Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

Written by: David Seltzer
Directed by: Walon Green and Ed Spiegel
Lawrence Pressman as Dr. Hellstrom
A bunch of bugs as themselves

Tonight on June Bugs, we take a look at a movie I've been wanting to see since I found out that micro-cinematographer who shot the insect footage was Ken Middleham, who was also behind the brilliant ant scenes in Phase IV, one of my favorite science fiction movies. This flick is a bit of an odd duck. In a seeming feat of precognition, it anticipates the glut of paranormal and cryptozoological documentaries of the next decade by parodying them before they ever had a chance to make their mark on the collective pop culture psyche. Even the greatest of these, Legend of Boggy Creek, came a year after tonight's movie.

Hellstrom Chronicle purports to be a document by one Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist with some apocalyptic theories regarding man's dominance on Earth. Consisting primarily of spectacular footage of various insect species in action, it is interspersed with segments of Dr. Hellstrom living up to his infernal-sounding name by raining down verbal hellfire and brimstone about how man's time on Earth is short if he continues to destroy it. Insects, being infinitely more adaptable and having a nearly incalculable population advantage, are simply waiting in the wings to take over as the dominant life form once the folly of humankind has reduced everything else to a radioactive, glow-in-the-dark slag heap.

Both the dialog and performance during the Hellstrom segments are almost ludicrously florid and delivered with all the urgency of an alcoholic street preacher wearing a THE END IS NIGH sandwich board. Pressman overacts the hell out of his role, and looks like he might pop an aneurysm at any moment. Seltzer has said in interviews that this was intentional, that, “every third line we were elbowing the audience in the ribs.” I almost wish that wasn't the case, because I kind of like the idea of a totally earnest group of super Left-wing filmmakers trying to push their environmental message through to the bull-headed macho redneck Right by challenging their manhood. “Come on, you bunch of sissies, you don't want to lose dominance of your planet to a bunch of bugs do you? You pussy bitches better find some alternative fuels and disarm your nuclear arsenals or you're going to have to hand the reigns over to ants!”

The real reason to watch this movie is the bugs, of course. If any of you are fans of nature documentaries (and if you're not, what the hell is wrong with you?), there's a lot to love here. Particular highlights include the segment featuring carnivorous insect-eating plants, and giant Japanese hornets attacking a bee hive. The bees eventually win the day, but with massive casualties, and those hornets are fucking terrifying. Also of special interest is the segment on termite colonies; specifically the bit about how they will wall their queens up for safety when a colony is under attack, like an insect version of Poe's “Cask of Amontillado.”

That's really all I've got to say about that. It's an interesting time capsule of a movie with an intentionally goofy message, but full of spectacular photography that more than makes up for any weaknesses on the part of the narrative.

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