Tuesday, November 19, 2013

From Hell It Came (1957)

Written by: Richard Bernstein, Jack Milner
Directed by: Dan Milner
Starring: Tod Andrews, Tina Carver, John McNamara

A long time ago, there was a thread on the B-Movie Message Board about favorite movie reviews. I can't remember who wrote it or where it was published, but one of the members said their favorite was a one-line review for From Hell It Came. The review was, simply, brilliantly, “And to hell it can go.” I still giggle about that one occasionally. It's one of those things you wish you had written, but someone else got there first. Still, I couldn't say that about tonight's movie in all honesty. Even during the boring parts, which is virtually the whole thing, there's enough to keep all but the most impatient crap lovers happy. If ever there was a movie tailor-made for riffing with friends, this is it. Hell, I watched it by myself and still had a fine time with it.

The movie opens with a massive exposition dump, which is promptly followed by at least 30 solid minutes of absolutely nothing happening. Kimo was once the heir to the throne (or wicker lawn chair, whatever) of some little backwater island in the South Pacific, but now he's staked to the ground and about to be killed by Chief Maranka and his witch doctor Tano. Kimo stands accused of murdering his father, the old chief, by allowing the Americans who have come to the island to treat him for bubonic plague, which has been scourging the tribe. Maranka and Tano have convinced the tribespeople that Western medicine has brought a curse upon them and that Kimo will bring death to the tribe.

This scene is stolen by some chickens. The ceremony has some voodoo trappings about it, and I'm not sure if the chickens were there because they were required, or if they just decided to hang out by Kimo's head, but during Kimo's big dramatic speech about how he will return, stronger in death than he was in life and have his revenge, there are four or five chickens just milling around in the shot near his head. It's very distracting. Also, Tano pierces a voodoo doll through the heart with a great deal of import as his henchmen kill Kimo, as if he were the one doing the deed. No, I'm pretty sure it was the guy hammering an 18-inch dagger through his heart with a canoe paddle that killed him. Then they stuff Kimo's corpse into a nifty looking upright rough-hewn wooden box and bury him standing up in the village cemetery.

Now to meet the hero of our movie, Dr. Bill, complaining about how much he hates being in the jungle. Malaria, fever, drought, heat, jungle rot, stupid primitive natives, the dude hates everything. And then Professor Clark helpfully points out for us that Bill's “desire to go home is written all over him.” Really? What tipped you off? Was it the fact that the first five minutes we spend in his company consists entirely of him listing everything he hates and talking about how he wants to go home and marry Dr. Terry Mason, but she won't stop being an independent minded scientist to settle down and wash his dirty skivvies and make him sammiches? Also, the dude...puts dramatic...pauses in the weird...est places. Really, really long ones. Like, you start to wonder if the director just didn't cut the scene early enough, but then he starts in talking again. I mean, no one in this movie but Tina Carver really gives a decent performance, but damn. Everyone always talks about Shatner's dramatic pauses, but I've seen an awful lot of the man's work and never really noticed. I'm convinced that everyone was just thinking of Dr. Bill.

We'll meet Dr. Mason in a minute, but first we have to endure Mrs. Kilgore, the alcoholic widow who runs the canteen that sells the natives cheap beads and garbage in return for valuable natural resources and artwork that she then sells on the American supply ships for a tidy profit. She's being chased through the jungle by one of Maranka's henchmen because she saw Kimo's execution, but no one seems terribly bothered about it. I think Mrs. Kilgore is supposed to be a Cockney, but her accent gets twisted and tortured in her mouth like Lynndie England's least favorite inmate at Abu Ghraib. Unfortunately this will not be the last we see of her.

What exactly are the American scientists doing on this island, you may wonder? Originally they were based there when trading ships reported natives becoming sick and dying as a result of fallout from atomic bomb tests. What they discovered was that radiation levels on the island weren't far enough above normal to be causing a problem, but the natives were suffering from a massive outbreak of bubonic plague. That brings us to Dr. Terry Mason, who is the world's top dermatologist and plastic surgeon, and has arrived on the island to help reduce some of the scarring and deformities caused by the plague, jungle rot, and all the other things Bill was bitching about earlier. Believe it or not, all that takes place in the movie in the space of less than ten minutes. Now it's time to sit and wait. And wait. And...wait.

Occasionally, there will be a brief break in the non-action to show the ground bulging around Kimo's grave, just to remind us that yes, if we sit through another fifteen minutes or so of Bill and Terry's tepid romance or some more of Mrs. Kilgore's hilarious drunken antics, there will be a fucking monster in this at some point.


Hey, it's Norgu and Orchid, the two natives who refuse to follow Maranka and believe the Americans are there to help them because believing in black magic is silly. What's that Norgu? There's a problem with black magic? Oh. Damn. Seems a grumpy tree stump has grown out of Kimo's grave, with the dagger used to kill him buried in its chest. This creature is known as the Tabanga, monster of vengeance. I kind of like that the movie sets up yet another atomic monster and then says in no uncertain terms that radiation could not possibly be the cause and it really is some kind of supernatural hellbeast on the loose, while at the same time dismissing the natives' beliefs as utter codswallop. This is one confused-ass movie, which just adds another layer of enjoyable insanity to the proceedings.

There has been one other Tabanga in living memory, a chief several generations back who was betrayed much like Kimo. A Tabanga grew, and a bolt of lighting blasted it free of its grave to stalk (ha!) for its vengeance. It's a good thing the scientists respond to this news by immediately cutting the Tabanga out of Kimo's grave and taking it back to the lab for study, then. Otherwise we would have had to wait for another freak lightning strike for anything to happen. Seems like rather a poorly thought out revenge monster, really.

Anyway, the thing has a heartbeat, which is helpfully illustrated for the audience by what appears to be a throbbing butthole on the creature's face. Its pulse, however, is very slow, and it seems to be in a coma. Plus there's a lot of tissue damage from that giant knife sticking out of its face butt. Luckily, in her career as the world's foremost dermatologist, Dr. Mason also created a serum that regenerates flesh (that's flesh, not just skin, this shit rebuilds muscle too, because dermatology!) destroyed by jungle rot, and a magic potion that successfully revived monkeys who had died from radiation poisoning!

So they pump the Tabanga full of Ultra Turbo Miracle Gro and then just leave it on the slab overnight, with a conversation that goes something like, “Should we post a watch to keep an eye on it?” “Nah, it'll be fine til morning.” To the surprise of no one but our characters, when they return the following morning the lab looks like an eight-foot-tall tree monster pumped full of the finest drugs atom-age science can devise went on a rampage and trashed the place before smashing through the wall and making its escape. We get blasted with a, “the monster is still alive!” horror music sting, and Dr. Mason reacts with completely, hilariously inappropriate joy that the creature is still alive. Her happiness is short-lived, however, when Norgu pops in to inform them that it's killed Maranka's wife and is now on a very slow rampage of destruction.

This monster...oh good grief this monster. The suit is incredibly stiff and it's pretty plain the stunt actor can't see where he's going at all, so the best gait the poor bastard inside the thing can manage is a cautious shuffle like an old man with a walker stepping onto the first ice patch of the winter. The director wisely keeps the camera situated so that the places where the suit flexes when it moves are out of shot, but occasionally it's unavoidable. It's very difficult to make a creature made of an inanimate material like wood or stone or metal look believable. Even with today's best effects technology it rarely looks very good. Really about the only guy who could ever pull it off was Ray Harryhausen. Paul Blaisdell with fifteen bucks worth of latex and foam rubber didn't have a chance. Every once in a while they'll cut from a screaming native to a reaction shot of the Tabanga's completely immobile face, and the unintentional comedy reaches new heights.

Tano and his men lure the creature into a pit and set it on fire. It simply waits til the fire burns out and climbs out of the pit. Because supernatural wood isn't flammable, apparently. A couple of the men rush to the lab, where we get yet another immortal line of dialogue, “We burned Tabanga with a mighty fire...but it didn't help.” I can neither confirm nor deny that this is the single best line of dialogue ever, but it's a strong contender. And when the Tabanga tracks down Tano to pay him back for the inconvenient conflagration, he falls to the ground and the creature leans down to grab him...and they have to cut away because it's painfully clear the damn thing can't bend down any farther without falling over!

So it's up to our intrepid and conspicuously white heroes to save the day where those primitive brown (well, white people painted brown, anyway) folks failed. If I didn't know better, I would say Alan Silvestri lifted the “trekking through the jungle” music here for the score of Predator. The drums have a virtually identical rhythm and pattern. Of course, being reminded that you could be watching Predator when you're watching From Hell It Came is apt to make you sad and a little nauseated. Especially when not too long into the trek, Dr. Mason falls behind because her shoe falls off and she gets grabbed by the Tabanga (typical woman, am I right guys? Eh?). Up until now, she's been about the only likeable character in the whole thing. But then she starts screaming. I have watched a lot of horror movies, and I have heard a lot of women scream (these things are not necessarily connected...), but never in my life have I heard a scream like this. It sounds like a puppy being simultaneously skinned and burned alive, and is one of the most horrid sounds I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. And I've heard Deftones songs.

Luckily we don't have to hear it for long, as Bill comes up with the brilliant idea that if they shoot the dagger--still embedded in the Tabanga's chest—directly, it will drive the blade clean through its heart and kill it. Sure enough, our dull and dour hero manages the impossible shot, and the monster topples into a convenient quicksand pit. Norgu solemnly proclaims, “We know now American magic is better.” Yeah, sure it is bub. You'll be saying that in ten years when they've cut down all your trees to make fancy flooring and furniture for rich people's houses, ripped your entire island to pieces looking for oil and mineral deposits, and have you greeting depressed, dead-eyed customers in Wal-Mart's first Polynesian location. But wait, there's more! Only one of the monsters has been destroyed, and we have to endure more awful faux Cockney Komedy with Mrs. Kilgore asking Professor Clark if he's married. I think I'd rather fuck the Tabanga's throbbing face ass.

It's funny that a movie that barely passes the 70 minute mark and has virtually no plot or action wound up spawning one of my longest reviews. The flick is just such a rich mine of ridiculousness. It's a heady brew distilled from every single silly cliché of 50's horror movies, and it's positively delightful.

1 comment:

  1. I just did this one for HubrisWeen, and put a link to your review at the end of it. You're not doing the marathon, but you also thought this movie was stupid. So: link.