Roger Corman is the world champion of cinematic recycling. Why waste the potential of a set on a single film when there’s a hungry young aspiring director ready to cobble together a second feature and shoot on the set in the days (and nights) before it’s torn down? A couple of good films (and a whole lot of B-movie fodder features) were created because Corman played every angle of an asset, whether if be a particularly lavish set, a couple of days left on an actor’s contract or an expensive stunt sequence that surely could be reused in another feature or three.
One of his favorite tricks was to buy up the rights to science fiction films from behind the Iron Curtain and have movies built around the special effects and/or action sequences. Two of these productions recently came out on the MGM Limited Edition Collection, one of the more robust MOD (manufacture on demand) lines currently pouring out its catalogue.
Queen of Blood (1966), directed by Curtis Harrington, is arguably the best of the Corman-produced recycling jobs and as fun a haunted spaceship film as there was until Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires. The special effects and alien ship came from a pair of big budget Soviet productions that Corman bought simply to cannibalize, notably Nebo zozyot (which a young Francis Ford Coppola previously turned into Battle Beyond the Sun, 1962, for Corman), and the plot reworks It! The Terror From Beyond Space (which provided the premise for Alien as well), with a green-skinned blood-sucking siren (Florence Marley) subbing for the marauding lizard of It! John Saxon, in All-American hero mode, is the leader of the three-person space mission that finds the ship floating in space and Judi Meredith and Dennis Hopper fill out the crew.
Harrington, who came to genre filmmaking via avant-garde films (including collaborations with Kenneth Anger) and the wonderfully spooky Night Tide, a mix of horror, fantasy, character study and mood piece, creates his own film out of these elements, which he shot in a brisk ten days. The delicious imagery of the Soviet films, from the eerie planetscapes to the dreamy shots of ships in space to the delirious color-drenched interiors of the derelict alien ship, give the film a sense of scale and detail that Corman couldn’t hope to provide. The American side of the production tends to skimp on the American spaceship and space station sets. Basil Rathbone delivers his role seated at a minimalist control center that makes the Star Trek TV bridge look absolutely epic, ordering the astronauts via microphone (no view screens in this budget) to keep this specimen alive at all costs.
The actors are generally wooden even without the massive space helmets (reportedly the most expensive prop in the production, built to match the Soviet suits) restricting their performances, but then Harrington is going more for mood than drama. He creates a sense of strangeness to the American spaceships and bases by going for a minimalist aesthetic and sculpting the lighting to evoke a gothic horror. The alien attacks are not action scenes but otherworldly horror and Harrington gives them an eerie, suspenseful quality, and his climactic twist, while not exactly jaw-dropping, is clever in its own right and anticipates some of the key elements of Alien.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection disc is mastered for a nice 35mm print with vivid color and good clarity and only brief passages of minor wear, and presented in its correct anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio.
Blood Bath (aka Track of the Vampire) (1966) was a product of a similar form of recycling, in this case a Yugoslavian thriller about (of all things) art theft that Corman handed to Jack Hill, who had been faithfully jumping in to offer second-unit footage and, when necessary, “finish” troubled films (such as Dementia 13). He matched the shadowy footage of cobblestone streets and old world alleys and buildings of Belgrade with a drama set in the world of Beat poets and tortured artists in the coffee house culture of Venice, CA in the mid-sixties. His film plays like a serious version of Corman’s cult black comedy Bucket of Blood, with William Campbell as the tormented creator whose paintings meld art and murder. A cast of beauties becomes victims and terrorized targets, including Lori Saunders (often seen in a bikini), Marissa Mathes (whose nude modeling is carefully concealed by targeted angles) and Sandra Knight. The victims are dropped into a vat of wax (a la House of Wax) in an underground dungeon right out of Corman’s Poe films, which somehow found its way to California.
The vampire is courtesy of Stephanie Rothman, who shares directing and writing credit with Jack Hill, even though they essentially worked at cross purposes. Corman, dissatisfied with Hill’s version, handed the production over to Rothman, who rewrote the film to turn the artist into a vampire (played by an actor without the slightest resemblance to Campbell) and shot new footage to shoehorn this bizarre twist into the existing story. Rothman’s vampire is a hammy creation that doesn’t charm or terrify anyone, least of all the viewer. Hill’s location footage, however, is really quite handsome, giving a gothic atmosphere to Venice after dark. He has a great time with the coffee house beat culture, where Hill favorite Sid Haig (as Abdul the Arab) struggles to fit into the hipster group of insiders, and turns a flashback (featuring Corman himself as a long-dead painter) into a psychedelic nightmare. And watch for an inspired lift from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where he shoots a carousel horse as if a demon charging the camera. The scars of the production history are readily apparent in the film’s detours into incoherence, but Hill’s scenes are interesting enough to wish that his version of the film still existed. Until then, this is what we have.
Blood Bath has been available in numerous public domain editions, most taken from TV prints of varying degrees of wear and tear. This edition, taken from a well-preserved 35mm print, is a significant improvement over every previous edition, and it is presented in its proper widescreen format.
MOD stands for “Manufacture on Demand” and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and “burned” individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here.