Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fantastic nature cinematography, appalling narration script.
Television advertisements for 1971's The Hellstrom Chronicle promised an apocalyptic struggle between man and insect for possession of the Earth. But audiences primed for a science fiction thriller encountered a pseudo-documentary about the "menace" of insect life, delivered in a hysterical tone normally reserved for political propaganda. The first scene introduces us to Nils Hellstrom, a scientist who claims to be on a mission to spread the truth about the biggest threat to human life: the bugs under our feet. Only at the end of the show are we told that Nils Hellstrom is a fictional character played by an actor, Lawrence Pressman. The Hellstrom Chronicle has some very good qualities, but its value as a documentary is almost nil. Its closest cinematic relatives are actually exploitation films: the Italian Mondo movies with their freakish content pawned off as evidence of a depraved world; and ersatz porn "documentaries" that seek to legitimize X-rated adult content with fraudulent socially redeeming content. The show isn't pornographic, but its warning about an ecological crisis threatening mankind is bogus in the extreme.
The Hellstrom Chronicle has top-level docu credentials. It was put together under the aegis of The Wolper Company, a prime maker of quality documentary programming in the 1960s. Several key personnel, including credited producer-director Walon Green, had years of experience in the David L. Wolper organization. The movie uses excellent footage of insect life, much of it filmed in macro- close-up; after forty years of advances in nature cinematography the footage remains impressive. In 1971 it was a revelation on the big screen. Also adding to the film's positive impression is an excellent audio track. Top musical talent Lalo Schifrin composed the engaging score, which varies between ominous tones to back "Hellstrom's" dire predictions and lively tunes to accompany the more positive nature footage. The creative sound effects may not always be authentic, but they're consistently engaging.
Nature films have advanced by leaps and bounds since the days of Walt Disney's "True Life" attractions, which are so unscientific that they're rarely screened these days. Disney's cameramen caught beautiful images of animals in the desert or in the frozen north, but they also faked much footage. The voiceover scripts stress anthropomorphic qualities to make the animals more attractive to children. We're told that the widely believed myth that lemmings commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs was actually an invention for a Disney True Life nature film.
The Hellstrom Chronicle is far more irresponsible. Nils Hellstrom introduces himself as a scientist-prophet drummed out of academia for his "heretical" beliefs. Thus the impression is given that scientific institutions are complacent and cannot be trusted. Hellstrom tells us right off the top that mankind is doomed, alludes to an insect threat and touches tangentially on the subject of radioactivity. For a moment we think we're listening to an incoherent re-cap of an argument from the science fiction thriller Them! Hellstrom then refers to his vague assertions as "evidence", and we're off down the slippery slope to the realm of the pseudo-documentary.
The film sports excellent film coverage of all kinds of insects doing what bugs do: being born, molting, eating and procreating. We're treated to gruesome macro- views of these creatures catching, crushing and devouring one another -- those incredible fangs, pincers and hinged mouthpieces are fascinating to see in action. We see beautiful time-lapse shots of eggs developing into larvae and caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies. Excellent coverage chronicles the workings of beehives, termite nests and various kinds of ants, including African "driver ants" that devour everything in their path. The Hellstrom Chronicle contains 90 minutes of breathtakingly interesting, diverse nature film.
The script appears cobbled together to keep the viewer in a state of perpetual unease. Hellstrom's one thesis is that man is destroying his environment, and that insects will inherit the earth by virtue of their adaptability. The invertebrates can adjust to almost anything, just as they develop immunities to DDT. But he doesn't get very deep into that or any other issue. Hellstrom instead dances around the question, raising tendentious questions and offering more unproven assertions. Ordinary insect behavior is characterized as a conspiracy of evil. Bugs are scorned for having no souls. His credibility factor is on a par with that of the fictional character Lawrence Woolsey, the monster-movie huckster from the hilarious comedy Matinee: his every statement is overdramatized and unsubstantiated. Hellstrom mentions evolution at one point but also refers poetically to the world being created in seven days, and asks if man or the insect will be the final recipient of God's grace.
Some of writer David Seltzer's narration sounds like Cold War anti-communist propaganda adapted to fit random nature footage. A montage of flying scenes is presented as if insect flight were a sinister battle strategy. Swarming insects are labeled a disease plague. Insect-eating plants are working a "revenge". Loaded words proliferate: "treachery", "instinct of greed". I didn't know that greed was an instinct. The script reaches for whatever clichés seem to fit. Termites are criticized as robotic and socialist while bees are considered benign because they pollinate plants. Science and nature are unemotional and therefore horrible.
We see clips from Them! and The Naked Jungle simply to illustrate how most people find insects "icky". These are followed by faked candid camera shots in which people pretend to be shocked by seeing insects on their food or clothing. Romantic scenes from the Wolper film If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium are part of a spurious comparison of insect and human reproduction: bugs copulate in mid-air and humans go to the drive-in. Nils Hellstrom delivers his morbid pronouncements as if he's secretly happy that we're all going to be devoured by six-legged creepy crawlies.
In The Hellstrom Chronicle's silliest episode scenes of a Black Widow spider eating its mate are accompanied by Motown fuzz guitar licks and a narration characterizing the female spider as a temptress, a sex bomb. The most unscientific passage claims that insect reproduction is so rapid that the bugs could eat all the crops in the world as well as all the plant life, killing off whole species and making man extinct. Anyone familiar with nature's checks and balances knows that this is nonsense. The show ends with dramatic footage of the horde of army ants eating lizards and insects, animals likely thrown to their doom for the sake of a good shot. Hellstrom offers a few non-sequiturs about dinosaurs and extinction. One creature consumed by the ants is a large scorpion, which immediately reminds us of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Producer-director Walon Green was a writer on that picture, a connection that adds to the general atmosphere of cynicism.
David L. Wolper was a creative and prolific producer, and The Hellstrom Chronicle would appear to have been the result of an edict to make profitable use of a mountain of unexploited nature footage. In that case the film is a real over-achiever, for it won the 1972 Oscar for Best Documentary. Unbelievably, writer David Seltzer earned a Writers Guild of America nomination for his screenplay. A notable exercise in hype and hysteria, Hellstrom is really a precursor to a glut of popular pseudo-documentaries. A film adaptation of Erich Von Daniken's book Erinnerungen and die Zunkunft became a runaway hit in the United States under the title Chariots of the Gods. Despite various debunkings, most notably by TV's science series Nova, the film's assertions that alien visitations founded or influenced ancient cultures is now widely believed. A company called Sunn Classic Pictures hit pay dirt by switching from Bible movies and Grizzly Adams shows to Hangar 18, one of the first films to exploit the flying saucer / Roswell / Area 51 myths. Today, of course, outright distortions of science and history so permeate TV, the Internet and other media that a credulous public now exists for whatever hokum is being hawked. The Hellstrom Chronicle is part of that unhappy legacy.
Olive Films offers this show on both DVD and Blu-ray. Their DVD of The Hellstrom Chronicle is a fine encoding of film material that almost looks too good to have originally been 16mm, the standard camera format for docu and nature work back in 1971. Although the film credits list a number of cameramen, the variety and quality of film is so varied that it is more likely that the footage was sourced from other productions and stock libraries licensed by Wolper. The editing is expert and all the technical details are polished. Although screened in 1971 in grainy widescreen, matting the picture off to 1:66 or 1:85, the disc's full frame presentation is the best way to present the show. The images are sharp and obviously composed for the squarish screen shape.
The Hellstrom Chronicle is a great resource for fine insect footage. 1 But beware the bogus script and the dishonest, fake "real scientist" in this bogus documentary.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hellstrom Chronicle rates:
Movie: Good for visuals and music Poor in terms of honesty and credibility
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 31, 2011
1. Welcome input from correspondent Allan MacInnis, 1.17.12:
Glenn: Ooh, you need to know about Ken Middleham. He was a microphotographer responsible for some of the most amazing insect photography in cinema during his time - including the cockroaches in the William Castle production Bug, the ants in Saul Bass' (astonishing, under-appreciated) Phase IV, and even some of the photography in Days of Heaven (though IMDB credits him with "time lapse" photography on that one; you'd figure he shot the locusts, but...: ).
There's an excellent two part documentary of him on Youtube, "Filming the Invisible," part one of which is here. Seeing films Middleham worked on as a group, there's a unique quality to his work that makes it stand out, and it's often the best thing about the films it appears in - certainly so with The Hellstrom Chronicle! -- Allan MacInnis
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson
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