Monster from Green Hell (1958)

This is the age of the rocket. The jet. Atomic power. When man prepares for the stars.

It starts out like a comic book from the 1950s. It could be "Astounding Science Fiction Tales" or something. With a bright cover featuring the handsome hero in the foreground facing a lurid creature looming menacingly and filling the background. One can even imagine the first page (and that nostalgic whiff of newsprint that comics once had) and its splash panel of the laboratory and the two scientists, the introduction carefully confined to a block along the side.

But before he dares to launch himself into space there is one question to be answered. What happens to life in the airless void above the earth's atmosphere?

Hard to believe such things were once plausible and genuine question, however fanciful the speculations of the dog-eared dime novels, pulp magazines, and the movies. It is also a simple premise. Pure like the four colored monthlies of the age. Even the early shots of the lab are filmed like they were lifted from the page, wide shots so the reader (viewer) can see the whole lab of fantastic scientific instruments. Laid out more like a set from the stage where the audience needs to see everything. Things like the computer that allows data input via microphone. Which, following the requisite clicks and pops, gives the inquisitive scientist an answer through an earpiece.

An intro and premise that are summed up with what would almost certainly be lettered in bold and exclamation-marked for further emphasis:

Will life remain untouched, unharmed by its flight through space? Or will it change into...what? There's only one way to find out and we were working on it.

If the movie maintained that, it would've been far better. In the end, it simply doesn't live up to its (admittedly good) title. Of course there is still the nostalgia one can find for an old monster movie. Given that state of mind and a sense of humor, one could do worse.

Above the atmosphere, the 'yonder' is not blue, its black.

Part of the cycle of films that involved radiation and giant creatures, Monster from Green Hell adds wasps to the list. In this case, the radiation comes in the form of cosmic rays bombarding 'guinea pigs' (monkeys, wasps, guinea pigs, crab spiders) when a rocket gets out of control. Rather than 40 seconds exposure in space, they creatures get 40 hours. Then it crashes in Africa.

Then it's a cut to six months later and what is partially stock footage of "natives" dressed up like an old library copy of National Geographic. One learns of a part of the jungle called "Green Hell." It is a place that all the animals shun: birds, monkeys, elephants. The natives think there is great evil there—men have been found with massive doses of paralytic venom (venom that could not have come from a snake). The natives are told they are superstitious, though they point out that the animals are not and they are scared of the place. The missionary doctor concedes that it could be something genuine, "but of nature, not evil spirits."

The monster shows up fairly early (a bit over eight minutes in). Yeah, it looks fake, and the "wasp" is later shown to have grasping pincers in order to lift men up to be killed. It also has that problem that many movie monsters have: its size is dependent on the shot. When it peeks over a hill in the far background (while frightened native flee before it) it's huge—it has to be, given the size on the screen. Yet it must be much smaller when it's shown killing people up close.

Reading reports of disturbances ("trouble in the interior") in Africa and seeing how the crab offspring has grown twice the size of its parents (after only the 40 seconds of exposure), the intrepid scientists embark for the Dark Continent (Africa still being great fodder for exotic locations for exotic stories). They prepare for the "safari" by bringing the usual supplies: brass wires and mirrors (for the ignorant natives who are oh so impressed by shiny objects) and "the army's newest development." Apparently the great scientists had never seen a hand grenade before. They assemble their band of porters, led and the "Arab" (actually an Italian actor who wisely avoided American movies most for of his career) Mahri who is the "best guide in Africa"—apparently because he carries a whip.

Then something odd happens. It becomes another movie. Perhaps an issue of "Amazing Jungle Tales" or something.

I found out soon enough that being on safari meant putting one foot in front of the other and repeating the process.

The actual aim of the safari is pretty much forgotten for about 15 minutes (film time). Instead, there is a jungle movie, complete with shots of walking over the savannahs, lion prides, almost dying of thirst (and then being stuck in torrential downpour). There's an attack by hostile natives (there always is). But what shots! One man, atop a hill, fires an arrow over 100 yards and hits a man in the back—the arrow entering parallel to the ground! (There is a remarkable number of extras during the chase scene. Well over 100 involved. The reason how they could "afford" them is hinted at below.) The party escapes by setting the grass of the plains on fire.

Finally arriving at the missionary outpost, someone remembers that this is a monster movie.

Until now, the monster's remained in Green Hell. It's easy to run away from a small section of Africa. But if the monsters breed and multiply—and all living things do—and if soon there is not enough prey for them in Green Hell, shall we leave all of Africa for them?

The time to face the monster is near. The missionary is found dead and judging by the size of the stinger found at the scene, the creature must be huge. The original porters all run off, but the daughter of the missionary (Lorna; apparently in charge, being a white Christian and all) (yeah: she is the token female that even a mostly male movie requires) volunteers men from the village.

Even they are frightened off and it's just the two scientists, Mahri, Arobi (the brave, intelligent, loyal native—there's usually one), and Lorna. They come upon a village that was attacked and find giant wasp-prints ("Typical wasp markings. But the size of them is incredible.").

An erupting volcano greets them as they enter the forbidden "Green Hell!" (big, bold letters, a loud exclamation mark, and the desire to turn the page). One almost expects a panel showing the defiantly heroic scientist pledging that they must destroy the colony and its queen! But that just doesn't happen. There is some nice Ray Harryhausen-type stop action animation of a fight between a wasp and a giant snake (though the lighting is so dark, it's hard to see—perhaps a flawed print or, more likely, something that could kindly/euphemistically be called 'convenient expressionism'...monster noir?).

it turns out the wasps—like so many monsters before and since—are averse to fire. Unlike the introduction (and later reintroduction) of the grenades this is not foreshadowing. It does not figure in during the rest of the movie (also unlike the grenades). And when they finally use "the army's newest development," there's plenty of flash, bang, and pop (you see, they have this special explosive called "malignite"). But these wasps are a hardy bunch of giant insects.

In the end, Green Hell takes care of itself. "Nature has a way of correcting its own mistakes." The world is safe again.

This film has been brought to you by...

A roundup of the guilty. Director Kenneth G. Crane only directed a few films and is possibly "notable" more for his part in the productions of Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman (1957) and The Manster (1960). The former was a Japanese monster film that had about 30 minutes gutted from it and new dialogue and scenes written (to accommodate "familiar" actors—the way Raymond Burr made it into a Godzilla movie). Crane did that American stuff. The latter was a Japanese co-production (he shared directing responsibilities with George P. Breakston) that has become a bit of a cult film. He edited more films than he directed and shone just as brightly. The two writers, Endre Bohem and Louis Vittes, mostly worked in genre films (mainly westerns) and television. Vittes did crank out the screenplay to the underrated I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958).

Jim Davis (no, not the Garfield the cat creator), who played the heroic scientist, had a long career, mostly in westerns and television (he played John Ross 'Jock' Ewing on the prime-time serial "Dallas" from 1978 to 1981). He had roles in the John Wayne films El Dorado (1967), Rio Lobo (1970), and Big Jake (1971). He was also in the 1971 monster schlock movie Dracula vs. Frankenstein. His partner, played by Robert E. Griffin, also had a long (somewhat more diverse) career. Besides westerns (including the 1958 cult film The Left Handed Gun and the equally cult Rancho Notorious from 1952) he was also in other horror films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and gangster/crime films.

Barbara Turner (Lorna) has a rather short filmography as an actress and is probably best known as the mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh (you can see the resemblance). She was also one of the people who wrote the screenplay for Pollock (2000)—which reasonably redeems her.

Bottom line

Two of the problems for the film are the sudden amnesia that occurs partway through (one can have a mixture of jungle and monster but it simply doesn't work here) and the pacing. For a movie that is only 71 minutes long, there are stretches where the audience is left thumbtwiddling while waiting for something to happen. Much of this is taken up of shots of the party moving through the jungle—much like the cowboy movies of the 1930s that, despite being just over an hour, padded about five minutes of running time with shots of men riding horses from one side of the frame to the other.

That said, there is some outdoor footage that doesn't appear to be stock (parts were lifted from the 1939 film Stanley and Livingstone, so take some of the "accomplishments" of the production with a grain of salt) and isn't filmed in front of a screen (several scenes do appear to use that technique). It's a shame little more was done with it. Any of it.

The effects are crude but pretty much on par with most monster movies of the time. Look for the torch catching part of the "stone" wall (set) on fire during the cavern scene. The whole concept evoked by the phrase "Green Hell" should have inspired a much better movie. (One might argue the title at least formed the vague basis for a classic Misfits song of the same name. Or not, depending on one's tolerance for the Misfits.)

So yeah, it's not a very good movie. Not even a very good B movie. On the other hand, I do love these things and it's more fun and entertaining to sit through some of these old flicks than 90% of contemporary Hollywood Product™ (they are also a lot shorter). There's a simple—admittedly somewhat guilty—pleasure in an old monster flick. Some are good "bad" movies. Some actually transcend the generic expectations and limitations. This one does neither. But it's not a terrible or wholly unamusing little film. Like the comic books it nearly resembles, not an unpleasant way to while away a lazy afternoon. And that's what these movies were intended for.

(Sources: personal copy of DVD triple feature also including Rocketship X-M and Devil Girl from Mars, facts checked and further research done at www.imdb.com)

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