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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Monster From Green Hell

This movie is a hybrid of two B-film sub-genre. It's 80% jungle safari movie and 20% giant bug film. It covers no new ground in either. Them ('54) opened the big bug sub-genre. Judging from the poster art, the producers tried to position the movie as another big-bug tale. On the other hand, the jungle safari sub-genre (more prevalent in the 40s) must have still had some audience appeal. Since Monster from Green Hell (MFGH) is only partially a big-bug movie, it's place in the sci-fi genre is a bit tenuous. Still, it deserves at least some mention as part of the 50s sci-fi family. One of its writers, Louis Vittes, wrote the screenplay for I Married a Monster from Outer Space ('58), which was better than its title suggests. Producer Al Zimbalist gave us Catwomen of the Moon ('53). Near the end, MFGH shares the location shooting of Bronson Canyon with Robot Monster ('53). That's enough peripheral connections to merit at least one viewing.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Quent Brady and Dan Morgan are sending V2 rockets up into space with various animals aboard, to test their reaction to "cosmic radiation." These are our old friends, the checker-painted V2s, by the way. One rocket had too much thrust. Instead of exposing its animals to 40 seconds of radiation before coming back down, it stayed up for 40 hours. This rocket happened to have aboard it, some wasps, including a queen. This rocket then came down on the African coast, near the Congo. There, in an area around an active volcano the natives call "Green Hell", all animals are fleeing and natives are being killed. A local missionary, Dr. Lorrentz treks into the jungle to solve the mystery, but is himself killed by "monsters". Brady and Morgan arrive to check out the reports. They suspect the radiated wasps are the cause. After a great deal of trudging through jungle, they come upon the volcano and the nest. Sure enough, giant irradiated wasps. The explosives they brought with them do not kill the monster-wasps. The safari escape to a cave but are trapped in there for awhile. The volcano erupts. Lava pours down its sides. The lava kills the giant wasps. The safari folk are saved. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Even though the "monsters" don't get much on-camera time (as is typical), they're actually pretty well done (for B monsters). There is a combination of large, articulated models and small-scale stop animation model work. By modern standards, quite cheesy, but in 1958, still above average. They came off better than the superimposed real bug type of films.

Cold War Angle
There isn't much of the Cold War angst here. Instead, we have a tepid example of the radiation cautionary tale. Radiation turns nature into monsters. Beware.

Radiation Angst -- MFGH caters to 50s audiences' built in anxiety about the effects of radiation. It was often the catalyst of choice in the 50s for introducing dangerous change. Surgery, chemistry and electricity each had their vogue periods. For the 50s, it was radiation. The only twist here, is that it's "natural" cosmic radiation from space, not man-made atomic radiation. Space was still a scary place in the late 50s. Many a film hinged on exposure to "space" causing bad things to happen. Riders to the Stars ('54) tried to make a serious plot of this. The Quatermass Experiment ('55) played up this angst. Later movies would too. People worried about radiation then.

Stereotyped Africa -- An amusing sidelight to MFGH is seeing the mishmash of african footage glommed together. Even in the later 50s, Africa was still stereotyped as wild place, with every corner filled with natural dangers. Elephants, pythons, lions and lava all existed side-by-side with fierce tribes of generic war-like natives. This generic vision was typical enough in the 30s and 40s, but apparently hadn't improved by the late 50s. Anything african was imagined to exist everywhere in Africa. Each sector contained both tropical jungle, arid savannah, swamp, desert canyon AND active volcanos. The only thing missing was the dinosaurs of Lost World.

For Love of Trudging -- A trait of many a jungle B-movie, is the obligatory marching through the jungle scene. MFGH had far too many of them. Dr. Lorrentz (an Albert Schweitzer copy) has his safari trudge through to get at the cause of the native chief's death. Much trudging. Brady's safari from Libreville to Dr. Lorrenz's camp went through yet many more minutes of trudging. Then they have to mount yet another safari to find the monsters that killed Dr. Lorrentz. The movie could have been perhaps 20 minutes shorter if all that trekking had been edited out. The fact that it wasn't suggests that the producers (who had made prior jungle films) must have expected their audiences still liked the vision of white men leading black porters through the jungle. It should be noted that the typical porters-deserting-white-leaders scene happened twice.

Stock Footage Fare --For fans of stock footage, there are numerous examples to spot. The V2 footage had become almost one of the four food groups by this point in the decade. Stock natives, stock wildlife clips and recycled footage from Stanley and Livingstone ('39) This helps explain why Dr. Brady gets decked out in the classic 19th century British pith helmet, khakis and tall boots. It helped him blend in with the '39 footage better.

Weak Ending -- Where most cautionary tales end with a moralizing moment, MFGH did not. For a brief moment, Dr. Lorrentz's daughter, Lorna, blamed science for the trouble, but Brady quickly corrects her that science is wonderful. Still, there were monsters out there. In the end, they're stopped, but unlike in other tales, man did not get wiser and stop the danger. Good did not triumph over evil. Instead, the wasps are killed by the lava. Since they were said to "not like fire," it's a bit incongruous that they made their nest on the side of a volcano. In the end, nature kills the monsters. As the Morgan character says at the end, "Nature has a way of correcting its own mistakes." Yes, nature killed the monsters, but its a bit odd that they gave nature the "credit" for making the monsters. Who shot the wasps into space? This may be a vestige of an old fear-of-nature theme.

Bottom line? At the end, MFGH may be a movie that only 50s sci-fi collectors will tolerate, or perhaps fans of jungle movies. Big bug movie fans will enjoy the big bugs, though they get only a little screen-time near the end.


Mike Scott said...

Quote: The movie could have been perhaps 20 minutes shorter if all that trekking had been edited out. The fact that it wasn't suggests that the producers must have expected their audiences still liked the vision of white men leading black porters through the jungle.

More likely they were just padding a too short screenplay. Like all those movies with endless (car) driving scenes.

Nightowl said...

Mike, padding for sure. The plot is too simple to support more scenes. Green Hell reminded me, though, that even filler has some flavor, some choice to it. The producers/directors must have felt that audiences would at least tolerate the hacking-thru-jungle padding. Sure wouldn't be tolerated by today's impatient audiences.

What would YOU say is today's preferred padding?

Mike Scott said...

Quote: What would YOU say is today's preferred padding?


Nightowl said...

Mike, I didn't want to "lead the witness," but I was thinking the same thing. Lots of movies today insert some tension leading up to some explosion, though the blast seldom advances the plot. Gratuitous Blasts.