Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Retro Movie Review - "Queen of Blood" (1966)

I turned on this movie a few years ago, expecting it to be MST-able Grade B nonsense. I was very pleasantly surprised with what I found. Though the special effects are lame and its concept of space travel primitive by modern standards, it was actually an intelligent and well-thought-out movie -- one which deserved better treatment than it could get at the time (it was shot for only $56,000, and included stock footage from a totally-different Russian movie).


Basil Rathbone, as Dr. Farraday, a scientist, who acts as mission controller from Moonbase.
John Saxon, as Allen Brenner, sent on the second rescue mission who is in love with the character of
Judi Meredith, as Laura James, who is sent on the first rescue mission.


In the year 1990, the human race has numerous atomic rocketships and a moonbase, and is preparing to take the next step and go to Mars. Suddenly, the Earth receives radio messages from an alien civilization. The aliens are more advanced than Mankind and announce their intent to send an embassy.

The alien ship launches for our Solar System. For some reason, instead of landing on the Earth the ship crashes on Mars. The International Space Agency dispatches the rocketship Oceana to Mars with a crew of four to rescue the aliens. The Oceana encounters a solar storm and uses too much of her fuel energizing her shields, and lands on Mars uncertain of when she can return.

The Earth astronauts find the elien ship crewed only by a corpse. There is evidence that a lifeship has been launched from her. Oceania launches satellites and the alien lifeship is discovered on Phobos -- which Oceania does not have the fuel to reach.

A 2-person rocket is sent from Luna to land on Phobos and rescue the aliens. This small ship does not have enough fuel to return, and will have to be rescued later. On Phobos the crew find one unconscious alien, and (leaving 1 crew member on Phobos with enough supplies to await rescue) the other crewman (whose lover is on the Oceana) takes the ship's lander (a Dyna-Soar like craft) and lands on Mars with the alien survivor).

The alien survivor is female. She has green skin, an oddly-shaped pointed head (think of a beehive hairdo but with skull under the hair) and a sinister smile. When she regains consciousness, she does not talk, is willing to drink water but recoils from solid food, and appears terrified of needles. She does not like the only female on the Earth crew.

The Oceania blasts off from Mars for Earth. Along the way, they discover what the alien survivor eats. She is a vampire, and takes enough blood at a time to kill a human. She kills one crew member -- the one who was most sympathetic toward her -- before the three remaining astronauts realize what is happening. After feeding, she is glutted with blood and sleeps for days -- the condition in which they originally found her.

The crew have a dilemna. The alien is clearly a deadly threat, but their orders are to bring her back alive. So they tie her up and use up their stores of blood plasma feeding her. When given blood plasma, she is apparently uninterested in attacking humans.

But before they can reach Earth, the blood plasma runs out. The captain plans to use blood donations from the crew to keep the alien alive, but before they can do this, she uses her hypnotic power (as she had done before, unbeknownst to the astronauts) to immobilize him so that she could drain his blood.

The two survivors -- Allen Brenner and Laura James-- tie her up while she's in her glutted state and discuss what to do. Allen wants to kill her, orders or no orders. Laura persuades Allen to keep her alive.

Unfortunately, the alien has another mind-trick left, pyrokinesis. She can focus her will strongly enough to burn through her bonds. She attempts to kill Allen, but Laura springs furiously upon the alien and scratches her slightly in a fight. The alien screams, runs back into her cabin, and collapses.

They discover to their suprise that this minor wound has actually killed her. Apparently, her species is very vulnerable to any injury that breaks the skin.

Allen discovers something else, though. The ship is full of eggs the alien has laid and concealed. The astronauts contact Moonbase and Dr. Farraday orders them to preserve the eggs for study. Allen thinks this is a terrible idea but obeys the direct order. They land on Earth and step out into the sunlight, but Allen worries if the human race will not regret keeping the alien eggs alive.


Given the incredible cheesiness of the special effects (save for the spaceship exterior shots, which were stock footage from a 1959 Russian movie), my pleasant surprise was just how good were the basic science-fictional concepts, and their exploration. Let me go through them, point by point.

(1) - Slingshot Maneuver

I do not know whether or not this was a happy accident, but the movie strongly implies that Oceania gets to Mars by executing a gravitational slingshot around the Sun -- the likeliest reason why a ship headed for Mars from Luna would pass close to the Sun in the first place, which was necessary for the plot-important solar flare. If so, this was prescient, as interplanetary slingshot maneuvers were in 1966 purely theoretical.

(2) - Gravity

The movie suffers a fail on its depiction of gravity. The astronauts appear to be under a 1G field through the entire film. This is remotely possible if the ships are fusion torch vessels under continuous acceleration (but this would be very advanced tech for 1990, even from a 1966 POV), but of course in that case they wouldn't be doing gravitational slingshots. And of course, on Mars and even more so on Phobos there's no way they'd be in a 1G field (on Phobos, they'd be under microgravity).

OTOH, given the tiny budget there is no way that the film could have simulated zero-gee, since back then it would have had to have been done with complex wire arrangements and carefully-angled shots (the way it was done for 2001: A Space Odyssey two years later). So I'll forgive it this failing, because there's no way they could have avoided the situation.

(3) - Solar Storm

The movie calls it by some hokey term, but the Oceania encounters a solar flare on the way to Mars. This is quite plausible and is indeed one of the major problems facing modern astronautical engineers planning such a mission. Damage to equipment would be possible with an intense flare. Pain to the crew would not -- that degree of radiation sickness coming that quickly would be fatal -- but I'll cut it a pass for that because the health effects of solar radiation were not well understood at the time, not even by NASA.

(4) - Electromagnetic Shield

The Oceania's crew survives the solar storm by raising an electromagnetic shield which, unfortunately, greatly reduces their energy (which is why they have trouble on the return flight). This is absolutely plausible -- in fact, electromagnetic shielding is one of the measures being contemplated in the design of real interplanetary spacecraft. (The movie misses the simpler solution, which is a metal-and-water-shielded "storm shelter," but then I'm not sure that even NASA had by 1966 come up with this alternative).

(5) - Limited Fuel

Though used as a plot device, the movie is quite correct that even high-capability atomic rockets of the sort presented would be very much limited in terms of fuel supplies. It's quite plausible that a ship might have enough fuel to take off from Mars for Earth but not stop at Phobos.

(6) - Mysterious Aliens

Even though this film could have taken the easy way out and said "The aliens are evil and their goal is conquest," given that it features an alien vampire who murders three people on a ship sent to rescue her, it didn't. We get the very strong impression from the limited depiction of the aliens in their own culture (they are absolutely silent and move stiffly) and from the behavior of the "Queen of Blood" that they are eusocial telepaths, probably with a reproductive caste, and that the alien survivor is a literal "queen" in the sense of a eusocial insect colony -- in other words, she is of their reproductive caste.

We never find out what the aliens originally wanted, however, and there is no proof that their original intentions were hostile. Something went wrong (we never find out what) which led to the aliens crashing on Mars instead of landing on Earth. On Earth, there would have been an effectively infinite supply of animal blood from the POV of a small alien group (probably no more than one drone and one queen), with absolutely no need to attack humans. It is fairly likely that the aliens ran out of supplies, and that the queen slew the drone, which is why they find his corpse on Mars.

An obvious interpretation of the QOB's actions is that she interpreted the situation on Oceania as a colony similar to her own eusocial structure. There was one Earth female and three Earth males -- what else would she assume but that the female was a queen or potential queen, and the males merely her servants / reserve food supply? She may have never realized that she was doing anything more aggressive or hostile than sneaking food from the icebox would be in our culture. Note that she never attacks or even threatens Laura, even though she obviously dislikes her.

In the end, you are left wondering. Was this all a tragic mutual misunderstanding? Are the aliens really hostile? Will saving the eggs turn out to be a boon or a curse for Mankind?

And that unanswered question, which so easily could have been given a glib answer in one or the other direction, makes this a better movie.


This movie is well worth seeing. Get past the crappy special effects, and enjoy a film which is not merely horror with science-fictional trappings, but true science fiction.


  1. I have to post this here

    Glen Cook is laconic, but he's the good kind of laconic. Not like this: Nothing seemed to happen until one day, there was an explosion in the UML campus which led into an intense melee. No one knew who threw the first spell or fired the first shot. People were blind to their biases. While some of the protesters went to find higher ground as the security forces fired into the crowd like fish in a barrel, many fought back with Molotov Cocktails and other improvised weapons.

    That's supposed to be a pivotal event, but it reads like a middle schooler's essay.

    I also care more about seeing Dying Earth stories in writers' styles rather than attempts to mimic Jack Vance.

  2. You're commenting to the wrong article -- you probably meant to put that to my review of John C. Wright's Dying Earth story "Guyal the Curator." Having said that, the style of speech used on the Dying Earth is part of the atmosphere of that world -- it would jar tremendously if characters in a Dying Earth story said "Yo. How's it happenin'." The authors of the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth generally grasped that.

    The quote from Oronoda's story is completely irrelevant to anything I've posted to Fantastic Worlds.