Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966)

With its lurid title and eerie opening credits, Queen of Blood (1966) promises a delirious sci-fi phantasmagoria that, sadly, it never delivers. Even Basil Rathbone and Dennis Hopper get bogged down in the picture's ponderous pace and refusal to pivot away from the pseudo-science that typically fills the slow parts of 50s and 60s science fiction films. It's a shame, too, because writer and director Curtis Harrington's ideas might have made for a truly unnerving narrative; the last third of the movie, with the predatory title character and her secret intentions, has a lot in common with Alien (1979), but you'll never worry about whether they can hear you scream in space when you're watching Queen of Blood.

Rathbone plays Dr. Farraday, the lead scientist for a space exploration group that mounts a rescue mission to Mars when an alien ship crashes there. Among the astronauts are alpha male Allan Brenner (John Saxon), his girlfriend, Laura James (Judi Meredith), and Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper). Once the astronauts locate the sole survivor of the alien wreck, they attempt to bring her to Earth, but the small crew gets smaller each day the alien stays on board. The remaining astronauts struggle to complete their mission without becoming the vampiric stranger's next meal.

Queen of Blood is set in the far future of 1990, where women finally get to be astronauts but still wear 60s hairstyles. Lots of references to moon bases and science are meant to show how far humans have come since 1966, but the movie is in no hurry to introduce its title character or even get its astronauts to Mars to look for her, and most of the scenes take place in small control rooms or the sterile, confined space of the rescue ship. The flashes we see of the aliens, who sport clear plastic crowns that look a bit like rabbit ears, are intriguing and vaguely disturbing, but they also remind us how deadly dull the humans are in comparison. It's never really clear if the aliens are the same species as the bloodthirsty queen; Dr. Farraday speculates about their intentions but doesn't give us solid answers. That ambiguity persists right to the end, when we're left with the distinctly unpleasant expectation that the humans are making a colossal mistake, but there's no effective build up of dread that would have given the ending a truly horrific punch.

The slow pace, closed spaces, and dry dialogue don't allow Basil Rathbone or the other actors to shine, and they rarely do anything except talk. Judi Meredith is more or less the lead as Laura James, and as the only woman Laura stands out among the very typical masculine characters who make up the rest of the crew. We don't get much sense of the individual personalities of the astronauts played by John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, Robert Boon, and Don Eitner, and as a result we don't really care if they live or die. When she finally does appear, the Queen of Blood, played by Florence Marly, has no lines and never even makes a sound, yet she still manages to be the most interesting character in the whole film. The male characters blithely assume that she isn't dangerous because she is so obviously female, and they treat her with patronizing kindness until they realize that she sees them as tasty snacks. Laura has to come to the rescue against this seductive predator, but it's a disappointing confrontation that wraps up much too quickly.

Curtis Harrington also wrote and directed Night Tide (1961), which handles its slow burn horror with more skill and gives young Dennis Hopper a more interesting role. For better late career performances from Basil Rathbone, see Tales of Terror (1962) and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). John Saxon, who is still working in 2018, is known for his appearances in the Nightmare on Elm Street series but can also be seen in Blood Beast from Outer Space (1965). You'll find both Saxon and Judi Meredith in Summer Love (1958). Be sure to note sci-fi icon and superfan Forrest J. Ackerman in a small role in Queen of Blood as Dr. Farraday's assistant.