The 1971 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle, directed by Walon Green (who co-wrote The Wild Bunch with Sam Peckinpah) and Ed Spiegel, stars prolific television actor Lawrence Pressman as a fictitious entomologist named Dr. Nils Hellstrom who is basically a framing device to add context to a collection of incredibly riveting footage of the insect world. The premise, and it's not at all a farfetched one, is that insects have been around a lot longer than humans and that when the world as we know it comes to an end, they'll survive and we, as a race, will not. As Hellstrom's narration and onscreen appearances discuss, in some detail, the events that the insect world has survived it further makes his case and allows him to elaborate on his various theories and philosophies as to what the insects have done right and not so coincidentally where mankind has gone wrong.
All of this is fairly pretentious and not always particularly well acted. There are more than a few moments where Hellstrom comes off as a bit on the corny side (he opens the film by stating rather boldly that "The earth was created not with the gentle caress of love but with the brutal violence of rape."), as he strolls with mellow aplomb through a field or drives his car around or stands, poised in such a scientific pose, in front of a big telescope. He delivers his narration with a suitably stoic demeanor but comes across as a know it all - how much this will take away from the film for you, however, is going to depend on how much stock you put into this fictitious character in the first place. But wait... didn't this win an Oscar for Best Documentary?
Thankfully, in and amongst all the clips of Hellstrom doing his thing are some mind blowingly awesome clips of the insect world at its most primal. The clips in question generally back up Hellstrom's philosophizing and they go a long way towards making the movie work as well as it does. Yes, Hellstrom is a bit of a stuffed shirt, but when you watch the film and allow yourself to buy into it, the clips in question will get you thinking that, damn it, he's probably right. Before documentary series like Planet Earth and the various Discovery Channel programs were as common as they are now, The Hellstrom Chronicle brought us right into the insect world, showing us the mating habits of spiders, a vicious battle between some ants and much more. As we watch all of this play out, we're made aware of the savagery that exists and of how the insect world is driven only by the desire to survive. Feeling and emotions do not come into play, and that makes them superior to us in that while we occupy ourselves with matters or the heart, politics and war they're building their species and furthering their singular agenda.
Obviously who will eventually wind up at the top of the evolutionary ladder remains to be seen and the film is a bit dated, but overall it paints a pretty fascinating portrait of insect life. It brings us further into it than most films have before or since (think of it as a non-fiction companion piece to something like Phase IV). While the narration (written by David Selzter, best known for penning The Omen) can take away from the film a bit with its penchant for melodramatic doom and gloom, the amazing microphotography more than makes up for that and when it's all set to a rather involving score from the great Lalo Schifrin, you can't help but get sucked into the film or even get a little unnerved by it all.
The Hellstrom Chronicle arrives on DVD in a solid looking 1.33.1 fullframe transfer that doesn't appear to be cropped, indicating that this may be an open matte transfer. While the image is pretty decent, it doesn't look like the image was cleaned up as much as it could have been, so expect some minor print damage to accompany the expected amount of grain and some obvious color fading in a few scenes. Colors look nice and natural, however, and detail is pleasing for the most part. Black levels aren't reference quality but they're not bad and if a few scenes look a bit on the soft side, it's likely that this is a result of the original photography rather than a flaw in the transfer.
The only audio option for the movie is an English language Dolby Digital Mono mix with no alternate language or subtitle options provided. Clarity is fine, with the narration coming through nice and clearly and Lalo Schifrin's score resonating rather well. A few minor bits contain some brief hiss here and there but if you're not listening for it you probably won't notice it.
Aside from a static menu and chapter stops, this release is completely barebones, there isn't even a trailer here.
The Hellstrom Chronicle is as engrossing as it is completely bizarre and, at times, rather frightening. Part horror movie, part documentary, it's not a film for all tastes but for those with an interest in the subject matter, namely the savage side of the insect world, should consider it highly recommended. The DVD from Olive Films really should have included some extras (a commentary would have been most welcome) but the strength of the film itself makes this one well worth a look despite the barebones nature of the release.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.