Sunday, February 16, 2020

Monster from Green Hell (1957)

... aka: África en las garras del monstruo (Africa in the Claws of the Monster)
... aka: Beast from Green Hell, The
... aka: Creature from Green Hell
... aka: Il pianeta dove l'inferno è verde (The Planet Where Hell is Green)
... aka: O Monstro do Inferno Verde (The Green Hell Monster)

Directed by:
Kenneth G. Crane

"This is the age of the rocket, the jet, atomic power, when man prepares to reach for the stars... But before he dares to launch himself into space there is one great question to be answered: What happens to life in the airless void above Earth's atmosphere? Will life remain untouched, unharmed, by flight through space? Or will he change into... what? There was only one way to find out and we were working on it." So says Dr. Quent Brady (Jim Davis), who has just helped successfully launch a rocket 208 miles into space. Seeing how man will one day want to venture out there himself (which would actually happen in 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin first traveled to space), they've decided to fill the ship with a variety of test animals. Among those are wasps, crabs, spiders, guinea pigs and a monkey. The rocket doesn't return to the U.S. on schedule. Tracking devices determine it's instead going to come down somewhere off the Atlantic coast of Africa.

Meanwhile, strange things start going down in and around a small village called Mongwa, particularly near an area called Green Hell. Green Hell is already avoided by the locals due to local legend that it's cursed by evil spirits, but other things that can't be explained away as just mere superstition start occurring. Birds now suddenly fly right by and won't even rest on the trees there. Other animals, even large elephants, flee whenever they get near it. And then people start dying. Scientist Dr. Lorentz (Vladimir Sokoloff) and his assistant daughter Lorna (Barbara Turner), who run a hospital and mission there, do an autopsy on a body and determine the man was killed by poison. However, the poison is in such high concentration that it couldn't possibly had been administered by a snake or any other animals... at least not one known to man.

Back in the U.S., Dr. Brady and colleague Dan Morgan (Robert E. Griffin) ponder whether recent headlines about Africa being in a panic over recent monster sightings have anything to do with their rocket. They analyze other test animals they had sent to space on other ships and note some interesting changes. A brown guinea pig has turned white, lizards appear to be in a trance and a pregnant crab gave birth to a baby that grew to be twice her size. Seeing how the animals on the missing rocket received much more exposure to radiation (40 minutes as opposed to 40 seconds), Brady convinces Dan ("You've seen pictures of the survivors of Hiroshima, haven't you?") that there may actually be giant monsters on the loose. More specifically, giant mutated wasps. The two men are able to get approval for a leave of absence from their posts and then travel to Libreville, Gabon. They are stuck there over a week organizing their safari while other people in Green Hell disappear.

Finally, Dr. Brady, Dan and their team of supply-carrying natives are ready to go. While their travel agent manages to set them up with "the best guide in Central Africa; an Arab named Mauri" (played by Italian actor Eduardo Ciannelli), he does not provide them with any vehicles so they're forced to make the over 400 mile trip (!!) to Mongwa on foot. If they average 15 miles per day, Dr. Brady figures, they will get there in a month, adding with his monotone narration, "I found out soon enough that being on a safari meant putting one foot in front of the other and then repeating the process." The safari encounter not just sore feet on their trek, but also a spear-chucking and arrow-shooting tribe of hundreds of angry Africans. After several are killed, they're able to ward them off by setting a huge fire on the savanna.

Even though he's able to help send a rocket into space, an exhausted Dan apparently isn't smart enough to know how the human body functions and notes he "never realized how much the human animal depended on water" until now. With their supplies running low, they finally come across a watering hole but discover it's undrinkable due to the amount of vultures around ("Water poison! No drink!") Thankfully, a thunderstorm gives them all the water they need to complete the trip. They finally arrive at Lorentz's mission in Mongwa just in time for Lorentz's buddy Arobi (Joel Fluellen) to report the bad news that the doctor has been killed by the wasps. Dr. Brady, Dan, Mauri, Lorna, Arobi and a bunch of native helpers (who all flee at the first sign of trouble) then set out to locate the monsters, who've has been hanging out near an active volcano.

Unlike some other movies from this time, we actually get several good looks at the monsters in the first 15 minutes. However, after a few appearances early on, they're not seen again on screen until there's only 15 minutes left, which makes the middle portion of people walking around endlessly in "Africa" a colossal bore. Any footage that even remotely resembles something large scale or convincingly being in Africa was taken from an archive source. Much of it came from the Spencer Tracy adventure film Stanley and Livingstone (1939), which had bits filmed on location in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. All of the original scenes were shot in California, with Bronson Caves being used for the (weak!) finale. The only noteworthy things here are the effects. There's a large size model wasp head and giant pincers that are used, plus some charming, though briefly seen, stop motion effects from an unbilled Gene Warren, who'd go on to win a Visual Effects Oscar just a few years later for The Time Machine (1960). Louis DeWitt and Jack Rabin (who received screen credit) and Irving Bloch and Wah Chang (who did not) also worked on other effects.

Leading lady Turner was married to actor Vic Morrow and is the mother of future star Jennifer Jason Leigh (the two look quite a bit alike and even have the same perpetual scowl). While Turner's acting career never amounted to much, she had much more success as a writer. She scripted or co-scripted Cujo (1983), the Oscar-winning Pollock (2000), the Emmy-winning TV movie Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012) and Georgia (1995), which was a vehicle for her daughter.

Crane (who worked mostly as an editor) is best known for the delightful Japanese / American co-production THE MANSTER (1959), which is wrongly written off as "bad" when it's simply weird and fun! He also made Half Human (1958), which was the "Americanization" of the Japanese film BEAST MAN SNOW MAN (1955) featuring new scenes shot in the U.S. that frequently played on a double bill with Green Hell. In 1990, Rhino released this on VHS but accidentally put the credits and plot description for DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954) on the back of the box! This has been included in numerous cheap bootleg DVD sets over the years but the "official" DVD release came in 2012 from Image Entertainment.

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