I recently took one of my occasional dives into American International Pictures with Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood, a talky, slowwww-moving, sci-fi feature from 1966 about an ill-fated space voyage to Mars in response to an alien distress call.
Most striking in the film are the very brief, gauzy, luminous shots of the alien ship, pre-crash, with no dialogue, lots of slow, silent movement, and a truly unearthly ambience. Don’t get me wrong; this film is AIP schlock, but Harrington knows how to get a feel for an alien environment.
Unfortunately, these scenes, which I’ve read were modeled on some early Russian sci-fi films, are fleeting, and the rest of the film is mostly talking, and the dialogue – about unappetizing space food and rigid rocket schedules – cannot contend with those visuals. In fact, the pre-flight Earth scenes are surprisingly unattractive. Set in 1990, the film is neither prescient nor pretty. The costumer must have imagined requisite astronaut outfits in hideous hues of mustard.
The look inside the rocket, where the better chunk of the movie takes place, will feel familiar to anyone who ever watched Star Trek, minus almost all the consoles and fabulously blinking lights. Sort of an office in outer space.
The astronauts in question include John Saxon, post-teen heartthrob and pre-Nightmare on Elm Street; Dennis Hopper, post-James Dean era and pre-Easy Rider; and a blonde actress Judi Meredith, pre- and post- lots and lots of minor roles. On hand as their moon base boss is Oscar™-nominee Sir Basil Rathbone, finishing off the final leg of his career as a fixture in cheap horror. He talks, a lot.
When the astronauts finally rescue the Queen, the movie moves! Florence Marly undoubtedly inspired some sci-fi boners in her skintight space suit and hypnotic stares accompanied by flirtatious smiles focused eerily on her teeth. She’s also green, though the shade seems inconsistent from scene to scene. The skin, in addition to her high-altitude wig, distinguish her from the humans on hand, though Dennis Hopper seems awfully tempted to cross-breed. The Queen (never actually named in the film) is the best character by far, partially because she doesn’t have to deliver any leaden lines, but also because Harrington really seems taken with her, with close-ups fantastic as the actress’s face flares mystery and sex – and what we know from the title, an underlying danger.
Yeah, she’s a vampire. The title had to come from somewhere.
How is this a pre-cursor to Alien? She’s laying eggs! Sadly, we never get to see those laying scenes. Instead, after she’s defeated, the surviving astronauts start finding pulsating, glowing ostrich-sized eggs stashed away in cupboards on the ship. Cupboards!
Moreover, as in the 1979 Ridley Scott film, the crew is trapped on a ship with a female alien, this one far curvier than the one Sigourney Weaver faced off against. In addition to their reproductive agendas, both aliens spend a good deal of time making their threat most palpable off the screen. When they do appear, look out!
But remember I said this wasn’t all schlock. Harrington slips some sneaky suspense scenes into the dragging first half by tossing in scenes of belatedly answered calls to a stranded ship on the Mars moon Phobos. Yes, in this movie, that constitutes suspense, and surprisingly, it kind of works. The movie has fans!
Harrington doesn’t always show everything. Some scenes jump and he trusts us to put together the gaps, which we can do handily. The biggest gap of all, however, remains the alien race and their true intentions in making their way toward Earth, at least until the astronauts ‘splain it to us as they hazard their guess.
As much as I enjoy making up my own story, I could have done with condensing the first half of the film to ten minutes and spending that banked extra time on the alien ship. No dialogue – we already know that’s going to clunk. Just more images. Maybe this is where we could have seen more of Maya Deren‘s influence on Harrington.
Time for a remake! Ridley Scott, come back home. You need to make amends after the fucking mess of Prometheus. Make it full circle: pay homage to early experimental Russian science fiction filmmaking, AIP schlock from queer cinema master and Maya Deren follower Curtis Harrington, and YOURSELF from 1979. You can make this a great film. Tip: watch those dialogue-free scenes on the alien ship and your heart will lead you. Also, make the film on less than 100 grand. This will save you from the overreaching grandiosity and over-reliance on special effects. Everybody needs to do an AIP movie now and again, just to keep it real.