Tuesday, March 29, 2022

MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1957) Blu-ray Review

Monster from Green Hell (1957) d. Kenneth G. Crane (USA) (71 min)

Dr. Quint Brady (Jim Davis) and colleague Dan Morgan (Robert E. Griffin) are performing the usual 1950s cinematic scientist duties of space exploration, researching the effects of cosmic radiation on a few animal test subjects (including wasps, monkeys, and crabs) by firing them in three, count ’em, three rockets into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, one of the capsules goes off course, disappearing from the radar although the “computer” determines that it will probably land somewhere “in Africa.” Sure enough, six months later, there are reports arising from an area known as Green Hell, already treated with much apprehension from the locals, that SOMETHING has arrived so unnerving that birds refuse to nest in the trees and herds of elephants (and other stock footage wildlife) steer clear. Oh, and one of the tribe has been killed by a predator that injected so much venom into its victim that resident white doctor Dr. Lorentz (Vladimir Solokoff) is stumped. Brady and Morgan FINALLY mount an expedition to track down their stray rocket to see if there is a connection. Surprise, surprise, there is, to the tune of mammoth radiation-mutated wasps buzzing, stinging, and strangling their helpless prey, and it’s up to our heroic Western eggheads to clean up the mess.

Arriving during the “Big Bug” heyday kicked off by Them! in 1954, Monster from Green Hell was a cash-in quickie from producer Al Zimbalist, already notorious for such notorious Z-grade flicks as Robot Monster and King Dinosaur. In this case, Zimbalist had purchased some preexisting footage from the 1939 epic Stanley and Livingstone, starring Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan, and Cedric Hardwicke, and had screenwriters Endre Bohem and Louis Vittes (I Married a Monster from Outer Space) concoct a framework around the impressive (and lengthy) jungle sequences. The scribes’ solution: After Brady and Morgan arrive “in Africa,” we are informed via Davis’ laconic narration that they will now be embarking on a walking safari to Lorentz’s village that will last, no joke, 27 DAYS. (I can just picture Bohem and Vittes high-fiving one another over the desk when that lightbulb went off.)

As a result, there is an extraordinary amount of screen time dedicated to long-shot figures moving across the African plains intermixed with close-ups of our cast members – dressed in similar garb to their 1939 counterparts – moving across the, um, plains of Bronson Canyon in Southern California, the shooting location of innumerable B-movie classics (including Robot Monster). Our heroes wrestle with scorching heat, drenching rains, and unfriendly natives, punctuated by episodes of poisoned wells, falling trees, and massive grass fires. There’s no denying it’s a literal long haul from the beginning of the film until the climax, where we FINALLY get to see those giant wasps again that got us here in the first place.

Once the scientists eventually arrive at the village, we meet Lorentz’s mopey daughter Lorna (Barbara Turner) and the loyal village leader Arobi (Joel Fluellen), the latter of which has the unenviable task of informing everyone that the good doctor has, in fact, met his maker at the hands, er, GIANT FRICKING STINGERS of these reputed “monsters.” From here, Brady and Morgan decide to mount another (dear god in heaven) expedition to Green Hell to attempt to deal with the insectoid menace, armed with torches, a box of hand grenades, and a fortuitously located active volcano.

Depending on your viewpoint, this is either a sterling example of resourceful low budget filmmaking or a shameless recycling of another studio’s superior production values to prop up some tired sci-fi exploits. Like William Ely Hill’s famous “Young Woman Old Woman Ambiguous Figure” illustration, my stance kept changing over the course of the 71-minute running time. For big bug fans, there are indeed some very cool stop-motion creature figures with screen-door eyes and peculiarly small wings intermixed with matte shots of wasp puppets poking their heads over mountains and around corners. (There is apparently a very wide spectrum of sizes among these beasts.) And director Crane isn’t shy about showing off special-effects artists Gene Warren and Wah Chang’s efforts up close and personal so that we can appreciate them.

On the the other hand, there is that whole middle “walking across Africa” sequence which keeps the big bugs offscreen for over 40 minutes, and it’s a misstep too egregious to be ignored. Considering Crane (who only directed three other movies, including 1959’s The Manster) worked primarily as an editor during his Hollywood career, it’s confounding why he didn’t elect to insert random shots of the buzzy behemoths throughout the picture simply to keep the popcorn munchers happy. Instead, we get a pair of monster action bookends and a gimmicky ending color sequence that shoddily combines footage of the wasp puppets screeching with that of a volcanic eruption.

All of the cast members show up and manage not to bump into the furniture, mostly because there isn’t much out in the “jungle” to contend with. Davis, who has a nice little 15-minute documentary dedicated to his career on the new Film Detective Blu-ray, is a pretty bland all-purpose scientist (guy’s an astronomer, etymologist, and naturalist, all in one square-jawed package), displaying little of the charisma he would bring to his portrayal of patriarch Jock Ewing on TV’s Dallas. Likewise, Turner’s heroine is dour and humorless throughout, and it doesn’t help that she’s given absolutely nothing to do; the by-the-numbers romance between her character and Davis’ elicits the sexual wattage of a cold bowl of oatmeal and, during the dramatic face-off between the humans and the creepy crawlies, she’s literally told to “stand against that wall there” as the battle stations are divvied up.

Dependable character actors Solokoff (The Magnificent Seven) and Fluellen (A Raisin in the Sun) lend solid support to their underwritten roles, and it’s a credit to their talents that they register as much as they do. As Morgan, busy TV actor Griffin is an amiable sidekick who seems content to rattle off the exposition and keep the story moving along, relatively speaking. Considering that we’re expected to swallow such cockimamie as his character walking into a launch control room 20 SECONDS BEFORE LIFT-OFF in order to commence the countdown and the fact that these geniuses DON’T EVEN BOTHER TO TRACK DOWN THEIR ROCKET AFTER IT GOES OFF COURSE AND CRASHES DOWN IN AFRICA, I suppose I can’t blame him.

Thanks to such outlandish plot contrivances and the enjoyably goofy and impressive wasp puppets, Monster from Green Hell manages to entertain its target audience just enough, although it’s also equally apparent why it languishes in the shadow of such superior 1950s gigantism efforts as Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis.

Fun Facts: Barbara Turner co-wrote the screenplay for 1983’s Cujo (as "Lauren Currier") and is the mother of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (with Vic Morrow)!


Audio commentary by author/artist Stephen R. Bissette
Missouri Born: The Films of Jim Davis, hosted by C. Courtney Joyner
“The Men Behind the Monsters” essay by author Don Stradley

"I dreamed I was walking and walking and walking and walking and walking....

Monster from Green Hell is available now on Blu-ray from The Film Detective and can be ordered HERE:



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