Retro-Musings: 1966’s “Queen of Blood” shares plenty of hemoglobin with “ALIEN”…

In the 1960s,  legendary guerrilla-filmmaking producer Roger Corman (whose protégés would include Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Jonathan Demme, Gale Ann Hurd and James Cameron) imported several high-end Soviet-era science fiction movies, which he recut using American-shot scenes, actors and English-language dubbing.  This was a practice similar to what was done to Ishiro Honda’s 1954 atomic-bomb allegory masterpiece “Gojira” (aka “Godzilla”), which was brutally recut into a slightly more serious drive-in monster movie.  Corman employed producers and directors such as Gary Kurtz, Peter Bodganovich and Curtis Harrington to oversee the Americanization of these Eastern Bloc epics.

One of these imported Soviet-era films was the former “Planeta Bur” (“Storm Planet”; a Russian space epic about a problem-plagued expedition to Venus), which was recut/dubbed by Curtis Harrington (under the pseudonym ‘John Sebastian’) into “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” (1965; which was then further reedited into a  ‘mermaids-on-Venus’ version called “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women”).  Another was 1963’s “Mechty Sbyvayustya” (“A Dream Come True).   The latter film reincorporated its source movie’s special effects shots, costume/prop designs and a few specific plot plots into the newly minted “Queen of Blood” (1966; aka “Planet of Blood”).

“Queen of Blood,” directed/recut by the aforementioned Harrington, retains the original Russian-made movie’s broad story about an Earth-sent mission to Mars to retrieve a stranded alien.  Most of the newly produced footage consists mainly of dialogue-heavy scenes with American/British actors such as John Saxon (“Enter the Dragon”, “Battle Beyond the Stars” “Nightmare on Elm Street”), Basil Rathbone (“Son of Frankenstein” “Sherlock Holmes”), Judi Meredith (“Jack the Giant Killer”), and a pre-“Easy Rider” Dennis Hopper.

**** MARTIAN MOON-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!! ****

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Set at a NASA-on-steroids ‘Space Institute’ in that far-off future year of 1990, “Queen of Blood” depicts a group of astronauts (acting more like 1950s high-schoolers) working to decode a mysterious SOS signal of an apparent extraterrestrial origin.  Astronaut Laura James (Meredith) and her fiance Allan Brenner (Saxon) decide to take a breather from all of that heavy science stuff and do lunch with fellow astronauts Paul (Hopper) and Anders (Robert Boon).

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At lunch, over banana splits (they even eat like 1950s kids), the group talks somewhat cavalierly about which space mission they’re up for next (“Is it Mars this time, Allan?”) until lunch is interrupted by a ‘very important announcement’ from their leader, Dr. Farraday (Basil Rathbone, essentially playing a renamed version of the character he played earlier in “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet”).   Farraday announces before the assembled astronauts that a signal buoy has landed off the coastline, relaying the alien’s SOS and confirming a crashed survivor on Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars.

A rescue mission is hurriedly put together, but for reasons that are unclear, Farraday decides to  split up Laura and Allan (guess he was worried about space hanky panky getting in the way?  Who knows…).

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Allan is sent to Phobos with his astronaut  pal Tony (Don Eitner) to retrieve the crashed alien, while a second ship (with Laura, Anders and Paul) is sent to Mars (again; a staggeringly inefficient plan, but it works better around the stock footage, so there you go).   With only enough fuel for two to launch from Phobos to Mars, Tony is chosen to wait for yet a third ship to rescue him (he called ‘tails’ on the coin toss), while Allen is sent ahead to rendezvous on Mars with their rescued alien (the scene-stealing Florence Marly, in a genuinely unsettling, creepy-as-hell performance).  Allen’s ship has a rough landing on Mars, so Paul and Anders are sent to retrieve him and the alien back to their mothership.

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The Soviet-cribbed scenes of the astronauts taking the alien back to their waiting ship over treacherous Martian sand dunes look far better than most American science fiction films of the pre-“2001″/”Star Wars” era;  a credit to the no-holds barred Soviet-era of science fiction filmmaking.  Unlike western film production, science fiction in the Eastern bloc wasn’t necessarily relegated to ‘kid’s movies,’ and was typically given more resources than American science fiction counterparts, which were largely the stuff of drive-ins or double/triple feature presentations.

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Equally impressive is the job that low-budget American director Harrington did in recreating the bigger budget Russian costumes and props.   Audiences at the time were most likely oblivious to the fact they were watching a spliced hybrid of Russian/American cinema.   For example, the oversized sea-diving space helmets were carefully recreated for the American version, with the Cyrillic “CCCR” changed into an intentionally vague “IIST” (I’m assuming it’s some kind of ‘International’ something or another…?).

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Allen is soon safely aboard, as well as their new ‘guest’… the rescued alien.   As the titular ‘queen of blood’, Florence Marly steals the movie from this point forward.   Her glistening green skin, white hair, creepy prolonged gaze, and exotic Eastern European looks work together to create an effectively ‘alien’ persona far better than any prosthetics-heavy makeup job of that era could have achieved.  It was also a wise choice to leave the character mute, making her more primal and even animalistic.  If she spoke some exotic alien language, it would’ve made her seem too human, and arguably more sympathetic.  As it is, Marly’s space vampire queen is a lethal, cunning beast…utterly oblivious to human gestures of compassion or kindness.   For an unapologetic B-monster movie, Marly’s performance is a cut above.

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The crew begins making guesses as to the alien’s nutritional choices, as she only reluctantly drinks water, and eschews solid foods.  She also reacts with inexplicable hostility towards Laura.  Apparently this ‘queen’ doesn’t take well to sharing the attention of the male, cisgender crewmen.   As Anders readies a hypodermic needle for a routine blood sample, the alien reacts violently.   Anders somehow realizes that it’s more than a mere phobia of needles; the creature seems mortally terrified of skin punctures (this bit of trivia will be on the test, by the way…).

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Laura and Anders back off, and Dennis Hopper’s Paul steps in to try to play a junior Professor Higgins to the alien Eliza Doolittle.   Needless to say, the lessons don’t end well.   Apparently this alien has the power to hypnotize males and then drink their blood (okay, that was hardly a spoiler, given the title…).   Paul, left on watch for the night with the creature, is her first victim.   In a typical movie of the 1950s or early 1960s, the automatic reaction would be to ‘airlock the monster’ immediately, which is Allan’s knee-jerk response.   However, cooler (and in this case, unwiser) heads prevail, and the creature is spared.

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Scientist Anders reasons the alien may simply lack a corresponding moral code like ours, and that she was only drinking Paul’s blood out of hunger/instinct, rather than deliberate malice.   His argument not unlike the one made by the similarly pacifist scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornwaithe) in 1951’s “The Thing From Another World” (later remade into the far more effective “The Thing” in 1982).   Both try to save the ‘monster’ in the name of scientific curiosity by using the blood of their compatriots as appeasement.   In this case, Anders attempts to pacify the creature’s appetite by ‘feeding’ it with the ship’s onboard emergency blood supply.   It works…for a short while.

Apparently, the alien vampire likes her food warmed up…

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Soon,  Anders himself is killed by the very creature he advocated for, as she uses her bright, glowing eyes (a nicely achieved practical lighting effect) to lure him into a hypnotic state.   The alien’s  hypnotic gaze is very much in the tradition of other famous vampires, such as Count Dracula.   What the alien vampire lacks in physical prowess, she more than makes up for in lethal cunning.

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With half the crew dead,  Allan decides that he has had enough of this shit.   He ties up the creature and wants to kill it immediately…however, his fiancee Laura assumes the pacifist role vacated by the dead Anders, and recognizes that retrieving the alien (alive) for scientific study was the whole point of the mission.  Allan reluctantly concurs.  Later that night, the creature uses her glowing eyes to burn through her bonds and escape.  Naturally, she targets Allan, who is no more immune to her unearthly charms than the next heterosexual male (I wonder what would happen if the queen encountered a person at a different point along the sexuality spectrum…?).   Luckily, the queen-resistant Laura finds Allan in time as she accidentally scratches the queen’s shoulder.   The mortified monster breaks her silence and wails in agony as she runs away.   Allan revives, as both he and Laura soon discover the dead queen, who apparently bled to death from the accidental scratch (thus explaining her aversion to needles earlier).   The late queen was hemophiliac.   Laura discovers a nest of queen-laid eggs aboard, but still makes a case for saving them for scientific study.   The two return to Earth to the offscreen cheers of crowds (through an open hatchway), as Farraday and his assistant (played by “Famous Monsters of Filmland” editor Forrest Ackerman) board the ship to find that the alien queen has laid eggs all over the ship.

The final shot of the film is of lab assistant  Ackerman carrying a tray of hideously pulsating eggs, covered in a thick, green gelatinous slime…

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Queen of Blood: The alien before ALIEN.

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in 1979, Ridley Scott premiered his sci-fi horror masterpiece “ALIEN”, which, when stripped of its post-Star Wars technical trappings, is really nothing more than a well-made B-monster movie from the 1950s-60s.   Movie critics have been aware of this fact for decades now (even Scott and writer Dan O’Bannon freely admit to it), but most analyses I’ve read rarely include “Queen of Blood” whenever they discuss ALIEN’s lineage.  Most prefer to cite Italian horror director Mario Bava’s stylish space zombie classic “Planet of the Vampires” (1965) or “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” (1958) as inspirations.    But Scott’s ALIEN has far more in common with “Queen of Blood” than any other source.  Storywise,  the plot beats are exactly the same.  An alien SOS is picked up, a crew is diverted to intercept the source.   The crew unwisely choose to take the creature aboard, and they’re soon picked off one-by-one in the style of “Ten Little Indians” and John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (“Who Goes There?” was the original story that inspired both versions of “The Thing”).     At the end of both films, we have two sets of survivors; Allan/Laura, and Ripley/Jones the cat.

We also see science officers (Anders/Ash) trying to keep their murderous specimens alive,  as well as a greedy parent agency (IIST/Weyland-Yutani) eagerly anticipating the arrival of the alien specimens… utterly oblivious to the cost in human life.

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In fact, if Florence Marley’s alien queen had been depicted as a hideous creature instead of a green-skinned humanoid, it’s safe to say that  ALIEN would be considered a 1:1 remake of “Queen of Blood.  It’s also interesting that we are introduced to a ‘queen’ version of the ALIEN xenomorph in James Cameron’s 1986 sequel “ALIENS.”   Cameron also worked for producer Corman (as an assistant art director), as did ALIENS producer Gale Ann Hurd.

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The beautifully crafted Soviet footage of the Martian sandstorm and crashed alien spacecraft in “Queen…” also feel like obvious inspirations for the scenes of “ALIEN”’s Nostromo crew trudging across the primordial wind storms of planet LV-426.  Even the bulky spacesuits of “Queen…” feel like like precursors to the similarly bulky suits seen in ALIEN.   Yes, ALIEN is a far superior film in almost every measurable respect,  but it’s important to remember that it didn’t simply spring into being from nowhere.

ALIEN has a direct ancestor which bears a striking resemblance.

My own close encounters.

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At WonderCon 2013 (my first WonderCon, in fact) I was pleased to have met “Queen of Blood” star John Saxon, who also starred in Roger Corman’s “Battle Beyond the Stars” (which James Cameron worked on as an art director), and (of course) the Bruce Lee classic, “Enter the Dragon” (1973).   Saxon also appeared more recently in 1996’s “From Dusk Till Dawn” in a quick cameo.   Upon meeting him, I was amazed at how kind the years had been to him; he looked very much as he did in virtually everything I’d ever seen him in over the years, including guest roles on “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Night Gallery” (two other favorite shows of mine as a kid).   He and I talked briefly about “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “Enter the Dragon,”  as well as a quick mention of “Queen of Blood.”  Saxon told me he didn’t remember that one too well, only that it was shot very quickly.   Given Saxon’s huge resume, I’m not surprised that he can’t recall it.   John Saxon pretty much starred in, or played a supporting role in every third thing I ever saw in my childhood.   It was a sincere pleasure meeting him.

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At a 2004 “Planetfest” event for The Planetary Society (a group I’ve belonged to for 22 years now) anticipating the landing of the rover “Spirit” on Mars (the real Mars),  I met my idol, the late Ray Bradbury (one of the greatest dry-mouthed moments of my entire life) and the gentleman who accompanied him… the late Forrest Ackerman, former editor of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine.  “Uncle Forry” as he was known to his readers, was also a presence in many Hollywood B-movies, including his aforementioned cameo as the lab assistant carrying the tray of eggs at the end of “Queen of Blood.”   Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine was my very first magazine subscription, and seeing both he and Bradbury together was one of those moments where I felt like I could’ve floated home afterward.   Ackerman’s magazine fueled my childhood love of monster movies, and Bradbury ignited my passion for science fiction reading with “The Martian Chronicles” (1950), though Bradbury himself would often eschew the title of ‘science fiction writer’… he was more of a storytelling poet, feeding my imagination with tales of Halloween, rocketships, haunted carnivals, fascistic firemen and Martians.   Seeing the two of them together (and getting Bradbury’s autograph) that night was nothing short of magical.

Another round of applause for Florence Marley and director Curtis Harrington.

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Before I continue, special recognition has to be given yet again to Czech-born actress Florence Marly (1919-1978 ), who was not Roger Corman’s first choice for the role.  Director Curtis Harrington had to insist on giving the then-fortysomething Marly the role.   I first saw this film on late night television as a little boy, and the single image that has stayed with me decades later is the sight of the unearthly green-skinned Marly and her glowing white eyes.

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Yes, it’s a somewhat hokey effect today, but back when I was 8 or so,  Marly’s alien queen was pure high-octane nightmare fuel.   Marly’s age also gave her a truly regal bearing that most younger B-movie actresses of that time might not have possessed.   She is the queen.   Every moment she is onscreen, the movie is effortlessly hers.  No slight to her costars, but make no mistake; Florence Marly is the star of this particular show.

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Director Curtis Harrington (1926-2007) was, like John Saxon, one of those people who seemed to be involved with every movie or TV show I enjoyed as a kid.   Two other films of his, “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?” (1972) and the TV movie “The Dead Don’t Die” (1975) were also staples of my horror-film addled childhood.   Harrington has a crisp but thoroughly creepy style that got the job done with aplomb.   He’s worked with legends such as Shelley Winters (the star of “Auntie Roo”), Basil Rathbone and Ray Milland (who played the villainous Varrick in “The Dead Don’t Die”).   Curtis also did episodic television work in TV series such as    “Baretta” and “Dynasty” (which my sister and I used to enjoy as a thoroughly guilty pleasure back in the 1980s).     Never got the chance to meet him, but if I did, I’d love to thank him for the memories!

Curtis Harrington’s “Queen of Blood” is a frightfully fond childhood movie memory that deserves its share of recognition for helping to carry “ALIEN” to term 13 years later.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. sanzbozo says:

    Thank you!! She still scares me.

    Liked by 1 person

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