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.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Year: 2009   Company: I & I Productions   Runtime: 84′
Director: Jessica Oreck   Writers: Jessica Oreck   Videography: Sean Price Williams
Music: Paul Grimstead, J. C. Morrison, Nate Shaw   Disc company: Factory 25   Video: 480i / 1.78:1
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese   Subtitles: English   Disc: DVD5   Release Date: 05/17/2011
Reviewed from a screener provided by Factory 25.  Available for purchase through the official film site and Amazon.com.

As I get older my memory grows worse, but if I’m not mistaken Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is the first documentary feature ever to be reviewed here at Wtf-Film.  For you outsiders, a documentary is just like a regular film, only it’s about real stuff.  I know, I know.  What will the kids think of next?

All joking aside, the sudden realization that I’ve never, in nearly a decade of writing about film, covered a documentary was quite surprising.  I watch a lot of them, after all – generally at least two a week.  It’s not enough to keep pace with the dozen or so feature films I gorge myself with on a weekly basis, but more than enough to warrant pondering how I’ve never happened to write about one before.  Better late than never, I suppose, and Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is as fine a place to start as I can think of.

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Phenomena

a.k.a.: Creepers
Year: 1985   Company: Dacfilm   Runtime: 115′
Director: Dario Argento   Writers: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini   Cinematography: Romano Albani
Music: Goblin, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Simon Boswell, Andi Sex Gang, Fabio Pignatelli
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Donald Pleasance, Patrick Bauchau, Tanga the Chimpanzee
Disc company: Arrow Video   Video: 1080p 1.66:1    Audio: LPCM 2.0 English, LPCM 2.0 Italian
Subtitles: English x 2   Disc: BD50 (All Region)   Release Date: 03/07/2011   Product link: Amazon.co.uk
The Beyond is part of the Arrow Video collection, and is reviewed here from a screener provided by Arrow Films. Be sure to visit the Cult-Labs forums to have your say on this and future Arrow Video releases.

Young Jennifer (Connelly) is sent to a prestigious Swiss boarding school by her single father, a famous American actor unaware that the surrounding Swiss countryside is being tormented by a beastly psychopath with a taste for adolescent girls.  Jennifer has a tough time fitting in amongst the brats of the academy and earns the ire of the headmistress there, but a bout of sleepwalking leads her into a friendship with handicapped Scottish entomologist McGregor (Pleasance) and his nursemaid, a trained female chimpanzee named Inga.

Here it is revealed that Jennifer has a strange, ambiguous power over insects, which seem to see her as one of their own.  With her odd abilities suddenly at his disposal, McGregor sends Jennifer out to find the girl killer, whom he suspects is responsible for the disappearance of an associate some time in the past…

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Disgusting Spaceworms Eat Everyone!!

T-N-H Productions [1989] 73′
country: United States
director: George Keller
cast: Bill Brady, Lisa Everett Hillman,
Michael Sonye, Tequila Mockingbird

I have to admit, this isn’t something that immediately struck me as being my kind of movie.   Shot on video at the end of the 80′s for what couldn’t have been more than a scant few thousand dollars in the same vein as the Troma Studios efforts of the day and with the same tongue-in-cheek comedic intention that has doomed so many independent efforts to mediocrity [the recent DEAD AND BREAKFAST comes to mind], DISGUSTING SPACEWORMS EAT EVERYONE!! sounded like just the sort of obscure garbage I tend to despise on sight.

How many ways can I say I was wrong?

DISGUSTING SPACEWORMS EAT EVERYONE!! begins in space – on a ship full of worms to be precise.  So the wriggling mealworms dabbled about every corner of the ship aren’t necessarily disgusting, but they more than make up for that in their enthusiasm.  While it was impossible to tell what was being said by the worms [yes, they talk] due to the overbearing sound effects and background music and the overall crappiness of my review copy, I gathered that they intended to destroy mankind, who have stumbled upon the secret to the destruction of their race.  The scene is hysterical, with the master worm speaking passionately from a cardboard cup pulpit to his pile of devoted and cheering followers.

Their plan devised, the spaceworms warp their ship to Earth, choosing Los Angeles gangster Ziegler [Michael Sonye, here under his pseudonym Dukey Flyswatter] as their first conquest.  After yelling at someone on the phone about killing someone else the gangster heads out to his patio for a cocaine snack.  But wait – what’s this?  The worms have teleported themselves into Ziegler’s bag of cocaine!  The gangster lines up his rows and snorts, only to find himself covered in wiggly worms and spewing blood from just about everywhere.  A horrible death to be sure . . .

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Somewhere else in L.A., hitman Ray [Bill Brady] is reading the funny pages when he is interupted by a phone call.  He’s obviously in no mood for a job, and throws the phone dramatically into a nearby swimming pool before heading out on an extended drive.  Ray literally runs into the young and assless-jeans-donning Lisa [Lisa Everett Hillman], who proves very protective of a crumpled brown paper bag in her possession [she says it holds her recently deceased cat].  The two drive around for a while but don’t get along terribly well.  Soon Lisa evacuates Ray’s car and wanders off, leaving him with nothing to do but meet up with his contact and get his assignment.

Some secret envelope and money exchanging later, Ray has his job – unfortunately the person he’s supposed to hit is no other than Lisa.  Fortunately for her Ray is the sensetive type, or at the very least tired of working for his slimeball gangster boss.  He opts to kill off all of Ziegler’s minions and get in on whatever action has put Lisa in the spotlight instead.  Meanwhile, that pesky ship full of spaceworms is still floating about L.A., teleporting instant rubbery death into the homes of countless unsuspecting victims.  A family of television obsessed drunkards here, a bathtub beauty there . . .  All fall before the might of the worms, who are working hard to fulfill the titular promise of eating everyone.

Ray becomes understandably distressed by the situation unfolding around him, making him all the happier when he finds Lisa once again.  But what’s this?  The zombified worm-powered Ziegler has found the two as well, and is waiting to pounce from the backseat of Ray’s car.  Through him our heroes learn that the worms are after mankind because of its tampering with “zarmon crystals” – the one thing that can possibly destroy them.  What are zarmon crystals, you ask?  Cocaine of course [never mind that it's the same stuff the worms teleported into earlier without issue]!  Luckily for Ray, Lisa has a load of the stuff stashed in her paper bag and she isn’t afraid to use it.  Having heard the alien plot, she decides that it’s time for Ziegler to go for good and chucks a handful of cocaine in his direction.  Blood spurts and steam bubbles and soon he is little more than a smoldering mushy puddle in the backseat.

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The spaceworms’ motives and means of destruction revealed, Ray and Lisa go on a quest to destroy the invaders.  Can they possibly throw enough cocaine at the right worms at the right time to put an end to their savage conquest?  I’ll never tell!

Against all odds I came to love DISGUSTING SPACEWORMS EAT EVERYONE!! and its peculiar brand of no-budget antics.  What little is on display in terms of technical fortitude [VHS looks to have been the master format] is more than made up for by the shear ridiculousness and liveliness of the proceedings.  The screenplay credited to Keller / Mulliron / Sellers is actually quite good and takes 40′s noir crime films, of all things, as its jumping off point – Ray even narrates his own misadventure at times.  It’s abundantly clear than none of it is intended to be serious in any way, which is a definite upside when skyscraper-sized cans of Raid figure prominently in a film’s conclusion.

Scimpy as the production may be, SPACEWORMS packs a few neat little punches.  The soundtrack is loaded with songs from local Los Angeles talent of the time that, while it may be irritating to those not into the late 80′s punk-pop scene, sounds absolutely awesome to these ears.  Editing is another strong point.  Wisely avoided are the lengthy stretches of static dialogue shots that dominate most indies.  Keller constantly cuts from camera to camera to camera and keeps the pace going fast and hard.  The body of SPACEWORMS passes by in nary an hour, with the final ten minutes or so dedicated to some colorful end credits that come complete with a few bits of behind-the-sceens goofiness.  It looks like everyone involved had a blast, and it shows in the final product.

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Now, complaints against SPACEWORMS could certainly be made.  The special effects, particularly the vintage video animation and terrible blue screen that dominates the latter third of the picture, are almost universally bad and the performances by the no-name cast [Sonye/Flyswatter is the only reckognizable name, and his resume features such classics cinema as SURF NAZIS MUST DIE and TERRORS FROM THE CLIT] vary considerably in quality.  There are also far too many scenes devoted to driving.  But these are all minor quibbles at best in the context of the feature in question, with at least two of the three helping to elevate its hefty potential to entertain.

If there are video releases of this oddity, legitimate or otherwise, I’ve not seen them – I snatched my review copy from my favorite cult film torrent tracker [linked to the right].  If anyone involved with this flick knows of an official way to purchase this gem be sure to let me know so I can promote the hell out of it.

This one obviously isn’t for everyone and those without the patience for shot-on-video fare should proceed with caution.  Still, I loved it and have no problem giving it a recommendation.  I suggest seeing it with friends and making a party of it – with a title like DISGUSTING SPACEWORMS EAT EVERYONE!!, how could it go wrong?

Genocide – War of the Insects

a.k.a. KONCHU DAISENSO / GREAT INSECT WAR
Shochiku Co., Ltd. [1968] 84′
country: Japan
director: KAZUI NIHONMATSU
cast: KEISUKE SONOI, YUSUKE KAWAZU, EMI SHINDO
cast: REIKO HITOMI, ERIKO SONO, KATHY HORAN

Accurate information about this utterly obscure [at least to Western audiences] Shochiku science fiction / horror production is difficult to come by, to say the least. Shochiku’s own website offers little – only a few credits, a brief synopsis, and two photos – while the more comprehensive listing at the IMDB is full of inaccuracies [something I've attempted, as of recently, to correct]. The film purportedly received a limited release in America under its international English title of GENOCIDE in 1969, though I can find no corroborating evidence of this [copies of this English language edition are floating around, indicating that a print of it was available in America at some point]. There is no doubt, however, that GENOCIDE received theatrical release in Germany [as GENOCIDE-THE KILLER BEES TAKE HOLD*] or Italy [THE HALLUCINITORY END OF MAN*], as ad materials survive from both of these runs and, in at least one case, the repsective theatrical version of the film has been made available on home video [on VHS and twice on DVD in Germany**].

But unlike THE X FROM OUTER SPACE or GOKE BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL, which have been growing in popularity in the Western world thanks to home video releases, television airings, and rumors of forthcoming DVD editions from high-end production houses like Criterion, GENOCIDE has remained largely unheard of, even in cult film circles, outside of Japan since its initial run in 1968. Filmed in Shochiku grand-scope and color with decent special effects and one of the more bizarre narratives ever to grace a 60′s production [scientists, military men, lost H-bombs, communist spies, insane people, dirty old men, and killer bugs all have their own important spot in the proceedings], one has to wonder why! The answer almost undoubtedly lies in the unwavering nihilism of said narrative, penned by Susumu Takaku [THE GOLDEN BAT, GOKE].

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