Friday, May 13, 2011

Red is the color of my true love's helmet: QUEEN OF BLOOD, JET PILOT

Top: Queen of Blood (Florence Marley) / B: Jet Pilot (Janet Leigh)
On Netflix Streaming comes a film that--were it not so beautifully restored--would be much harder to watch: QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966). As it is, the colors have been freshened up and the footage fairly glows. And what footage! recycled from a bunch of Russian science fiction films like 1965's MESTRE NASTRESHU, it's almost Bava-esque in its deep reds and eerie gel lighting, and the AIP-shot material is directed by Curtis DEVIL DOG Harrington!

Dennis Hopper and John Saxon are the recognizable faces amidst the astronauts, who in the ALIEN-prefiguring plot are sent to Mars where a delegate from another galaxy has crash landed. Get the picture? Do I need to draw you a map to Mars' orbiting moon, the Island of Phobos? Why not ask the ancient remains of Basil Rathbone, still sharp as a tack and nutty as an heir of Frankenstein, as the lead scientist of earth?


Acting as a fine mirror to issues of gender as well as Soviet-American relations of the era, the footage is matched brilliantly to its respective sides - the Dionysian and ornate deep red Russian footage for the female vampire martian - while the Earth scenes and space ship interiors are re-shot on threadbare Apollonian sets by Harrington (with some Russian film crowd scenes spliced in). The result is a perfect metaphor for the repulsion/attraction between the US and side an ornate red samovar, the other an institutional gray cafeteria. Together it's like an unholy union written in the stars and read by lovers holding hands across the Berlin wall. When the astronauts of both planets get together for the flight home, the hypnosis starts and the blood drinking and the orders from on high not to harm the specimen follow. This time however, everyone but John Saxon agrees: save the queen! If she wants to drink Dennis Hopper's blood, fine, just warn her: the thorazine is long gone!

The point is, if if you ever watch Mario Bava with the sound off just for those great lighting schemes and purple gel spots, you'll love QUEEN OF BLOOD. All the metatextual Russia/Dionysian/Female/Plant/foreign-shot exteriors vs. US/Apollonian/Male/Us interior-shot/mammal dichotomies are just gravy on the train... the GHOST OF MARS train! And Judi Meredith as Laura James. She's got enough black eyeliner to darken the sun, and a sexy smoker's voice. In short, the film would be a great double bill with Josef Von Sternberg's JET PILOT (1957) and is clearly meant for a double bill anyway since it's so short (78 minutes).

 JET PILOT comes directed (mostly) by Josef Von Sternberg and produced by Howard Hughes, so you can imagine the arguments. Apparently Sternberg walked off at some point, objecting to Hughes' Russ Meyers-esque mammarian American obviousness, so like QUEEN, JET has a split identity which works meta with the Red meets White and Blue in bed scenario. The film has its flaws, but Wayne as the gruff Yank pilot ain't one, and neither is Janet Leigh as the hot, defecting Soviet pilot. They cram as much lust into their restricted gazes as the censor will allow while the cold freeze of the empty gray sky makes a great metaphor for the general iciness that is the post-code American perennial stalemate battle of the sexes.

It's a suitable metaphor not just for sex, but for bad sex… cold sex, post-children (no privacy) sex; Hughes’ sex, in short; the most unsexy of sex. Like an early version of Roger Vadim or John Derek, Howard Hughes was notorious for seducing pretty girls and making them stars via inert films with awesome posters (like THE OUTLAW), and usually firing the original director along the way in order to ensure no scrap of fun or originality survived. But in this case, Von Sternberg at least got in some good subtextual masochism in depicting the attempt of a pair of red star-crossed lovers to escape their respective ideologies and just get it on, alone, for a few hours. And in doing so, JVS mirrored perhaps his own problems trying to make a good movie with Hughes sending him a zillion contradictory memos. The Russia/US divide angle also illuminates the disparate polarities’ lack of ultimate difference: when her Soviet relations cockblock it’s because of proletarian group living conditions; when Wayne's US relations cockblock it’s because of a temporary housing shortage. Either way, it's enough to send a pervy masochist like Von Sternberg into paroxysms of ecstasy and Lenny Maltin to award it a scant two stars as if begging to be punished. Find it hidden deep in an old John Wayne set that includes--Lenin preserve us, THE CONQUEROR: John Wayne - An American Icon Collection (Seven Sinners/ The Shepherd of the Hills/ Pittsburgh/ The Conqueror/ Jet Pilot)

Thanks to Another Film Blog for some of the above stills!

1 comment:

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