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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Recent Watches: The Hellstrom Chronicle

Over at the Onion’s AV Club, the website where I get most of my pop culture news, they have a feature called Secret Cinema. It’s about obscure, forgotten movies, the films nobody are talking about. Consider this post somewhat inspired by that feature. Back in the early days of the internet, maybe 2003?, I use to frequent a website called It’s gone now but, at the time, it played like a less complex IMDb. It wasn’t as focused on raw information so much as recommending similar films. It was an important tool for me discovering types of movies I had never heard of before in the early days of my film geek-dom. While surfing around the website one night, a series of connecting links led me down a rabbit-hole that probably started with “Koyaanisqatsi” and finished with…

"The Hellstrom Chronicle." The film was described as an oddball combination of documentary and horror about how insects are going to take over the world. Further research revealed that the titular character of Nils Hellstrom was actually fictional and, despite that, it still won the Academy Award in 1972 for Best Documentary. I had to see it.

That was, obviously, like nine years ago. The film was only available as an out-of-print VHS tape for a long time. (Though a quick Google search shows that it’s been on Youtube for about three years now.) Finally, this year, after years of waiting by probably not many more people besides me, “The Hellstrom Chronicle” was finally released on DVD by up-and-coming distributors Olive Films. It wasn’t a Criterion or anything but I still went out and bought the disc.

The film itself is not exactly what I was expecting. It’s in many ways a straight documentary about insects. I suspect that most of the critical acclaim at the time had to do with its then-groundbreaking microphotography of real insects in their natural habitats.

No doubt that much of its footage is truly memorable. Many of the scenes look like they were shot on an alien planet. The camera watches from the inside of a Cobra plant as a fly is crushed and digested. The aftermath of an ant war is brutal, as we see the dismembered insects’ severed legs and heads twitching and dying, an insectual “Saving Private Ryan.” Close-ups of a caterpillar’s legs moving along a tree is odd enough that it takes you a minute to realize just what exactly you’re looking at. The scene of a caterpillar becoming a cocoon feels like an HR Giger painting and the close-ups of fluttering butterfly wings that follows is oddly poetic. Extreme close-ups of huge nests of beetles admittedly are a bit squirm-inducing. Scenes of dancing jumping spiders or the mating habits of black widows set to seventies porno music, provided by Lalo Scifrin, are grin-inducing, possibly unintentionally. The film’s big climax are scenes of army ants devouring lizards, other larger insects, and anything else in their path. All of this is admittedly fascinating.

But it’s not what makes the movie really interesting. The hosts and narrator of our program is Dr. Nils Hellstrom, a character only a few spaces removed from a mad scientists. Hellstrom provides melodramatic, flowery narration over the footage. He talks about how insects are pitiless, emotionless, soulless characters and how this makes them survivors. The film isn’t about an active take-over of the world by insects but is intent on making the point that they will outlive humanity. That they were here before us and will be here after us. That they are the only species that can survive the poisons and pollution humans cover their planet with. He devotes a lot of time to describing the bee hive as a dark utopian society, the only real way a utopia can exist. It’s eccentric, sometimes very silly material. It does, however, quickly set the film apart from any of the nature documentaries you might have been able to find on the Discovery Channel back in the day.

The character’s truly mad scientist tendencies show through a few times, like when he stings a presumably real mouse to death with presumably real bees, or lets mosquitoes bite him just he can squish the critters. A highlight moments is Hellstrom showing how humans can be gods over insects by blasting a wasp hive with a water hose. The damage water reaps on the hive is shown in close-up, slow-motion footage. One of the best scenes of the movie starts with him in a theater watching “Them!” and “The Naked Jungle.” He grins mischievously and says he’s been experimenting on people… Sinister overtones, there. What he’s done, in clearly staged, probably scripted sequences, is place bugs and spiders on people’s food in supermarkets and restaurants. It’s the only moment of humor in an intentionally grim film. Other moments of camps, like Hellstrom visiting a museum full of giant, plastic reproduction of bugs, or milling around a space observatory or some ancient ruins, help elevate the mood a tad.

The end credits even reveal that Hellstrom is a fictional character, though the research was real. It probably wouldn’t have been hard to figure out anyway, considering how loopy the guy comes off as. The scene of him talking with a farmer whose crops were devastated by locust is obviously scripted. The movie is undoubtedly an oddity. As goofy as it is, perhaps fears of insects taking over the world were on people’s mind in the 1970s, since similarly themed sci-fi/horrors like “Phase IV” and “Bug,” which both featured spellbinding close-up footage of insects, followed later in the decade. It’s incredible footage, over-the-top narration, trippy musical score, and slightly off-center tone does make “The Hellstrom Chronicle” a rather hard to forget flick. It probably deserves to be an obscurity but I’d recommend it to adventurous cinema fans. Or anybody with a phobia of insects. [7/10]

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