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Saturday, October 11, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 6: From Hell It Came (1957)

Screenplay by Richard Bernstein, from a story by Richard Bernstein and Jack Milner
Directed by Dan Milner

Tod Andrews:  Dr. William Arnold
Tina Carver:  Dr. Terry Mason

Tabonga designed by Paul Blaisdell

This one has been a long, long time coming. I can remember seeing clips from this one in It Came From Hollywood, my gateway drug to B movies. My B movie enthusiast friends in high school used to intone "We burned Tabonga with a mighty fire, but it didn't help" at the drop of a hat based on the clips from that compilation movie. There was a walking-tree monster in the NES game "Rygar" that I referred to as the Tabonga. And yet I never saw the movie until 2014. Partly because of scarcity--none of the video stores in the area had it on VHS and I don't remember it ever showing up on any of the UHF stations that would regularly show monster movies. And up until 2009 it wasn't available on DVD (and even when it was finally released on disc it was a burn-on-demand Warner Archive release--they knew that nobody was ever going to impulse buy this sucker).

(L-R:  Rygar, Tabonga, Ankylosaurus)

And the other reason I took a quarter century to get around to seeing this one is that everybody who has reviewed it says it's a real piece of shit. But hey--time for me to have an informed opinion rather than just taking other people's word for it.

Holy cats, this one starts out as the Platonic ideal of a fifties monster movie. Blaring brass and woodwinds on the soundtrack, a hurriedly executed painting of a Polynesian jungle village and a creepy font for the titles. The score also has faux "native" drumming for the percussion part--giving that dime store Les Baxter feel for the audience so that they know From Hell It Came, And Then I Guess It Went To Hawaii. It does make sense that someone would get around to filming (or at least setting) a monster flick in Polynesia in the latter half of the Fifties--thousands upon thousands of military servicemen were shipped home from the Pacific theater through Honolulu, so plenty of blue collar Americans would have known at least a little bit about the island; furthermore, statehood for Hawaii was a scant two years off. So it makes sense that at some point a monster was going to show up there instead of in 18th century Europe or a small town in Arizona.

Oh, and there's a disclaimer during the credits that says the story of a slowly stumbling semi-immobile tree monster in Hawaii is a work of fiction, which makes me think moviegoers were not any smarter sixty years ago.

We begin in medias res, with a Tano the newly minted Polynesian chief telling Kimo that he has betrayed his people. Who's Kimo? He's this guy who betrayed his people. Who are his people? They're the ones that Kimo betrayed. I'm glad everything's cleared up. (Okay, that's unfair. We get a lump of exposition--the shaman says Kimo is working with "the Americans" and killed his own father to become the tribal chieftain. Kimo says a plague killed his dad and the Americans are trying to help cure it.) Kimo is staked to the ground and smack-talking Tano, saying that the tribe's shaman poisoned his dad when the old chief got sick so that the new chief could take over. There's some amazingly bad line readings from Kimo's wife as a femme fatale who is transparently in on the murder plot.

And since it's a monster movie, we also get the obligatory "after you kill me in your kangaroo court I will return and have my vengeance" speech from Kimo. He does get the totally metal dialogue "In death I will be stronger than you in life", believing in a philosophy shared by Obi-Wan Kenobi as well as Misquamacus. The ritual execution is carried out by one dude holding a dagger above Kimo's heart and another one hammering it into his chest with a boat paddle. Kimo's treacherous wife (well, widow, now) and Tano both look like they've got misgivings as soon as the deed is done, which does not speak highly of them as villains. For some reason, there are several chickens pecking and scratching around Kimo during this sequence. I don't know what the deal is with the chickens.

There follows the traditional post-trumped-up-execution hula dance in a scene that totally wasn't an attempt to get a little skin on the screen and pad the running time of the movie to 71 minutes so that it would technically be feature length. The dance involved either three choreographers each doing their job well with one-third of the dancers or one choreographer who didn't know what they were doing. The white woman who saw the ritual and snuck away seems to be appalled at the killing, not the dancing, but I can't be completely sure about that.

Meanwhile, in the Pier 1 Imports floor display at the American compound, two men are griping about the bad weather, endemic disease and constant drumming in their vicinity. Since it's the fifties, one guy is drinking like a fish and the other smoking like a chimney. They mention that since the old chief died, the tribe they live near has been giving them the Hate Face; the doctor (the dark-haired guy) says he did everything he could to cure the old chief's case of plague but it was too late for him by the time ha'ole medicine got called into play. Some dialogue clunky even by the standards of 50s monster movie exposition reveals that an atomic bomb test 1500 miles away got fallout all over the island thanks to freak storms, pissing the natives off even more.

It turns out that the fallout isn't killing anyone, though; it's plague (and I'm not 100 percent certain that they don't mean the actual bubonic plague but the screenplay and actors don't really inspire a lot of trust in me). The two as-yet-unnamed scientists also mention Tano as one of the chief sources of anti-American sentiment around here but so far nobody's been hit with a completely unexpected arrow. The dark-haired American would love to beat feet back to the mainland but the woman he loves (who is probably the American woman who saw the execution earlier) wants to stay. "Why did I have to fall in love with a dedicated female scientist?" is a line that would have been repeated endlessly by my cadre of bad movie fans back in high school if that had been excerpted in It Came From Hollywood, let me tell you. Especially because the actor delivers it so tonelessly. Further banter is interrupted first by the arrival of a military man and then by a pretty respectable Fifties Monster Movie Female Scream from outside. The army guy and black-haired scientist run off after whoever it was that scared the woman enough to faint on the ground (and they didn't quite ruin the take by slipping all over the place so they didn't reshoot this scene); the blonde Science Dude sticks around to take care of the woman. Also, movie, would it have killed you to get some names in here?

Okay, we do get a name. The military guy is named Eddie. He and the two science guys bring Dr. Woman Lady into their headquarters but before that scene risks becoming interesting the movie switches to Kimo's body--with the dagger still in his chest--being sealed up in a cross between a sedan chair and wooden casket, standing up. Four native bearers carry him off about twenty or thirty feet and then set the chair down again. He eventually gets buried in a vertical grave and half a dozen natives shove dirt in on top of the coffin.

Oh, dear. The fainting woman has a Komedy Kockney Accent. One of the scientists identifies her as Mrs. Kilgore. They give her some medicinal booze and she turns out to be not only the movie's Odious Comic Relief but also that relic of less enlightened times, the Wacky Boozer. She runs a trading post on the island and her wandering accent could possibly mean that she's supposed to be Australian but possible also from antebellum Georgia or something. She'll be our lecherous avaricious woman character for the evening. Lucky us.

The science guys talk things over with Mrs. Kilgore and they all regret Kimo's death--the scientists because he was a link between the American and native presences on the island, and Kilgore because he was such a polite young man. Oh, and then some shots of a helicopter and jeep in use. Dr. Terry Mason has shown up, but no time to actually learn her name or get a scene where she says or does anything but take luggage out of a helicopter--we've got to show some dirt moving around! Yes. Really. It's the soil on top of Kimo's grave and something's growing underneath it.

When the black-haired science guy shows up to greet Dr. Mason with a kiss on each cheek we finally learn that his name is Bill (da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron). Bill wants Dr. Mason to leave the island right after she got there because there's radioactive fallout and angry Samoans all over the place. She refuses because she has True Grit. And the jeep ride back to the American headquarters gets intercut with another "dirt moving around a little bit" sequence. Whoever edited this movie had absolutely no idea how to connect scenes to each other and there's plenty of jarring mis-cuts to enjoy.

Some excruciating banter follows, and a native girl named Orchid turns out to have been hired as a maid so that Dr. Thomas has someone to keep her quarters clean. To let you in on a little family secret, Orchid's father was Dutch. She's considered outcast by her tribe due to her heritage and views the Americans at least a little more favorably than the rest of the islanders. There's some getting-to-know-you dialogue between Dr. Mason and Orchid while Mason takes a shower, and some 50s-style titillation where Mason walks around in a towel and Orchid wears a bikini top and sarong.

Meanwhile, back at the lab, Kimo's friend has brought his plague-disfigured wife to the scientists to see if they can do anything to help her. You get to see the white scientists discuss Dori and her medical history while referring to her in the third person and I don't believe the actress playing her has a single syllable of dialogue in this scene. Dr. Mason brings out the big guns for dermatological healing:  FORMULA X-37! What's it do? It removes scar tissue and heals damaged flesh. But we won't find out how well it works until tomorrow, so I'm glad everyone sat through that scene.

Back at the native village, Chief Maranka and Korey (Kimo's widow) discuss their conspiracy and Maranka gives Korey the brushoff. It also transpires that he is making poison darts for an attack on the American doctors, and I'm all for if it means the movie is shortened. Bill and Dr. Mason go for a walk in the jungle and I despair of the monster ever actually showing up in this goddamned movie. Some excruciating banter about how cheap it is to find flowers in the jungle leads to Bill leaning in for a smooch and Dr. Mason breaking away from him. She tries to say she's not his girl or anyone else's and Bill utterly fails to understand consent or autonomy as it relates to Dr. Mason's life. The actor's such an inert lump as he tries to convince Mason to marry him that I wanted to reach into the screen and swat him for being such an asshole.

After the prerequisite "you are a woman and should be my wife and have babies" / "actually I would rather stay a doctor and have a career" conversation the pair make their way to the native cemetary and notice a tree stump growing out of Kimo's grave. Neither one of them is a botanist so they try to get the other scientist to take a look at it. All the honkies can't really make any sense out of it but Kimo's friend Norgu says it's a Tabonga; his grandfather saw one once when a tribal chief was murdered generations back, and "he came back to life as a tree monster". There is about as much scoffing in the movie after this line as there would be in the audience. According to Norgu, the previous Tabonga grew out of the grave of the betrayed and murdered chieftain and when it was hit by lighting it detached itself from its roots and walked the island on an undoubtedly slow killing spree.

A moment to consider things--what if you were a chieftain who got shanked by your false friends and came back as a Tabonga, but never got hit by lightning? You'd be a vengeance monster stuck in the ground and I bet after one casualty the other villagers would know not to go anywhere near you and you'd never get your revenge. Then your second life is eventually cut short by Dutch elm disease.

So anyway, Orchid shows up and says the tree stump is bigger, vaguely humanoid and has a dagger stuck in it. Norgu says this proves Kimo is coming back to bust out a curse on everyone. The scientists check out the stump--which is impossibly larger the next day, has grown a face and has a human heartbeat (!). Bill waves a Geiger counter near the stump and says it's at least mildly radioactive, but no amount of ionizing radiation could turn a dead human being into a Polynesian weirwood tree. So I extract a glimmer of enjoyment from the movie by noticing that it's one of the very few 1950s monster pictures that has an explicitly supernatural explanation for its beastie. Oh, and there's a self-squeezing stress ball near the Tabonga's jawline that's supposed to demonstrate it has a heartbeat or something. This is a monster suit that Paul Blaisdell probably left off his resume, with good reason.

The scientists' superiors in Washington give orders to remove the Tabonga from the graveyard and do science on it to find out whether or not radiation has done odd and unprecedented things to the island's plant life or if it's a blood curse. Meanwhile, the two treacherous islanders discuss turning the Tabonga into their slave with some potion or other, and discuss the necessity of killing Kimo's treacherous widow Korey at full volume when she's nearby. Korey warns the Americans and Norgu that the chief and shaman are planning to kill them all to death; she confesses her complicity in Kimo's death and begs for protection from the Americans. The protagonists accumulate a few more Polynesians in their headquarters and set off to chop down the Tabonga later that night.

The Tabonga has now grown to be about eight feet tall; it's a humanoid figure with clearly developed limbs and a crown of roots on top of its head. And honestly I should probably take back some of what I said against Blaisdell's design; when it's inert the Tabonga actually looks rather cool. We're also 42 minutes into a 70 minute feature without the monster doing a goddamned thing, so I'm plenty hostile for other reasons.

With the Tabonga on a lab table at the science house, everyone becomes surprised that by chopping it down and carrying it away from its roots, the creature's heartbeat is weakening and slowing. I cannot believe three people with doctorates didn't know chopping down a tree would kill the tree. Actually, in this movie I can. Dr. Mason has a previously unmentioned radiation-poisoning cure that she injects into the Tabonga; the monster doesn't die but doesn't get any better at first; the scientists all decide this is a great time to get some sleep and leave without posting a guard on the creature--one more decision in the movie that the audience is supposed to shrug and say "sounds legit" rather than notice.

So of course the next morning the lab is a shambles and the Tabonga is gone. With about twenty minutes to go we finally get a monster in the monster movie. Well, first we need a lengthy conversation about how the miracle plant growth serum couldn't have worked and the natives just stole the dead monster back and wrecked the lab out of pique. This also makes the second movie in six days that's from 1957 and features a monster-broken radio. Oh, and as a further delaying tactic:  A catfight between Korey and the new chieftain's new squeeze, though the Tabonga does show up and abduct Korey in the classic Monster Carry pose. And the poor guy stuck in the Groot suit can barely shuffle in it--probably a combination of the suit's stiffness to make it look like wood and the near-certainty that Chester Hayes can't see a goddamned thing in there.

The Tabonga unceremoniously drops Korey into a pit of quicksand and the actress has to scoot backwards into a spot where it's deep enough to "drown" in a bit of staging just as well-considered as the acting and script. The other woman escapes and tells the chieftain that she saw the Tabonga; he wants to know how she can be sure it was a tree monster and not some other kind of thing. The shaman shows up and gets the bad news, and he asks if she's sure it was a Tabonga as well. Are there other, benevolent tree monsters that show up from time to time on this island? The shaman and the chieftain's girlfriend go to the cemetery and yes, they have no Tabonga. Then the pair goes out looking for the thing, which I wouldn't want to do if I was one of the people who had been cursed by a man who was planning to come back as a vengeance monster.

The Tabonga somehow manages to sneak up on the new chieftain, who misses from about three feet away when he throws a spear at the monster. He gets killed when the creature grabs him around the midsection and gently wobbles him back and forth, so the movie can't even get its monster kills right. When the shaman goes back to the village a crowd of natives tell him there's a position available for tribal chief and that he's now on Tabonga-killing detail. He tells them it's everybody's problem and that they're all on weed killing duty.

Back at the Americans' house, Orchid tells the scientists that the monster didn't die. Dr. Mason is thrilled that her formula worked until she finds out about the murders, and that puts a damper on things. The scientists decide that they have to destroy the vengeance monster themselves even though the shaman is planning to kill them all; for his part, the magician is laying a trap for the Tabonga (and fair enough, he puts himself at considerable risk by acting as live monster bait--but it's also his fault that he's in danger in the first place).

The monster strolls into the only "pit covered with leaves" trap I think I've ever seen in a live-action film and the villagers drop a bunch of torches into it (there's already a bunch of brush and firewood at the bottom of the trap) and they wander off without checking to see if the plan worked--everyone in the movie, islander or American, seems to be really casual about keeping tabs on the monster. Two natives see the monster while they're out walking around and run to the American encampment to try and get help--and this is where the actor who looks like a Polynesian Shemp Howard says that line I remember from when I was thirty years younger--"We burned Tabonga with a mighty fire, but it didn't help". No, I don't imagine it did.

Oh, great, Mrs. Kilgore is back in the movie. That's what I wanted in the third act. Eddie the military man distributes guns to everyone and they go out in search of the Tabonga--which is chasing the treacherous shaman down at this very moment. The shaman trips over a log and falls down, which is the only way that monster could ever catch up to someone on foot. Then, as it bends down to kill him, the movie has to cut away because the suit isn't flexible enough for him to reach far enough to actually get the shaman and monster suit in frame at the same time.

Dr. Mason stops to check her shoe, because it's a monster movie and women's shoes are a contributing factor to 80 percent of monster attacks where women are the primary victim. She takes forever at it, letting the rest of the group outpace her so that when an eight foot tall tree monster sneaks up on her ( can it keep doing that?) she gets grabbed and the others have to run back and protect her. The intrepid band of total dipshits retrace their steps and find Mason's shoe (SEE WHAT I MEAN?), then track the Tabonga down. The plan is to have Eddie shoot the knife that's still embedded in the monster's chest so it'll go into the Tabonga's heart and kill it. This is a good plan, except for the part where the creature is facing the wrong way and carrying Dr. Mason to the quicksand pit. The Americans shoot the monster in the back of the head until they piss it off enough to turn around, and Bill's the one who makes the bull's-eye shot on the dagger hilt. The monster falls down instantly and lands in the quicksand pit, sinking out of sight.

And everything wraps up at turbo speed; Bill and Dr. Mason embrace, so they're going to get married after all. The anthropologist gets a job offer from natives who say American medicine is better than their old witch-doctor medicine to be the new shaman. And Mrs. Kilgore decides to mack on one of the two other white males in the cast--hey, this one's got a doctorate and he's going to be teaching American medicine to the tribe now. Really, at this point any ending is a good ending.

Thirty years. It took me thirty years to get around to seeing this movie. And honestly, I could have gone another thirty and not missed a single thing. Clunky, slow, boring, badly paced, horribly edited and frequently nonsensical. Man, did they ever get a lot wrong while making this one. It's amazing to watch the Corman film filed under "A" for this year's HubrisWeen and see how two monster movies made the same year can be so very, very different. I think it all comes down to the fact that filmmaking is a craft as well as an art, and the technicians in charge of things like editing and monster suit construction need to be given enough time and money to get their jobs done (oh, and also they have to be competent at those jobs...). Corman, for all his assembly-line techniques and legendarily tight grip on the purse strings, still understood what his audience wanted out of a monster flick and gave it to them. I don't think anyone wanted the ingredients in this one, and certainly not combined the way they were.

So:  My now informed view of From Hell It Came. It's not very good. At all. Whatsoever. Everyone involved in making the movie should be ashamed, other than the stuntman in the Tabonga suit because nobody could have made that thing look even halfway decent.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster

Yes, I Know:  Feast

It's not part of the HubrisWeen marathon, but Brother Ragnarok of Cinemasochist Apocalypse also took a look at this one a while ago. He found it just as stupid as I did, but significantly more enjoyable.

1 comment:

  1. "From Hell It Came, And Then I Guess It Went To Hawaii"


    That is all.