February 19, 2012

Alien Family Values

Night of the Blood Beast (1958)

Oh boy, it's another presidential election year! Time to rip the scabs off old wounds, pick up the torches and pitch forks, and get worked up over all those great hot button issues like abortion, Planned Parenthood, gay marriage, government support for contraception, illegal immigration -- you name it. There's nothing quite so exhilarating as marching off to a glorious culture war. Unless the war is on an interplanetary scale, and the entire earth, and life (and culture) as we know it is at stake. Then that's just scary.

Which brings me to the subject of this post, Night of the Blood Beast. Although it was made well over 50 years ago, Blood Beast raises a number of timeless and controversial issues that would have contemporary politicians shouting at each other until doomsday:
  • Is manned space flight worth the risks?
  • Should outer space aliens born in this country automatically be granted citizenship?
  • Is it permissible to abort space alien fetuses? What about "aborting" them with Molotov cocktails and a flare gun?
  • If the minds of a monster alien and a human being were to somehow be "married" via a mysterious telepathic-organic link, can states officially recognize that marriage?
  • In addition to a border fence, do we need a shield around the whole planet to keep out illegal aliens from outer space?
Okay, so Blood Beast doesn't address the issues in exactly those contexts, but it is surprisingly thought-provoking for schlocky, low-budget '50s sci-fi. Blood Beast is part of an entertaining (if not particularly distinguished) group of early space age movies that tallied up all the ways man's first attempts to conquer outer space could go horribly wrong. While real rocket scientists were grappling with g forces, weightlessness, radiation, environmental controls and other challenges to human spaceflight, astronauts in the movies were having about as much luck as Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons: after successfully landing on Mars, the crew of the Rocketship X-M (1950) burns up in earth re-entry; one of the astronauts of the ill-fated Quatermass Xperiment (1955) brings an alien organism back to earth, which transmutes him into a horrific hybrid thing; the crew of the first Mars orbital mission tear through the space-time continuum and land on a far future, primitive World Without End (1958); most of the crew of another Mars expedition is killed by a Martian stowaway, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958); and the First Man Into Space (1959) is encrusted with meteor dust and returns to earth as a hideous monster thirsting for blood.

The X-100 is ready for takeoff.
The astronaut in Blood Beast is similarly unlucky, but in a highly unusual way that distinguishes him from all the other ill-fated sci-fi explorers (more on that later). As the title credits roll, we see America's first piloted spaceship, the X-100, take off into space. The craft and its sole occupant, Major John Corcoran (Mike Emmet) soon run into trouble, and the capsule crashes in a remote wilderness area somewhere in the U.S. The recovery crew is pretty basic, consisting of Dr. Alex Wyman (Tyler McVey), John's fiance Dr. Julie Benson (Angela Greene), photographer Donna Bixby (Georgianna Carter), and generic military tough guy types Steve Dunlap (John Baer) and Dave Randall (Ed Nelson). Much to fiance Julie's dismay, they verify that Maj. Corcoran is dead, although his body looks pretty good after such a rough crash. They transport the body to the remote base in the back of what looks like a dirt farmer's dilapidated pick-up truck (all the money in this fictional space program apparently went into the spacecraft, and there wasn't much left over for "incidentals"). After examining the body, the docs are amazed that after several hours rigor mortis has yet to set in. And even though the astronaut has no pulse or circulation, Doc Wyman exclaims that "his blood is still alive!"

At this point, things quickly get hot, heavy and horrific for the recovery crew. Blood Beast packs a lot into its very short running time (62 minutes): the base is cut off from all communications by a mysterious magnetic field; Doc Wyman is killed by some shadowy thing as big as a bear; Maj. Corcoran miraculously comes back to life with a mystery wound at the base of his neck and an even more mysterious mental connection with the dead Doc Wyman (see the clip below); and most incredibly, the crew discovers that Corcoran has somehow been "impregnated" with alien embryos!! The valiant astronaut has become an unwilling pawn in an alien civilization's plan to impose their own form of "family values" on humankind, and the small band of government employees is the only thing standing in the way of total assimilation.

This expectant "mother" better have good medical insurance!
With its handful of characters, meager special effects, and bargain basement monster suit, Blood Beast can't cover up its low budget. But it does compensate with atmospheric black and white photography; an effective, sudden "jump-out-of-your-seat" introduction of the monster; and best of all, some unusual sci-fi ideas that seem advanced for the period. I think it's safe to say that Maj. Corcoran is the first movie astronaut, and first male, to be impregnated by aliens (twenty years later, an equally unfortunate astronaut "gave birth" in a very graphic way to Ridley Scott's infamous Alien). The mind melding between man and alien also predated Star Trek's Vulcan mind tricks by a good decade. And the alien itself is unusually sympathetic. At the climax, it argues very eloquently for understanding and tolerance. Is it trying to trick the gullible earthlings, or is it sincere? At the movie's end, we're not sure.

The box art for one of Blood Beast's video releases touts it as "Classic Roger Corman." Although Roger is credited as an executive producer, the Blood Beast is really brother Gene Corman's baby (Gene both produced and contributed the story). According to Bill Warren (Keep Watching the Skies! McFarland, 1986), Gene turned over scripting duties to Martin Varno, son of actor Roland Varno, who came up with a script in record time. The Cormans demanded so many changes that Varno asked for more money. When they turned him down, Varno took his grievances to the Writers Guild of America. Cheap to the bitter end, Gene and Roger held off paying Varno until the deadline was up.

Ed Nelson is the most familiar face in Blood Beast. Ed was a fixture on TV for decades, starring in the 1960s series Peyton Place, and guesting on seemingly every crime, western and sci-fi show produced between 1960 and the mid-1990s. The same year as Blood Beast, Ed was involved in producing another bottom-of-the-budget-barrel sci-fi classic, The Brain Eaters (1958).

The Blood Beast grapples with the carrier of his babies.
Night of the Blood Beast shows its parsimonious budget in multiple ways, but it's also eerie and suspenseful and chock full of intriguing sci-fi ideas. In my humble opinion, its user rating on IMDb is way too low. In his lengthy review, B sci-fi movie maven Bill Warren provides a firm but fair assessment:
If it weren't for its talky, derivative script and pathetic monster, Night of the Blood Beast might be widely regarded as one of the better low-budget SF thrillers of the period. It's well-acted by a small cast, tightly edited and efficiently directed by Bernard Kowalski. Though just a little cheapie, there are several good things about it, and one element of the story is unique in films up to 1958. One of the men in the cast essentially becomes pregnant. In one of the great, sick shocks of American International Pictures, we even see the embryos pulsing away in his chest. (Ibid.)
If you're ready for some vintage "sick shocks," Night of the Blood Beast is available on a couple of eminently affordable DVD editions/collections, and Mystery Science Theater 3000's version can be streamed from Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

After being "dead" for several hours, astronaut John Corcoran (Mike Emmet) wakes up with a huge hangover, and another man's thoughts swirling around in his head:


  1. When I first saw this film in the late 80's, I was jokingly convinced that it was proof that time travel existed. It always seemed to me that the hairstyle worn by the character of Donna just DID NOT fit with other women's hairstyles of the late 1950's and that the actress was actually from sometime after the late 70's.

    1. Another uncanny look into the future from the black and white world of 1958! Donna does indeed look like a bargain basement-version of Olivia Newton John who's suddenly been teleported into a '50s B movie. The only thing missing is the leg warmers.