Monster from Green Hell (1956/1958?) -**
You’ve probably never heard of independent producer Al Zimbalist by name. I hadn’t, either. But my God— what a resumé that man has! Cat-Women of the Moon. King Dinosaur. Valley of the Dragons. And, of course, Monster from Green Hell. These are not merely dreadful movies we’re talking about here. Zimbalist’s productions were iconically dreadful, films with which the most hardened fans of 50’s crap celluloid might test the limits of their endurance, while weaker viewers curl up whimpering in the fetal position in the corner. Monster from Green Hell earns distinction even in Zimbalist’s filmography, however, for it appears that even the undiscriminating movie distributors of the 1950’s were none too impressed with it; although the copyright date in the opening credits plainly reads 1956, every print or online source I’ve consulted gives the actual date of release as either 1957 or 1958, with the Internet Movie Database claiming that the film sat on the shelf until the very end of the latter year. That will not surprise anyone who has ever inflicted Monster from Green Hell upon themselves. Start by imagining the most pointless and enervating jungle safari flick you can. Then picture an atomic bug movie that would make you pray for the “big damn spider for no reason” portion of Killers from Space. Now envision the two spliced together by a human vegetable who happened to be talking on his cell phone at the time. That, approximately, is Monster from Green Hell.
At least this time around, the bug-embiggening radiation doesn’t come from an H-bomb test-firing, so one might plausibly claim that there’s a tiny bit of originality on display here. Instead, the culprit is cosmic rays, to which a bunch of wasps are exposed as part of an experiment by unconvincing rocket scientists Quent Brady (Jim Davis, from Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Dracula vs. Frankenstein) and Dan Morgan (I Was a Teenage Werewolf’s Robert Griffin). Actually, wasps aren’t the only things the two whitecoats have been launching into space in an effort to determine the effects of cosmic rays upon living organisms. There are the usual guinea pigs, of course, but also a veritable Noah’s ark of lizards, spider crabs, and whatnot— you have to wonder just what in the hell Brady and Morgan hope to learn from this ill-conceived venture. The wasps simply happen to be the living payload aboard the one rocket that doesn’t come down according to plan. Rather than returning to Earth at the appointed site after a 40-second sojourn in the uppermost atmosphere, the wasp rocket veers wildly off course and eventually crash-lands in what we might call the Armpit of Africa after some 40 days of transatmospheric exposure.
Several months go by, and we are introduced to physician Dr. Lorentz (Vladimir Sokoloff, of Mr. Sardonicus and Beyond the Time Barrier), who is hoping to use his professional skills to improve the lives of a tribe of African rainforest-dwellers. Four of the natives bring to his clinic hut a stretcher bearing the body of a fifth man— the blood-brother of Arobi (White Pongo’s Joel Fluellin), the doctor’s interpreter and all-around right-hand man. Arobi, who is among the stretcher-bearers, explains that the dead man was attacked in a reputedly haunted stretch of jungle which his people call “Green Hell;” neither he nor any of his companions will admit to having seen who or what was responsible. Lorentz regards the men’s attitudes to be a manifestation of the old superstitions he had come to Africa at least partly to combat, but there are two points which not even the most paternalistic colonial do-gooder would be able to refute. First of all, an autopsy reveals that the dead man’s body is loaded with venom that Lorentz cannot identify with any known species of snake— and in any case, surely no snake could deliver so much poison in a single strike. Secondly, recent months have seen a steady exodus of animals of all species from the depths of Green Hell, and as Arobi so eloquently puts it, monkeys and elephants are not normally frightened by superstition. Huge freaking bugs are another story, though, and when swarms of huge freaking bugs begin fanning out from Green Hell into the surrounding countryside, it isn’t just the monkeys and the elephants that flee from them at maximum velocity.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Dr. Brady has noticed an article in the newspaper reporting turmoil in Africa. And while that in and of itself hardly seems like news, the details of the story suggest to him that something far out of the ordinary is going on over there. Most notably, there are reports of monsters in the jungle circulating amid the expected tales of crop failures and mass migrations and uprisings against colonial authority. Remembering that Morgan’s computer anticipated the errant rocket to come down somewhere on the other side of the globe, Brady has a hunch that those so-called monsters might be his missing, irradiated wasps. After all, if a 40-second dose of cosmic rays can cause size-doubling mutations in spider crabs, imagine what might come of the wasps’ exposure to 86,400 times that level of radiation. The two scientists hop a plane for Africa at the earliest opportunity, where they are then forced to sit on their hands for weeks while the lackadaisical colonial governor lackadaisically puts together a safari crew to take them to Dr. Lorentz’s place on the verge of Green Hell.
Lorentz himself has not been so idle. He wants to get to the bottom of the mystery of Green Hell, and Arobi’s tribesmen evidently have a great deal more trust in and respect for him than the governor receives from their counterparts in the capital. Lorentz’s safari gets underway in a matter of days, but the venture ends badly indeed. Brady’s wasps descend upon the doctor’s small party, leaving only Arobi alive. The situation is thus rather drastically different from what Brady and Morgan expect when they, their Arab guide Mahri (Eduardo Cianella, from Love Slaves of the Amazons and The Creeper), and the usual army of black extras balancing awkwardly enormous bundles on their heads reach the clinic nearly a month later. (Incidentally, those bearers and the authentically African grasslands they traverse come courtesy of 1939’s Stanley and Livingstone, a movie that could afford to leave the Hollywood hinterland and field more than four extras per scene. Said movie is also the source of the fairly impressive battle footage that erupts when Brady and Morgan have their party ambushed in the hills by warriors from a hostile tribe.) With Lorentz dead, the clinic is under the dual command of Arobi and Lorna (Barbara Turner), the doctor’s eighteen-ish daughter. Lorna, as it happens, is not merely the convenient ornamental love interest for Dr. Brady. She also serves to get the plot rolling again (and it’s about fucking time, too) by shaming the tribesmen into organizing another foray into wasp country— Arobi himself might not have the pull to motivate what sounds an awful lot like a suicide mission, but none of his men wants to admit to being less courageous than a teenage girl. And make no mistake, even the formerly skeptical Dr. Morgan is onboard with the giant wasp theory by this point; Arobi retrieved the tip of one of the monsters’ stingers from Lorentz’s body, and microscopic examination quickly confirms its origin. Brady, of course, has expected from the beginning to have to fight a nest of monstrous bugs, so he’s brought along a whole crateful of lignite hand grenades, which he figures ought to be sufficient to the task. I, on the other hand, am thinking that stock-footage volcano we briefly saw during Lorentz’s doomed Green Hell safari says otherwise. After all, what self-respecting two-bit monster flick trains its cameras (or some other, better-funded movie’s cameras, as the case may be) on a volcano unless said mountain is going to blow its stack during the final reel, and what the hell would we need with a volcanic eruption if the wasps were vulnerable to lignite grenades?
Christ— is this fucking movie over yet? You might think it impossible to make a mostly boring film about giant, radioactive wasps, especially when the giant, radioactive wasps look like the ones in Monster from Green Hell. These are some of the most comprehensively failed atomic bugs in the business, making even Roger Corman’s notorious Crab Monsters look good by comparison. The stop-motion models used for those scenes in which we get to see a wasp’s entire body are reasonably detailed and fairly well animated, but the fact is that they look nothing on Earth like wasps. Their heads are more beetle-like than anything else, their body proportions are those of a warrior termite, and their wings are freakishly tiny— their area is noticeably less than that of the wasps’ eyes! There are also some fiberglass puppets for shots requiring the monsters to be seen touching their victims, and those are less convincing still. Finally, there are the matte effects, which in addition to being consistently hamstrung by technical flubs (our climactic look at what I take to be the queen wasp equals the very worst Gargon effects in Teenagers from Outer Space), collectively make it absolutely impossible to get a fix on the monsters’ size. The stop-motion wasp that battles the stop-motion snake (in a surprisingly well-done scene that sadly suffers from having nothing whatsoever to do with anything) looks like it’s probably supposed to be about nine or ten feet long, but most of the others appear to be somewhere between the size of a King Tiger and that of a railway car— and one shot depicts a wasp actually looming up over the goddamned horizon! Another thing which would seem to militate against any possibility of boredom in Monster from Green Hell is the man in the director’s chair: Kenneth G. Crane, who did such entertainingly weird work on The Manster. And finally, I was honestly pretty damned excited to see Joel Fluellin (a much better actor than you’d ever guess on the basis of a glance at his resumé) cast in a part that might as well have been written as a direct refutation of the role he played in White Pongo. How often do you get to see a 1950’s jungle movie in which the featured black character is portrayed as competent, courageous, intelligent, and above all serious? But even with all that in its favor (assuming, of course, that you consider things like outrageously shitty monster effects as a point in a movie’s favor), Monster from Green Hell still manages to be boring more often than not. There’s just too much stock footage, too much trekking across the savanna when what we want to see is a couple of square-jawed scientists chucking hand grenades at crummy plastic wasps. The movie isn’t but 71 minutes long, but there’s a stretch of 42 minutes smack in the middle during which not a single monster ever appears. I’m sorry, but that is simply not the way you do these things.