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Monster from Green Hell

by Glenn Erickson Mar 08, 2022

Fondly remembered as a permanent resident on all-night movie channels, this patchwork concoction has just enough ‘good stuff’ to qualify as a fun monster show. Jim Davis’s stock-footage safari arrives just in time to be irrelevant to the fate of the title monsters; some good actors are along for what amounts to a picnic in Griffith Park’s Bronson Caverns. There’s still not a full accounting of who did what, special effects-wise. But Hey!  The picture has stop-motion animation, which always guarantees viewer interest.


Monster from Green Hell
Blu-ray
The Film Detective
1957 / B&W with colorized sequence / 1:85 widescreen + 1:33 open matte / min. / Street Date March 8, 2022 / Available from The Film Detective / 24.95
Starring: Jim Davis, Robert Griffin, Joel Fluellen, Barbara Turner, Eduardo Ciannelli, Vladimir Sokoloff.
Cinematography: Ray Franklin
Production Designer: Ernst Fegté
Visual Effects: Louis DeWitt, Jack Rabin, Irving Block, Wah Chang, Jack Cosgrove, Gene Warren
Film Editor: Kenneth G. Crane
Original Music: Albert Glasser
Written by Louis Vittes, Endre Bohem
Produced by Al Zimbalist
Executive Producers Jack J. Gross, Philip N. Krasne
Directed by
Kenneth G. Crane

CineSavant again does what he does best: over-analyze yet another curious sci-fi / monster opus.

Those were the years when the TV Guide logs were jammed with listings of all-night movies. Several late-night ‘scary’ movies accumulated a reputation as sure-fire remedies for insomnia: Voodoo Island, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, The Snow Creature. But the frequently-shown Monster from Green Hell may have been the snooze champeen. The combination of slow jungle trek footage, monotonous music and droning voiceovers quickly delivered 12 year-old Glenn to REM slumbers. I remember staying awake to see the first arrival of a giant wasp monster more than once — and then nodding off.

Today this nostalgic wasp-o-rama cheapie feels like an important part of growing up. The modern miracle of remastered films on video disc gives fans of old-time horror, sci-fi and fantasy the opportunity to re-run their Chiller Theater favorites uncut, and likely looking better than they did in the theater. They certainly look better than the miserable 16mm prints we saw on TV, or the early DVDs that often just transferred whatever print was available.

Monster from Green Hell (MFGH) actually played fairly well on Wade Williams’ 2001 DVD, but we’re spoiled by the clarity of Blu-ray — the humble Giant from the Unknown and even Frankenstein’s Daughter look great in high-def. They’re decently filmed, resourceful low budget thrillers. MFGH’s ads promised epic spectacle: an African safari attacked by a gigantic insect monster. But producer Al Zimbalist needed only a good stock footage connection and a savvy editor to deliver a marketable product. Editor Kenneth G. Crane graduated to directing for this show, and would be tapped for another film that required serious editorial cut & paste surgery, Half Human.

Audiences of 1957 associated the term ‘Green Hell’ with a pre-war jungle adventure movie of the same name, directed by James Whale. And giant insect monsters were currently highly exploitable — Warners would have made a mint had they seen fit to produce a sequel to Them!   A more than competent cast likely finished off the entire script of MFGH in just a few days, in tiny interiors and on a ‘safari’ to the far-flung location Griffith Park and its rentable movie-friendly site Bronson Caverns.

Scientists Quent Brady (Jim Davis) and Dan Morgan (Robert Griffith) are shooting small animals into space to see if gamma rays produce mutations. One such rocket goes haywire and gives its wasp passengers forty hours of gamma exposure before landing far off course in Western Africa. A few days later the two scientists leave their desert lab to investigate African reports of giant monsters. There they pick up guide Mahri (Eduardo Ciannelli) and embark on a lengthy trek. But their main contact Dr Lorentz (Vladimir Sokoloff) has himself left to track down the cause of panic among the natives. Lorentz’ assistant Arobi (Joel Fluellen) brings back news of Lorentz’s death. Arobi and Lorentz’s daughter Lorna (Barbara Turner) accompany Quent and Dan back into the region known as Green Hell. Sure enough, spawned from Quent and Dan’s original astro-wasps, a race of giant mutations are terrorizing the district.

 

Monster from Green Hell suffers its share of fan ridicule, the main complaint being that it is 80% dull jungle trek with almost no payoff in the drama or monster departments. But devotees of low-end monster fare ought to marvel at its sheer audacity. The producers enticed the quality actors Vladimir Sokoloff and Eduardo Cianelli to vamp their way through their scenes. A paycheck is a paycheck, and it’s likely that neither actor minded the lack of a significant character to play. We hope the two veteran performers (both born in 1889) didn’t over-exert themselves hiking in Griffith Park.

The dry brush we see is similar to the African stock footage that director-editor Kenneth G. Crane had to match. Long stretches of 1939’s Stanley and Livingstone are in every reel. Crane intercuts his actors walking and staring to reasonably good effect. An extended scene of a native attack repelled with a brush fire is lifted almost verbatim from the older movie, and takes up several minutes of screen time. It’s entirely possible that kids returning from a matinee of MFGH might switch on the ol’ 19-inch Zenith to the middle of a broadcast of Stanley and Livingstone, and learn a fast lesson in Hollywood sleight of hand on a splicing block.

The older Spencer Tracy movie is an epic with thousands of African extras. Director Crane films one scene at a water hole with perhaps eight black actors as natives, and elsewhere gets by with even fewer. Arobi and Mahri arrive more than once to say that their bearers have fled — the original batch plus the locals picked up at Dr. Lorentz’s clinic. Our little group then proceeds with no native bearers . . . yet later on important supplies are there when needed, namely a large and hefty-looking box of grenades.

 

Armchair critics often point out the anachronistic costumes (pith helmets, scarves) worn by Jim Davis and Robert Griffin, to match Spencer Tracy & Co. in the older movie. Almost ALL 1950s movies set in Africa imagined the continent’s main form of travel as an on-foot safari. To maximize the Stanley and Livingstone footage, producer Zimbalist pads the running time with three mostly redundant safari treks. Our heroes suddenly decide to hike a hundred miles out of their way to Dr. Laurentz’s clinic — to slip in footage that could be bought outright for pennies a foot.

The first scenes locate the bio-lab right in the middle of Monument Valley, owing to the cyclorama background used — could it be a holdover from Cat-Women of the Moon?  The lab interior is a large room with giant slanting windows, perhaps borrowed from who-knows-where but also possibly cooked up by the famed production designer Ernst Fegté (The Lady Eve, Destination Moon). A designer biology building is in an unseen rocket base out in the middle of nowhere, with their station wagon parked right outside?  And critics are worried about Davis’s accent?

Journeymen actors won parts in the 1950s by being dependable and not needing much directorial attention. Jim Davis was reliable, good with dialogue and definitely in good shape. His biology chatter with Robert Griffin is marginally less stupid than the vapidities exchanged in Bert I. Gordon movies. Davis gives the scientific jargon a thick regional accent, which casual critics found funny. For what he’s asked to do, Davis is just fine.

 

Fourth-billed Barbara Turner did a lot of television; she kept acting steadily despite embarking on an impressive writing career. She’s also noted as the wife of Vic Morrow and the mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her Lorna is the standard ‘scientist’s daughter’ but there’s no attempt to ignite a romance or to exploit obvious angles: no woo-hoo bathing scene. When told of her father’s demise Lorna solicits a comforting hug from Jim Davis. She joins the safari to show the frightened porters that the Bwanas think it’s safe enough to bring a woman along. Despite publicity photos and ad art, none of the main cast members are shown being attacked by a giant wasp.

Let’s hear it for those giant wasps!  Their cumulative screen time is surely less than two minutes, not counting the disappointing repetition of shots for the finale. Some scenes are accomplished with a full-sized wasp head and pincers. Its streamed lines and fiberglass texture always made us think that EFX designer Wah Chang had it built in a shop that customized hot rods. None of the wasps move very quickly. Mainly peeking through bushes, the ‘head’ kills a couple of Dr. Lorentz’s helpers, just the same.

Other more arresting wasp scenes — brief shots, actually — are accomplished with okay stop-motion animation. Wiggling their vestigial wings, the crawling wasps look more like beetles. Only a couple of shots show their legs in action. Optical experts Jack Rabin and Louis DeWitt matte the bugs into some scenes and use rear projection for others. The closer angles must have been a jolt on the big screen, especially the shots of the bug that peeks into the cave entrance.  ( top image )   Wasps matted into stock footage scenes make for the best graphic compositions, even if the scale makes one of them look as big as the Goodyear Blimp.

That ginormous wasp looms over a hill just as did the original Godzilla. A crawling wasp weirdly half-superimposed onto a shot of Bronson Caverns is a mess, a gross error likely okayed because the grenade battle needed something. It’s not often that we miss the precise, Kubrick-like visual exactitude of Bert I. Gordon.

In the one actual animation sequence a stop-motion wasp tangles with a stop-motion anaconda. The ambitious scene mostly reminds us that the human characters don’t really interact with the monsters. Judging by the reactions I witnessed at matinees a couple of years later, I’d guess that little kids were intimidated by the scary-looking wasp faces, while their older brothers howled at the screen and shouted, ‘Fake!’

These same hooligans may have been more impressed by the large quantity of excellent stop-motion animation in the previous year’s The Black Scorpion, where there is a great deal of monster-human interaction, some of it very scary.

Director-editor Kenneth Crane uses Monster from Green Hell’s safari stock footage well, but the lack of tension and Jim Davis’s droning narration slow things to a crawl. When the trekkers arrive at Bronson Caverns one static wide shot of the empty quarry holds for almost thirty seconds, as the expedition members enter from the left background and walk slowly forward. An explosion seals them into the cavern tunnels, a development that cues a full five minutes of people crawling around in the dark, making no progress.

The film’s big climax was meant to feature an entire nest of rampaging wasps. Money and time must have plain run out for we see only a couple of shots with more than one insect. Instead of a real sequence, editor/director Crane must resort to a meaningless, free-form dissolve montage. Every effect shot we’ve seen before is double-exposed with lava flows and boiling magma, and intercut with dull shots of the our cast ‘observing.’ It’s at this point that we realize that the expedition has been entirely irrelevant. Had Quent and Dan stayed back in Monument Valley the volcano would still have wiped out the wasp’s nest. And nobody is even taking pictures!

Our associations with the cast members help. Jim Davis was then seen mostly in westerns. He later made his name on TV’s Dallas but his best film is Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky. We revere Vladimir Sokoloff from For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Magnificent Seven. Eduardo Ciannelli is the original, very scary Kali cultist from George Stevens’ Gunga Din, and a terrific Nazi spy in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Joel Fluellen, familiar from William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion and Arthur Penn’s The Chase, is suprisingly un-stereotyped. Arobi not only retains his dignity, he delivers the film’s final line of dialogue.

 


 

The Film Detective’s Blu-ray of Monster from Green Hell bests the old Image disc by a wide margin, with a brighter, sharper picture and much better sound. The ad copy touts a 4K restoration. The film element used appears to be a (very good) release print. The show does have a number of fine scratches, some in the middle. A frame or two are missing here and there, and one fade-up on a scene is cut off.

The disc producers provide encodings at both an original theatrical 1:85 widescreen, and at 1:33 open matte, as it appeared on old TV broadcasts. This is the way Tom Weaver prefers his vintage fantasy. His reasoning (?) is that MFGH has so much 1:37 footage from the 1939 Stanley at Livingstone, it needs to be seen full frame.

The propery formatted 1:85 version fills the widescreen frame and naturally looks a little softer. A flat-frame proponent might note that in widescreen, the optical of the big bug appearing over the horizon is partly cropped. I submit to the jury and the court that, Rabin and DeWitt knew what they were doing and liked that composition.

Considering the potential for fan resentment, offering two AR encodings was a wise decision. For the record I watched both ARS to listen to the commentary, and I wasn’t offended by the flat version. It’s just more fun imagining I’m watching the show in a movie theater.

‘Featuring a Rare Colorized Climax!’

Aha … the non-controversy of the legendary color finish to Monster from Green Hell. I’ve been around the track on this issue three times in the last three days. Here’s what my initial research turned up — and it all appears to be wrong.

I expected the concluding volcano sequence to be in sepia tone or tinted red or something, like the Mars sequence of Rocketship X-M. No, on this new disc MFGH is in color, from the first shot of fountains of lava until the end title. Well, let’s call it part- full color. The static cutaways to the expedition members watching are in faded-looking full color: Barbara Turner suddenly has very red lipstick. The volcano shots and montage elements appear to use clever color filtering tricks, shifting between dull red, orange and yellow.

 

The Film Detective’s ad copy reads, “FEATURING A RARE COLORIZED CLIMAX.”  That word clue suggests that the film rights holder only had B&W elements on the movie, and indeed colorized this last sequence. According to the AFI catalogue:

“Although the print viewed was in black-and-white, the climactic, volcano eruption sequence originally contained some color stock footage and color toning effects on the new, intercut black-and-white footage. B&W with col seq.”

In his reference book Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren is even more specific about the film’s original color:

“At the climax, the film sort of turns to color, to use color footage of erupting volcanoes. It’s a confusing welter of disconnected images: volcanoes (in color), wasps, and our heroes observing from a ridge. The footage shot for the film is not in color, but tinted a hot pink.”

By the way, those volcano shots in the montage look very familiar. I think some or all may have been lifted from DCA’s previous import release Rodan! They would definitely have been in color, as described by Bill Warren.

But is what we see a scan of a surviving color element for MFGH, or did the rights holder or The Film Detective actually colorize a B&W print?  If they had an original color element, why didn’t they shout, ‘we’ve recovered the lost original color footage!’

Here comes the good news . . . The restorers, format experts and film collectors of the 3-D Film Archive — gentlemen all — came through with the true story regarding the legendary color finale . . . and in a few days I will post a Followup Article with their information, and visual proof.   It will be called out on the CineSavant Page, with an updated link here.

(March 15, 2022): Here’s the follow-up article: What Color is Green Hell?

 


The distributor DCA did not specially promote their ‘color’ climax back in 1957, as did American-International. For the finales of two of its releases of the same year — War of the Colossal Beast and How to Make a Monster — A.I.P. spliced in brief color footage. For I Was a Teenage Frankenstein the entire last reel was originally in color. This allowed A.I.P. to add text mentioning color on their posters, knowing full well that ticket buyers might assume that the movies were entirely in color.

The disc extras make a variable impression. The Ballyhoo – C. Courtney Joyner overview of Jim Davis’s career is a string of titles and photos but also takes a good stab at a personality portrait. The text essay in the insert folder gathers some good facts, but then adds comments that read like guesswork. Kenneth Crane is slighted as an unproven ‘novice’ director — is that only on the basis of IMDB credits?  Especially outside the big studios, editors could be called upon to perform all kinds of non-editing duties, like directing tests and retakes. Crane may be no Elia Kazan with actors but his camera direction is always competent. The author also suggests that producer Al Zimbalist would have considered his audience to be ‘suckers.’  Comments like that really need to be accompanied by quotes or attributions of some kind.

The good feature commentary is by the capable Stephen R. Bissette, who openly states his sources — Tom Weaver, Bill Warren, Robert Skotak. Bissette offers good observations of his own as well. His explanations are clear and he adds just enough of a personal nostalgia angle. Most of his sidebar topics apply directly to the movie, and some will connect well with ‘monster kids.’ Bringing up 1960s ‘big bug’ toys may sound silly but I can confirm that, yes, we connected our toys to our movie experiences.

I Googled the ‘cootie’ game I played with as a child, and a toy Bissette mentions called Horrible Hamilton. Perhaps our parents thought we would ‘age out’ of plastic toys and childish movies like Monster from Green Hell at the same time. It didn’t work out that way.

Bissette tries to clear up a few fuzzy production facts. He recounts Bill Warren’s story that the volcano scene was supposed to have additional material. It is said that some shots were filmed of a mass of wasps, represented by hand puppets. Technical problems rendered the footage unusable and no reshoots were attempted because the production ran short of time and money. The budgetary ‘money-saver’ can’t have been the expensive-looking multi-dissolve and superimposition optical we see. If the story is true, perhaps the shots that were lost were meant to cap the montage with new & more spectacular material. Who knows?  We do see three crawling wasps on screen at one time, but they’re stop-motion figurines.

We also learn that Monster from Green Hell was filmed in April of 1956 but waited to be widely distributed until 1957, co-billed with Half Human, a Kenneth Crane Anglicization of the much longer Japanese ape-man movie Jū Jin Yuki Otoko. Interpolated were new scenes with John Carradine . . . another sticky directing-editing puzzle that Crane pulled together.

One of the extras tells us that the movie Stanley and Livingstone was from RKO, and another attributes it to MGM. The actual studio was 20th-Fox, which of course is no big deal. It just reminded me that I’ve personally made more flagrant mistakes on audio commentaries.

Yes, Monster from Green Hell is going to appeal to specific stratum of sci-fi / monster fandom.
Bissette’s commentary expresses a sense of appreciation for a film that need not make excuses for existing. I was waiting to see if somebody would mention Jim Davis’s other science fiction film — which oddly enough also features stop motion animation.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Monster from Green Hell
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Fair but great fun
Video: Excellent -minus
Sound: Very Good
Supplements:
Audio commentary with Stephen R. Bissette
Featurette Missouri Born: The Films of Jim Davis with C. Courtney Joyner
Color insert pamphlet with essay The Men Behind the Monsters by Don Stradley.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
March 6, 2022
(6681gree)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.