The Homo Scientificus blog takes a look at the different ways science pops up in everyday life.
Late one night last week, I was flipping through Amazon Prime’s catalogue of films, desperate to find something that interested me at that moment. Titles zipped by like a Nike swoosh. Sylvie’s Love. Vikings. The Expanse. The Lie. All perfectly good choices had it been another day. My brain craved something different, something wonderous that would transport me to another time and place and, if lucky, even another dimension.
Then I found it.
My movie of the moment.
Queen of Blood.
And it was amazing.
Produced by George Edwards and Samuel Z. Arkoff and directed by Curtis Harrington, Queen of Blood was based on the screenplay for the earlier Soviet feature film Mechte Navstrechu (A Dream Come True). Harrington also reused special effects footage from that film, as well as footage from the Soviet science fiction film Nebo Zovyot (Battle Beyond the Sun). Interestingly, the film was a non-union production, allowing Harrington to have his actors work longer hours than usual. The entire film was shot in 6 days.
Queen of Blood technically falls under the category of sci-fi horror. It opens on Earth in 1990. The space agency receives a signal from outer space from an alien civilization that wants to meet. A team flies from Earth to one of Mars’ moons, Phobos. They discover an abandoned spaceship and board it looking for survivors. A solitary Martian female is found, unconscious but still breathing. (Since Martians must have male and females and breath air the way humans do, right?) She’s got green skin (of course she does) and an upward pointing hairdo that looks like her hair got sucked into a beauty salon hair dryer and never recovered.
The film stars Hollywood stalwarts as well as future legends. John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, Dennis Hopper, Judi Meredith, and Florence Marly all put in competent, if not impressively straight-faced performances.
Once on board the Earthlings spaceship, the crew revives their pet Martian and try to study her for science’s sake. She cannot speak human, much less communicate in any way. The furthest their exchange went was a screech of terror when she sees a hypodermic needle. (Which means that she continues to be more human than would be expected.) To make a long story short, turns out she’s a Martian vampire (imagine that!) who loves to gorge herself with human blood.
The first actor to catch it is poor old Dennis Hopper (though actually really young during the movie). After sucking another human dry, the green blood sucker dies after receiving a scratch on her shoulder during a tussle with the remaining astronauts. She bleeds to death, prompting the humans to concludes that she must have been a hemophiliac (because Martians suffer from the same diseases as humans, right?). This gives further credence to their working theory that the Martian vampire was a queen since royalty are partial to inbreeding.
When they discover dozens of small green pods throbbing with alien life scattered in different nooks and crannies throughout the spacecraft, they are convinced that she was a queen hoping to seed little green Martians on earth. Unfortunately, when the spaceship returns to Earth, the overzealous lead scientist insists on keeping the Martian eggs and the queen for the sake of “science.”
We all know what happens in the near future. Nothing good.
On its own, Queen of Blood is one of those movies so terrible that they come full circle and are fantastic in their own way. The sound design is eerie and echoey in that synthesizer way in which the digital future always seems to be portrayed. There are so many gems in the script that you don’t even have to be high to revel in its glory.
Take for example this exchange that takes place when the crew first encounter the female Martian bloodsucker
Anders Brockman: “That’s our visitor from another planet.”
Laura James: “Straaaaange. She seems so human yet obviously not human at all.”
Anders Brockman: “I know. It’s uncanny. It’s like what would happen if we’d been in another atmosphere.”
Or unspoken moments of genius like when the Martian vampire woman from first makes sultry eye contact with every male in the spaceship. She flashes a rouge lipped smile (brilliant white teeth of course), but when she makes eye contact with Laura James the animosity between females is palpable.
Brockman takes note and later tells Paul Grant, played by Dennis Hopper, “Paul, I think you are the logical choice to take care of our passenger. I thought of suggesting it to Laura but it seems our passenger doesn’t get along with her own sex.”
Gender stereotyping was alive and well in 1960s Hollywood as well as on Mars, it seems.
Then there’s my personal favorite scene where Grant teaches the exotic Martian vampire to drink out of a straw.
“When you’re thirsty you suck water like this.” Grant says, slipping a straw into his mouth and slowly sucks (kid you not). Then he turns straw in her direction and says, “Now you try.” (Now, who’s been there before, one side or the other?) She demurs. He tries again and says, “It’s okay. Like this.” She finally relents and puts the straw in her mouth and sucks. They both smile. It’s a scene that reminds me of that breakthrough fellatio song by the Beatles “Please Please Me” when Lennon is urging (practically begging) his girl to make him smile as he bellows “C’mon/C’mon/C’mon!”
When Grant moves on to trying to stick some chocolate on her tongue like they were exchanging pills, she refuses.
Brockman, ever the one for keen insights says, “Perhaps she’s only accustomed to some sort of liquid nourishment. You realize Paul that her life may be very different from ours.”
Grant can only smile “Mmmhmmm.”
“Her skin for instance. It appears to have a high chlorophyll content. She may in certain respects be more akin to plant life than animal life as we know it. She may even take in nourishment from the atmosphere in her skin.”
At that point, Dennis Hopper is barely able to hide his laughter, and has that smile where you can tell he’s barely holding it together. In fact, he actually was. According to John Saxon, Hopper “was trying very hard to keep a straight face throughout” the making of the film. In a separate interview, Saxon elaborated still further, “I took it seriously, at least while on camera; Dennis had a hard time doing even that.”
There are so many more gems in the film. But you’ll have to watch it for yourself.
Crystal ball or Bowling Ball?
One of the charms of reading or watching science fiction lies in its vision of the future. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the focus of the film or supportive settings and incidental dialogue. There are always nuggets of information.
Queen of Blood takes place in a fictionalized 1990 that was imagined in 1965/1966. According to the world created in the film, trips back and forth to the moon are as common as boarding a plane from New York to Los Angeles. Missions to Mars were a little bit more of an ask, but visiting the red planet occurred regularly. Clearly, the filmmakers saw the direction the U.S. space program was headed. Moon landings first took place in 1969 and the last moon landing was in 1972. There was no reason to doubt that the round trip would become even more common. Little did they know that there would be a half-century drought.
Reusable rockets that land by using its thrusters is another concept Queen of Blood clearly anticipates. Unfortunately , the American filmmakers may not deserve much credit for their vision since all the footage of rockets taking off and landing were ripped off from big budget Soviet space films.
One final aspect in Queen of Blood that is very pertinent today is the notion of taking advantage of lower gravity environments as springboards for space travel. In the film, the astronauts landing on Phobos because gravity is lighter there than on Mars. They then used a smaller spacecraft to complete their journey to the red planet. That strategy is often mentioned in proposed missions to Mars in which a two part trip involves going from Earth to the moon then from the low-gravity lunar surface to Mars.
Worth it to watch?
If you aren’t in the market for Aleksandr Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it just might work. It sure did for me.
WORDS: Marc Landas.