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What do the filmmakers Curtis Harrington, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich have in common? They all took charge of adaptations of Soviet science fiction films, transforming them into propaganda-free entertainment for American kiddie matinees. Always interested in Sci-fi, producer Roger Corman bought the U.S. rights for a Goskino movie by Mikhail Karzhukov, Nebo zoyvot, which with some added monsters and disguised Russian insignia became Battle Beyond the Sun. Bogdanovich would later shoot scenes with Mamie Van Doren and other telepathic Venusian 'space nymphs' to add a bit of cheesecake to a sex-challenged 'Leningrad Popular Science Film Studio' epic called Planeta bur. The result is a fairly forgettable turnip called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. 1 But the most elaborate retro-fit of a Russian space epic for American screens occurred with 1966's Queen of Blood. Experimental director Curtis Harrington and his producer George Edwards didn't just augment Karzhukov's Mechte navstrechu, they re-filmed an entire new story to use its spectacular special effects scenes.
I've seen the original 1963 Mechte navstrechu, a title that translates roughly as A Dream Come True. Unlike earlier Soviet space films that concentrate on Cold War conflicts, Karzhukov's show is about a deep space civilization that sends emissaries to Earth. Their spaceship looks like a globe girdled with an Arab crown. When it crashes on Mars, Earth's united space scientists send one ship, and then a second ship, to rescue the survivors.
Harrington re-imagines Mechte navstrechu as a commercial Sci-fi / horror hybrid starring name actors John Saxon and Basil Rathbone for some very fast filming on just a few sets. The new footage is cleverly designed to match expensive special effects scenes from the Soviet original. According to Hollywood lore, the unbilled Roger Corman was involved in the film to some degree. The most expensive item in the budget was the manufacture of a couple of space helmets to match the props seen in the Russian footage. Harrington is forced to be careful with his angles when a scene requires three helmets to be in use at the same time. By replacing the helmet's light-colored crown with a dark alternate, the two props are made represent four or five separate items!
Harrington's matching is remarkable. Both movies begin with groups of eager-beaver space cadets lunching at an interesting modern building that fits in well with the original film. Doctor Farraday (Basil Rathbone), the head of the space establishment, delivers a speech from the foot of a colossal (and very Soviet- styled) statue. Farraday announces that contact has been made with an advanced star-faring civilization that will be sending voyagers to Earth. When the aliens crash-land on Mars, stalwart hero Allan Brenner (John Saxon) will have to stay behind while his girlfriend Laura James (Judi Meredith of Jack the Giant Killer) and best buddy Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper of Harrington's Night Tide) take the first ship.
From the original footage we see odd visuals of life on the distant planet, represented by strangely designed machinery and space hardware. The Soviet rocketry footage fits in nicely with Harrington's re-shoots, with the proviso that the 1:85 matting trims quite a bit of information from the flat 1:33 Russian originals. Rathbone delivers his speech before a neutral wall, new shots that inter-cut better than one might expect with the original views of a much stouter man addressing the crowds in long shot. The center section of the film shows the first rocket getting stuck on Mars. The daring Brenner lands a smaller rocket on one of the Martian moons and then continues to the Martian surface in a smaller shuttle. Again, the matching is just good enough to give the impression that the show is an organic whole. Although nowhere near the visual masterpiece of Mario Bava's 'space gothic' Planet of the Vampires, Queen of Blood is an expressively filmed show.
The film hits its stride when the spacemen bring back just one unconscious female alien survivor who neither talks nor eats. She has green skin and piercing eyes. She wears a strange beehive hairdo and a clinging leotard-like costume. The alien is played by Florence Marly, a Czech beauty who starred in a Sci-fi film from a Karel Capek novel about an ultimate explosive called Krakatit. Marly was one of many European actresses imported to Hollywood in the late '40s that didn't make a big impact. What viewers today will immediately realize is that Marly's Alien Queen is the visual inspiration for the "Martian Girl" played by Lisa Marie in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!
Harrington and Marly work very hard to make the Alien Queen a memorable character, framing her mysteriously smiling face in carefully chosen close-ups, and using careful lighting to make her eyes appear to glow. She seems to hate Laura and uses her talent for telepathic hypnosis to victimize the male astronauts. As the title none-too-subtly hints, she's really a space vampire. Radio instructions from Doctor Farraday instruct the astronauts to keep the alien alive with blood from the medical locker, but they underestimate her appetite for fresh male hemoglobin. Who will get back to Earth alive, and how will they stop the Queen of Blood from feasting on Earth's entire population? The show takes itself seriously, as opposed to American-International's original trailer, which drips with campy taglines like, "TURNS THE MILKY WAY INTO A GALAXY OF GORE!"
Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz was Harrington's production manager. The sets for the film are attractively designed, and far less tacky than was the A.I.P. norm for marginal productions of this kind. The final act relies on Harrington's expressive direction and cameraman Vilis Lapenieck's creative lighting for the close-up character work. Queen of Blood is easily the best of the A.I.P. import-recuts, and the only one that hangs together as a coherent drama. Back in the late 1960s it was reissued for several years straight and ended up playing on television at the same time that it showed in theaters. Several alternate titles have been assigned to TV versions, but I've only come across the one it bears now.
Harrington handles his cast well. Veteran Basil Rathbone was reportedly unhappy with his role and bitter that such a major star as himself would be forced to work under such reduced circumstances. It looks like Rathbone's services might have been needed for just a couple of days -- he tends to enter and make his mark on a scene, and then exit to allow the younger actors to carry on. Doctor Farraday's non-speaking assistant is played by editor Forrest J. Ackerman, whose magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland was then at its peak of popularity. A.I.P. regularly coordinated its publicity campaigns with Ackerman's magazine, and placing him in the picture was a smart move on the part of the producers. It's interesting to see Dennis Hopper playing such a passive and thoughtful character, the first spaceman to be seduced by the mystery woman from beyond the stars. It's difficult to connect this meek Hopper with his anti-establishment rebel in Easy Rider, which was filmed just a couple of years later.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection's DVD of Queen of Blood is a surprisingly good enhanced transfer of a film I've previously seen only in miserable TV prints. The audio is clear as well. Thanks to the interesting cast and the unique, otherworldly Florence Marly -- she really seems to be "into" her part -- Queen of Blood comes off quite well and deserves to have its reputation ratcheted up a few notches.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Queen of Blood rates:
1. Actually, Curtis Harrington did his own filmic reupholstery job on Planeta bur, the confusingly titled Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. Both of those titles are easily mistaken for the Arthur C. Pierce feature Women of the Prehistoric Planet. All of these pictures were released within the space of a couple of years. To be honest, I'm not at all certain that I'm keeping them straight.
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