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TCM Underground - March 2019
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Remind Me

Queen of Blood

From Francis Ford Coppola to Larry Cohen, a number of highly talented filmmakers passed through Roger Corman's American International Pictures (AIP) during the '50s, '60s, and '70s, flexing their creativity under hardscrabble low-budget conditions in service of tawdry material that appealed almost exclusively to the era's teenagers. Among these directors who sought to counterbalance a personal artistry against the studio's trashy commercialist ethos was Curtis Harrington, a pioneer avant-gardist who learned from Maya Deren, worked with Kenneth Anger and cemented himself as a leading light of the American queer cinema tradition.

Like many outlier artists, Harrington lacked the funds to realize his more ambitious projects, but his formidable talents found lurid favor in the American drive-in movie scene of the 1960s. In 1961, Harrington directed Night Tide, a moody, faintly phantasmagoric thriller starring Dennis Hopper, which quickly caught the attention of Corman (who arranged for the film's distribution through AIP). In 1965, Corman tapped Harrington for two films designed to follow the lead of numerous recently produced Soviet science-fiction films, since Corman had recently purchased the American rights. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), for example, was modeled squarely on the Soviet sci-fi film Planeta Bur (1962). The Pavel Klushantsev original was not only emulated at the script level, but also raided for its special effects footage, which was intercut with original scenes directed by Harrington.

While Harrington lacked enthusiasm for Prehistoric Planet (and used a pseudonym for his directorial credit), he found Queen of Blood (1966) - shot at the same time - to be significantly more interesting. The screenplay nominally follows that of the Soviet-made Mechte navstrechu (1963), but Harrington took significant liberties. As he explained to Fangoria in 1980, he was interested in making a film about an extraterrestrial vampire, but had to make the vampire a woman in order to match the footage of the Soviet original, which was explicitly about a queen from another world. Using the material at his disposal - which also included effects footage from the Soviet 'space race' thriller Battle Beyond the Sun (1959) - Harrington managed to craft a compact, effective sci-fi horror film.

Set in the far-out future of 1990, the plot concerns a group of astronauts played by Dennis Hopper, John Saxon, Basil Rathbone (who passed away the following year) and Judi Meredith who discover a downed alien spacecraft on Mars. Searching for survivors on Mars' moons, they come across a lone alien survivor, the literal bloodthirsty queen of the film's title. Green-skinned, hemophilic and only momentarily satiated by the earthbound spaceship's supply of plasma, the eponymous Queen of Blood was played by Florence Marly, an older Czech actress whom Harrington fought for over Corman's objections - "I'm sure he had some bimbo in mind, you know?" Banking on Marly's 'exotic qualities,' Harrington's casting gambit paid off - Marly's exhibits a palpable otherworldliness that remains unsettling to this day. The relative success of Queen of Blood led to Harrington's hiring by Universal for the psychological thriller Games the following year, and the film continues to live on as a cult favorite among AIP's sci-fi output, meriting a 2015 Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber. Seen today, the film continues to impress with its lively yet claustrophobic production design, its dexterous camera movements, and its inventive interpolations of the original Soviet footage. Harrington himself could never help insisting in interviews that his film must have inspired Ridley Scott's seminal space horror-thriller Alien (1979), described by the director as "a greatly enhanced, expensive and elaborate version of Queen of Blood." Whether Scott had seen Harrington's low-budget precursor is unknown, but the larger influence of Queen of Blood on future generations of sci-fi horror enthusiasts and filmmakers is beyond reproach.

By Stuart Collier

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