And You Call Yourself a AScientist!

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QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966)
AKA Planet of Blood
future past

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"We found astronaut Paul Grant dead at zero zero hours this morning. Cause of death has been determined as loss of blood. I hope this won’t sound too fantastic, Doctor – it isn’t pleasant. The – the creature from the other planet, she – she fed on Paul – on his blood…."
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Queen of BloodDirector: Curtis Harrington

Starring: John Saxon, Judi Meredith, Florence Marly, Basil Rathbone, Dennis Hopper, Robert Boon, Don Eitner

Screenplay: Curtis Harrington

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Synopsis: The year – 1990. At the International Institute Of Space Technology, communications expert and astronaut Laura James (Judi Meredith) monitors strange signals being received from outer space. She explains to her fiancÚ, astronaut Allan Brenner (John Saxon), that the project’s head, Dr Faraday (Basil Rathbone), believes that the signals are an alien race’s attempt at communication. Laura and Allan are lunching with their colleagues Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper) and Tony Barrata (Don Eitner) when a general assembly is called. Dr Faraday addresses all of the Institute’s staff, and announces that the signal has been translated: an alien race is sending an ambassador to Earth. Shortly afterwards, however, Laura receives a video log showing that the aliens have suffered an accident to their ship, and crashed on Mars. Faraday makes a plea for the Institute’s Mars mission to be accelerated, so that a rescue team can try to reach the aliens. Supplies and personnel are shipped to bases on the moon, from where the Oceano will be launched. Laura receives her orders: she will be part of the crew of the rescue mission, but Allan will not. Laura is worried about how Allan will take the news, but although he is disappointed for himself, he congratulates her warmly. The mission, under the command of Anders Brockman (Robert Boon), goes smoothly until the Oceano travels through a sunburst. The ship sustains some damage, and burns extra fuel, but makes it into orbit around Mars using its emergency instruments. The team locates the alien craft and lands on Mars. Anders Brockman and Paul Grant go to investigate. Anders enters the craft and finds a single dead alien. When he reports this, Faraday concludes that the rest of the alien crew must have left in a rescue ship. Allan and Tony Barrata explain their plan to Faraday: since the Oceano II isn’t ready, they will travel to one of Mars’ moons in the ship Meteor. There, they will launch the observation satellite needed to find the alien rescue ship, then travel to Mars in their own rescue ship. Faraday approves. Allan and Tony land successfully on Phobos and launch the satellite. Making contact with the Oceano, they are told they must leave for Mars in the next thirty-two minutes. However, Tony sees another craft from the window of the Meteor. The two men enter it, and to their astonishment, find a living female alien. Carrying her back to the Meteor, the two men realise that, as their rescue ship only holds two people, one of them must stay behind. They toss a coin…. Paul and Anders go out to meet the newcomers. Paul carries the unconscious alien in: she is humanoid, but green-skinned. The next moment, Laura is in Allan’s arms. On hearing his team’s report, Faraday announces that the Oceano II can blast off within a week. The news is conveyed to Tony. Meanwhile, the alien regains consciousness. She smiles at the three men, but recoils when she sees Laura. Noticing, Anders puts Paul in charge of her. He induces her to drink water, but she refuses all food. Anders tries to take a blood sample, but the alien reacts with terror and smashes the syringe. That night, while standing guard, Paul finds himself drawn to the alien. Her eyes glow, and Paul stands helpless as she moves in on him…. Coming on duty, Anders finds Paul dead, his wrist torn open. Laura cries out in horror as she finds the alien asleep, bloated, a small stream of blood trickling from the corner of her mouth….

Comments: Queen Of Blood is probably the best of the "Corman Cut-Ups" – the spate of films produced during the sixties by cobbling together footage pirated from Russian science fiction films and new material shot by one or other of Roger Corman’s stable of up-and-coming film-makers, in this case Curtis Harrington. In the first place, the Russian footage (from the film Meshte Nastreshu, "A Dream Comes True") is integrated with a fair degree of skill, and is in its own right quite startlingly beautiful. In addition, Queen Of Blood boasts a good and interesting cast and a clever (and influential) screenplay, and moves briskly from go to whoa, the end product being only about eighty minutes long. Made in 1966, the story of Queen Of Blood takes place in 1990, a time when space has been conquered, quilted clothing is at the cutting edge of fashion, and macho astronauts call each other "baby" (or at least, they do if they’re played by Dennis Hopper). The action is centred upon the "International Institute Of Space Technology", where despite its title, and the fact that it was established by "the major powers of the world", about 99% of the staff have only one skin tone – not to mention accent. We are told in the opening narration that the problem of travelling to the moon has been solved for "many years" (1970 is later given as the date for the landing, which is a pretty impressive guess), and that the question of life on other planets is now the Institute’s focus. This established, we then cross to the "Astro Communications" room, where our heroine, Laura James, is listening to the music of the spheres, a task interrupted by the arrival of her colleague and fiancÚ, Allan Brenner. Allan announces that he has just finished "a high-G session in the centrifuge" (pronounced "centrifoog"), and is consequently starving. Laura and Allan are joined at lunch by Paul Grant and Tony Barrata, and the four of them indulge in light-hearted, astronaut-type banter, like complaining about the "exobiologic food" they are forced to eat in space. (This scene is entertaining for a number of reasons, none of them scripted. Queen Of Blood, like the Harrington directed Night Tide, is one of those films that it’s fun to show to people who are only familiar with Dennis Hopper’s career post-Blue Velvet – or post-Easy Rider, for that matter. Hopper’s performance in this film is understated and rather charming – and unless I’m much mistaken, largely ad-libbed, judging by the reactions of his co-stars. It is during this first scene that he uses the expression "Tony, baby", which is not only hysterically anachronistic, but also a major flub, since he is actually addressing John Saxon’s Allan Brenner at the time! [Watch the other actors crack up when he says it.]) The conversation then takes a more serious turn towards the planned mission of exploration to Mars, before being interrupted when a gathering of all the Institute’s personnel is called. At this meeting, the astronauts are addressed by the head of the project, Dr Faraday, who makes the astonishing announcement that the signals Laura has been receiving have been translated, and an alien race is sending an ambassador to Earth. Everyone present cheers wildly, but their joy is short-lived. Laura receives another transmission, a video log showing the aliens suffering a mishap and crash landing on Mars. Faraday decides that a rescue mission must be mounted, and thus the Institute’s planned Mars shot must be brought forward. To that end, he makes a plea for assistance to, oddly enough, the international press, all of whom applaud enthusiastically. Sure enough, the next thing we know the Mars mission is all ready to go, with the question of who is paying for the rescue attempt left unanswered (a mystery further deepened by a remark made in the film’s narration, to the effect that as far as trips to the moon are concerned, Institute personnel are free to "come and go as they choose").

The Mars mission will have a three-person crew: Commander Anders Brockman, Paul Grant and Laura James. For Laura, this honour is not unalloyed: she’s concerned about how Allan is going to react to the news that she has been preferred to him. As it turns out, she needn’t have worried. Allan is a big enough man to swallow his disappointment and take pride in Laura’s success. (I may say that the "professional rivalry" subplot is worked out with a great deal more intelligence here than it was more than twenty years later, in The Abyss.) After tangling with a sunspot and sustaining some damage and loss of fuel, the rescue team locates the alien craft on Mars. Laura is left on board while Anders and Paul approach the alien ship, and then Anders alone goes inside (action determined by the need to match footage!). A single dead alien is found on board (and left there, which is pretty unbelievable [oh, that footage matching!]). When this information is conveyed to Faraday, he concludes that most of the aliens left in their rescue ship, which is elsewhere on the planet; and that an observation satellite will need to be launched, in order to locate it. This gives Allan an idea, and he and Tony propose to take the satellite up themselves in a small ship called the Meteor, and after launching it, to join the others on Mars. Faraday finally agrees, and Allan and Tony travel to Phobos, one of the moons of Mars, where the low gravity means they can conserve fuel during the landing. After the satellite has been launched, Allan and Tony are about to leave for Mars when they spot the alien rescue ship nearby. Realising that any surviving aliens are not on Mars at all, the two set out, and upon entering the craft, are confronted by an amazing sight: a live female alien. She collapses as they approach, and the men carry her back to the Meteor. They are in the middle of conveying their astonishing news to their colleagues on Mars when they remember that their rescue ship can only carry two people. Allan cuts off the transmission, then volunteers to stay behind. Tony protests, and the two men toss a coin to decide their fates.…

And so one astronaut travels to Mars and staggers through a violent storm to carry the alien to the Oceano. Paul and Anders go out to meet the newcomers, and Paul carries the unconscious alien inside. Despite her fears, Laura gives the alien her attention, noting that although she is humanoid, she is clearly not human. Laura then asks nervously who brought her…? Paul only smiles, and Allan appears to take Laura in his arms. The team then reports to Faraday, who reassures them that the Oceano II is almost ready, and will be able to rescue the stranded Tony. The alien begins to regain consciousness. She looks up at Paul, and tentatively smiles; then at Anders, and smiles a bit more; then at Allan, and positively beams; and then at Laura – and slumps back in her seat, glowering. (What I love about this scene is that no explanation is ever offered. Is the alien’s reaction simply sexual jealousy? Is there some reason why she can’t feed on female animals? Or – as I prefer to believe – does she feel that she will be able to control these weak-minded men without difficulty, but that the strong-willed Laura poses a real threat to her?) Noticing this reaction, Anders scraps his initial plan to put the alien in Laura’s care, and assigns Paul to look after her instead. Paul successfully induces the alien to take a drink of water, but she refuses solid food. Paul reports this to Anders, who remarks on her green skin, suggesting that she may be more like a plant than an animal. While he knows that a full barrage of tests can be carried out on her on Earth, Anders decides that taking a blood sample would be informative, and has Laura prepare a syringe. The alien, however, is having none of it. She takes one look at the syringe and reacts with fear and anger, slapping it from Anders’ grasp and smashing it. Anders is taken aback by this reaction, concluding that the alien’s reaction is something more significant than "a childish fear of the needle". (Childish, my butt! If someone came at me with a needle that big, we’d have a new land speed record!) In any case, the astronauts decide to leave her alone. Anders, Allan and Laura go to bed, with Paul left on duty. Paul makes a recording for the ship’s log, in which he remarks that he has noticed something about the alien that the others haven’t. Before he can explain himself, his attention is drawn to the room in which the alien is resting. He enters, and finds the creature standing before him, her eyes glowing with an eerie light. Paul stand transfixed as she moves towards him….

At midnight, Anders comes on duty and finds Paul asleep in his chair – so he thinks. First scolding him, then concerned, Anders tries to take his pulse, only to realise that he’s dead. While Allan and Laura look on in horrified amazement, Anders turns over Paul’s right hand – revealing a gaping wound in his wrist (an effectively gross shot). Laura goes to find the alien, and can’t repress a cry of revulsion when she finds her, lying sound asleep, almost comatose, digesting her meal of human blood. It is at this point that Queen Of Blood gains another level of interest. Up to now, the film has been rather matter-of-fact, carried by its visuals and some nice character touches; but with the alien making a meal of Paul Grant, a whole new moral dimension enters the story. (Regular readers know I like finding Deep And Meaningful subtexts in my films, and so it is with this one. People who prefer to be simply entertained may ignore most of what I am about to say, and instead amuse themselves by contemplating the astonishing lack of side effects resulting from the alien’s ingestion of Dennis Hopper’s blood! Personally, I’ve always imagined that she should have reacted like Udo Kier in Blood For Dracula….)

With the discovery of the truth about the alien, the battle lines are drawn. The argument that follows is a fascinating one. Anders, though distressed by Paul’s death, is able to judge dispassionately. While Allan and Laura see what she has done as murder, Anders recognises that she was simply following her instincts; that the others are trying to impose a human moral code upon the alien; and that she may, in fact, come from a society that has no moral code – or perhaps one fundamentally un-human. Or (not endearing her to her antagonists) perhaps it is simply that she sees humans as one of the "lower forms of life" that she’s used to feeding on. These rational arguments anger Allan, who simply can’t get past his knee-jerk reaction to the fact that she feeds on blood – on human blood. When Anders counters this by asking what the difference is between that and eating a rare steak, Allan dismisses his argument as a scientific quibble – and so, unfortunately, does the screenplay. The problem with Queen Of Blood – or rather, the problem that I have with Queen Of Blood – is that it takes sides. Instead of presenting a balanced debate on this intriguing point, the film clearly sympathises with Allan and Laura and their "Eww, yuck!" reaction to the situation. In contrast, Anders (and Faraday, who agrees with him) is presented as unrealistic, his scientific curiosity blinding him to the dangers. (The subtext here is that "scientific detachment" = "coldness": the two men are inferred to be insufficiently disturbed by Paul Grant’s death, another indication that their views will ultimately be proven wrong.) However, Anders is in charge, and so Allan and Laura are forced to go along with his plans for feeding the alien, which involve using the ship’s supply of plasma for as long as it lasts, and then – making donations. (Needless to say, this doesn’t exactly thrill the other two.) Anders and Allan have another debate, during which Allan fixates upon the fact that Paul didn’t struggle while being attacked. Anders suggests that, like the vampire bat, the alien carries an anaesthetic in her saliva. Although not convinced, Allan agrees that this may be the case.

Unfortunately for Anders, his theory is soon put to the test, when the ship’s supply of plasma runs out. Anders makes plans for the blood donations to begin, but his guest’s appetite intervenes, and he goes the way of Paul Grant. (When the alien attacks Anders, we see that she has stripped off her skin-tight space-suit. Florence Marly is wearing a green-tinted body stocking here, but given later events, the alien is clearly meant to be nekkid!) The next we see of the alien, she is being bound to her bed with rope. Allan and Laura report to Faraday, who continues to insist on the "specimen" being brought safely to Earth. (When Faraday has heard what is going on in space, he turns to a colleague and observes, straight-faced, "Things are going badly up there – very badly indeed!" Said colleague manfully refrains from responding, Gee, no shit!) Secure that the alien is under control, Allan and Laura let down their guards. Alas for them, those glowing green eyes do more than just exert mind control over male humans, and before long the alien has burnt through her bonds. She passes the sleeping Laura (why doesn’t she feed on her, dammit!?), who moments later is woken by – feminine intuition? In any case, Laura goes searching through the ship, until she reaches the control room, where she hears a slurping noise….

Sure enough, the alien is feeding again. Laura throws herself on the creature and tears her away from Allan. The two females struggle, and Laura drags her nails across her enemy’s shoulder, breaking the skin. The alien touches her wound, stares at the green fluid upon her fingertips, and utters the first sound has yet made – a howl of utter despair. As she runs from the room, Laura binds Allan’s wrist, and he revives. The two go looking for the alien, and find her face down upon her bed – dead, and with a spreading green patch on the floor beside her. (In one of the film’s sillier moments, Allan warns Laura not to "come any closer!", even though she’s previously seen the dead bodies of her colleagues!) As Allan and Laura stare at the creature, realisation dawns: she was a haemophiliac.

Allan and Laura and their grim cargo land safely on Earth. Laura opens a cupboard to bring out some protective eyewear, but finds it otherwise occupied – by the alien’s eggs, red, pulsing bulbs embedded in a green, jelly-like substance. Allan plans to destroy them, but Laura tells him it’s futile – there are eggs hidden all over the ship! At that moment, Faraday and his assistant (a cameoing Forrest Ackerman) rush into the ship, congratulating Allan and Laura on the success of their mission (!?). Allan tells him about the eggs, and Faraday is delighted, waving away Allan’s demands that the objects be destroyed immediately. The assistant (with a beaming smile on his face, and wearing no protective gear whatsoever – not even a pair of gloves!) piles some of the eggs onto a tray. The camera moves in for a close-up of those strange, throbbing objects, and it’s – the end.

By addressing the question of Homo sapiens’ place in the universal food chain, Queen Of Blood lifts itself above many similar science fiction efforts. What is most striking about the philosophy expressed by most of the characters in the film (or at least, by those whom events vindicate) is how narrow it is. These are the people of the future, who are conquering space and seeking new worlds, new races, and yet they are utterly incapable of thinking beyond their own limited life experience. Allan Brenner’s revolted reaction to the alien’s feeding habits is that of someone unable to conceive of a place where humankind is not the supreme manifestation of life. When the astronauts try to understand the alien’s behaviour, they put it entirely in Earthly terms. Her haemophilia suggests to Allan that she may have been "royalty" (i.e. a queen) in her own world; her egg-laying prompts him to liken her to a queen bee. Even Anders, more broad-minded than the others, compares her to a vampire bat, and suggests that her society may be composed of "technologically advanced insects" (implying therein that they are without a moral code – a human moral code, of course). Even the discovery of the alien’s eggs provokes an Earth-bound interpretation: that she was not an ambassador, but an invader, sent to colonise the planet, with human beings as her offspring’s food supply. (That her egg-laying may simply have been part of her natural life cycle never occurs to anyone.) And yet this blinkered reaction, this insular way of thinking, is validated by the events of the story. When Anders insists on the alien’s welfare being the number one priority, when Faraday reacts with delight to the existence of the eggs, everything we see and hear screams wrong, wrong, WRONG!! (And Laura’s attempt at reassurance – "They’re scientists, Allan – they know what they’re doing!" - doesn’t help one little bit!) I would infinitely have preferred it if the moral of Queen Of Blood had been that we should expand our mental horizons before attempting to expand our physical ones; but instead, the film suggests that it’s a big, nasty universe out there, and that we should do it to them before they do it to us.

If Alien is (these days, at least) often referred to as a cross between It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Planet Of The Vampires, surely Queen Of Blood, with its "space crew picked off one by one" storyline, and more specifically its thoroughly biological kicker ending, is another obvious influence. Films like these tend to live and die by their "monsters", and the green-skinned, blood-drinking, beehive-haired alien is a compelling presence. Florence Marly is a scene-stealer as the alien, with her body language performance occasionally rivalling that of Edith Scob in Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage. She is particularly good during when interacting with Dennis Hopper’s Paul Grant: he thinks they’re flirting, she’s contemplating dinner. Even more impressive is her final scene, when she stares at the green blood upon her fingers with inexpressible sadness and horror in her eyes. While Marly walks off with the honours here, all of the performances in Queen Of Blood are competent. More importantly, the cast maintains a straight face throughout, adding further layers to the "destroy her/save her" debate. As mentioned previously, the integration of the Russian film footage is very well done (unlike most of the "Cut-Ups", the plot of Queen Of Blood has nothing at all to do with that of the Russian film it pillages), and the cinematography and score are effective as well. The thing I like best about Queen Of Blood, however, is its take on gender roles – chiefly because it doesn’t have one. Other than Destination Moon, the granddaddy of them all, there was barely a space exploration film made in America in the fifties and sixties in which the crew did not include "the woman" – whose role, primarily, was simply to be "the woman". She was not there genuinely to contribute anything, but to screw up, to be captured and rescued, to provide "witty" banter and sexual tension, and finally to fall into the arms of the hero. Queen Of Blood sets itself apart by doing none of this with the character of Laura James. She is not "the woman"; she is one of the crew, fully qualified and fully professional. She is sent on the rescue mission to Mars entirely on her merits; and although she worries about how her fiancÚ will take her being chosen over him, he concedes her superior qualifications. The relationship between Laura and Allan is interesting in itself, principally because it is never permitted to interfere with the progress of the mission. The other crewmembers are sympathetic to the couple’s situation, but never for a moment does this influence their conduct towards either of them. (Tony Barrata does not volunteer to stay on Phobos for their sakes, for instance.) Nor is anything made of the fact that Allan and Laura are separated for much of the time. It might have been expected, for example, that the Paul Grant character would turn out to be Allan’s rival, and that his being sent on the mission with Laura would be used to generate tension; but there is no suggestion of anything of the kind. In fact, the only person to whom Laura’s sex seems to be of any importance at all is the alien – and even that is left satisfyingly oblique. In the end, Laura James is not "a woman" at all; she is simply "a person" – and how wonderful, how refreshing that is! And how sad that Curtis Harrington was as far off the mark with this prediction of mankind’s future as he was with all the others he made! Ah, well…. One of these centuries, my friends. One of these centuries….

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