Monday, 8 February 2010

Queen of Blood (1966)

Queen of Blood is one of those notorious AIP cut-and-paste jobs, using footage from a Russian science fiction epic and constructing a new movie around it. The results in most cases were at best campy fun (who could forget Mamie van Doren’s seashell bra in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women?) but in this case the result is a surprisingly nifty little film.

Curtis Harrington directed, and since he proved himself to be quite a talented maker of interesting and off-beat low-budget movies his presence certainly helped. He also has a pretty good cast to work with. And most importantly, the footage from the Russian film is extremely well integrated with the new film. And the Russian footage just looks so right for this movie.

It’s set in the future, in 1990, a time when the human race is on the brink of sending manned missions to Mars and Venus. A radio signal is picked up from Mars, and turns out to be a distress call from an alien spaceship. An immediate decision is made - a spacecraft will be sent from Earth to rescue the stranded travellers from interstellar space.

The rescue mission finds one survivor, a female alien who looks fairly human apart from a strange green tinge to her skin. Surprisingly for a 1960s science fiction movie, she doesn’t speak English, and communication with her proves to be more or less impossible. Still, she seem harmless enough, and perhaps when they get her back to Earth the scientists there will be able to find a way to bridge the language barrier.

So far the mission has been a roaring success, but our intrepid astronauts have yet to discover the alien woman’s secret, the reason she refuses all solid food that is offered to her. She can only take liquid nourishment - in the form of human blood! And she has strange hypnotic powers that make her victims willing to sacrifice themselves to feed her thirst. Can our brave astronauts not only keep the alien alive, but prevent her from killing them, long enough to return to our world?

There are obvious parallels to Mario Bava’s very underrated Planet of the Vampires, made the previous year. But this is certainly not a rip-off of Bava’s movie. It shares a similar theme, but the plot and the general treatment are very different. Both this movie and Bava’s were on the other hand shamelessly plundered for Ridley Scott’s somewhat overrated Alien.

The Russian movie that provides most of the special effects footage was, like most eastern European sci-fi films of that era, a very lavish big-budget production and the special effects are in fact extremely cool. There’s some brilliant use of coloured gels, and the footage really does have a spooky, other-worldly feel to it.

Curtis Harrington’s script is extremely good, with an unexpected degree of ethical complexity (although we shouldn’t be surprised by this since Harrington was responsible for the superb and very underrated 1961 Night Tide). There’s also plenty of tension, and Harrington maintains a consistent level of excitement. And there are more than sufficient scares as well, with unarmed astronauts trapped on a small spacecraft with a space vampire who possesses mind control powers, and with strict orders to bring her back alive.

Reliable genre actor John Saxon is suitably brave as astronaut Allan Brenner, but he’s more than just a square-jawed hero. Judi Meredith is his his astronaut girlfriend, and she’s likeable and it’s nice to see a female astronaut who isn’t along on the trip merely to make the coffee and act as a nurse, which was far too often in the case in 1950s American sci-fi flicks. Dennis Hopper is rather good as another of the human astronauts. Basil Rathbone has fun as the chief space scientist on Earth, and Florence Marly is both creepy and glamorous as the alien.

This is a visually very impressive and highly entertaining sci-fi/horror movie, and while it has some fun 60s camp elements it stands up pretty well as a serious movie as well.

I have no idea if this one is available on DVD. It was screened here on the World Movies cable channel, and even better, it was broadcast in its correct widescreen aspect ratio, and in a rather nice print.

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