Summer’s last camp: reviewing “Queen of Outer Space”

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In the service of my craft, I watched this campy movie three times: once before writing the review, once while I was writing it, and then a third time to catch the commentary by Laurie Mitchell (she played the Queen of Outer Space, and also starred in “Attack of the Puppet People”) and some movie historian. This 1958 sci-fi cult flick stars Zsa Zsa Gabor, with a ton of slightly less attractive women populating scenes around her. The movie was based on a story by Ben Hecht, who wrote a lot of Hollywood screenplays (most of which were of a more serious nature).

 

The opening scene introduces three crew-cut astronauts and the bumbling Professor Conrad (Paul Birch). Captain Hamilton (Eric Fleming) is the male lead; lusty navigator Lieutenant Larry and an annoying, whinier lieutenant round out the crew. The year is 1983, and the astronauts’ mission is to ferry the professor to space station A. Apparently something funky is going on up there. Edward Bernds directed Queen of Outer Space, and the commentary tells me he was a workaholic, filming a fifth of the movie in one day.

 

On the rocket ship, the professor is about to light a cigarette until the captain reminds him he can’t smoke in a spaceship—liquid oxygen and all. There’s the first of many necking scenes: a nameless blonde moans “Larry!” as he smashes his face into hers on the landing pad. The crew loads the professor into an actual crib, strapped in with two seat belts, then tie themselves into leather reclining chairs, cranking levers until their recliners are fully horizontal. A few turns of various knobs at mission control and kaboom! stock footage of liftoff. Back on the ground, the despondent blonde is nearly knocked over by the blast, then jumps up and blows desperate kisses at the sky.

 

The astronauts’ outfits are futuristic unisuits with extra gray fabric in the rear and fat red buttons sewn into the shoulders. They fly near space station A, and a very painful special effect happens: a screaming beam of destruction races past, then blows up the poor model space station. Realizing they may be in trouble, the crew makes futile adjustments to the ship in an attempt to escape; the force of the impact knocks it off course, causing the men to make pained smushy faces. They grip the arms of their barca loungers and tense their neck flab for all they’re worth—except for the professor, who falls asleep in his crib. Everyone passes out, and the ship crash-lands on the planet Venus; the landing is extremely low budget, someone just tossed a model rocket ship into a pile of white confetti. The footage of the rocket madly racing towards the planet was taken from an earlier Allied Studios movie-directed by Ed Burns-World Without End (thanks, commentary reel).

The astromen come to and furiously push more knobs, but have no radio service back to mission control—they’re abandoned in a field of confetti. The men decamp onto a strange back lot that is Venus with their toy pistols and yoga mat bedrolls. It takes the four men just a few lines of distracted dialogue to get captured by the ruthless women of Venus, who wear low cut mini dresses with gold lamé belts, clear plastic heels and grumpy faces. These are the sour manhaters (“I hate them! I hate them!” a brunette wails, just to drive it home), waving their ray guys menacingly. The men are taken to the royal court or something; the evil queen of outer space enters, wearing a shiny mask and a headpiece that could be made from pipe cleaners. The queen and her ladies in waiting all wear masks, which make them look like sparkly Easter eggs cooking under stiff coiffures. One of the ladies in waiting was apparently Miss Yugoslavia in an early Miss World competition (thanks again, commentary)—the director wanted Amazonians on the queen’s guard.

 

The evil queen of outer space, Illiana, yells at the earth men, then sends them to prison—but she’s definitely into the captain. The next scene introduces Zsa Zsa Gabor, in the role of Talia (I’m going to keep calling her Zsa Zsa, it’s fun to write); as the most beautiful woman in the movie, Zsa Zsa naturally loves men. This is a main theme; the less attractive women are brutish and manlike, and hate men (lesbians? It’s sort of suggested), while the three most beautiful women are gentle and feminine, batting their eyes and parting their lips just so. The Amazonian palace guards move thuggishly and speak in low, staccato grunts: “Go! Man!”

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Zsa Zsa is a member of the queen’s court, and her first outfit is a long red evening gown slit to the waist. She delivers a TV tray with ice tea and other refreshments to the captured earthmen, and tells them what’s  going on in her world. A war between Venus and some other planet happened a while ago; Illiana (then a rebel) won this war, freaked out, imprisoned all Venus’ men, and crowned herself queen. Zsa Zsa wants to get laid, so she’ll help the men escape (also, she wants to be queen of outer space). In this whole boring backstory scene, the focus is on Zsa Zsa Gabor’s leg jutting out of her long red gown—it’s actually the center of the shot. This low-grade technique is brought back throughout the movie; any time a scene is weighted down with “scientific” information or banal dialogue, the camera pans over a woman’s legs, breasts, or lips (but never ass; in the 50s, dresses were usually unflattering from behind). Fun fact: Zsa Zsa Gabor is Paris Hilton’s great-great aunt; Conrad Hilton was the sixth of her eight husbands.

Next follows a painful scene between Queen Illiana and the captain; she calls him to her chamber and they flounder around on a bed, with her football shaped mask in the way. He calls her out on “denying man’s love,” then rips off her mask; underneath, she is hideously deformed from radiation burns—men, men did this to her! So her plan to destroy the earth via giant ray gun is nothing more than a scorned woman’s vengeance. The “atomic radiation” burns appear to be blobs of finger paint applied directly to the actress’ face (but no, the commentary says it’s actually a molded mask, with many layers of paint).

By exposing the queen’s hideous face, the captain has botched his chance to overpower her with his secret weapon, male magnetism. He’s dragged back to the pink-walled prison cell, to rejoin his depressed comrades. Every interior castle scene has a pastel theme: the walls are pink or mauve, the space dolls’ gowns are periwinkle and champagne, and glittery coat hanger sculptures hang from the ceiling.

One of Zsa Zsa’s pro-men rebel girls busts the guys out of jail and brings them to her laboratory (a place for plastic plants, Bunsen burners, and pink triangles), where Zsa Zsa declares her intention to escape from the palace with the men, and help them destroy the Queen’s “beta-disintegrating ray gun,” before she blows up the earth with it. “I don’t vant to leev in a vorld vithout men,” coos Zsa Zsa.

Next is a goofy chase scene, with all the queen’s guards running awkwardly in gold high heels to frantic xylophone music; outside the palace, the men and rebel space girls hide behind bushes, and more barfy ’50s flirtation ensues. By this point, each astronaut is paired with a girl; only the poor professor is alone. It’s worth noting that blondes were clearly held in highest esteem by this director (or, possibly, by 1950s beauty standards); all the evil or stupid women are brunettes. Except for the queen of outer space, who is, appropriately, a blonde (but the script called for a black-haired evil queen; they went with blonde Laurie Mitchell because the queen’s hair had to match Zsa Zsa’s in a plot point).

The dialogue, naturally, is littered with 1950s A-bombs. Talking about the evil women’s ray gun, Lieutenant Larry says, “And even if they invented it, how could they aim it? You know how women drivers are.” A little later: “26 million miles from earth and the little dolls are just the same.” And, my favorite line in the whole cheddarfest: “What are we supposed to do, just sit here and wait for the space dolls with the ray guns to come back and zap us?!”

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Back to the plot line (I do recommend seeing this movie, it’s entertaining and like an hour and a quarter long). The escapees shake the palace guard (Zsa Zsa’s team is also wearing heels, so it’s a fair match) and take shelter in a very well lit cave. A giant rubber spider attacks Lieutenant Larry; it’s just like the rubber spiders in the toy aisle at the grocery store, only six feet long. Queen of Outer Space was the second of three roles for this particular fake spider (where is it now? Enjoying its retirement?). Larry’s comrades shoot the spider with a ray gun, then everyone immediately starts making out, turned on by the scent of smoking insect flesh.

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The professor, who has no one to get to first base with, wanders out of the cave and spots the queen’s guards. He waddles back to the cave and disrupts the make-out session; instead of shooting the guards with their ray guns, Zsa Zsa and the other women march the men back to the palace, to sporty military music. So, they troop back to Queen Illiana’s chamber; the queen appears and all the rebels jump down her throat, explaining why society must contain both genders. She falls on the bed dramatically and retrieves a ray gun from under a pillow; luckily, she’s a woman and can’t aim, so she misses the captain standing four feet away. The men tie the queen up and throw her behind a room screen, while Zsa Zsa dresses in her clothes; this plan also fails and the rebels are recaptured. Further cookiness ensues in the next scene, at the destruct-o machine (which is housed in a room with wall-to-wall carpeting and faux-marble accents).qos4

The big, bad, beta-disintegrating ray is kept inside a tiny house with a propeller on top; this house is guarded by four giant silver dildos. The queen of outer space tries to blow up the earth (her gown here calls to mind Coco Chanel, it’s a belted black dress over gold short pants, with arm bracelets), but her ray gun is defunct; Zsa Zsa’s rebels effed it up. There’s one last “battle of the sexes” (so says the theatrical trailer), where the good, man-loving girls rush the bad, grumpy girls and half-heartedly paw at each other. Here, as everywhere else, the men are powerless; their presence has no effect on the outcome. The beta-disintegration ray explodes with loud pyrotechnics and stage smoke, there’s a shot of the charred remains of the evil queen, and everyone stops fighting and looks confused—that’s the problem with mixing comedy and death by immolation.

The last scene is set in the throne room; Zsa Zsa emerges as the new queen of outer space, in a fourth and final outfit: a strapless gold ball gown with a long, collared cape. There’s no shortage of chiffon, rhinestones, or Dippity-do on planet Venus. Lieutenant Larry shoves his tongue into his space doll one last time, and the men get ready to depart (lonely Professor Conrad hugs himself and shakes his head bitterly), only to learn the ladies have sabotaged their ship and they won’t be going home for at least a year. The second to last shot is the professor finally getting some; eight women smother him in an apparently improv moment—the script never let this poor tubby character actor get any, but the girls mobbed him anyway. Paul Birch’s face gets visibly red as they move in; he disappears under a pile of piled hair. The last shot is, of course, Captain Hamilton sucking Zsa Zsa Gabor’s face off.

There’s no way to rate a movie like this, I’m not going to try (though others have; it’s consistently ranked among the worst sci-fi movies of all time); Queen of Outer Space is entertaining, despite the technical limitations of 1958 and the director’s reliance on leggy women shuffling around in plastic heels. It’s a movie that sits so firmly in the early years of cinema; space travel was not convincing, the décor was clumsy, extras delivered their lines with their backs to the camera. Which doesn’t mean the movie is bad, per say; Queen of Outer Space was more than its production values, it had this compelling combination of schmaltz and science fiction. Kitchen glitter, maybe. That’s it, a four-page breakdown of a cult classic, for the last camp weekend of summer.

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About emvlovely

Oh, I live in an RV. I write poems, essays and prose. Thanks for reading my blog, good health to you!
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