Movie: From Hell It Came (1957)

“Oo ee oo ah ah/ting tang/walla walla bing bang”

– “Witch Doctor”, David Seville

A few years back, I read a piece saying that novelty song is emblematic of the racism inherent in American pop culture in the 1950’s.  Myself, I just found it a goofy, and rather catchy, bit of nonsense.  Regardless of how one feels about it, that song can’t hold a candle to the cultural misrepresentation found in 1957’s legendarily bad sci-fi film From Hell It Came.

Even in the age of rampant whitewashing of Asians in movies, this is the weirdest casting of “natives” I have seen so far.  The tribal leader on this unnamed South Pacific island has a whiff of a Brooklyn accent and looks quite a bit like Abe Vagoda, except this isn’t meant to be a parody like when Vagoda appeared in such a role in Joe Versus the Volcano

Nearly all of the indigenous people of this island are Caucasian actors of similarly baffling lineage.  Maybe there was once a land bridge from New York City to this island.  This place could be an anthropological boon. 

Speaking of that scientific study, one of the condescending white male scientists doing a study there observes the tribal drumming has a nice anthropological beat.  Funny but, given my eclectic taste in music, maybe that’s what I have been looking for my whole life.

Tod Andrews and John McNamara play those eggheads, who are there to curtail an outbreak of the black plague.  They also keep bringing up the subject of radiation—I guess just because of all the nuclear tests on Pacific islands at the time(?). 

But the bulk of the plots concerns not them, but the chief of the natives (Baynes Barron), his own witch doctor and all-around right-hand guy (Robert Swan) and a femme fatale (Suzanne Ridgway).  That last is a true fatale: the first time we see them, she testifies against her husband, who is then executed by the chief.

That execution gives us a taste of how bizarre these proceedings are going to be.  The chief has a voodoo doll of Gregg Palmer, which seems unnecessary, as Palmer has both arms and legs tied to stakes in the ground.  When the chief sticks what appears to be a letter opener into the doll, a henchman uses a mallet to drive a stake another lackey is holding into the victim’s chest.  Clearly, this is an organization that needs to learn to streamline if it wants to survive in this economy.

Swan, as the chief’s own Wormtongue, is trying to secure his status by pitting the tribe and his magic against the white people and their science.  Palmer, the poor guy who got killed, was the liaison between the two groups. 

But it is hard to keep a good man down, so Palmer gets his revenge from the grave.  That, despite being buried standing up for some reason.  Did he only buy a 2×2 square foot plot, like when Ben Johnson was buried in Westminster Abbey?

And here is where the picture becomes gloriously batshit crazy, as Palmer returns as a…tree.  A walking tree, with goofy unmoving eyes and some sort of orifice that regularly opens and closes, presumably to breathe through. 

The scientists discover this thing while it is still half in the burial plot, so they dig it up and try to save it.  I know: save it from what, exactly?  Despite the eyes and green “blood” oozing from it, this is clearly some sort of plant, and yet a newly arrived doctor (Tina Carver) tells the others to give it an IV.  How I wished they had shown a closeup of how they did that.

She administers a miraculous resuscitation serum to this creature and, while they’re away, it trashes the lab and goes on a murderous spree of revenge.  The rest of the movie is pretty much guy who was ritually sacrificed returning as an anthropomorphic tree and killing those who betrayed him.

And this movie is an absolute blast.  I don’t think the movie has a self-aware bone in its body and, because of that, it is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I have seen.  Consistently bad line readings ensure the grade-Z dialogue gets actual belly laughs. 

Surprisingly, the tree costume isn’t the worst thing here.  While the concept of an evil, walking tree is pretty stupid, you can tell a lot of effort went into the costume.  Unfortunately, the designers didn’t put much thought into its physiology, so it becomes deeply ridiculous when it has to bend over, as this thing that is supposed to be wood just bends in two like it is rubber (which it probably was).

Every actor here is terrible.  Tod Andrews, as the lead scientist, is especially noteworthy.  His demeanor throughout says this is a man who can give less than zero fucks about this picture, and he delivers every line as if he read it off the page just before the cameras started rolling.

Almost as bad is Linda Watkins as the Australian woman who runs the nearby trading post.  Her accent seems to wander all over the British Isles, before deciding to settle for a while in Australia.  Typical of productions like this, a character or two will seemingly be forgotten about at a given point and they may or may not reenter later.  That is what happens with Watkins.  Unfortunately, the movie remembers to bring her back for the big finale.

Even the soundtrack is deliriously odd.  At one point, a series of mundane activities are on screen while one incongruous piece of music after another accompanies it on the soundtrack.  Each piece is of a different mood than the previous and every one of them is a baffling choice.  It’s like somebody grabbed one of library music albums and just let a few tracks of one side play out in sequence.

Then there’s this weird bit of sound effects every time the action takes us outside and into the “jungle”.  It is like every possible creature of the wild kingdom is making their trademark sound simultaneously.  And then, after a few seconds, it just stops.  They didn’t ever bother to loop it.

From Hell It Came is a notoriously bad movie, but it is generally regarded as such because of the daft concept, and even more daft appearance, of the killer tree.  While that is pretty memorable, there is so much here I found more bewildering: the accents of the “natives”, the barely phoned-in performances and a general air of incompetence.  I try to laugh with and not at movies, but this one was so goddamn hilarious that I couldn’t help myself.

Dir: Dan Milner

Starring Tod Andrews, Tina Carver, John McNamara

Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray