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