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The Hellstrom Chronicle

dir. Walon Green
1971 / Wolper Pictures / 90′
written by David Seltzer
original music by Lalo Schifrin
starring Lawrence Pressman
The Hellstrom Chronicle is out on Blu-ray (reviewed here) and DVD through Olive Films.

“The Earth was created – not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape…”

So begins The Hellstrom Chronicle, a strange variation on the nature-on-the-loose side of horror that unbelievably won the Academy Award (yes, that Academy Award) for Best Documentary in 1972. Though stuffed to the gills with breathtaking macrophotography the show is only marginally educational, and is less concerned with showcasing the wonders of nature than it is with filling theater seats with its flagrantly sensational, and entirely fictitious, trappings. Those who read that as negative criticism are sorely mistaken, however. The Hellstrom Chronicle is a National Geographic special by way of the killer bug pictures of the ’50s - Microcosmos meets Beginning of the End – and it’s a hell of a time.

The Hellstrom Chronicle is essentially a series of documentary vignettes – on the development and flight of butterflies, the lives of social insects like ants, bees, and termites, the mating ritual of the black widow spider, and so on – precisely photographed by the likes of Ferdinando Armati (Phenomena) and Ken Middleham (Phase IV, BUG, and Damnation Alley).

Where it goes so wonderfully astray is in the framing. The Hellstrom Chronicle is introduced and hosted by the eponymous Doctor (actually Lawrence Pressman, in one of the earliest roles of his ongoing screen career), who warns the audience from the start that he’s something of a heretic in his field. Like countless others, Dr. Hellstrom sees life on Earth as an unending struggle for survival, but his own emphasis on the field of entomology has led him to a startling conclusion. Man, plagued by the distractions of conscience, consciousness, and greed, is on an inevitable path towards self destruction, and once we’re done decimating ourselves with pollution and nuclear weapons and the blight of rationalism it’ll be the insects that rise from the rubble to take our place.

The film hits the usual post-Silent Spring high notes of its genre, lamenting the overabundance of pesticides as well as the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and while these points remain worthy of discussion some forty years on (the recently publicized link between pesticide use and the decline of bee populations is good evidence of this) The Hellstrom Chronicle‘s exploitative aims frequently undermine their significance. Each is pointed out as an example of human shortsightedness (fair enough), but with the ultimate aim of showing the superiority of insects, and the inevitability of their rise to power. The Hellstrom Chronicle isn’t really concerned with scaring it’s audience into changing things, though it certainly could have been. In the end it just wants to give them the creeps.

It doesn’t necessarily help things that Hellstrom dictates his chronicle with such nigh-hilarious earnest, of the sort that convinces audiences less of the believability of his findings than of the fact that he believes them. Pressman plays the role to the hilt, effortlessly toeing the line between mad genius and simple madness. Indeed, as the voice for screenwriter David Seltzer’s (The Omen) early pseudo-philosophical eco-horror ramblings Pressman’s talents prove downright indispensable – his Hellstrom is a consummate crank, but rarely an unlikable one. Seltzer would go on to pen another minor classic of the eco-horror subgenre, John Frankenheimer’s much maligned 1979 monster picture The Prophecy, in which mercury poisoning unleashes a score of giant animals and one very angry mutant bear in the forests of Maine.

Silly as it is, one can’t say that The Hellstrom Chronicle isn’t effective. The contrast producer and director Walon Green creates between the rudimentary Hellstrom sequences (themselves directed by Ed Spiegel) and the lavish macrophotography works precisely as it was intended to, and the experience he gained here no doubt aided him in his later documentaries (like 1979′s The Secret Life of Plants). Add to considerations the tremendous, eclectic score from the inimitable Lalo Schifrin (Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Cool Hand Luke) and The Hellstrom Chronicle becomes a one-of-a-kind slice schlock-art that I can’t help but recommend. See it!

Those few of us who have been patiently awaiting The Hellstrom Chronicle‘s arrival on digital home video would likely have been satisfied with a mere DVD – the film had previously only been available on VHS, and that is long since out of print. As such I was quite happily surprised when I found that it had been licensed by boutique outfit Olive Films for Blu-ray release as well. The Hellstrom Chronicle isn’t the sort of thing that will appeal to those looking to demo their home theater systems, but for those who have been craving more obscure library titles on the format this release may prove practically irresistible.

Working from a high definition master provided by Paramount Pictures, Olive Films present The Hellstrom Chronicle on Blu-ray in 1080p at a pillarboxed ratio of 1.33:1 (theatrical screenings would no doubt have been matted, but I appreciate having the open framing for the insect footage). Given the fact that the film is a low-budget 16mm documentary more than forty years old, the results are quite good. The framing footage featuring Lawrence Pressman looks as flat, gritty, and unimpressive as it always has, but the insect photography looks very nice indeed, with a reasonable level of detail and a rich, natural color. Little restorative work appears to have been done and minor damage is quite prevalent at times, but I didn’t find that a detraction to the experience. The film grain may have been softened a touch, but if so the results are not untoward – this looks much as I imagine The Hellstrom Chronicle should, and you’ll not find better for home viewing.

In terms of its technical specifications the disc is only a modest affair, but of acceptable stuff to support The Hellstrom Chronicle‘s visuals. The 9o minute film is granted a single layer Mpeg-4 AVC at a respectable average bitrate of 24.5 Mbps, and aside from some minor digital artifacts in the grain structure there’s very little left to complain about. Audio goes untouched by artificial up-mixing and is presented via a nice lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic track. Pressman’s dialogue and narration sounds just like what it is – cheap post-dub recording – but the otherworldly sound effects and Schifrin’s phenomenal score really shine. There are no subtitles, SDH or otherwise.

As with other Olive Films releases from the Paramount catalogue The Hellstrom Chronicle arrives without supplements, though in this case I doubt we could have expected any even if the studio itself had done the work. Arguments against the perceived high price for these barebones editions have been made before, and will be made again. I’ll not bother with them here. The bottom line is that The Hellstrom Chronicle has never looked or sounded better on home video and in all likelihood never will, and  fans of the film should find it more than worth their while. Recommended.

The screenshots in this article were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

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