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Thursday, January 8, 2009

From Hell It Came

This review is a bit out of sequence. I'd skipped this film while doing 1957, as it seemed more horror than scifi. There are several movies produced in the 50s which have a weak claim to being sci-fi. Many of these are better classed as some other genre: horror, mystery, fantasy, etc. From Hell It Came (FHIC) is one of these. For the most part, it is a B-grade monster movie with an old-school supernatural underpinnings. The plot is human drama stuff. The monster tree-thing is presented as a native revenge demon. Yet, there is a bit of the medical strain of science involved. There is also the ubiquitous trope of nuclear radiation which gives FHIC a claim to the sci-fi family.

Quick Plot Synopsis
On a remote Pacific island, a native named Kemo is sentenced to die for bad magic. Actually, the local witch doctor trumped up the charges because Kemo encouraged the villagers to trust the American doctors. Kemo's wife lies to corroborates the charges, assuming she would be chief's new wife when Kemo was dead. Kemo is executed and buried. The Americans, Professor Clark and Dr. Arnold are on the island to study possible effects from radiation fallout from nuclear tests upwind. They are joined by an old flame of Dr. Arnold's, Dr. Terry Mason. She is all professional and has no time for relationships. Out of Kemo's grave grows an odd tree-stump thing with a scowling face shape in its bark. The Americans discover that it has a pulse and is radioactive. The stump grows to be 7' tall. They bring it to the lab for study. Thinking that it's dying, Terry gives it a special formula injection. The next day, the lab is ransacked. The tree monster, "Tabanga" kills Kemo's wife. It then finds the chief alone in the village and kills him too. Tano, the witch doctor knows he's next, so has a trap laid. They catch Tabanga and think they've destroyed him with fire, but he comes out that night. Tabanga kills Tano too. While the Americans are investigating all the commotion, Terry falls behind and is taken by the Tabanga. Just before it throws her in the quicksand, the men arrive and start shooting. Bullets don't harm it, but one shot hits the execution knife, still sticking out of the bark, driving it into the Tabanga's heart. It falls into the quicksand. Terry and Dr. Arnold kiss. The villagers pledge cooperation with the Americans. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The story is hokey enough to be entertaining by itself. Much of the plot is a good snapshot of American (or western) superiority smugness. In a modern culture beset with political correctness for several decades, this cultural imperialism is somewhat fascinating. Also fun is seeing another of Paul Blaisdell's monster costumes.

Cold War Angle
FHIC is much more of a monster movie, drawing more from monster morals than the Cold War. There is, however, the problem of nuclear test fallout, so on a mild level, FHIC has a bit of the atomic cautionary tale to it.

Blaisdell Beastie -- Paul Blaisdell created many monster suits for the B-level movies of the 50s. Experienced as a sci-fi / fantasy illustrator, he had an eye for monsters. More importantly, he worked very very cheaply making his monster suits out of foam rubber. His career as a monster maker was relatively short, but in addition to Tabanga, he gave us the carrot-monster from It Conquered the World ('56) and mutant Tommy in Day the World Ended.

Iconic Scenes -- Even though Tabanga doesn't want our women, in the usual sense (he wants to kill), there are two of the highly iconic scenes in which the monster is carrying off the woman in his arms. Fans of the icon image in poster art should watch the first instance, when Tabanga is carrying the native woman Cory. Note how the actress works at keeping her toes pointed (while supposedly unconscious). The babe victims in the poster art almost always had stylishly pointed toes.

Work or Romance -- Note sub-theme of women in the work world. Dr. Terry Mason starts out as the confident professional woman. Nothing frightens her and she has no time for silly Bill who wants romance. She's the modern liberated female. Notice how this all changes when she's accosted by the Tabanga. She screams like a girl, she kicks and slaps Tabanga like a girl. When she's finally saved by Bill and his trusty rifle, she melts in his arms for long passionate kisses. Danger softened her cold heart, making her a "proper" woman.

Simple Savages -- Throughout the script runs the old-school stereotype of the simple savage. The literary element of civilized (proper) men vs. the crude savage, is far older than motion pictures, but a frequent part of movies up until the age of political correctness. It was a staple of westerns (the indians being the savages), and jungle movies (with black natives as the savages). The common traits are present in FHIC -- scheming false witch doctor, simple-minded natives, brutal customs, and importantly, the "need" for westernization. In FHIC, all the "bad" natives get their just desserts (death). The rest fawn over the American doctors as new saviors. As odd as this scenario might feel to younger viewers who grew up in a flauntingly pluralistic culture, it is a good snapshot of American self-confidence from that era.

Bottom line? As sci-fi, FHIC is pretty weak, nor does it have a particularly compelling story. It does have a cool monster designed by Paul Blaisdell, however. If you're fond of monster movies or jungle movies, FHIC might find a soft spot for you. If you like your scifi with saucers and aliens, FHIC may not be your cup of tea.


Mike Scott said...

FHIC is one of those flicks (like Curucu, Beast of the Amazon) that hangs around the bottom rungs of the "is it a sci-fi movie" ladder.

Come to think of it, though, Creature From The Black Lagoon is a little light in sci content and I would never not think of it as a sci-fi movie.

Nightowl said...

True enough. Perhaps that's why some prefer the looser title of "SF" or it's longhand, "speculative fiction". That leaves the door open for simple monsters and TwilightZone stuff that has no science OR monsters.

Trouble is, once the cord is cut to the "science" then just about anything goes. Like the current Sci-fi Channel, in which just about any gore or fantasy tale is made the primary fare.

The 50s did have several barely-sci-fi movies, but they seemed to try tie in some anchor to "science." The Creature From the Black Lagoon at least started off with a paleological (or was it archeological?) expedition. We usually get a scientist or a doctor as the protagonist. Weak, yes, but at least an acknowledgment to the sciencey side.

The Beast of Hollow Mountain stands as a more bold-faced exception. No science offered at all and it's a cowboy as the protagonist. One of the thinnest claims to being sci-fi (yet) that I've seen from the 50s.

Mike Scott said...

Quote: The Beast of Hollow Mountain stands as a more bold-faced exception.

I usually throw all the dino (i.e. giant monster) movies into the sci-fi bin. Most have the "scientific expedition" angle to justify inclusion, but what the heck, can't leave the old "Beast" out in the cold!

Nightowl said...

Yeah, there is a problem of how you classify offbeat things like "Beast". In many ways, it's an almost routine western, except that there are TWO villains -- the typical land baron type and as a quirky wildcard, a T-Rex. Just wacky.

There is, I suppose, a sort of unspoken paleo-connection that's supposed to explain why a plain ol' ordinary T-Rex (not a schmantsy dragon) was still alive and living in the hollow mountain. Perhaps it's something like the scorpions frozen in the rocks, as in Black Scorpion. The screenplay just doesn't clue us on on that detail.