You Axed for it, as Forry would say: the grade Z horror movie that launched a thousand bad puns is also an unbeatable party favorite. Idiotic island natives clash with condescending Anglo scientists, when a death curse initiates the hell- spawning of a horrifying, vengeance-seeking pagan demon-monster. Sounds great — but what we get is Tabonga, a walking rubber tree stump with knotholes for eyes and a permanent scowl on its teakwood face. The excellent, flawless scan allows us to appreciate the mighty Tabonga for what it is — absurd, lovable, awful.
From Hell it Came
Warner Archive Collection
1957 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 71 min. / Street Date April 25, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Tod Andrews, Tina Carver, Linda Watkins, John McNamara, Gregg Palmer, Suzanne Ridgeway.
Cinematography: Brydon Baker
Film Editor: Jack Milner
Original Music: Darrell Calker
Written by Richard Bernstein, Dan Milner
Produced by Jack Milner
Directed by Dan Milner
“You say Tomayto, I say Tomahto,
You say Tabonga, I say Baranga,
Tomayto! Tomahto! Tabonga! Baranga!
Let’s call the whole thing off!
— Old Arabian Proverb *
When the Warner Archive Collection announced this choice for its welcome one-per-week line of Blu-ray releases, a minor buzz went up on the web — why THIS movie instead of my favorite, _________ ? Well, the ignominious Allied Artists turnip horror / sci-fi opus From Hell it Came was probably one of the WAC’s most popular early DVD titles. And have you seen the 1,016 reader entries on the From Hell it Came ‘joke’ thread at the Classic Horror Film Board? The bad puns have been stacking up there for eleven years, like cordwood. Yes my friends, now the truth can be told: people like this movie.
In 1957 America’s film screens were overrun with ‘monster movies,’ oddball hybrids of whatever superstitious baloney or hokey pseudo-science could be tweaked to produce some ‘thing’ capable of carrying the buxom leading lady off in its arms. One of Forrest Ackerman’s earliest Famous Monsters articles did little more than list what seemed to be enough 1957 monster titles to stock a Saturday kiddie matinee for every week of the year. By this time even the majors were interested in monsters. They’d more or less abandoned the juvenile delinquency subgenre to the indies and fly-by-nights, and concocted their own drive-in monster double bills by paying for overachieving independents like The Blob or Fiend without a Face.
Pro editor Dan Milner had cutting credits on real movies, like Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn. He was also one of the first producer-directors of micro-budgeted ’50s fare to jump on the sci-fi bandwagon. He and his brother Jack were there at the beginning of American-International Pictures, elbow to elbow with the younger and more ambitious Roger Corman. The Milners’ 1955 Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is a poorly made snooze-fest that could have served as a primer for dozens of would-be directors; it proved how little production value one had to put on the screen to get a national release.
Released by Allied Artists, 1957’s horror romp From Hell It Came is competently directed and absolutely hilarious, from the title forward. It takes a place of pride among the silliest of 50s monster movies. On the scale of ludicrous-ity it ranks somewhere above the Great Works of Ed Wood. It’s more polished than any of the Woodster’s woeful efforts, as endearing as the painfully inept studio dog The Giant Claw. Milner’s picture gets an “A” for honesty, as anyone seeing the poster (pictured on the WAC’s disc) should know exactly what they’re getting themselves into: absurd fun.
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. Tod Andrews & John McNamara play a pair of borderline alcoholic jungle doctors associated with the Atomic Energy Commission. They sit around their remote island lab drinking and explaining a thousand points of irrelevant plot exposition. Their original mission was to measure residual radiation effects, but they’re presently trying to quell 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 that have seized power via a hate campaign against the Americans. The Yankees’ beautiful servant Orchid (Grace Matthews) has been expelled from the tribe because of her mixed heritage.
The so-called natives are jaw- droppingly idiotic stereotypes. 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 a floorshow rented for the day from the nearest Tiki Lounge restaurant. 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 had 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 a ceremonial dagger is hammered through his heart, Kimo lays a curse on the rats that betrayed him, swearing to come back from Hell as a murderous spirit called a Tabonga. Over at the open bar medical lab, 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. This strikes us as an odd story choice at a time when the Hydrogen bomb testing program was shifting Pacific islanders from their homes, so as to conduct their massive blast tests. The American doctors regard the natives as children, and their secondary mission is to show them that “American ways are best.” A tame, smiling native even voices those words at the end.
We have to wait quite a spell for something fantastic 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 overnight, from something to trip over to eight feet in height. The rubbery thing 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, but even that amazing detail doesn’t have them sending cables to the AEC, the Army and Walter Winchell. They lug the big hunka hunka teakwood terror back to their lab. They barely note that it has a dagger protruding from its trunk, just like poor old Kimo.
This leaves us with about twenty 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, no sir, and potential victims must maneuver themselves into position to accommodate being killed. The Tabonga moves about as fast as your average senior citizen. One native victim waits until the tree is about three feet away before throwing his spear — over Tabonga’s shoulders. I do credit whoever performed inside the rubber costume with being able to carry his women victims so well, cradled softly in his arms. Tabonga never looks like he’s going to fall on his face. When he successfully dumps an island maiden into the quicksand, she appears to purposely swim into deep muck. Then she has to dunk herself as if pretending to be sucked down. I hope they paid her well.
The Tabonga eventually gets around to menacing the good doctor Terry. She 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 demon mouth flaps, just begging for joke dialogue lines to be dubbed in: “Whattaya think of them apples?”
From Hell It Came became an instant success in the early 1960s when Allied Artists released a pack of monster pix to TV creature feature syndication. Having seen the idiotic Tabonga in Famous Monsters photo layouts, we knew that we’d have fun: in the fourth grade, you take your thrills wherever found. The newspaper TV logs weren’t as generous. Here’s what Steven H. Scheuer’s 1962 TV Key Movie Guide had to say:
That shot up above, of the ‘growing’ Tabonga sticking half out of the ground like a stubborn tree stump, always reminds me of two other film images — the surreal corpses half- buried in the beach sand in Luis Buñuel’s Un chien Andalou, and the brilliant last shot of an oft-seen commercial bumper in a children’s cartoon show from the late 1950s. You see, if you stretch things far enough, even a grade- Z horror romp can claim pretensions to Art.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of From Hell it Came was one of the first of the branded line’s DVD releases back in 2009, when giving film fans everything on Made-On-Demand discs was a new concept. Very early in the game, the WAC adopted an ‘original aspect ratio only’ policy, which made all the difference to collectors that didn’t want to get stuck with the same flat transfers from old TV prints. The studio-originated scans showed us what film had looked like on a big screen. Even when cropped to 1:78 many shots in this particular show have a lot of foot room, and in some angles the interior of the lab seems cavernous.
The new Blu-ray is of course somewhat sharper and richer than the old DVD, improving Brydon Baker’s no-frills camerawork. It also shows us just how cheap everything is, especially around the native village. The flimsy unga-bunga costumes of feathers and bones are pretty sad compared to almost anything; the natives’ spearheads look like they’re covered with shiny contact paper. We can delight in the dry Southern California Chaparral appearance of the tropical setting, and note that the production at least tries to put a few wilted tropical plants in the foreground of each shot. I’m not familiar with the film’s exact locations. A healthy-looking running stream is visible in some shots and a nice pond gives us a swimming hole, and it’s obviously not Griffith Park. Korey observes Naomi skinny-dipping, which is a new one — what’s with those wacky native girls, anyway?
The clear audio track highlights a mix that puts the (stock library?) music front and center. The music editor could have used some guidance, however, as the ‘big sting’ music effects tend to fall on portentous dialogue rather than just after, as is the custom.
How does the famous / infamous Tabonga monster suit look? In this note from November 9, 2009, the late Bill Warren corrected an oversight in my first review:
“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 Joe Dante had an office at Warner Bros., he liked to poke around in the prop warehouses. This was when WB shared the lot with Columbia. Joe found the biggest The 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.”
English subtitles are a welcome addition — WAC DVDs don’t as a rule have them. * The one extra is an original trailer. Right up front, a misinformed large text title tells us to beware the curse of the horrible monster, Baranga. Oops.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
From Hell it Came
Movie: Awful and very Entertaining
Supplements: original trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 12, 2017
Here’s Joe Dante on the mighty Tabanga.
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson