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By 1957 America's film screens were overrun with "monster movies", oddball hybrids of old-fashioned horror, pseudo- science fiction and whatever fantasy elements could be imagined. One of Forrest Ackerman's Famous Monsters articles did little more than list what seemed to be enough 1957 monster titles to stock a kiddie matinee every week of the year. By this time even the majors were interested in monsters. They'd more or less left the "degrading" juvenile delinquency genre to the indies and fly-by-nights, but occasionally sent out their own drive-in double bills by paying for overachieving independents like The Blob or Fiend without a Face.
Pro editor Dan Milner (Hitler's Madmen, The Naked Dawn) was one of the first producer-directors of micro-budgeted 50s fare. He and his brother Jack were in on the beginning of American-International Pictures with the much younger and more ambitious Roger Corman. Their 1955 Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is a guaranteed snooze-fest that nevertheless must have served as a primer for dozens of would-be directors; it proved how little production value had to be on the screen to get a national release.
Released by Allied Artists, 1957's From Hell It Came is a competently directed but absolutely hilarious horror romp known as one of the silliest of 50s monster movies. On the scale of ludicrous-ity it ranks somewhere near the Great Works of Ed Wood. It's more polished than any of the Woodster's woeful efforts, yet is more endearing than the painfully inept studio dog The Giant Claw. Milner's picture gets an "A" for honesty, as anyone seeing the poster (below) should know exactly what they're getting themselves into.
Richard Bernstein's story and script are basic jungle nonsense of the type we'd suffered through in pictures like Voodoo Woman and Bride and the Beast. A pair of doctors (Tod Andrews & John McNamara) associated with the Atomic Energy Commission sits around their remote island lab drinking while explaining a thousand points of plot exposition. They came to measure residual radiation effects but are instead trying to stop an outbreak of the plague. Only one "native" appears to be sick, and she just has facial scars. The South Seas natives -- all straight from Hollywood Central Casting -- witness the execution of Kimo (Gregg Palmer) by evil usurpers who are using a hate campaign against the Americans to seize power. The Yankees' beautiful servant Orchid (Grace Matthews) has been expelled from the tribe because of her mixed heritage.
The "natives" are jaw-droppingly idiotic. All speak in fractured English, and move about as if in a 1905 stage production. The Hula dancers that entertain at Kimo's execution were probably rented for the day from the nearest restaurant floor show. Heavy breathing Korey (Suzanne Ridgeway) and "exotic" Naomi (Tani Marsh) vie for the attentions of the new bad-guy chieftain. Ms. Ridgeway looks really great, considering that she'd been doing walk-on bits for twenty years. Her performance is a glaring mess of arch body language -- she tends to underline statements by jutting her shoulders or throwing her chest out. You just have to love these committed actors, giving their all at the very bottom of the Hollywood barrel.
Just before the ceremonial dagger is hammered through his heart, Kimo lays a curse on the rats who betrayed him, swearing to come back from Hell as a murderous spirit called a Tabonga. The researchers welcome shapely Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver), who fends off romantic overtures while preparing to cure plague side effects with her experimental anti-radiation drugs. It's an odd insight into the use of South Seas natives as de facto guinea pigs for atomic testing; that and the overt "American ways are best" theme are all over From Hell It Came's cornball-coherent script.
We have to wait almost thirty minutes into this seventy-minute picture for something to happen; 'til then it's lame exposition, entrances and exits, a shower scene, and far too much pathetic comedy relief provided by the man-hungry Australian widow, Mrs. Kilgore (Linda Watkins). Just about the time we've had enough of Mrs. Kilgore's awful accent, a tree stump begins rising from Kimo's grave. The Tabonga grows from something to trip over to eight feet overnight; it looks like one of the talking Apple Trees from The Wizard of Oz, the ones that resent having their fruit picked. Although it has a face like a cartoon demon, the scientists don't seem very impressed. It also has a "human" heartbeat. They take it back to the lab, barely noting that it has a dagger protruding from its trunk, just like poor old Kimo.
This leaves us with about fifteen minutes of primo monster hilarity, as the silly rubber tree stump ambles about chasing native girls into quicksand and killing off the bad chieftains by squeezing their ribs (not too much mobility in those rubber Tabonga arms, there). Of course, the Tabonga eventually gets around to menacing the good doctor Terry, who for no reason loiters beside the walking tree stump, waiting patiently to be grabbed from behind. "Gotcha!" The action all happens in very non-scary broad daylight; the monster's mouth flaps, just begging for joke dialogue lines to be dubbed in: "Whattaya think of them apples?" 1
From Hell It Came became an instant success when Allied Artists released a pack of monster pix to TV creature feature syndication in the early 1960s. We looked at the idiotic Tabonga in Famous Monsters photo layouts and knew that we'd be in for some fun: in the fourth grade, you take your thrills wherever one can. The newspaper TV logs weren't as generous. Here's what Steven H. Scheuer's 1962 TV Key Movie Guide had to say:
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of From Hell It Came was released back in April or May when the new service began; I'm only now getting to it because the film has become a favorite party picture and I've received a couple of review requests. Warners' enhanced B&W transfer of this amusing oddity is picture perfect, as if the movie hadn't been out of the can in fifty years. We can delight in the dry Southern California Chaparral appearance of the tropical setting, but I'm not familiar with the location ranch where it was filmed. A healthy-looking running stream is visible in some shots and a nice pond gives us a swimming hole for Korey to observe Naomi skinny-dipping. It's obviously not Griffith Park.
The audio track is very clear, highlighting a mix that puts the (stock library?) music front and center. The music editor could have used some help, however, as the "big sting" music effects tend to fall on portentous dialogue rather than just after, as is the custom. Property Master Teddy Mossman also worked on 1941 twenty years later. I made the mistake of asking him about this picture and Queen of Outer Space, and just got a dirty look. I think Teddy thought I'd been put up to the question by other crew members .... that Spielberg movie was not a happy set. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
From Hell It Came rates:
1. The venerable Classic Horror Film Board has always been a favorite destination for Savant, to learn the latest gossip in fantastic film fandom. One of their longest topic threads deals almost exclusively in a never-ending exchange of bad puns about From Hell It Came.
2. Back in the 1970s nobody who was doing well wanted to talk about their less prestigious early work. Mossman also worked on Man of the West. The one time I met producer Walter Mirisch, he caught me screening the Anthony Mann movie with his son in his living room. Mr. Mirisch was not in the least amused: the movie had been a flop and was therefore a forbidden subject. Now, of course, he's changed his mind -- he's been hearing more important people praise the western for several decades, and in his autobiography he's now proud of his early years at Monogram and Allied Artists.
3. Note from author Bill Warren, 11.09.09:
In your From Hell It Came comments, I was surprised you didn't mention that the Tabonga (a) was designed but not built by Paul Blaisdell, and (b) turned up in another movie, Arson for Hire. I've never seen that but friends tell me part of it is set on a studio lot, and at one point, people pass by a box containing the forever-scowling Tabonga. A few years ago I was on a board with a Milner relative; when I (rather frantically) asked him what happened to the costume, he said it was thrown out years ago. sic transit gloria mundi.
On the other hand, when he had an office at Warner Bros., Joe Dante liked to poke around in the prop warehouses. This was when WB shared the lot with Columbia. Joe found the biggest Giant Claw model hanging from the rafters. I asked why he didn't steal it; he said it was because it was too big to hide under his coat. Alas.
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