Saturday, 13 June 2009

Queen of Outer Space (1958)

Queen of Outer Space belongs to the sub-genre of science fiction films from the 50s dealing with encounters with all-female alien societies, along with movies like Cat-Women of the Moon and Missile to the Moon and several others. It’s a sub-genre that combines outrageous sexism with equally outrageous camp. When you notice that the star of a science fiction movie is Zsa Zsa Gabor, you can be fairly sure it’s not going to take a very serious scientific approach to its subject matter.

A routine mission to Earth’s first orbiting space station goes badly wrong when a mysterious ray destroys the station before the horrified eyes of its designer Professor Konrad (who just happens to be aboard the spaceship on its way to the station) and then hurls the spacecraft at a phenomenal speed towards the planet Venus. The crew are relieved to find that Venus’s gravity is very similar to Earth’s, because that means the atmosphere will be breathable.

Exploring the surface of the planet the crew are overtaken by disaster. The one great fear of space explorers is of course that they will be captured by beautiful mini-skirted alien women, and that’s what happens. The horror is compounded by the fact that these women haven’t seen a man in years. It transpires that the men of Venus were banished to one of the planet’s moons after a catastrophic war, and Queen Yllana now rules. She is consumed by an implacable hatred of men, and plans to use her beta disintegrator to destroy the Earth. Not all the women of Venus hate men though. There is a resistance movement of women who want their men back, a movement led by one of Venus’s leading scientists, Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor). Talleah and her chief followers immediately fall hopelessly in love with the spacemen from Earth. To be honest, even if these four clowns were the only men on the entire planet it’s still difficult to understand why any woman would want anything to do with them. The Earthmen and the rebel women must somehow foil the queen’s plans and re-unite the women of Venus with their men.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is the writing talent involved in it. The script is by Charles Beaumont, who went on to write many classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and several notable movies (including Roger Corman’s superb Masque of the Red Death) before his premature death in 1967. And the screenplay was based on an unpublished story by Ben Hecht. Although there does seem to be some doubt about whether the Hecht story actually existed since nobody has actually seen it.

Zsa Zsa Gabor makes no attempt to act. She was already well on her way to becoming an actress known more for her outrageous persona and eventful private life than for her almost non-existent film career, and she is there simply to add glamour. Which she does. The other female members of the cast seem to have been selected mainly for their appearance, and they include several beauty queens. This is classic 1950s cheesecake, and the women really are quite stunning, especially Lisa Davis as Motiya. Science fiction seemed to afford costume designers an opportunity to put women into extraordinarily short skirts. The four male cast members are uniformly awful and quite exceptionally annoying. I can quite understand why Queen Yllana wanted to exterminate them.

The sets and costumes are the highlight of the movie. The sets are ludicrous but fun in a very high camp way, and the women’s costumes are glamorous and sexy although perhaps not always very practical.

In a 1950s sci-fi movie you expect ludicrously sexist dialogue and sexist attitudes, but this one is in a class of its own. Of course it was never meant to be taken seriously, director Edward Bernds describing it as an attempt to graft satire onto a very thin science fiction plot. The attempt doesn’t quite come off. I suspect that the things that modern audiences will find amusing in this film won’t be the same things that a 50s audience would have laughed at. But it’s still camp enough to be reasonably entertaining. And it looks fairly impressive. Being filmed in Cinemascope and colour, and very bright and lurid colours they are, makes it even more camp. If you like camp and you like 1950s cheesecake, it’s worth a look.

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